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Alex Garland has a new horror film out, Men, which centers on grieving widow Harper (an electric Jessie Buckley) taking time away at a remote home in the English countryside owned by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). She soon discovers that there’s something odd about every man in the area, and a strange nude man targets her for harassment. It’s a horror film, of course, so things escalate.
One of the film’s notable attributes is that all the various menacing men in Men are all played by the same talented individual—Rory Kinnear. I sat down with Rory to chat the complex process of playing so many tough characters, and more.
How did you get brought on to the project?
Rory Kinnear: A script winged its way to me with a note saying ‘they want you to play all the male parts.’ That’s going to pique anyone’s interest. I read it and really liked how rich it was, how atmospheric it seemed, and that sense of playing with the tropes of horror but doing it with a seriousness of purpose. But also, I guess that was the thing of… ‘how do you play all these parts and make it meaningful?’ So when I met Alex for the first time about it, that was sort of my only question [… is] there a way that I’m doing this whereby these characters exist, all as credibly as each other, within the landscape of this of this setting? And I want to make sure that I should be playing each one of them rather than necessarily showing off versatility or a sort of, you know, variety act of showing a panoply of characters, I wanted to make sure that each one I should be cast as.
So, I knew that would require some work, and I wanted to make sure that Alex was sort of on the same page. And his very first opening thing was that ‘this isn’t a prosthetics film,’ or ‘this isn’t a CGI film where it doesn’t need to be. This is about making sure this is about acting, and it’s up to you to differentiate them.’ Even before we started rehearsals, that felt like my, my mission, as it were, was to create fully rounded characters for each one of them, even if they were only going to be appear on screen for a very limited amount of time. I wanted to make sure I knew who they were, and […] I wrote these different little biographies for each one of them and sent them off to Alex and then to Lisa and Nicole, the heads of costume, hair, and makeup, so that they had a sort of a jumping off point for them, for their creative process and where they were going to take these characters.
Then it was a question of… a sort of back and forth until we got into rehearsals, and then during the two weeks of rehearsals we had, most days, one would sort of leave at the end of rehearsals and then go and try a new look, see how we felt about it. It was a question of kind of throwing stuff against the wall, seeing what works, seeing what went maybe too extreme, seeing if we could pull stuff back, seeing if things needed to go a bit further. And that was our guide on it as much as I was.
How did you go about shaping the different characters’ eccentricities that make them feel so unique? Were the details in the script, or did you have leeway to create a lot of those details yourself?
RK: Yeah, I think it was. I knew that certainly, with the Vicar, with Geoffrey, with the policeman, they were figures that were rich in resonance and emblematic of certain tropes, certain characteristics. But obviously you can’t play ‘an emblem’, you’ve got to play a person, so my job was to sort of flesh out as much as possible. That obviously came with creating those characters, as I said, but also in the rehearsal period. We spent a lot of time talking about our own responses to the script, but also going through the text itself and trying to make sure that it fitted with who I saw these characters as, so we would adjust it here and there. Then, once we got on set, we would sort of change things as we went along just to make sure that it always felt credible and alive.
What was it like to act beside Jessie? After all, it’s just the two of you even though you’re about 95% of the cast.
RK: We sort of could tell in our eyes when we met [that] we’d better get along, because this is going to be an awfully long shoot if we don’t. And we were also… towards the end of the second lockdown we had here in the UK, and we were basically staying in sort of a country house hotel by ourselves, and then going to an old country house to work during the day as well, our two lives sort of bleeding into each other. From that first couple of days of rehearsals and chatting we knew we got on well, but probably more importantly we were sort of approaching the film, the process of it, the process of collaboration in the same kind of way.
Same way with Alex as well, we all seem to have a similar kind of taste [as] sort of a jumping off point. And the fact that you’d have those two weeks getting to know each other as well as we had, and there was as much talking not about the film as there was about the film, [we] had a really sort of strong working relationship. When you first got on to set for filming you understood, I guess, you didn’t have to treat each other with kid gloves, you felt you were able to make suggestions, you’re able to change stuff. That quite often can take a bit of time to develop, but we had that on day one of filming.
It really seems like you both gelled no matter what form you were taking. Which of your many characters was the most fun to portray, and which was the most difficult?
RK: Well, the Green Man figure at the end, that was like seven and a half hours of makeup. That takes a degree of patience, and then he was not wearing very much in the middle of the unseasonably cold April in the middle of a garden, throughout the night, so I don’t have fond memories necessarily of playing him. It was funny, just how each one I felt like I’ve done the same kind of work for, and I was trying to find my way through each one each time I played it.
