The TDF Interview: Ellie Kendrick

The Levelling arrives in cinemas tomorrow, 12th May, written and directed by Hope Dickson Leach and starring Ellie Kendrick from Game of Thrones and David Troughton, known from The Archers.

It tells the story of a family forced to reconcile in the face of an unexpected tragedy, asking them to confront years of unspoken emotions, guilt and grief that has badly fractured their relationship. Both Kendrick and Troughton give tremendous performances, led by a debut director who will no doubt become an established force in British cinema in years to come.

Ellie Kendrick took the time out of her busy schedule to talk about the film and one or two other things she has lined up in the near future.

Hi Ellie, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. First of all, congratulations on The Levelling, which is a really wonderful film
Thank you. It’s been a long time coming, I’m really excited to get it out there.

It’s been on the festival market for a large part of the last 9 months, is that right?
Yes, but it was picked up pretty early, after premiering at last year’s TIFF. By the time it came to the London Film Festival, it had already secured distribution from Peccadillo. So we were lucky that it wasn’t on the market for long after being snapped up fairly quickly. Once you’ve made a film there’s always a slight fear, because you never know if it is going to be seen. It was great that we didn’t have to worry about that too much and there were people interested in bringing our film out to the cinemas.

What attracted you to taking on the role of Clover, which is quite an emotionally heavy character?
As a woman, it’s rare when you’re reading scripts that you find a character that is so emotionally complex and also flawed. I liked the fact that she was so imperfect and there were so many contradictions. She starts the film thinking she has everything worked out, but her real journey is to make herself emotionally vulnerable. Clover has to learn to impose a logic on things that can’t necessarily be answered. Here was a very logically intelligent person, but at the same time, completely emotionally illiterate. She has this real tenderness and vulnerability underneath everything but because of her circumstances growing up, she had no chance to really express that.

As soon as I read it, I could immediately tell that this was such an interesting character because she feels so deeply layered. She wasn’t just some girlfriend of an attractive man, or a geek in High School. It was never about who she fancied, or how she looked, it was purely about the passion that sits at her core, which she’s struggling to get out. As soon as I read it, I knew that I wanted to play the part. It was one of the most exciting characters that I’ve read in a long time. I had to audition for the part but I got on really well with Hope (Dickson Leach) immediately. This may be Hope’s first feature but she has such a calm authority and kindness that as soon as I met her, it was clear she was going to be a great director.

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All the characters in the film feel fully realised and complex, weighed down by guilt and grief. How do you get yourself into the right state of mind to approach a character like this?
Because Hope is such a good writer and director, she doesn’t feel like she has to spell out the meaning behind every single line. That’s a real gift to an actor because often you’re not trusted to do that, as writers get nervous. They sometimes worry that if they don’t get everything down on the page, then it won’t be expressed and the actor won’t realise that this is what the writer is trying to say. With Hope, being both writer and director, she was able to have that confidence to rest in the silences and allow them to become moments of dialogue themselves. This is a story about people who can’t speak to each other, which made those moments really important.

As an actor that meant doing a lot of homework and working really closely with Hope to create a backstory for the character. This was also certainly the most intense period of contact that I’ve had with a character. Most weeks we were shooting six days a week for four weeks and I was in every scene, so I was almost being Clover more than I was Ellie during that time. This meant I could really dig down into who Clover was because I was spending so much time in her wellies! In addition to the back story, it involves things like making up memories and associations because there were lots of objects and visual clues left behind by her brother Harry. Items like his clothes and the evidence bag returned by the police and even his phone. I had to work to make sure they felt real as those props were potent for Clover. The evidence bag was the big one for me, as it contained the details of Harry’s last moment when he was in those clothes. Hope and I figured out a bit of a scheme where sometimes I’d ask her not to show me things. We wanted to get an immediate response to some of the objects. First of all, we’d rehearse the scene but without the prop and we’d only use it for the first time on camera, so it captured that instant reaction. For example, when she’s looking through the phone at the videos recorded by Harry, I couldn’t actually see them, as they had to be added in post-production. Instead, we got Joe (Blakemore) who was playing Harry, to come on set to act out what they were off camera, so the feeling was that he was right there for Clover. It was lots of little tricks like that, as well as doing lots of homework and building the right back story. We also went round the farm we filmed on and created memories in all of the different places. So every time I walked past the haystack or the yard, for example, I could remember moments that took place there.

