Charmers Atwell & Goode in "Brideshead Revisited"
(from brinkzine.com 7/23/08)
They could have called it "Brideshead Revisited Revisited." It's hard to believe that the eleven-part miniseries of Evelyn Waugh's most famous work appeared twenty-seven long years ago because I still remember the critical acclaim, the obsessive nature of its viewers, and the excitement over Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews (what happened to him after his supposedly star-making performance?) as the social-climbing artist Charles Ryder and the deeply sensitive and troubled Sebastian Flyte, the rare gay character on television to have layers to his personality. Diana Quick played Sebastian's enigmatic sister Julia, the third person in the, for lack of a better word, "romantic" triangle. And the fourth leading role was played by a house, a big one, the Marchmain's ancestral estate. Now director Julian Jarrold ("Becoming Jane") and screenwriters Andrew Davies (BBC's "The Line of Beauty") and Jeremy Brock ("The Last King of Scotland") have condensed the epic into a two-hour movie. This time the trio is played by three actors on the rise: the strikingly handsome Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw, and head-turner Hayley Atwell. And there's a new house—Castle Howard in Yorkshire. The film opens this Friday. On Monday, I took part in the following roundtable with Goode and Atwell. I indicate my questions.
Danny Peary: Matthew, I interviewed you last year for "The Lookout."
Matthew Goode: Yes! I remember that.
DP: It's a good film. It plays on cable a lot.
MG: Yeah. Only three people went and saw it, unfortunately.
DP: At that time, you said: "I am going to play in the film version of “Brideshead Revisited” for Miramax, so I’m watching the miniseries again. I’m stepping into the ominous shoes of Jeremy Irons, which is very intimidating. Actually it’s always intimidating to get any acting job, and I’m always fairly surprised when I do. Michael Gambon is in that, too, as Lord Marchmain. One reason I decided to act was I saw him play “Volpone” at the National Theatre. So I’m going to act with some really great people and it’s thrilling." Now you've played Charles Ryder, a part much different from your creepy villain in "The Lookout," and you worked with Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson, Gretta Scacchi, and other fine actors like Hayley and Ben Whishaw.. Was it what you expected?
MG: Yes, and I would love watching these people do their work. We had some really good actors in this movie, just disappearing into their characters. We had so much less time than with the miniseries, but it was really a lot of fun because of them.
DP: I first noticed you both in Woody Allen movies. Hayley, how did Woody Allen find you for "Cassandra's Dream?"
Hayley Atwell: Find me? Oh, I thought you meant what did he think of me as a person! I went and did an audition. It lasted about seven minutes and I was asked to read four lines of dialogue with no context synopsis of the character. If you tell actors to be themselves, it's like, what do you do? So I was terrified and I just said my lines as quickly and as calmly as I could.
MG: That was longer than my audition for "Match Point." When I read Woody Allen’s script, I wasn’t exactly blown away by what was written for my character. There wasn’t anything to it, and he said that himself, so I was lucky that he let me improvise. And afterward he said, “Thank you, good job, blah blah blah.”
HA: I got out and then I bought myself a pack of cigarettes and then contemplated whether or not I should actually leave the business all together. Two weeks later, I was on the plane to New York to meet him.
MG: I like the speed of his decision.
HA: Yeah, it's fabulous. He knows what he wants.
Q: Hayley, before "Cassandra's Dream," you had your breakthrough in the BBC mini-series, "The Line of Beauty." Can you compare "The Line of Beauty" and "Brideshead Revisited?"
HA: I saw similarities when I read the "Brideshead" script because of the love triangle and the rich family and other aspects. Playing Catherine Fedden was the most amount fun I had at that point in my career. She is a free spirit and is very good at provoking people, especially when she is aware of something going on underneath the surface. She doesn't like bullshit. But what she's trying to do that Julia is desperate to do if she gets the chance, is to explore her sexuality. In Allan Hollinghurst's book, there are all these extraordinary descriptions of all the men that she sleeps with, including one with tattoos all over their faces. Yet she's from this well-off family. It's something that happens in Notting Hill, which is a section of West London. I'm from Notting Hill where everyone can interact. With Julia everything is very much restrained. She has a God that will be with her every waking moment and she has to live by that set of rules.
