My biggest worry was that I would get sad. There’s something everyman about Maud. And she’s striving. I think that’s what really gets me. She continually tries and tries and tries. You can’t not admire that.
Is this the end of movies for 2020—theatrically speaking? Cineworld, which owns Regal Cinemas, will temporarily suspend, or keep shuttered, operations at all of its US and UK theaters as the coronavirus continues to spike. It’s only a matter of time before other major chains follow suit.
We’re in the worst-case scenario according to Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at the entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations. “Plan B doesn’t even exist,” he says bluntly. “The virus is simply an antagonist that cannot be overcome by buzzwords, super-powered reviews, or marketing prowess.” Cineworld’s closures come after weeks of anemic box office returns and studios choosing to delay films rather than open them to mostly empty auditoriums. With no vaccine in the immediate future, how do you entice people to return to theaters in the middle of a pandemic?
Theaters had pinned their hopes on Tenet, which never quite found its footing Stateside. With that lackluster release, Disney pushed major tentpoles like Black Widow and West Side Story into next year. Dune also moved to 2021. The Batman moved to 2022. No Time to Die, a major cog in getting the theater machine up and running again, was also scribbled off this year’s calendar. There are no wide releases from a major studio planned until Pixar’s Soul on Thanksgiving weekend.
Then there’s the speciality box office. In a move that’s no less disappointing, A24 has indefinitely pulled Rose Glass’ critical darling Saint Maud from its American release schedule following two failed attempts at a theatrical launch. The film has also seen a long journey to the UK multiplex circuit, but is managing to creep into select venues across the pond this week. Glass’ debut premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in the halcyon, pre-pandemic days of 2019. A theatrical release in its home country had originally been planned for the first quarter of 2020.
A24 has long been touting Saint Maud as “the first horror movie back in theaters,” which is a curious marketing technique and no longer relevant where American audiences are concerned. The powerhouse distributor has resisted all urges to just dump the film onto digital platforms in lieu of going theatrical in the US. It’s admirable. For what it’s worth, Anthem can also confirm that they’ve been sitting on something quite valuable. It is one of the best films of the year.
The Maud of the title (Morfydd Clark) is a newly devout, palliative-care nurse who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her terminally-ill patient, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Maud’s subject initially gives in to her blind devotion, but soon, sinister forces and the seeds of Maud’s dark past threaten to put an end to this holy calling. Saint Maud is at its heart a powerful character study, featuring a towering performance from its lead. That, too, is one this year’s very best.
The Welsh actress has now stepped into the role of Galadriel for Amazon’s $1 billion dollar The Lord of the Rings prequel series. Following a pandemic-induced hiatus, filming is again underway in New Zealand. As for when we’ll actually see the show, in 2020 fashion, that remains to be seen.
Saint Maud hits UK theaters on October 9.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview was conducted on August 13, 2020.]
How are things in New Zealand? I know you’ve been in a holding pattern, first with the hiatus on The Lord of the Rings and then the double whammy with COVID-19.
At the moment, we’ve just gone back into Level 3 lockdown because there have been some new cases. Level 3 isn’t full lockdown, but it’s pretty much not going out unless absolutely necessary. Everyone’s crossing their fingers and hoping that what happened last time won’t repeat again. It’s made me realize that we’ve been in the clear for a hundred days. Everyone’s now panicking again.
New Zealand has been really good in their handling of it compared to most other places.
They acted so swiftly. The instructions have been so clear. I’m British so I’ve got lots of people back home that are like, “Should I do this? Should I do that?” Here, we’ve had complete clarity, which is, apart from everything else, good in terms of not making people angry with each other.
So where are you exactly with The Lord of the Rings right now?
We’re nearing the end of our hiatus. We were lucky in that there was a hiatus planned anyway. We were coming up on resuming production when this all happened.
I imagine it’s going to be a rather lengthy shoot, and a lengthy stay for you over there.
It will definitely be the longest thing I’ve ever done. The longest thing I’ve done was eight weeks so it’s very different. It’s also been nice to get to know a character this well in the lead-up.
