Rosamund Pike was in the middle of portraying the late war journalist Marie Colvin when the circumstances suddenly became so real she wasn’t sure if she could finish the project. As Colvin, Pike plays the tough, embattled reporter as she survives countless war zones, even after one explosive injury leaves her with an eye patch and PTSD assaults her mind. Director Matthew Heineman, making his narrative debut after the Oscar-nominated documentary “Cartel Land” and its followup “City of Ghosts,” cast Pike in multiple scenarios alongside real refugees. In one scene, Jordan stood in for Syria, and Pike acted in a scene alongside a Syrian refugee whose nephew had been shot from his shoulders during a rally in Homs. The script called for the man to react to a dead child in the reenacted war zone, while Pike’s character looked on.
“The upswell of grief from this man was so painful,” Pike said. “It was totally difficult to be in the room with.” She began to question whether she could continue with the project. “I had such a confusion of emotion, deep compassion, and some sort of unnamed feeling of anger at the tragedy of the loss,” she said. “And I was confused about where the line was in what we were doing. What right did I have to be there?” She took a break from the set for several days. “I said to Matt, ‘I don’t know what to do with my feelings. I don’t know how to process them. I don’t know if what we’re doing is OK.’”
He talked her back to the project by comparing her experience to his own. “I think what you’re going through is what I go through when I make documentaries,” she recalled him telling her. “Your human instinct is to put the camera down and give someone space. But your obligation as a filmmaker is to capture the truth by keeping the camera rolling.”
Pike came back to the set, and her subsequent performance is one of the surprises of this year’s fall season — a wrenching, combustible figure of physical turmoil and journalistic prowess that ranks among the best of the year. The British actress sought it out for herself after reading Marie Brenner’s 2012 Vanity Fair article that tracked Colvin’s last moments in Syria.
Heineman, who had originally talked to Charlize Theron for the part before she dropped out of the project, had yet to finalize his plans while finishing “City of Ghosts,” his Sundance-acclaimed portrait of underground journalists in Syria. Pike tracked the filmmaker down at a screening for the movie at CAA, which represents both of them, and shared some written thoughts on Colvin’s prowess she had prepared. “Sometimes you feel like before you’re influenced by somebody’s vision, it’s important to get down your thoughts,” Pike said. “I had this sort of stream-of-consciousness that came out about Marie. I don’t know where it came from.” Heineman cast her within a matter of days.
Pike’s investment in the project only intensified from there. She engaged directly with friends and family from Colvin’s life to convince them that “A Private War” would go beyond obvious hagiographic beats — which it does, foregrounding Colvin’s tumultuous habit of complicating her personal life while pushing herself past any sane amount of psychological endurance in her quest to explore suffering around the world. Pike studied videos of Colvin to mimic her physical tics, including a nervous tendency to rock back and forth as she struggled to reconcile memories of the battlefield with her everyday life back home. The actress even got in the habit of squeezing straws between her fingers to make them shake, adopting the symptoms of PTSD with such intensity that she often worried about bringing it home with her. (“My kids helped me avoid that,” she said.)
Pike’s proactive approach to performances has intensified ever since David Fincher spotted her in “Pride & Prejudice” and made the unorthodox decision to turn her into a femme fatale for 2014’s “Gone Girl.” He hadn’t even seen her theater work. At that point, Pike’s biggest credit was the much-maligned “Doom,” a world away from the kind of material she seeks now. “It’s not like I thought I made bad choices before,” she said. “I tried to do the best with the stuff I was offered. I’ve stuck with the same philosophy my whole life, do the best with whatever size part you have, do it with truth, try and build the same level of background for your character whether you’ve got 10 lines or 300 lines.”
Eventually, she settled into Heineman’s unconventional approach. In another of the Homs-set scenes, she interacted with a woman in the basement where women and children were hiding from bombs. As the cameras rolled, Pike began interacting with one refugee in the scene who said she couldn’t breastfeed because of the trauma she’d undergone. “I probed a bit with a translator,” Pike said. “I asked what happened and she said her house was flattened by a shell and she ran and escaped with her children, and then she realized one of her children was missing.” She paused and collected herself.
“The camera was quietly there,” she said. “So I said, ‘One of your daughters was under the rubble?’ And she said yes. I asked how old her daughter was, and she said she was five. It was a moment of somebody just telling you the truth about this terrible, atrocious, tragic thing that happened to them.” From there, she embraced the approach. “You’re always looking to be surprised as an actor, and this was a completely new experience,” she said. “You had no idea what would come out, but then I felt like a journalist gathering the story. There was no focus on me at all. I was just listening, which is actually the best part of acting.”
There were many tense long takes, and unlike the more tightly scripted sequences of Colvin’s life in the U.S., the war zone moments were in a constant state of evolution. “There was usually only one chance to get something, so what you get is the absolute truth of the moment,” she said. “There wasn’t often the opportunity for another take to make it a bit better.”
Pike characterized the role as just the latest outgrowth of the career shift that took place with “Gone Girl,” which transformed her into an ambitious leading woman. “It gave me a sort of drive to be provocative, to play characters that make people reevaluate their opinions and turn them on a dime,” she said. “Marie is like that. She’s a heroine, but she’s not flawless. She’s a complicated woman who’s part myth and part troubled soul. She’s got this intense power coupled with an intense vulnerability that she keeps hidden.”
Next up, she’s playing another Marie — Marie Curie — in Iranian-born filmmaker Marjane Satrapi’s upcoming biopic. (“It’s a psychedelic look at radioactivity”), but she’s still coming to terms with the reverberations of “A Private War.” Her relationship to portraying unvarnished emotion onscreen was changed by the film, quite possibly for good. “There is some trickery on camera,” she said, “but by and large, I think all tears on film are real tears.”
“A Private War” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.