On the occasion of the release of the romantic drama series The Pursuit of Love, directed by Emily Mortimer and available on Netflix from June 4, rediscover our interview with the actress Emily Beecham.
Emily Beecham won the Best Actress Award at the latest Cannes Film Festival for her stunning, restrained performance in Little Joe, directed by the Austrian filmmaker and former collaborator to Michael Haneke: Jessica Hausner. In this cinematic gem, the sonic and visual atmosphere – complete with an antiseptic laboratory, pastel color palette and chilling soundtrack – wonderfully echoes the dystopian story and creates a palpable yet mesmerizing sense of malaise. Emily Beecham plays the role of a plant breeder who develops a genetically modified, blood red flower whose effects on the human brain are still unclear… We met and photographed her after Chanel’s 2019 Winter Haute Couture show, in the eminently cinematic confines of the library created for the show inside the Grand Palais.
Let’s go back in time to when you first started pursuing acting. Was there a specific moment when you knew you had to be an actress?
My mother took me to see a lot of theater when I was young. I saw The Blue Room, which is a great play. It’s quite provocative, I was probably a little bit young to watch it. (laughs) But it really spoke to me, it had a big impact on me. My mother also took me to see a lot of independent films, some quite unusual films, some French ones, too. I really enjoyed foreign cinema. I also loved a Michael Winterbottom film called Wonderland which had a massive impact on me. I started taking a natural interest with acting. Then I auditioned for LAMDA and I had no idea I was good enough to actually do acting. Then I got in and carried on from there. I just found it a very stimulating thing to be a part of. It’s going pretty well so far… (laughs) It happened in quite a natural way. You need a lot of resilience to be an actor, but then there’s always new things that inspire you about it. Being inspired makes you resilient.
Are there certain things you learned at acting school that are still with you today?
Yes, in terms of how I approach a character. I worked with really great teachers who guide you in this way of seeing. It really opens your eyes to what to look out for when you’re in the industry. In school you work with people who really get into the foundations and you really explore yourself – all sorts of sides and characters of yourself. It’s a real stimulating experience. It has to remain a creative and artistic process; that’s when the work can stay good, when it stays authentic. You meet people who inspire you and that’s so important in the creative industry because they’re all very competitive. It keeps it joyful.
Did you do a lot of short films and experimental projects before working on big features?
My old agent wanted me to do more commercial, money-making things and I was quite interested in the artistic side of cinema. Fortunately, I now have an amazing agent with whom I feel exactly the same about projects. But anyway, I didn’t do short films until more recently. I started out doing lots of television and later it has progressed to film and more experimental cinema. I’ve been meeting some very interesting filmmakers.
Can you tell me about how the film Little Joe came about? How did you meet Jessica Hausner?
I’d worked with the production company before, called Le Bureau, a French and English company. Bertrand Faivre, one of the producers, contacted me and told me there was this project they were making. Jessica Hausner was directing and I had seen her film Lords before which I thought was really excellent. I saw Ben Wishaw was attached and Kerry Fox… I love both of them as actors and have always wanted to work with them. I was sent the script and found the lead female protagonist really interesting and complicated. I met Jessica and she showed me design ideas, the plants and the whole aesthetic of the film. We discussed all the themes and explored a few scenes and then she asked me to be a part of the film. I really wanted to do that.
When you discovered the whole aesthetic and mood of the film, what was your initial reaction?
I love when films are quite unusual, like those of Yorgos Lanthimos. These directors are making very interesting things, so original. The whole deliberately artificial aesthetic of it was really interesting with the story. Jessica comes from a very artistic point of view. Her father is Rudolf Hausner, a very revered Austrian painter. He’s very surrealist. Her sister is also an incredible painter, Xenia Hausner, and her mother as well. Jessica approaches her film in the way that you make art. She likes to provoke people to think and not just watch it comfortably. It’s not entertainment, it provokes thought. She’s got a really interesting, inspiring mind. Anything she said, we couldn’t predict. We loved every idea that she would come up with. It was a real pleasure to experience her. She’s very strong-minded with what she wants; that’s why she’s created something that’s really unique. She’s got a real cult following. Many people think she’s a genius. But other people have the opposite reaction. Her films cause controversy and some of the best films provoke mixed reactions.
You either love Little Joe or hate it; there is no in-between. How has it been received until now?