It's a very British film but looks European in style, social realist to an extent. Yet we rarely see films set in this part of the UK, especially looking at the middle classes. How different was this from anything else you've done before?
It’s interesting that we have a thriving British film industry but so rarely do we see films set in the countryside. Actually, now more and more are starting to come out. There’s our film and God’s Own Country which is also set on a farm. There are some more coming out too but it does feel like the rural areas of England and the UK are very much underrepresented in a lot of modern British films. Our film actually came about because of a scheme we are involved in with iFeatures, which is a body that provides funding to independent filmmakers. Part of the conditions are that it has to be set outside of Greater London. Once Hope found out about what happened on the Somerset Levels, she really connected with that story. She did a lot of research, met with the local community who had been affected by the floods, which meant the project developed organically.

For me, it was great to be part of this world, as it’s so different to anything I’d done before. I’ve had a chance to play lots of different characters but never one like this. So to be able to in a film that is kind of social realist in its thrust, but at the same time pushing into a place we haven’t seen before in British filmmaking. It’s a rural, middle-class farming community that’s actually struggling to make ends meet because of things like milk prices and especially because of Brexit, which hadn’t happened when we filmed it, but is having an effect on people now. It was interesting to push into this world I hadn’t explored before, which is one of the great things about being an actor as you get to explore all sorts of worlds that you’re not familiar with, and learn how to tell stories from those places.

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What was it like shooting and being around the farm and spending time in and around the local community?
Because Hope had done so much work in getting to know the people who live in the area, it was wonderful for us as cast and crew members to go into a space where they already knew that we were on their side, and we weren’t just out to use their story for personal gain. Hope was always really keen on making sure people felt represented and that the flooding on the Levels was represented accurately. The same applies to the farming life that she was exploring. When I first read the script I didn’t realise that she hadn’t grown up on a farm, I presumed this is a first film and script from a director, so it had to be related to her own life because you can feel this whole world. Actually, she had done an incredible amount of research.

There was much more from the film that never made it through the final edit, where she had all sorts of content about different types of diseases that cows could have and methods of treatment. When I was reading the script, I just thought ‘this woman knows her stuff!’ I couldn’t believe it when I heard that she grew up in Hong Kong, a whole world away from the subject she’s discussing.

We did film this on location where much of the flooding had taken place, in fact, much of the land that we filmed on was under water for a large period of time after the disaster. We made most of the film on a working farm, owned by a couple named Robert and Linda, who were really great. I didn’t know this about farms but if you own livestock they have to be milked twice a day, every day of the year. That includes Christmas, the birth of your child - it doesn’t matter – those cows have to be milked! And of course, that also includes film sets descending upon you, so we had to make sure we scheduled the filming around the times the cows needed to be milked. If we were overrunning for any reason, then those cows got pretty angry and they were very vocal about it. So it’s impossible to film when you’ve got a whole herd of cows behind you mooing, enraged at not being milked! The owners were able to teach us how to milk and how to herd cows, so we could make it look like we really knew this world.

What is your approach like to connecting with the character? And have you taken anything away from being part of this film; be it the subject or the character herself?
The most productive way for me to approach a character is to discover how this person is different from me. It’s essentially me going to find the character, rather than making them come to me. Finding out what I need to change about myself, to make myself like that person, as opposed to how I can incorporate them into my way of thinking. And that’s really helpful to me, as it allows me to shift my viewpoint and experience the world through a different pair of eyes. Lots of actors approach a heavy role in a Stanislavski method. So if they need to be upset in a scene, they’ll search their past to make themselves connect with that emotion. Whereas for me and especially with Clover, it was about making a really detailed backstory and making as many memories and associations as I could. I could almost think in her pattern, as opposed to my own.

So when she sees that evidence bag, I’m instantly thinking as her and remembering her brother Harry, rather than trying to circumnavigate and relating it to a time when I lost my dog, for example. For me that’s really reductive and I can’t presume to have experienced the same as Clover. If I try to make it like my own experience, it won’t be as full and well rounded, for me or for anyone else. The joy for me is, telling the story through someone else’s eyes. Something I took away from it would be just how difficult it was living in a character's shoes and not being able to talk! I’m a bit of a chatterbox, so having to feel that constant restriction and that guard up all the time made me really empathise with people who are quieter or find it hard to communicate.

