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Brit Takes: A British Actor on the Rise Shares His Lessons From Andrea Arnold and Lars Von Trier

Brit Takes: A British Actor on the Rise Shares His Lessons From Andrea Arnold and Lars Von Trier

[Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with Shinola in support of Brit Takes, our monthly dispatch on the UK film scene. As makers of modern watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals, Shinola stands for skill at scale, the preservation of craft and the beauty of industry.  Learn more about Shinola handcrafted goods.]

Two men and a woman fight against the end of humanity by playing an imaginary match of tennis. That’s the premise of French filmmaker Marc Lahore’s “The Open.” It’s the fourth feature film set in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, a place most notably used for its apocalyptic weather conditions as seen in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Setting aside its absurd story, the new film has a bilingual appeal: A mixture of French and English, it was made on less than 150,000 Euros. The film recently premiered to a warm response at the Leeds International Film Festival (watch a clip above).

Brit Takes spoke to the film’s star, English actor James Northcote (“The Imitation Game,” “Anna Karenina,” “Nymphomaniac,”) about his acting as well as the process behind making a film in the UK on a micro-budget.

Your career is in its early stages, but you’ve already done a mixture of film and theater. How do you find that balance between the two?

My first professional job was as Edgar in Andrea
Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” in 2010,
which was pretty crazy, but the best possible start I could have hoped for. I
had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but you learn to be responsible and
self-sufficient very quickly — particularly if you are around a cast and crew
who were as tough and dedicated as those guys. I hadn’t trained as an actor, but
I had an amazing teacher when I was young who helped me get over a speech
impediment by teaching me to read poetry out loud. That led me to Shakespeare
and to acting with the National Youth Theatre. But she was the one who gave me
the confidence to perform and to be able to cope with whatever was thrown at
me, whether on set or for theater.

I’ve been able to do more theater recently, particularly
at the Crucible in Sheffield, and it definitely informs the work I do in film.
The time you have in theater to play and explore is amazing. You end up
learning a lot that you can apply to everything else you do.

As a native of England, did you always want to act in UK productions? Or does Hollywood beckon?

I really want to
go where the interesting work is. There is definitely no specific end goal for
me. It’s more about the people I want to work with. Hollywood is such an
incredible industry and the American producers, directors and actors I have
worked with have definitely made me want to go out and be part of the work there.
There is a real energy and positive attitude that is very exciting.

At the same
time, it is great to work in Europe. Shooting with Lars Von Trier on “Nymphomaniac” and with Marc Lahore on The Open” has made me really appreciate the
kind of filmmaking we do on our side of the Atlantic. I can see why actors like
Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich or Kristen Scott Thomas have kept working across
borders as much as they can. I’d love to be able to continue to do the same. That
said, the UK is a really special place for film and I’m proud to be a part of it.

How did your earlier experiences inform your acting in “The Open”?

That’s a
difficult question. I’m not sure anything prepared me for what would be
required on “The Open.” I guess a
mixture of Andrea Arnold and the short time I spent with Lars Von Trier was
pretty helpful. Both make you expect the unexpected. Lars would give these
broad notes like, “Don’t make it so easy for her,” with this look in his eyes, and
you would just know exactly what he meant — whereas Andrea would guide you into
just reacting to the world of the film you found yourself in, sometimes
purposefully surprising you by not telling you what you might find when you
entered a room.

Working with Andrea on my first job has always influenced how I
see film acting. I like surprise and the feeling of being off-balance. It’s not
always about control. At the same time, working with directors like Amma Asante
or Stefan Rusowitzky taught me to be responsible for my own performance and to
be prepared for all eventualities. Until working with Marc on “The Open,” however, I don’t think I realized how far I could be pushed or what extremes I was willing to go to.
That was intense!

Do you think that British actors are pigeonholed
into working on period-piece dramas?

I don’t think
so; at least not so much anymore. I don’t think British actors are ever going
to play all-American heroes but actors like Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and
David Oyelowo have shown us that British actors really can take on any role. I’ve
done a lot of period drama but even that is changing and I think British actors
are probably known for their versatility more than anything else.

Why were you drawn to this project?

When I read “The Open” for the first time I was blown away.
I had never read anything so strange in my life. Playing imaginary tennis at
the end of the world? But once I had met director Marc Lahore, how could I say no?
He had such a strong vision for the film and it takes a filmmaker with real
guts to pull something like that off. I knew it would be a huge physical and
psychological challenge; one I couldn’t resist. I met the young creative team
led by producer Cyril Cadars of Village 42 in Paris soon after and I knew I had
to be involved. They had a real do-it-yourself attitude but were determined to
making something that went beyond the micro budget available. Everyone on the
project went way beyond what they thought they were capable of and that’s an
exhilarating thing to be part of.

