Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"I like the idea that you can take an audience and change their mind about the character" - An interview with Brenda Blethyn

In a career that has included two Oscar nominations and numerous memorable characters, Brenda Blethyn has established herself as one of Britain's best-loved actresses, and in Rachid Bouchareb's London River she gives one of her most challenging and moving performances to date. Blethyn plays Elisabeth, a woman whose world is devastated by the July 7th bombings in London and who has to face her own prejudices as she explores the life of the daughter she never really knew. Yesterday, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the attack, I met Brenda Blethyn to discuss the film.

How soon was it after the July 7th bombings when you were offered this role?

It was two years, at least, but I was steering clear of it because it was too recent history and I thought it would be sacrilege to make the film. You know, you have this idea of it being a big extravaganza about the London bombings, which would have been just awful, but I was soon put right on that. My agent told me that it's not a film about the bombings, and that's just the catalyst to bring these two people together. I went to meet Rachid and I found him inspiring, and then I watched his film Days of Glory and I loved it. I could tell that he was going to be treating this backdrop of 7/7 very, very sensitively. It wasn't a political film, it was just looking at the human side of the tragedy; two ordinary people, coming together from completely different cultures, and discovering their similarities. I really wanted to work with him, and when he said Sotigui Kouyaté, I'd heard of him but I didn't know him, so I watched Little Senegal and I thought he was just magic. I think he's completely, completely wonderful in London River, the grace just shines out of him. It's beautiful.

It brought back a lot of memories for me. I remember the fear and confusion, and the eerie atmosphere of the days after. Were you in London that day?

No, I was at the coast, but I was due to come back to London that day. I rang my partner to tell him what time I'd be home and he said, "Brenda, haven't you been watching the news? Don't come to London." Then I switched on and saw what had happened. He said, "Stay where you are, don't come to London" because who knew whether or not there would be more?

In this film you have to deal with the loss of a child, which is the greatest trauma a parent can go through. Was it hard for you to portray such extreme emotions?

It's always hard. You've got to stay in the moment if you want people to believe what you're doing, but at the end you're going through this terrible breakdown and then a light will go and you'll hear, "Cut! Can we start again?" [laughs]. I'm not a method actor, I'm the opposite. I'm from the Mike Leigh school, and there's always a third eye up here watching what's going on, and it's never me going through that trauma, it's her. As soon as we stop, I'm Brenda and that's Elisabeth, and I think that's always the best way to work because you can also look at the character more objectively. I knew people weren't going to warm to her initially, because on the outside she can look like a bit of a racist, and there's normally a gasp when she meets Ousmane in the film because she doesn't shake his hand. In the audience I would feel the same, but we've all met him, and we know he's an innocent man looking for his son, the same as she is, but she doesn't know that. All she knows is, she's in an alien part of London, her daughter's missing, she realises the daughter is living a life completely different to the one she thought she was living, she's surrounded by Muslims and this terrible thing that has happened, which may have killed her daughter, was perpetrated by Muslim extremists. She's suddenly in this world that's totally alien to her, and not getting much help from the police, but it's interesting that the police come round in squad cars the second she says, "A Muslim knows something about my daughter" and fingerprint the flat.

The character's paranoia seems to reflect the atmosphere of suspicion in the media at the time. Did that play a part in your performance?

I did incorporate some of that. It's not what I would think but I felt it was what she would think. Another part that always makes people gasp is when she says the place is "crawling with Muslims" and because it's such a sensitive subject, people's hackles go up, but a while ago I actually heard somebody say that in a shop so I remembered it. I like the idea that you can take an audience and change their mind about the character. It's a bit of a journey and it's not all black and white. I think people's judgement of her at that point, that she's a racist, is too extreme for its own good. All of us are too quick to jump to conclusions when we haven't got all the facts, but most of the time we think we do have all the facts.

Did you speak to any survivors of the bombings about their experiences and memories of the day?

No I didn't, because I already had more knowledge than Elisabeth had, and it wouldn't have helped me to play a woman who knows nothing about the situation.

You've got a benefit screening tomorrow night on the fifth anniversary of the bombings. Have you had much reaction to the film from people who were affected by July 7th?

I do know that the distributors Trinity have been very sensitive and responsible about opening it, and that several charities have been involved. The 7/7 survivors charity, the 7/7 assistance fund and also the Gill Hicks charity have all supported it, giving it their stamp of approval. She's an amazing woman, that Gill Hicks, lost both of her legs and set up a charity for greater understanding and tolerance.

Does making a film like this give you a different perspective or deeper understanding of this kind of incident?

It just makes you think more deeply about the total anguish that people must have gone through. Just ordinary people getting on a bus or getting on a tube to go to work, and that happens. It's just evil.

Even though this is a very emotive issue, the thing I liked most about the film was how understated the emotions were, which makes the final breakdown even more powerful.

Rachid just wanted it to be organic throughout. There was never any instruction to big it up or dull it down, it just had to be organic and real. He wanted us to deal with the information we had at the time and just run with it, so that's what we both did.

I understand Rachid also gave you and Sotigui a lot of freedom to improvise in the film. What was it like to work in that way?

Oh, it was great. He's a wonderful director to work with. He makes you feel like you're the most interesting actor he's ever worked with, and of course you're not, but that's how he makes you feel, and he made all of the actors feel like that. It's so liberating for an actor, because you're not afraid to try things and look like a berk. You can run with something and if he doesn't like it, then it won't be in the film, he'll just get rid of it [laughs]. When you're working in that kind of secure environment, everything is useful, and working with Sotigui was one of the treasures I'll take to my grave; a beautiful, beautiful man. We had the greatest respect for each other.

Did you speak French before the film?

No, and I've forgotten it all now [laughs]. I learned it in a crash course, a three-week intensive course in Manchester, and then straight onto the film. It was shot in three weeks and then I was straight onto another film, and I've been working all the time since, so I haven't spoken a word. I was pretty proud of myself, because he wanted us to improvise so I needed to have a better understanding than I had, which is why I had to go to school. Quite a few of the scenes were improvised just to get you into the scene, so if a scene started here we'd start over here and get to that point to play the scene, and he still wouldn't say cut. We would just carry on acting as those characters would until he did say cut, which is what Mike Leigh does...well, I mean there's no script with Mike Leigh at all, so it's all improvised. When we were making Secrets & Lies, one scene went on for nine hours [laughs].

Does acting in an unfamiliar language make it more of a challenge to get across the emotion and meaning of a scene for you?

The only responsibility is to get whatever's going on in here [points to chest] across, and she's thinking in English not French, so I'd have to translate it. Sometimes I'd drop huge clangers and say something really obscene [laughs]. They'd say "Cut, let's go again. You just said something awful," [laughs]. It was a slight inflection that gave it a totally different meaning. Everyone was very friendly and helpful, though, and while it was a challenge for me, I did love every minute of it.

You've mentioned Mike Leigh a couple of times in this interview. Is Secrets & Lies still the film you're most recognised for?

Well, people do remember that film, and it was a good film, wasn't it? Actually, Chance in a Million, a television show, is the one I'm most remembered for, believe it or not.

The sitcom with Simon Callow?

Do you remember it? [laughs] That must have been thirty years ago.

I think the original broadcast was a bit before my time, but I've seen it since.

I'll jump into the back of a taxi and say, "Waterloo" and the driver will turn around and go, "Chance in Million!" [laughs] It's strange. I'm very proud of London River, though. I think it's my best work, I don't know what other people think, but I do think it's my best performance.