“Men” is the latest mind-melting horror from “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” filmmaker Alex Garland.
The film follows a woman named Harper (played by Jessie Buckley), who has recently lost her husband. She books a house in the quaint English countryside, where she wants to reflect and recharge. But while she is there, she keeps encountering men, all of them played by the great British character actor Rory Kinnear. It’s an unsettling element, for sure, especially as the terror starts to escalate and Harper finds herself fighting for her life – and her sanity.
TheWrap spoke to Kinnear about what it was like playing all those roles, how his own biographies of the characters informed the make-up choices and whether or not there’s a chance he could come back for another season of “Our Flag Means Death.”
How did Alex explain this project to you?
He doesn’t like to explain, as you might be aware, too much in terms of what things might mean. But I guess it arrived almost fully formed as it were, as a script, with a note attached saying, “We want you to play all the male parts.” So naturally, one’s interest was piqued before one read it. And then the only thing I was worried about was that I didn’t necessarily want to be playing all these parts just for the sake of versatility or the sake of a party piece. One wanted to make sure that it had a point in that it resonated with the themes of the film and that it might have an impact rather than just something that was impressive, or not impressive, as the case may be.
That was the only thing I wanted to have assured of him. And I could tell, or at least I had an idea as to why he wanted me to play all the parts. I felt like as long as I made sure that all those characters existed just as credibly as each other within this landscape that they emerged from, from this natural world, just as much as the nature that Harper is trying to surround herself with at this point in her life, then I felt I understood why he was doing it.
Did he say something to you that sealed the deal?
No. I knew that it was going to be eight movies worth of work in one, in terms of the work that I would have to do before we started rehearsals. And I had to make sure that I knew and understood the characters themselves just as much as each other, just because one was going to say more or one had very little to do. I knew that if I didn’t investigate each one, then I presumed it would show up and that it would take you out a bit. And I wanted an audience not to really know that it was the same actor. I mean, obviously I knew that it was impossible. But essentially, I wanted to approach it that an audience shouldn’t really know that it’s the same actor playing all the parts and to try and do that without that much prosthetics certainly. That was my ambition.
It was a question of going through each character from the script and building a biography of each one, building out where I thought they came from, who they were as a child, as a teenager. And sending those off to Alex and then Lisa and Nicole, the head of makeup and the head of costume and allowing that to be a jumping off point for them to start their creative process as well.
Their designs were informed by your biographies of the characters?
Yeah, I think so. Because a lot of them didn’t have that much on the page. I wanted to make sure that I could offer them something to start with so that we felt like we were going down the same avenue together rather than going down separate avenues and one of us having to do a U-turn.
Can you talk about what it was like physically day to day? Were there days where you were playing multiple characters in the same day?
Yeah, I mean the pub scene was the only days where I would play… Maybe I played the boy and the vicar in the same day. I can’t remember. But certainly the pub scene, I remember that was a lot of shuttling to and fro and in and out of various wigs and stuff was the most interesting thing about that.
The whole thing really was just how people behaved completely differently around me, depending on who I was playing. I wasn’t asking for them to do so. And I wasn’t demanding that people treat me differently. Certainly, I wasn’t staying in character in between takes or in between setups. But the whole mood of the set would change depending on who I emerged from hair and makeup as, which is really interesting in a film that is so much about what an audience brings to their understanding of it and how imagistic and how image-heavy the film is and how rich and potent that imagery is.
And it’s as much about an audience’s own prejudices or lived experience as it is about Alex’s or any of ours, that within a film like that. In the making of it, there was so much that I saw of that happen. When Jeffrey was on set, it was fun and easy going. And everyone was having a good time. And then if I’d emerge as the vicar, then everyone seemed to back away from me and not really know how to talk to me. And if I came out as the policeman, people would be quite bloke-y and josh-y with me. And had to remind people that I am still Rory. I’m not actually these people that are coming out.
Can you talk about working with Jessie?
Luckily, reputationally, she’s known as a very nice person, so I knew that. And everyone had said, “Oh, you’ll have a great time working with her.” And I’m hoping vice versa, she experienced.
But when it came to the first day of rehearsals and we were making it towards the end of the second lockdown over here in England and we were basically staying in a hotel that was shut to everyone, except basically the two of us and our producer, which was this old, very beautiful country house hotel. We would spend every day with each other in a very beautiful old country house. It felt like the on-set and off-set life merged into one. With that level of intensity, we knew that we would have to get on with each other. And luckily, within the first day we realized that it was going to be easy. And also with Alex as well.
I don’t think I’ve worked quite as intensely with a director and with a co-star as on this. It was basically just asked for most of it. Even if I wasn’t filming that day, it would quite often be make-up tests or costume fittings or whatever it was. There was always something going on in a really lovely way, in a really exacting and challenging way. I think the success of the film and certainly our experience and enjoyment of the film of making it was going to be predicated on how well we got on. But luckily, we hit it off straight away.
Did you ever ask Alex what made him think of you with this part? Did he explain it to you?
He didn’t say quite as much, but I know he did say that his dad had seen … I did a production of “Hamlet” over here in the UK about 11, 12 years ago, which his dad had seen and which his dad continued to talk about. I do not know if I was swayed by his dad’s theater-going life of him. I don’t know if that’s why I got the job. I’m not sure.
I guess I’ve played quite a wide range of characters in my time. And I feel like I’ve got quite an anonymous face, which is quite useful with something like this, where you want the characters to seep out of the background, but also the anonymity of my face takes on the different features that I put onto it through characters quite successfully, I think. Who knows?
Are you aware of the response to “Our Flag Means Death?”
Yeah, it hasn’t been shown in the UK yet. But obviously there were quite a few of us Brits in that show and a number of them, obviously waiting to find out if they’ll be going back. I’ve been in touch with them and they’ve told me about the reception of it, which is fantastic. I’m so thrilled, not only for the cast and crew, but for David, the writer as well. It was a really fun experience seeing that crew develop. I mean, obviously with my part, I was in and out, popping up here and there throughout the shoot. Seeing how their relationships developed and how their camaraderie grew as the shoot went on, it was really lovely to see. And yeah, I’m really hopeful they’ll get to do it again.
Maybe Chauncey and Nigel could have another brother.
I mean, luckily the show doesn’t seem to pride itself necessarily on accuracy, and it seems to be forgiven. Fingers crossed … Maybe even a son or a grandfather? Who knows.
“Men” is in theaters now.