Q: Matthew, in the relationship between Charles and Sebastian, in this version Sebastian is more overtly gay. So, Matthew, in approaching your character, did you worry that Charles was going to be seen as more of a sexual, social climbing opportunist who is taking advantage of Sebastian to get in with his family?
MG: No. I thought the relationship was meant to show what male love is and its complications. I was drawn to the idea of two people who had comparable loveless childhoods gravitating toward each other. Everything he has done with Sebastian, and having the fun they do, gets him into trouble, so he might as well be slightly selfish. I think that what Ben did with his part was so interesting, because there is more than his sexuality that sets him apart. So it becomes more a question of platonic love and obviously bringing Julia in changes the dynamic. He's eighteen, it's a long summer, and though he loves Sebastian and their living out theirs childhood, it makes sense to switch to her. There's so much said about how similar Sebastian and Julia are in manner and look that it's an easy transference.
HA: She does have bigger breasts.
MG: Yes, she does. She does, slightly.
DP: If Charles had met Julia first, would he have been attracted later to Sebastian?
MG: I think the main love of his live is Sebastian, whom he leaves for Julia. It's about the idea of possession, which I think is one of the reasons he has the guilt at the end. Nothing is black and white in this, really, and I never saw that Charles was so hugely in love with Julia. And again, I never saw him as a social climber. I just don't think Charles understands love. When he finally sleeps with her, it's kind of like finally taking possession of the keys for the house, and it makes him look like the definitive social climber. But I think his ambitions only come in the second half of the film. I don't know.
Q: Can you talk about the decision to include Julia in the Venice scenes, which changes things?
HA: Having read her scenes in the book and the rest of Julia's scenes in this film, I think the Venice scenes provide an opportunity for her to be freer. You see a more passionate side of Julia and you see her sexual awakening and the confusion of all those emotions. And it's also a place where Cara, played by Greta Scacchi, says, "The Italian Catholics. They do what they want…and then they go back to confession." It's the first time Julia can do that. My favorite thing was that she was doing cartwheels on the beach all day because it gave her a sense of being alive and young without thinking about the consequences. In her family you are constantly analyzing your behavior or what to say next. You are judging yourself but you believe it’s the voice God judging everything you do. She can be a little freer, which opens her up to have a more emotional relationship with Charles. I was pleased that was in there, just to give me an opportunity to play a little bit more. And the Waugh estate, as strict as it has been in the past, were very happy to make that choice.
Q: Matthew, please talk about shooting the scenes between Charles and Sebastian.
MG: I spent a huge amount of time with Ben Whishaw. It was such an incredibly wet summer and we'd be filming and suddenly, "We have sun!" So, we'd have to change forces and go out and get some of the montage sequence with Charles and Sebastian. Jarrold would just tell us, "Well, do something." All right. We'll run around the fountain with glasses of champagne. My most fun was watching Ben in that sequence he comes out of the bar.
Q: Hayley, how much does the setting and costuming in movies like this come into play when you are playing your character? Do you find them a little more readily when you are in that environment?
HA: Definitely. It does a lot of the work for you, which is great. Because it just means you have to walk into an environment and inhabit it and breath it in. Castle Howard is such a grand place, and I remember the first day I walked in and said, "Oh wow! Okay. this is how rich my family is " I had no idea and just no concept of the aristocracy of that time and I was introduced to their grandeur and the decadence. The house was very daunting but then you walk into that building and spend just five minutes imagining what it would have been like to have been brought up there as a child. You feel that kind of pressure and that heaviness, the weight on you, as well as a sense of entitlement. So the setting does help you with your character. The costumes as well. And I had so many undergarments. My posture was effected by those clothes and I had the sense of being very contained. It's horrible compared to what I usually wear because I love rolling out in something comfortable.
