It’s telling that Fiona Shaw so ably slipped into the skin of “Medea,” Euripides’ tragic mother pushed to a murderous brink by her unfaithful husband, on Broadway nearly 20 years ago. Her career has since been marked by playing strong, often quite complicated mommies, like phlegmatic MI6 head Carolyn Martens in BBC’s “Killing Eve” and, most recently, in the new horror film “Kindred.”
But, as Shaw is quick to correct IndieWire via a telephone interview amid filming the new season of “Baptiste” in England, these women aren’t quite “mothers from hell.” “Carolyn is maybe not the best mother,” she said of her “Killing Eve” character, a powerhouse of charged stealth. “It’s very hard to be an actress over 40 and not play mothers.” In comparison, she said. “Medea was a very nice woman. She was a victim of circumstance, and the scary aspect of the play is not about a woman who wants to kill her children. It’s about a woman who doesn’t want to kill her children, but they twist it so that she has to.”
Similarly, her “Kindred” character Margaret is a woman long ago cornered into a terrible situation through an abusive marriage, and is now a crippled smother-mother to her son Ben (Edward Holcroft) and a needling, gaslighting mother-in-law to his girlfriend Charlotte (Tamara Lawrence). After an accident leaves Charlotte alone and stranded with Margaret and Ben’s servile stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden) on the dank, creaky grounds of their countryside gothic estate in England, “Kindred” unfurls into Margaret’s battle to ensnare a pregnant Charlotte, and possibly snatch her unborn baby to be.
“It’s written [and directed] by Joe Marcantonio very much as the mother who has too big a grip on her son, but even in that, these people become twisted from living in desolate houses with husbands who beat them, and then her only redemption is her son, who is also taken away from her,” Shaw said of Margaret. “There were circumstantial contributions to her cruelty,” Shaw added, insisting that her character, which the actress imbues with onion-like layers of resentment and maternal clinginess, isn’t inherently evil. Hobbling with a cane and possessing an eerily judging eye for everybody’s weaknesses, Margaret is a haunting, imperious, even Mrs. Danvers-like presence.
That Hitchcockian sensibility hangs over “Kindred.” In recent years, Shaw has tackled popular genres from spy thriller (with “Killing Eve”) to jaunty mystery (this year’s Netflix smash “Enola Holmes”), period romance (“Colette,” the upcoming “Ammonite”) and all manner of Shakespeare onstage, so she’s no stranger to the far-flung worlds of fantasy and horror. She appeared as Harry’s reedy aunt Petunia Dursley in the “Harry Potter” film series, and Wiccan coven leader Marnie Stonebrook in HBO’s southern-fried vampire saga “True Blood.” Shaw, as she explained, believes that horror movies, and particularly one like “Kindred,” allow us to “investigate how unstable the world” can be.
“The heroine herself is unsteady in her telling of the tale [in ‘Kindred’], as it were, so the point of view keeps being undermined. That’s what horror does, and I think we all live in a world of that, which we understand more now six months later,” she said. “The extreme of life is possible.”
A testament to how seamlessly Shaw unzips out of one genre and sinks smoothly into another is Francis Lee’s “Ammonite,” the British filmmaker’s fictional telling of the private life of paleontologist Mary Anning, played by Kate Winslet. In the upcoming movie, which debuted on the festival circuit and will be released by Neon later this year, Shaw plays Mary’s sage former lover Elizabeth Philpot, who’s able to penetrate Anning’s cold front.
Elizabeth Philpot, also a fossil collector, was a real person who died in 1857 and whose documented friendship with her fellow fossil hunter Lee expands into a broken-hearted love story. Did that really happen? For Shaw, it doesn’t matter. “Instead of thinking we have no evidence for a relationship, [Lee] says we have no evidence for their not having a relationship,” Shaw said.
The precise current of her interactions with Winslet’s character, which themselves take on a mothering quality as Philpot pushes Anning to open her heart, remains tucked away in subtext. But we are meant to understand these two, at least in the context of the fictionalized movie, had a romantic connection, albeit an ambiguously sexual one.
“[Francis Lee is] not saying ‘This is history.’ He’s just taking people whose lives have been sketched rather thinly by history and filling it in with a surmise. They had a relationship, but it’s a very difficult thing because there’s no evidence, except the slight discomfort at the end of their relationship,” Shaw said. “All Francis is doing is opening up the potential between people in any century.”
Shaw’s Elizabeth Philpot keeps walls around her heart because, given the film’s 19th-century period, she has to. But the movie doesn’t make much fuss about repression or the anguish of the closet, and neither does Shaw. “The normality of sexuality in the private sphere, before it was exposed and judged and quantified, which is a 20th-century phenomenon, may well have been the situation. People did not ask too many questions about their behavior,” she said.
As a revisionist slice of LGBT history, “Ammonite” is one close to Shaw’s own heart, as the 62-year-old actress is an out lesbian married to Sri Lankan memoirist and economist Sonali Deraniyagala. Shaw, who initially felt shock and even self-loathing over realizing her sexuality and has since comfortably played a range of gay and straight characters, said she isn’t so much “navigating” Hollywood here and overseas as a lesbian. “I’m just in my life. I’m certainly not relating to it particularly,” she said. “If things are easing for people in the gay world, that is a very good thing.”
“Ammonite” could be headed for controversy this fall due to the fact that the two leads, Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, aren’t themselves lesbians, even though they’re playing them. It’s an issue that’s come up over films like “Call Me by Your Name” or, this year, the Hulu series “Love, Victor.” Shaw does not want to be drawn too deeply into the question of who gets to play who, but did say, “I’m Irish, and I’d hate to believe that I wasn’t allowed to play English people. The same thing applies.”
Her personal belief, she said, is that “acting is an act of imagination, and also an act of skill, and I think it’s so important to hire skilled people who are imaginative. Of course, on the other side of that, we must encourage people of all abilities and specificities. Everybody must get a chance at this.”
Still, on that note, she said, “I wouldn’t put too many boundaries on what you can and cannot play.”
“Kindred” is in select theaters and on digital and VOD now. “Ammonite” is slated to release in select stateside theaters on Friday, November 13.