What was more interesting is just how differently people reacted to you depending on who you turned up as. I wasn’t staying in character, I wasn’t speaking as the character, I was Rory, but somebody who turned up as the Vicar, people sort of struggled to look you in the eye or to talk to you. Turn up as the policeman and people sort of like being sort of lads, and boyish, and joshing with you. And then, when Geoffrey was on set, everyone was sort of thrilled, it was party time. Everyone was having a great day at work when Geoffrey was [in] it, it was quite intimidating in some ways to see just how much the external meant… that people’s responses to you changed. As both an actor and probably as a person who likes to think the internal workings of someone was more important than the outside, it was depressing in some ways to see just how just how important and powerful the external appearance seems to be to people.
Oh, wow, I bet! What was the Green Man makeup process like? It seems like a pretty intensive process.
RK: Yeah, I [had a] pretty fun level of leeway with all the characters that I created, to Alex’s words, obviously, but he was very specific about how the Green Man looked, and he only would feel comfortable if he had done the last 15-20 minutes of the makeup himself. Luckily, he’s very artistic and very visually oriented. His dad was an artist, so he could do it. It wasn’t like the makeup artist was wincing as he took over the responsibility, but he just found it easier, I guess, to apply that last five to 10 minutes, because it was that bit that was the most important. Particularly with the way the blood would fall down the face and in the scratches on his face, he was very particular about all those things. You realize just how much this figure meant to him.
I think he’s said how many years he’s been trying to incorporate it into some of his work, and this is the first one where it’s finally sort of seeped in. It’s quite rooted in the film and embedded in the story he’s telling. These ‘Green Men’ and the sheela na gigs, they’re both quite the oblique works of art and no one really knows where they came from, or why they why they exist. We impose our own understanding onto them and take away both either with, you know, with disgust, horror, or being impressed, [in] the sense of continuity and tradition. We impose it on those things just as much as, probably, an audience is going to impose themselves on this film.
I’m a big fan of his directorial work. What was it like working with Alex?
RK: It was really interesting to see. It felt like… the job of a director on a film and the job of a novelist are so diametrically opposed in terms of their skillsets. I knew him first as a as a novelist from being a 17 year old, whatever, [and] reading The Beach. […] I was really surprised just how open and collaborative he was as a director. You sort of imagine novelists wanting to control every aspect of what they make, and obviously it’s quite a solipsistic life as well, being a novelist. And Alex not only is so open and convivial, he is also incredibly engaged in every decision that is that is being made. Not in a controlling way, but in a sort of cajoling way, he encourages your own creative processes.
So, I guess having maybe been anxious that a novelist-turn-director would be someone who wanted to maintain authority over every decision, I was surprised to realize just how much leeway we were afforded, because I think he’s probably learned you can’t be in control of everything. When you’re a director in film there are too many moving parts. And also, what you want to do is hire people that you respect, and that’s in every department, and then let the reasons that you’ve hired them flow out of them.
That final attack sequence is really shocking. What was it like to film that?
RK: It was cold. It was sticky. And again, I guess most of the film was just me and Jessie acting with each other, and the only bits that we realized we were going to have to leave up to two other people to bring to life were where [scenes with] the little boy, and then that final sequence as well. But actually, most of it I was doing live, and they would build these […] two legs from which I would emerge, or they would build a sort of a stomach that I would emerge from, or kind of some weird aperture with a little slide that I would have to emerge from.
I just knew that [… there were] seven or eight days we were shooting it, and the closer I got to the end I knew we’d already marked out where I would be for each different character. I knew from day six I could be inside, and that’s what I was most looking forward to-just being inside. But I did realize, though, as the sequence went on and as the week went on, the treats that I was being offered got nicer and nicer as I realized their guilt was growing exponentially with what they were asking me to do.
How did they take care of, or reward you on-set for all that discomfort?
RK: Yeah, there was this […] Green Man [makeup] with, you know, the prosthetic foot hanging off your own foot and static split arm hanging off, which they would sort of clingfilm wrap to your hand to let it stop it flapping around. And you had all this makeup on your face and body, and then all the blood as you got further along the process.
They would offer you up these sort of… after people have finished marathons, they have those sort of foil wraps that they cover people in, and they would get me into one of those straightaway to try and keep me warm. That was a mixed blessing because you know when he went for another site, you were gonna have to peel it off as it would dry and stick to you, and then you’re gonna have to have more blood reapplied, so I think yeah, as my face grew longer and longer they started bringing out the top treats.
Men is available in theaters.