Twenty years after Sundance darling Love & Basketball marked the trailblazing arrival of Gina Prince-Bythewood, the award-winning director takes the helm of her first big-budget action film. In keeping with the tradition established by her influential debut and films such as 2014’s Beyond the Lights , Prince-Bythewood once again upends genre expectations by delivering a story infused with purpose, compassion, and a love for family in all its forms. From a script written by Eisner-winning comic book writer Greg Rucka — which was adapted from his own acclaimed 2017 graphic novel series — The Old Guard flips the conceit of immortality as being something desirable on its head: It instead focuses on the inherent tragedy of living forever.

Set in the modern day, but spanning centuries, The Old Guard centers on a group of mercenaries who possess a mysterious inability to die. Academy Award winner Charlize Theron produces and stars as Andy — or Andromache the Scythian — a warrior born in an age that predates almost all historical records whose experience in combat rivals no other. Together with Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and the newest immortal, Nile (KiKi Layne), Andy uses her gift to protect mankind — leading the team on a covert, darkly altruistic path through the ages, balancing harm with good, and taking a life when necessary in order to save thousands of others. But their secret is exposed when an operation brought to them by an ex-CIA operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Twelve Years a Slave, Lion King) backfires, threatening their existence.

It’s also a superhero story that places the work of saving mankind firmly in the hands of two female warriors. “ This is a story with mythological elements and themes of relationships, family, and love that were very appealing to me,” says Prince-Bythewood. “But at its core, the fact that I got to put two badass women on screen was everything. The script came to me at a time when I had been looking to move into a bigger sandbox and it ended up presenting me with the opportunity to do exactly what I wanted: To put female heroes into the world, one of whom is a young Black woman.”

By stepping into the role of Nile, a tenderfoot immortal who comes under the reluctant tutelage of Andy, KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk, Native Son, Coming 2 America) becomes the face of an all-new kind of hero. One whose powers may be unique, but whose grief over her former life and resistance to her newfound responsibilities are universally relatable.

We spoke with Bythewood and Kiki Layne about the film and the importance of representation in the industry.