Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I’m Ben Eshmade and this week, we’re revisit a series of interviews which took place in late 2018 to coincide early the following year with the release of the film The Favourite. In just a minute we speak to a trio of supporting actors in Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn and Mark Gatiss from this BAFTA and Academy award winning film.
‘It’s just about people and enmity and rivalry…jealousy and nastiness and fighting and sex and all the good things’ – Mark Gatiss
To the plot of this fresh, funny, duck and rabbit infested romp…it’s the 18th Century - Queen Anne’s court is a tragic comedy of confidants and courtiers vying for her attention and love…
'Dear Queen, you are mad, giving me a palace, this is a monstrous extravagance we are at war.’ – Rachel Weisz as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough ‘We won’ – Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne But it is not over, we must continue’ – Rachel Weisz as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough ‘Oh, I did not know that’ – Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne
Director Yorgos Lanthimos who has given us The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer, here though he focuses in on this film on the frail Queen Anne (played by Olivia Coleman) who occupies the English throne, and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) who helps governs the country while tending to Anne's ill health. A new servant, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives and Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and the plot unfolds from this point. Before we begin let’s hear the director speak about filmmaking from another interview found in our archives.
Yorgos Lanthimos: ‘Also, as an audience member, I love to be intrigued and provoked into thinking and engaging with films in an active way, and be able to assert my opinion and my thoughts in there, and come away with something that I’ll think a little bit more when I’ve left the cinema. I try to construct films in a way that they leave that space for people according to their own experiences, culture, education, even mood, you know, come up with their own reaction’
In this podcast we speak to Mark Gatiss who plays Lady Sarah’s husband Duke of Marlborough, Nicholas Hoult who play the cunning and beautifully dressed politician Robert Harley and Joe Alwyn as Samuel Marsham, the soon to be husband of Abigail. These character float around and support and interfere with the main three actors stories. Nicholas spoke first.
Nicholas Hoult: I think making it we all had a fantastic time and the sense was that it could be something special with Yorgos directing and the script that was there, and the cast around us, I was like, everyone is doing really lovely work, but you never know how it’s going to translate onto film. So to see the rhythms of it and everything and to watch those three ladies and what they were doing as you say, when we weren’t on set, it was amazing.
Joe Alwyn: I just wanted to be a part of this film. I read it ages ago in 2015 I think, and it was such a refreshing, different script especially for a period film, and I was such a fan of Yorgos, so the fact that he was involved… And I thought the part was really fun as well, getting to run around and look stupid and be humiliated and dress up, the whole thing was slightly crazed in the best way. And then the script was just so fun and original and fresh, and the dialogue, each line, I was kind of like ohh, I really want to be the person who gets to say that.
BE: And you have a lot of physical humour as well, lots of physicality in your role as well.
JA: Yeah, there is a fair amount, you had it slightly more physical, you’re dancing and fighting and things, and I’m tripping people and pushing things, dressing up a lot
NH: Oh you have dressed up a lot
JA: Yeah, and I’ve made an effort with my appearance
BE: let’s talk about the three female leads, because the film revolves around them in different ways. You fall in love with a chambermaid
JA: Uh, I don’t know if he falls in love you know, I think he probably thinks he is, but um, I think he just likes the kind of chase of it, he likes the fact that she doesn’t give in straight away, there’s this cat and mouse game that I think he finds attractive and it’s just ridiculous.
BE: Do you fall in love with anyone, or are you in love with yourself I imagine?
NH: Haha, yeah, he is kind of in love with himself. Although I want to point out he is the one character who kind of gets a little bit of what he wants towards the end of this. Although I think post the film it probably doesn’t work out the way he anticipated, but yeah..
Excerpt from the film:
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah : Well you cannot have hot chocolate. Your stomach, the sugar inflames it
Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne: Abigail, hand me that cup
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah: do not
Emma stone as Abigail: I’m sorry, I do not know what to do.