MG: We were lucky because we had Julia Wilson-Dickson to teach us about the time.
HA: Yeah, she was a fountain of knowledge. She started being our voice and dialogue coach and she ended up being the confidant to us all. She was able to fill in gaps of everything historically or in terms of the attitude that we needed to know. It was like learning certain rules about behavior at that time and then making certain choices that would break those rules to make you feel like you weren't completely restricted. Yes, it was so constraining that is gives her that brought out her bottom look.
Q: To what degree can either of you speak to the clashes of classes, having grown up in Britain?
MG: I settled in nicely with Charles, just a middle-class bloke. I was from farm country and in my formative years, my parents put what money they had into my education, while we lived in a small house. Then when I'd go into a pub, they'd think I was posh until they found out who I really was and became their best friend; I'd feel guilty for being educated.
HA: I had very little contact with the upper class. My father's American and I spent my summers in Kansas City, the flatlands, catching lightning bugs and that sort of thing. And I was brought up in London and went to my local comprehensive school. I didn't look quite right. I didn't have the London look like my friends did and I think it was partly because I loved the theater and my mum is a public speaker. My voice was very different from my upbringing, and people thought I was something above what I really was. When it came to something like "Brideshead," it was so far removed from my life that I felt I needed to make a leap to that character and bring that character back to me so I could relate.
DP: What does Julia think of her mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson)?
HA: I think she knows pretty early on that there's no way that she can fight against her mother. She's a critical presence in her life and I think Julia's relationship with God, especially early on, was actually about the God that's been imposed upon her by her mother. That's not something she can escape from and ultimately she becomes her mother. She ends up a spinster living in this house in Brideshead. There's a clashing of heads and not really any intimacy or maternal love between them. And I think probably the lack of love that Julia had from her mother is played out through her incredibly intimate relationship with her brother Sebastian. And ultimately she has a desperate need for a father figure, and to an extent she sees that in Charles. Much of her relationship with Charles has to do with her seeing him as her key out of there. But eventually she realizes that she can't escape her destiny or where she comes from.
Q: She is very affected by her father's re-finding religion on his deathbed.
HA: Completely. She sees it as a miracle and a great missive from God. She sees someone who has left the church given back his faith while on his deathbed God by His divine grace. She and Charles are very flawed and no human being can compare to one's concept of the Almighty God, nobody can live up to that. At this point she has also been bought from her husband by Charles for a couple of paintings so she sees that moment as her time to turn around and embrace that Catholicism that she was brought up in. In a way, to many people, it is a very beautiful choice that she makes. She chooses faith over romantic love. It will last forever for her. It's amazing that she comes to see it as a message of God.
MG: I think it's probably a good decision not to go away with Charles. I just don't think that he has any plans with substance, I don't think it would have worked out if they left. But they might stay in Brideshead.
HA: They are really from such different worlds and don't really understand each other on a very fundamental level.
MG: Yeah. It's a sexual thing.
DP: What does Brideshead represent to Julia and to Charles?
HA: I think to Julia it represents fate. It represents her destiny. It's something she is bound to--she has an umbilical cord that is very much attached to this house and can never quite be cut.
DP: Is the house her prison, also?
HA: Oh, absolutely. But I think it's more than a prison. If you gave her a key and opened the door for her, she still wouldn't know how to walk out of it. She has a strange love-hate relationship with the house.
MG: Charles gets to be part of an extraordinary world in that house. He had a loveless childhood, it is the only place that he has really been happy.
DP: But he is willing to leave the house, if he has her. He's not going to live in the house if she goes away with him. That's the choice.
MG: Well, you could argue around that. But I think he ultimately would want to end up back there.
DP: Then it would be "Brideshead Revisited Revisited Revisited."