There have been delays with Saint Maud as well. How are you coping with that?
I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that A24 picked it up because I’m such a fan. I’m really glad that they still want it to be seen theatrically. The music for me was kind of huge watching it in the theater. How loud it was, that amazing score. I really feel grateful that they want to keep going, and also that they are delaying it when it’s not safe ‘cause that’s the utmost important thing. It’s a strange, sad time for everybody. I’ve thought a lot about what it would be like for Maud in this time, even before the film because she would still be in a hospital working very hard.
Saint Maud is an incredible piece of work. What a phenomenal showcase for you, in your first leading role no less. What did you latch onto most instinctually with the material?
Rose’s [Glass] writing was just so compelling. I remember reading it and being completely floored. Also, not expecting anything that happened to happen, yet there was still this crushing sense of inevitability. I feel that Rose very much left a lot open to whoever she was going to cast as Maud. So throughout the audition process, it was changing a lot. I loved the script and went in and she basically asked about me. We were already starting to build what Maud would be like were I to play her in the audition room, which was really brilliant. That kind of went on to Maud speaking Welsh and things like that. I had the sense that there were times in my life where I’d been saved from falling through the cracks, whereas Maud isn’t. Rose just really allowed me to make it my own and that made me feel that I could do it more.
There are many ambiguities to this movie, and I know you’ve been extremely careful in the press for the sake of keepings things open for interpretation. I do wonder, though, if you had your own definitive reading into what’s happening while shooting it.
Because we get asked about the ambiguity a lot, every one of us is like, “But if you talk about it, you’ll ruin the whole film!” Yes, I get it. [laughs] In terms of my and Jennifer’s [Ehle] readings, Rose actually kind of let us go on our own. Whatever we were putting out there, if she was happy with what was coming back out of it, she didn’t really mind what was going on in our heads. I very much knew that everything Maud is seeing is both real and terrifying. That’s how I went into it.
Rose went on the record to say that there was a period in her writing where she even considered having a two-hander between Maud and God.
I wonder when I would’ve come in. But I know that when I came to the script, it was very much nearing its 80-minute film mark, whereas I know that a year before, Rose had gone to Oliver [Kassman], the producer, and it was 400 pages. She was like, “It’s. All. Completely. Essential.” [laughs] But yeah, that would’ve been very interesting in terms of the ambiguity as well.
We obviously have no idea what that version with Maud and God might’ve looked like. But you and Jennifer together is a match made in heaven.
I’ve admired Jennifer for years and years and years. We also shot chronologically because it was almost all in one house, which was wonderful for us in terms of building a real relationship between Maud and Amanda. So we really did get to know each other, as the characters did. I think it’s not until you finish a job that you realize all the things fell into place perfectly to mean that you could do it. One of them for me was being opposite somebody like Jennifer because she was so nurturing but also cared so deeply about the characters in this film. I think one of the struggles for everyone, in the crew as well, were the themes being brought up through Maud. It’s a sad story with a very lonely person at its center. You kind of needed someone there like Jennifer who was kind and understood it. It allowed for that kind of safe space where you can be affected by it.
What did you imagine your biggest challenge might be before stepping onto set?
My biggest worry was that I would get sad. The subject matter itself I found haunting. I feel that there’s something everyman about Maud. She’s very normal. I hope that lots of people can see elements of someone they know that are in her. And she’s striving. I think that’s what really gets me. She continually tries and tries and tries. You can’t not admire that. As I started to meet people who were involved, like Tina [Kalivas], who did the costumes, and Dan Fordesman, the DoP, I realized that everybody cared and felt the same need to tell the story. It made me feel that I could do it more once I realized that they would be holding me up to do it.
Was there something you were most looking forward to filming as it was written on the page?