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah: Oh, fine, give it to her. Then you can get a bucket and a mop for the aftermath.
Mark Gatiss: It’s incredibly and very strongly the story of these three women, and one of the things that make it so attractive, it’s so unusual as a film, is that it’s absolutely about this triangle… So um, what I wanted to be was like Barry Lyndon, which I think it is, it’s kind of got that quality to it, you think, if you see past the red coat and the florid makeup and the size of the dresses, they are very much just us, albeit the royalty and the aristocracy, but it’s very much got the feel that it could be us now, it’s just about people and enmity and rivalry, and jealousy and nastiness and fighting and sex and all the good things. And mostly ducks
BE: Well I did want to talk about ducks, actually. Your biggest collaborators in the film are the ducks, I don’t think you spend any time with the rabbits.
MG: Little time with the rabbits, mostly ducks, yes. This is interesting, in the original script, it was cockfighting and I had this wonderful line, literally a close-up of me, and I say, ‘gentlemen, shall we get our cocks out?’ and then it cuts wider and it’s a cockfight. And then the word came back that they weren’t allowed to have cockfights, but they also weren’t allowed to simulate cockfighting. The writers brilliantly came up with the idea of duck racing, which seemed completely authentic, I don’t know, I don’t think they did it…? But it feels very 18th century, doesn’t it? It feels also, there’s something very decadent about it, it’s not like racing dogs or something, it’s ducks! It’s people who are bored with betting… ‘I know what we can bet on! Cockroaches! Ducks! We spent a very long day following the smell of tuna fish and duck shit, actually racing these ducks, and they were being chased by the trainers… of course they don’t really want to move at all, they just sort of follow the fish. And then, amazingly, a few months later, we had to do it again, because shooting in daylight, we’d sort of run out of daylight, and Yorgos hadn’t got as many shots as he wanted. So James Smith and I, our email exchanges look like, ‘Guess what, round 2’. [Laughs] but it was fun, you know, you do, in the end, you just do it. We always thought of placing bets on who was going to win, which duck was going to escape, and all those sorts of things. It added a sort of little naturalistic feel to it.
Emma Stone as Abigail: I apologize for my appearance. I hoped I might be employed here.
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah: A monster for the children to play with perhaps.
BE: The presence of your character is there because he’s at war and everyone is arguing about what he’s going to do
MG: Yes, which is always nice, to be talked about. It’s a very interesting thing because for the time, what the men were doing was perceived to be the important thing, and obviously, war, it is. But what the film demonstrates is that back home, Sarah Churchill was effectively running the country, she’s astonishing. She’s an astonishing, strong personality and through her influence on the Queen, and then the Queen’s choice, of, you know, ministers and all that, and then obviously when she is supplanted by Abigail, the power shifts, it’s very interesting, literally, but um, the matter of George the III is not dissimilar in that the king’s choice of minister is William Pitt, they’re basically set for ten years of power and then his illness knocks the country off course, and suddenly the opposition sees it as its chance, so the prince’s regent and allies start to move in so it’s no dissimilar in that way. Sarah Churchill loses her grip on power at the same tie all her allies do, and then the people who see a new faction opening up, see their opportunity, and I think that makes it feel very, well, it’s eternally relevant because that’s always happening. It’s happening at the moment with Brexit, really, isn’t it.
BE: The idea that a few people in a room behind closed doors are deciding the fate of an entire nation, the whims of a few people is something that is always relevant.
Excerpt from the film:
Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne: I’m ready for the Russian ambassador.
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah: Who did your makeup?
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne: We went for something dramatic. Do you like it?
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah: You look like a badger.
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne: Oh.
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah: Are you going to cry? Really? Well, what do you think you look like?
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne: A badger.