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You've had varied career already; working on TV, film, radio and on stage. Each one requires you to focus on certain areas of your skills. Are these conscious decisions to stretch yourself and is there any one you've preferred over the other so far?
For me it’s not about the medium, it’s about the character and the story. It’s about stretching myself in a different direction that feels uncomfortable and scary. I know if it feels too comfortable, then I’m probably not going to do a very good job of it. If I’m not enjoying it, then the viewer will probably feel the same too. I always get excited when I watch actors stretching themselves and doing something new and pushing to go beyond their comfort zones. A lot of my career decisions have been motivated by that. When something feels too comfortable or too easy, it’s often a danger sign for me. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to experience lots of different mediums and the most productive way for me to approach those is to keep my hand in with all of them as much as possible. So, if I find myself doing too much theatre, then I’ll try to make the next project in film or TV etc.

I think it’s really useful for an actor to be able to stretch themselves in different directions, as they all inform each other. You’re always going to come back to the next thing with more experience and a different perspective. I love the experience of live theatre, it’s exciting to have the audience right there in front of you. It’s one of those moments where you have hundreds of people in a room, all willing a story to happen. But of course, TV is fantastic because you can reach millions of viewers and you get the chance to spend a long time in a characters shoes. Then of course with film, you get that precision of telling one story in a couple of hours. It can be such a beautiful art form and a great experience as an actor to spend a dedicated period of time with the cast and crew in making this one thing.

I see you've also co-written the script for Hope's Silly Girl short film. What's that about and is it something you both hope can be developed into a feature in the near future?
That was an adaptation of a short play that I was commissioned to write for the Royal Court Theatre, which Hope came to see after we’d finished The Levelling. We thought it would be fun to adapt it into a short film and continue working together. The idea wasn’t really to develop it into a feature together, it was more an opportunity to tell a fun, warm, light-hearted story, that asks some interesting questions.

It’s about a transgender guy looking back on his past, who is seen as a schoolgirl and remembering his first romantic encounter. I developed it with Jason Barker, who is a good friend and writing partner of mine, loosely based on his own experiences. We came up with some stories about his past and changed them quite radically, which became the play and then Jason and I co-wrote the film together, which was slightly different. It was great working with Hope again and I’d love to in the future on another feature. We both think we’d like to find the right thing, if and when it comes along. So fingers crossed, this will be a relationship that continues.

Watch Silly Girl here

Do you often get ideas for stories and are you an active writer?
Absolutely, it’s something that I’ve been able to fit in with my acting career so far. Writing is a much slower process, so as an actor, you sign up to a job, you wait a few weeks and then you are on the set for a few more weeks before you’re finished. It all happens within a few months, whereas writing is a much slower process. You develop ideas for years and it can take forever for things to start happening. So while I have got projects in development and there a quite a few I am writing at once, which I do whenever I have downtime, overall it’s a much slower process but one I will continue to keep working on, alongside my acting career. I enjoy working at two different paces; the fast, breakneck speed of acting, alongside the slow and at times, backbreaking work of writing!

You are in the remake of Whisky Galore! that comes out on the 19th May, you are in the next season of Game of Thrones which arrives in the summer - have you got any more projects lined up you can talk about?
Whisky Galore! is just coming out and that was very different to The Levelling. It was great to work with actors like Eddie Izzard, James Cosmo, Kevin Guthrie and the rest of the cracking cast. And of course Gregor Fisher. That is something I did right before hopping onto The Levelling, which were two very different roles. In one, I’m a Scottish Islander in Whisky and then I’m rolling my sleeves up and milking the cows. Then I went straight on from The Levelling, after a day and a half of rest, straight onto Game of Thrones. So these were three very different roles in quick succession. It was a lot of work but fantastic to get such real variety. They all fed into each other in strange ways. The next thing I have coming up is a play. The press release is on the 15th May, so I’m not allowed to say anything about it at the moment. It’s taking place in London and it’s something I’m really excited to be part of. And after that, I’ll wait and see!

Read our review of The Levelling here.

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