Q&A with CLAIRE DANES and BILLY CRUDUP
Movie Interview by Jonathan Harvey
How did you prepare for talking almost in a foreign tongue, 17 century English, did you read books, did you listen to tapes of Shakespearean style Drama?
CLAIRE DANES: Yeah, I listen to some tapes obsessively and tried to immerse myself in the sound as much as possible and worked with a dialect coach in New York and London, with Billy, who was a godsend. The toughest part was ridding myself of my self-consciousness and I just tried to feel like not to much boob speaking like a British person and ultimately it became instinctive which was not a problem but there were a lot of technical demands in this film and I didn't want that to overwhelm the actual emotion the audience should be drawn to. I didn't want people to fixate on the Americans talking funny or walking funny in a corset.
Was one of the hardest things doing some bad acting when Maria is first sticking her feet in the water?
CLAIRE DANES: Yeah that was pretty challenging, it ran counter to all of my instincts and all of my training and I tried to divorce the gesture from the emotion and reveal the effort behind the work.
Billy, despite the edict by Charles II which is dealt with in the film, men in this country still dress up in frocks in what's called 'pantomime'. Are you aware of this very English tradition, and was it any use to you at all?
BILLY CRUDUP: I don't even know was a frock is!
It's a dress.
BILLY CRUDUP: I am not familiar with the pantomime tradition. Where I live in Greenwich Village we have 'drag' and so the tradition of cross-dressing continues in the States in some regard. This obviously was a trade, they were tradesmen. My character, Ned, was most intent on surviving the best way he could in the field he had chosen and with the gifts he had been given. Playing women was not only a way for him to survive but a way for him to thrive. I think in part the story is about how our identities are often wrapped up in what other people want us to be and imagine we are. And for him from a very early point in his life he had been a sort of a prize someone possesses instead of someone to listen to and share things with, and he became an objection of possession for people throughout the country. I think that is the way he related with himself.
What preparation did you do?
BILLY CRUDUP: It was quite a bit of work; I break down the script by sound by phonetic symbols that I understand and learnt in school. Then the work with the dialect coach refined those sounds. I don't have a particularly great ear so I can't just break into a British accent of any class.
CLAIRE DANES: I don't know many people who can.
BILLY CRUDUP: Isn't that Kevin Spacey's thing?
The film deals a lot with public perceptions, sometimes mistaken, of actors. How do you detach yourselves from this sort of thing and is it reflected in your choices of films, pursuing good roles instead of parts that will just make you famous?
BILLY CRUDUP: I suppose in terms of my career, I just have not attended to other people's ideas about what's best for me. I think I am the best judge of what's best for me, though plenty of people have room to express opinions for what's best for me. I sort of stick to my own agenda.
As an American, do you have to leave America to appear in a costume drama?
CLAIRE DANES: I did LITTLE WOMEN when I was a little woman myself, but yeah, America's history is not as impressive as your own.
BILLY CRUDUP: Our costumes go back to 1940.
CLAIRE DANES: But yes there are period films to be made in our "hood".
How much fun did you have as an actor playing a stroppy actor and watching actors play stroppy actors?
BILLY CRUDUP: It's not so much fun because I have a judgement and I don't like it when those feelings come up for myself when I become a bit stroppy and so having to attend to those feelings as an actor is a little bit ugly. Ned is kind of suffering at that point and it's not all exuberance. He's lashing out at people because he is so uncomfortable with himself, so uncomfortable in his own skin. Most comedians are incredibly bitter people and their sense of judgment and irony and comedy comes from a real loneliness and depression. It's a terrible generalisation to make, but I think Ned's chastisement and his wit is coming from a hard place so it wasn't so exuberant a play, I'm sorry to say.
Was it interesting getting to deal with the issue of women being taken seriously and not being regarded as pretty sex objects, in a historical setting?
CLAIRE DANES: Well I take my work seriously and I hope that people are persuaded by my attitude. I'm so accustomed to the adversity that I face in the culture that we live in: it's insidious and it's subtle and sadly I've adapted. I think that the same must have been true for Maria. I really appreciated and respected her innate chutzpah, her courage and audacity and her confidence. I don't know where she found it.
Much like yourself?
CLAIRE DANES: No, no, not at all, I'm not nearly as innovative.
Did the costumes help shape the kinds of characters that you became?
CLAIRE DANES: Yeah absolutely. Wearing a dress is not that alien to me but wearing this kind of dress was a bit unusual and they're pretty constricting, so they inform your movement and your behaviour and I was really glad for them as I had no choice but to sit in an erect manner. I didn't have to constantly remind myself to act period as the corset was enabling me to do that pretty naturally.
And Billy what was your corset moment?
BILLY CRUDUP: Well the corset didn't help my erection. I found it terribly disconcerting: the way in which you become encumbered by these pieces of brutal torture that I had never been exposed to before, like heels and corsets, I found mystifying. But it did dictate so much of the movement that I had much less work to do when considering the physical life of the character. So for that reason it was quite useful. Same thing's true about the wig and all the attributes that my character dressed himself up in.
Had you never dressed up as a woman before?
BILLY CRUDUP: Keep your hands out off my closet, madam.
How difficult was it for you to play a woman without a hint of masculinity and then to play a man without a hint of masculinity? And which was more satisfying to play, Desdemona or Othello?
BILLY CRUDUP: Othello! I have to say I was grateful at the end of the shoot to be able to release some ounce of masculinity that was left within me after months of repressing it. It was quite difficult actually to play an actor who is meant to be proficient at portraying women. He had his entire life to learn that discipline while I had four and a half weeks. It would have been easier if he was a terrible actor, as we all know how to camp it up. As it was it was an enormous challenge and one which I felt burdensome, so I was grateful there were fewer things I had to attend to when I got to play Othello. I'm also a great fan on that play and I have great empathy for Othello at that point in the play so I was happy to be able to do that.
Claire, what was your experience of the very physical and vibrant death scene from Othello?
CLAIRE DANES: Well we had choreographed that scene really carefully so it looks reckless and spontaneous but of course we knew exactly where the parameters lay and therefore I got to really lose myself in the hysteria of the scene and it was fine and a great experience, and we had an actual audience to play to which is really unusual on a film set, so the energy the audience created was thrilling.
It's quite unusual for two American actors to come into a predominantly British cast and shoot here on location. What was that like and has it tempted you to work properly on the British stage here in the West end?
CLAIRE DANES: With a strictly English cast I suppose I was a little daunted having to play the first English actress of all time - I felt a little unqualified, me being a Yankee. But I trusted that Richard hired me for a reason and that I was capable of answering to the demands of the part, and everyone was very embracing and encouraging. As for the London stage, I haven't done any formal theatre work and I'd love to.