My legacy is gonna be my children. So as much as it’d be nice to be talked about in the industry, I just want my kids to be safe and have a great life.
The latest in a long line of “What if?” mashups, Matthew Brown’s Freud’s Last Session pits Sigmund Freud against C.S. Lewis in an intellectual fantasy. Based on Mark St. Germain’s play of the same name that captivated theatergoers a decade prior, which in turn took its inspiration from the 1967 Harvard lectures by Dr. Armond M. Nicholi, Jr. titled “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life,” the talky film imagines a wartime meeting between the former confirmed atheist and the latter devout Christian covert.
At the dawn of the Second World War just two days before Hitler was to invade Poland, Freud (Anthony Hopkins) welcomes Lewis (Matthew Goode) into his London home. Now in the final stages of inoperable oral cancer with the spectre of death looming over, the psychoanalyst no doubt hopes to satisfy his curiosity about the Oxford don’s newfound belief in God. Maybe he is seeking amusement or an intellectual battle of wits—or perhaps he is looking to be convinced otherwise: that he might be wrong about the afterlife and there is indeed a divine plan for him lying in wait.
Truth be told, what makes Freud’s Last Session an event for serious filmgoers are its leading men’s equally ace turns. Hopkins can make hay out of anything and he’s formidable as a curmudgeonly Freud with a stubborn resolve. Meanwhile, Goode matches Hopkins pound for pound with a debonair acuity that makes for fun sparring. Goode has already inhabited wide-ranging roles in such films as A Single Man, Stoker and The Imitation Game, and here, he looks right at home as the theologian who clearly admires Freud and sincerely wants to help his host find some consolation.
Sony Pictures Classics will release Freud’s Last Session on December 22.
You’re great in this film—so good, in fact, you’re really living up to your namesake.
That’s very kind. I’ll start flushing.
This is unquestionably dense material. The conceit might be fictional, but you’re still portraying a real-life figure and the backdrop is steeped in rich history. And C.S. Lewis is complicated. You not only dive into his faith—there’s PTSD and his romantic relationship with his late friend’s mother, Janie Moore. How did you approach this large subject?
It’s funny, isn’t it? I suppose I’ve done a little bit of playing real people. Some people go, “That must be terrifying.” But actually, in some ways, when you get the gift of a real person, particularly famous ones that I’ve been quite lucky enough to have in my career, you’re dealing with solid facts. When you have a normal screenplay, you end up having to write your history. I mean, some people don’t, but I think if you’re worth your salt, you write your history to make your character fresh. That’s one of the joys about some of the people I’ve had the opportunity to do: Lewis or Anthony Armstrong [on The Crown] or even Bob Evans [on The Offer]. One of the nice things about Lewis is that he’s complicated, as you said. It’s all very rich and there’s a lot to unpack. Obviously, he’s written an awful lot of books that tell me about his viewpoints on Christianity and being a Christian apologist, which is fascinating. Although, sometimes, I was reading that material going, “Oh god, I just don’t feel intelligent enough to play him!” Because the material is very dense. I think I had the dictionary out about a hundred times going, “What does that word mean?” [laughs] The lovely thing is that the screenplay was really quite beautiful. It takes its time and it’s very sensitive towards these two greatest minds of the 20th century. In a sense, it would be very easy to write something that was like, “Let’s make them fight onscreen!” But that’s just not who they were. It certainly wouldn’t have been anywhere near the humanity that Lewis had.
Having really studied him in-depth, where do you suppose his humanity stemmed from?
We become who we are because of those early years, don’t we? I had the memoir he wrote in 1955 called Surprised by Joy and that gave me a great sense of his childhood. After his mother died, he was sent straight off to boarding school in a different country by his very Victorian, earnest father. He said going to boarding school and being away from his brother was a worse experience than trench warfare in World War I, which is mind-blowing. You have to remember that he had always been with his brother in this house. So you give yourself a timeline and you unpack all this stuff. And then you use your imagination as to what effect that kind of trauma would have on him.
I also stumbled upon a wonderful video. Some technology you could say is ruining the world at a very fast rate, but it’s also blooming useful when you’re doing research. So I found this video of Douglas Gresham, who was the child Lewis adopted when he married Joy Grisham after he left Janie Moore. In this video, Douglas talks about this house in Ireland and you can just see his face change. He’s saying how much he loved Lewis and how he will always have these memories of flying into his office to play with him. Lewis would be in the middle of writing something important, probably on a timeline, and he never got angry. He never, ever did anything apart from putting down his pen and giving him full attention. Douglas said Lewis would laugh for minutes on end, and we’re talking about a guy who’d been through so much trauma. He had great humanity.
You’re a solid example of the great lengths actors sometimes go in doing research. Everyone certainly works differently, but in cases like yours, it’s like, when do you know when to stop?
I find it endlessly fascinating to learn as much as I can about somebody. And it’s one of those things where you do all this research and then you “throw it away” when you start filming. I know that doesn’t make much sense, but that’s what you kind of have to do. And then you go in and try and try. There’s vast periods of this film where I’m being ranted at by Freud. I get my ass kicked quite a bit in this, and it’s wonderful! [laughs] But I don’t have a huge amount of lines. I don’t have ripostes—big speeches to match Freud’s—because, otherwise, it would’ve been a very long movie. So I’m trying to show as much as I possibly can in a very subtle way that would communicate his incredible humanity. I know that’s not a brilliant way of putting it, but there you go.