Sometimes it was very mixed. Mostly it’s been very positive, but a couple people have read certain things into it, which I think is good. And I think Jessica enjoys that. (laughs) She encourages people to talk about it. This film has such a massive power to provoke discussion. She also likes to deliberately play with genre. She will lead an audience to believe that they’re watching a thriller or a horror flick and then she enjoys subverting that by taking a complete U-turn, making it something that’s not at all a thriller. You’re really pulled out of it all of a sudden. Jessica kind of has her own genre. She messes with you in the most creative way.
How was the mood on set? Did you get along with everyone?
Yes, I loved working with Kit, the actor who plays my son. He is so mature for his age, so experienced. Ben Wishaw is the loveliest, kindest, gentle, generous and jolly person ever. Kerry is really inspiring and strong-minded. She’s good fun as well. Jessica’s very precise so we do about twenty takes for each scene. It was really challenging because it was choreographed with the timing of the camera, with an extra passing through, with eye contact on a certain line and the right intentions… It was really choreographed but with a focus on keeping the authenticity. It was a lot to remember but we trusted her. The fact that the tone of the acting is sometimes artificial is obviously a bit nerve-racking for an actor because we’re always encouraged to be as natural as possible. But since her previous films were so brilliant, I completely trusted her. It’s all about the experience, you don’t think about the results. Otherwise, you’d go crazy as an actor. It was unusual, a different experience for me.
Did you research plant breeding beforehand?
Yes, we went to a lab and had some scientists teach us some very dense and complicated genetic engineering. We extracted DNA from a leaf which was great. But it was so confusing that all of us had no idea of what we’d actually done. (laughs) We also researched an amazing French woman called Emmanuelle Charpentier who invented this revolutionary gene-editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9, which enables you to genetically engineer something in an efficient way. What Jessica liked about her was that in interviews Emmanuelle mentions that she has very little time for her personal life because she’s so dedicated to her work. That was a theme that she wanted to bring to Alice. Also Emmanuelle is a very chic dresser and Alice’s outfits were very specific. Very different because Emmanuelle wears a lot of black, but my character wore a lot of bright colors. But she was definitely an inspiration. Also, we researched a lot on genetic engineering because it’s interesting that Little Joe is very plausible, especially the fact that he could adapt and mutate in order to survive. Her invention, like Frankenstein’s monster, was something beautiful to her at the start but then got completely out of control.
The theme of women who have to choose between their family life and their work is very present in the film. Is it something that you think about?
Yes, Jessica and I discussed that a lot before shooting. About mothers and the weight of responsibility in terms of having a career that you are really good at and passionate about and juggling that with raising a child and having a personal life. That struggle between wanting to maintain a really good relationship and wanting your child to be happy, together with an element of guilt. Many women can feel torn. My character speaks to a therapist where she admits certain feelings that she has. Jessica is a very busy and passionate filmmaker and she also has a son. I’ve experienced work to be extremely time-consuming, and there was a period where I was filming for ten months. I didn’t manage to see friends and family for so long. It’s difficult. Filmmaking is extremely time-consuming and so is Alice’s job, so it was an interesting parallel.
Since the film is open to many interpretations, how did you personally interpret it?
It’s really difficult to view things that I’m in objectively. When I see the scene, I just remember the day when it was shot. I say to myself: “Oh, that worked out and oh, I remember that”. I’m not watching it from a fresh point of view at all. I’ve watched it twice now and every time I notice different details. I like that it’s very stylized and unique. I particularly loved the music, which I thought was beautiful, notably the really strong drumbeats when the characters make eye contact. It’s a film that keeps you guessing.
When did you start working with Chanel?
It was since the Cannes film festival ceremony where Chanel dressed me. They helped me get ready really quickly.
You got the news quite late that you were attending Cannes, right?
Yes, I woke up in the morning and I had a lot of missed calls. Producers were asking me how quickly I could get to the nearest airport. Then Chanel kindly organized a really swift car from Nice to Cannes. I think we made it in about half the time than it usually is. (laughs) It was a real race!
Thank goodness you had a beautiful dress because you won the award!
Yes, it was really amazing. It just all came together really well. The gorgeous couture dress was there.
You got to attend the Chanel Winter 2019 couture show, held in a bookshop set made specially for the occasion – a real cinematic decor. What did you think of it?
It was incredible, really gorgeous. Everything was so sophisticated and chic but also really artistic and edgy. All the pieces fit together but were all really different: power suits and large pants, stunning lightweight dresses. There were all sorts of different materials with beautiful feathers.