I auditioned with the scene where she levitates at the end of the film, with Rose kind of shouting instructions at me while I was running around the room, so desperate to get this job. [laughs] I was really excited about doing that because that was one of the only bits where we had like massive action, and I knew we would have this machine coming in to lift me off the ground and put me back down. But what actually turned out to be the funnest part of that day wasn’t the machines because it couldn’t do everything we needed for all these extra shots of my feet coming off the ground or my hands coming off the ground. We ended up creating this harness of scarves where the producer and the grip, Lee [Naylor-Vane], was just pulling me off the ground. I loved that day.
Meanwhile, your character’s devastation in Craig Robert’s Eternal Beauty is much more concrete. She’s explicitly addled with mental health issues. It’s cut and dried.
I was very, very lucky to be in Eternal Beauty because I learned a huge amount on that film. I don’t think that Maud would’ve been the same had I not done Eternal Beauty. The empathy and the kindness in that film I think are huge. Despite the devastation, I did love that in Eternal Beauty Craig was focused on the wonder that Jane gets out of life because of her circumstances as well.
What was it like to share a character with somebody else in Sally Hawkins?
We met quite a bit before filming, and obviously once we started filming, we didn’t really cross paths. But it was really useful to speak to her. I mostly sat there, listening to her speak to Craig. It was one of those moments like, I can’t believe this is happening. I’m party to this conversation. I’m a huge fan of Sally so any snippet I got just being around her at all was incredibly informative. She was like a butterfly that would occasionally land on my hand and I’d be like, wow.
Craig and Rose are both incredibly visual directors. Did they share any similar inclinations?
I would say that Craig and Rose have a lot in common. They definitely have a lot of similar influences. For instance, they both love Ingmar Bergman. With Craig, every character had a color that they were connected to and that carried throughout. When I came onto Saint Maud, Rose was just obsessed with the color green. This is something that I don’t have as an actress. I can read a script and like the story and see the character, but I don’t have the imagination or the vision in the way of visuals. So that was really exciting to see come to life. It’s the bit that’s missing in my mind. I think both films are much more visually lush than what I had imagined.
What was your reaction to watching Saint Maud for the first time?
I didn’t realize how close the camera was. [laughs] That was quite confronting seeing my face so big because it’s the first time I’ve been on screen for that long. I hadn’t realized how much you felt like you were right here. I love that aspect of it because it’s at odds with the fact that everybody is ignoring Maud in the world that she inhabits. We see every pore and every eyelash on her face.
I also did The Personal History of David Copperfield and thought a lot about the character of Mr. Dick [played by Hugh Laurie], who’s very looked after. It was useful to see how three obviously very different people [Mr. Dick, Jane in Eternal Beauty, and Maud] might be suffering from something that could be quite similar, and how differently they’re treated in these three films. Mr. Dick’s circumstance is an elegy about how living as a community is the happiest.
In The Personal History of David Copperfield, you play two entirely separate characters in the same story. You don’t often get that kind of opportunity in film.
Yeah. I auditioned for Dora and then I was told that it was [also for the role of Clara]. Then I got it and it was my birthday as well so I was already feeling kind of weird. I went up the street until it finally ended and rang my sister, screaming. I did exactly what Armando [Iannucci, director] wanted to do with those characters. You have this child who lost his mother and she’s blurry in his vision so he’s searching for some comfort in the real world, anything that reminds him of her. In that respect, I quite like that you understand why David had gone for someone so unsuitable for him. Also, in the book, Dora is given a lot less agency. In the movie, she makes the choice to leave instead of just conveniently dying, which was nice.
Have you been feeling homesick at all?
Yeah. I’m very lucky so it’s kind of a strange mixture. We were very out of touch with the rest of the world for a long time [since production began on The Lord of the Rings]. The pandemic wasn’t going on at the beginning. So it’s been a kind of mixture of guilt and grief. I’m someone who spends a lot of time inside so I feel like it’s being wasted on me. [laughs]
When can we expect to see The Lord of the Rings? Is this information you have?
I have very limited information, which I’m quite pleased about. [laughs] Don’t tell me anything! But the prospect of people actually seeing any of these things is becoming kind of surreal in itself. I’m kind of taking it day by day and seeing how it goes.