I understand that you were shooting six, sometimes seven, pages a day. That’s intimidating. And as you just pointed out, the dialogue might’ve dominated Anthony’s court, but this remains, by and large, a two-hander in a chamber piece. You really only had each other.
No, exactly, that was the thing. I felt very much like I gotta be there for Tony as much as I possibly can. It’s acting and that’s what we do, but I don’t just stop talking and light up a cigarette and go wait until it’s now my time to talk. You are always in it, obviously. And what a joy for me as an actor as well to be with one of the greatest actors of all time. The thing that scared me was the fact that he had played Lewis before [in Shadowlands]. Perfectly well, in fact. So that scared me a bit. But that thought flew out the window once I met him and we started working together. I felt like a schoolboy. He’s a hero of mine. I’ve met many people involved in the industry, but to have him all to myself for three weeks in a row, day after day after day, was just amazing.
I’ve since learned that you made a special request on this film: you approached the costume designer with a desire to make a nod to Anthony’s role in Shadowlands through your choice of wardrobe. It’s a beautiful gesture from one actor to another. Why was it important to you?
Because I love that film so much. And the sad thing about that is, when I did a deep dive on Lewis, I found out that there’s possibly a little less truth to that film: in actuality, Joy Grisham might have been after his money somewhat. But never let the truth get in the way of a good story! One of my favorite scenes ever is with him in the church. The man’s a god, he really is. He’s talking to the vicar and he realizes that he’s in love with Joy. But she’s ill and he’s got cancer, and he says, “I’d have to be in the torment of hell, wouldn’t I?” or something like that. There’s nothing on his face as far as emotions go, but then tears start dripping out of his eyes and you go, “How do you do that? That’s incredible!” I watched it again before we started and I thought, “That’s a great getup.” I’d worked with Eimer [Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh], our costume designer, before on Brideshead Revisited so I trusted her implicitly. I wanted a slightly softer material, but she wanted mine to match what she was doing so I went, “Okay.” But she allowed me to have the color combination, which I saw in Shadowlands, as an homage to Tony. And I don’t think he ever noticed. I didn’t wanna bring it up. It’s a blue and maroon jumper because, in a tiny scene in Shadowlands where he’s being spectacularly good, he’s wearing that color combination. So there you go, long story short.
I really hope he finds out in some roundabout way at least. He’d be thrilled.
Someone might tell him now. And he’ll probably go, “Okay. Weird.” [laughs]
I also learned that Anthony had made his first film, Lion in Winter, at Ardmore Studios some five decades ago. You shot Freud’s Last Session on the same exact stage. That’s insane.
Oh, I know! On the first day he came out, he said, [Matthew doing his best Hopkins impression] “I haven’t been here for 55 years. I shot a small film here.” We were like, “What was it?” He goes, “Lion in Winter.” We’re like, “That’s not a small film! That’s a pretty epic film.” He goes, “With Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn.” It was a great way to start a job with this speech. But you’re also like, “Wow, you were in this studio with that cast and, unfortunately, you are now here with me.” [laughs] Delusions of grandeur, really, for all of us. When we were between action and cut—obviously, while working very seriously on something that’s quite intense—we were also having giggles and he would be like a time machine. He would have these stories that would just make the hair on your arms stand up. He’s done so much with so many of the greats.
So there’s synchronicity in Freud looking back and Anthony looking back.
There’s no question about it. And he’s 86 this year, but I still think of him as a spring chicken. What he managed to do is a serious feat because there’s a lot of dialogue. There’s no earbuds like some actors do it, which is totally understandable. He got that script learned like I did. I mean, I’m in my 40s—it’s so much easier for me. And we learned it before we turned up because we didn’t know what order we were gonna shoot it in. You need to know it. Luckily, we actually got to do it narratively. It’s a real treat to be able to let the story unfurl as it does because it just means that you’re more emotionally in check from day to day. You’re not hopping around doing the smoke-and-mirrors stuff that you normally have to do. It’s really great. It’s really intense and wonderful.
What legacy are you hoping to leave behind, Matthew?
That’s a good question. It’s a slightly morbid question. [laughs]
It really is, and we all think about it, no matter what stage of life we’re in.
“He had some range”? There you go—something like that. “He didn’t always do the same thing,” I guess? “He was great in a bar”? What I mean is, not dull. [laughs] I’m not striving for much, am I? But the only thing I really care about is, can I get through the next few years with my kids fairly undamaged? I mean, my legacy is gonna be my children. So as much as it’d be nice to be talked about well in the industry, I just want my kids to be safe and have a great life. That’s it.
You’re nowhere near the end of your life, but I will tell you that you have wonderful range—I bet you’re great in a bar, too—and you and Anthony are spectacular in this film.
Thank you so much. I’ll pass that on to Tony. He’ll love that.
It was a pleasure.