MG: I think they were quite happy, in real life, and a devoted couple, I think, I mean that’s not the focus of the film, but we certainly tried to play that. There’s a scene where I say goodbye and go off to war, it is like a sort of Sunday night feeling, you don’t want to leave, ‘I’ve got to go, um bye’, we tried to make, it’s not like she’s behind the scenes sniping and he’s the figurehead, they were a power couple weren’t they, she’s very much her own person, and he was he one who had to go off and fight the war I suppose.
Excerpt from the film:
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah: You really think you can meet the Russian delegation looking like that?
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne: No. I will manage it. Get back to your rooms.
BE: Back to Nicholas and Joe.
Olivia Colman is the Queen, I’m not sure how much time you both spent on screen with her, maybe going to the film in general, what did you admire about his role? It’s not really what we expect from the monarchy
NH: I didn’t cross over with her hugely on screen, we did all spend two weeks together rehearsing, so getting to see her work then and meet her, and getting to bond then was amazing. I think she’s unbelievable in the film, she can just walk that line between being very very funny and also can suddenly turn tragic in an instant, and that really kind of anchors the film. With the story about the miscarriage and her own kind of loneliness and isolation in this mad world, she’s just unbelievable, I think it’s an incredible performance.
Excerpt from the film
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne: Did you? Did you just look at me? Look at me! Look at me! [the servant looks at her]
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne: How dare you! Close your eyes!
JA: In theory, what I’m aiming to do is to have the ear of Queen Anne as a politician, to manipulate what’s happening in the country and Rachel’s character, Lady Marlborough has, at the beginning of the film, got that ear, so then I kind of manipulate my way around and go through Emma’s character, Abigail, to then kind of try and get the Queen’s favour through her
BE: I think one of the actors described you as looking like a bit of a supermodel with all your outfits in that scene, it’s quite incredible.
JA: Yeah, Rachel said that I look like a supermodel which is high praise coming from her and a big compliment, and I uh, felt like one. Sandy Powell is exquisite at costumes, and I went to Shepperton or Pinewood for my fittings, and she was on Mary Poppins at the same time, and it was amazing, there was this moment where they said, ‘Oh, it’s just on the other stage, we might have to go across’, I was like, ‘Can we do that? I’m very up for that’ Yeah, it was great. Just the workshop was exquisite, and all these Italian designers working on this exquisite stitching, all based on massive research and paintings… absolutely gorgeous. And it’s a process really. It doesn’t sort of help that once you are in this big laced coat, the boots are huge, the heavy coat, and then obviously the wigs make me about 9 foot tall, and Nicholas Hoult looks incredible with his make-up on, almost Draftsman Contract, more like a cartoon than the real-life, harpy like. So yes, it really is a big part of that.
And then equally, it’s a huge part getting out of it, because you’re so relieved to get it off your head, take your shoes off after a day of duck racing. Again, to me it’s part of the fabric of the film, is that it’s not just having a job lot of costumes from somewhere, these are of a very specific time and the look of the queen, and Sarah, and the power dressing… and that sort of mucky edge of people living in those costumes, for a very long time, it was a very different world, they didn’t change their shirts everyday….
Excerpt from the film:
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah: If you forget to load the pellet, the gun fires, makes the sound, but releases no shot. It is a great jape. Do you agree?
Emma Stone as Abigail: Yes.
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah: Maybe we will think of a use for it one day. Sometimes, it is hard to remember whether you have loaded the pellet or not. I do fear confusion and accidents.
Emma Stone as Abigail: I’m sure people will be careful.
BE: I suppose asking you again as a writer, how would you help portray this sort of, the writing style, in the sense that it’s, the director is very much about being impolite, I’m not sure whether they used words that were relevant to that time, it’s hard to say, but at least the attitude was very much a modern one.