Can you tell us a bit about your preparation for
this role?

It was very
physical! Maia Levasseur-Costil and I had to train pretty hard to make sure we
were in shape for the sports sequences and Marc brought me over to Paris to
rehearse the tennis scenes with her. It was really important to him that we
looked like we knew what we were doing on the court. All of us, including
Pierre Benoist, who plays coach André, would study recordings of famous players
and look at their style and technique. Before we travelled to Scotland, I would
go down to the council tennis courts near where I live and practice imaginary
matches. Forehands, backhands, lobs, serves; I got some pretty weird looks but
it had to be done!

How did the low budget impact your experience during the shoot?

I guess it
depends what you count as a hindrance. Yes, when we were trekking camera
equipment across a marsh or eating half-cooked boiled eggs, we might have
wished for a little more financial back-up. But the thing is that if there had
been loads of money and all the trappings of million-dollar filmmaking, it
wouldn’t have been “The Open.” It
wouldn’t have been a team of 10 people going out into one of the most remote parts of
the UK to make a film, sleeping side-by-side in cottages, eating together,
shivering in the rain together, all united by one pretty maverick filmmaker. It
is those things that I will never forget and are what made it so special.

Having
said that, during post-production I think it was tough for Marc and Cyril to
work with such a low budget, but over the last few years people kept falling in
love with the project just like I did and getting involved. I remember a lot of
producers and distributors had said to them just before we left for the shoot, “If
you actually manage to come back from Scotland with this movie, we want to get
involved.” When they did, more people came on board to help complete the film
— including producers in Belgium and the UK. The film grew organically and kept
picking up support as it went. Seeing a film come into the world like that is
inspiring. It’s hard not to admire filmmakers who don’t ask permission but just
go out there and get it made.

Is there anything specific to you about low budget filmmaking in UK that don’t find elsewhere?

I think that the
UK film industry has encouraged low-budget films for a long time. Once it
became possible to shoot films on equipment that didn’t require huge studios, the
UK has always been innovating and experimenting. Look how the work of the GPO
Film Unit contributed to Free Cinema and the British New Wave in the fifties. I
think it’s great that now the equipment necessary for making a film is so
accessible that if you have the desire and the will there is a way. Scorcese
says it brilliantly in that open letter he wrote back in 2014. There
will always be a place for low-budget filmmaking. It’s the battleground of film,
where things are changed and risks are taken. We all love creative work
succeeding against the odds. I guess that is why the UK film industry is
so accepting of films like “The Open.”

Can you tell us about the kind of reception you’ve
gotten since the film’s premiere?

The premiere of “The Open” at Leeds International Film
Festival was just brilliant. The audience reaction was so warm. I think the
film surprised them in all the ways that we hoped it would. People really got
it and were moved by it. It goes to show that even the strangest stories connect
with people and really get under their skin.

What
can we expect to see from you in the future?

I think 2016 is
going to be a really fun year. I shot Stefan Rusowitzky’s “Patient Zero” with Matt Smith recently, which I can now count as my
second sci-fi film after “The Open.” It’s a post-apocalyptic thriller about a global virus and my character is a
crazy bastard with a haircut, which I assure you is worth the wait. It’s
definitely not a period drama. I have also just finished working on SSGB for the BBC with Philip Kadelbach
and again with Amma Asante on “A United
Kingdom,” so there’s some interesting stuff to look forward to.

At the same
time I’m continuing to produce and working with exciting filmmakers on shorts and
first features. I want to keep making films and being in them for as long as I
can. That is why I think producing is so important to me. I’ve always been
interested in how things get made and in getting things made. In some ways, “The Open” gave me the belief that
anything was possible. I’m also looking forward to working with Marc Lahore again
on his future projects. I would go to the ends of the earth with him; in many
ways I already have.

This article is presented in partnership with Shinola in support of Brit Takes, our monthly dispatch on the UK film scene. Detroit based design brand Shinola was conceived with the belief that products should be made by hand and built to last. As makers of modern watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals, Shinola stands for skill at scale, the preservation of craft and the beauty of industry. Learn more about Shinola handcrafted goods.

READ MORE: Brit Takes: Lenny Abrahamson on Why Irish Directors Shouldn’t Be Overlooked

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