MG: Yes, I think that’s very true, what’s clever about it is nothing leaps out, you don’t go ‘wow, they never would’ve said that’. I saw something recently set in the 30s, where one of the characters said ‘shit the bed’. I just went ‘What!’, and you know when that’s wrong. There’s a lot of slightly anachronistic stuff in the film, but it doesn’t leap out you know, because if you can convince people they would’ve said it, then you’re alright, it doesn’t matter. But yes, absolutely, it has a modern sensibility, and I think that’s crucial to it, without is sort of being pushed, it hasn’t got like a hip-hop soundtrack to make it relevant, it doesn’t need it, because if something has something to say, I think you just have to present it and we can draw the parallels you know.
BE: Could you talk a little bit about Hatfield House, where it was filmed, it’s very much like a maze in the film. I presume that all those crazy corridors and doors and underground passages are all there?
MG: Yeah, that’s how it’s shot. You can make a film a lot of things, and every time I go back there, I think, ‘oh no, it was there, wasn’t it?’ Because the new production will have moved things around, but I recognize the black and white floor, but a lot of things get shifted around. I did ‘Taboo’ there, I did ‘Sense and Sensibility’, I’ve done a lot of things there, but you’re always discovering new stuff. Um, that long gallery, which was in Wallingford, but you can construct a different architecture because no one, except the people who visit or live there know what it’s really like, and that’s what you do in a film, you combine places you know.
Excerpt from film
Emma Stone as Abigail: I’m a person of honour even if my station is not. Even if I were the last one left in this wretched place I would remain a lady.
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah: [Laughs] You’re pretty when outraged. So my secrets are safe with you?
BE: Nicholas, Joe, and finally Mark, on working with this director.
NH: he created an environment where it’s very free to try things out, but you’re never quite sure what you’re aiming for, he doesn’t give you too many notes or ideas, he doesn’t inundate you with history or character, or how he wants the character to be, he wants you loose and free in his world, and he brings great people together and then reigns you in and then delicately sculpts it occasionally, and that rehearsal period, as you spoke about, is his way of getting everyone on the same page I think, and mastering his plan, although he still keeps a lot of us in the dark as to what the aim is.
JA: Yeah I agree with that, he really does encourage you to sort of play and not get stuck in a kind of intellectual, academic approach which can be scary at first because we didn’t know what we were doing or why we were doing it, but once we kind of gave ourselves over to that it was so much fun. MG: this is the first film that Yorgos has done from someone else’s scrip. It will fit into his output because it’s odd, unusual, it’s probably the last thing anyone expected him to do and therefore it’s perfect for him to do, it’s his vision which has made this feel like a very different experience, you know everyone was aware of how unusual it was to have three such fantastic parts with women, and for the film to be about them, that’s what it is, it’s absolutely about this triangle. The males are all totally peripheral as it should be and yes it was a real humppa, a real electricity to that, and it’s funny, and it’s nasty, and it’s itchy, but very real. There’s real chemistry I thought, and they were very supportive of each other and had a really good time, it felt like that.
BE: Thanks to Mark, Nicholas and Joe for speaking to us. Following in the lines of Barry Lyndon, The Draftsman Contract and even Orlando. This is a film full of energy and actors enjoying every word and action. As a bonus here is a little more from Mark Gatiss about his first experience of riding a horse, which were of course, on film…
MG: I was filming Gunpowder at the same time, two big period things at the same time. And I had to ride a horse in both films for the first time. I thought I was going to get away with only having one riding lesson because it was the same riding company, but in the end I really enjoyed it, and honestly one of my favourite things, I hope it survived, when I go off to war, you can’t get more pressure first time on the horse than leading your troops off to war, but there I was, and I have to wave and nod to Rachel and then go, and all I wanted to do was not fuck up, and they told me that reigns are a bit like doing a sledge or something, you pull to the right, it’s slightly, slightly different to how you think it is, if you put the reigns in one hand it’s like a lever. Because these horses are brilliant and they’ll be trained, the first take, I nod to Rachel and I have the reigns in my left hand, and the horse just went up like that. That’s the first and only time in my life I felt like Clint Eastwood, I was like please use that one! I’ll never look so cool again
I’m Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast - here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.