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Interview with Kate Dickie by Paul Risker
“If you have suffered any kind of grief you literally understand that want to cut yourself off from the world, and to not engage with it in any way. And to actually not understand that the world could continue on without that person you are grieving for.”
This is a powerful statement by Couple In A Hole’s lead actress Kate Dickie that attests to the reality of how art and reality intersect. In much the same way as the present and future emerge out of the past, so art has its roots in everyday big human themes. And grief is at the heart of this tale about a grieving British couple, Helen (Kate Dickie) and John (Paul Higgins) living an isolated existence in the French Pyrenees.
With a theatrical background that preceded her film career, Dickie observes: “I always see film as being like a whisper and theatre as being like the spoken word, because onscreen you can become such a focus in every detail. In film it actually becomes about what you don’t show and what’s going on underneath, which happens in theatre as well, but it’s just very different.” This idea of what’s going on underneath the surface and her observations of the contrast between the stage and the film set feed into the identity and sensibility of the film itself. Dickie’s transformation into Karen who she describes as “not much more than an animal” draws the cameras focus, while writer/director Tom Geens’ subtlety and restraint or reluctance to provide information creates those undercurrents of drama that intertwines with the characters.
This interview with Kate Dickie for Flux reflected on a journey filled with self-doubt, the process by which she discovers her characters, the intimate sensibilities of Couple In A Hole and the transformative nature of the creative process.
Why a career as an actress? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
There were various people I admired as I grew up, but I had done theatre for fifteen years or so and I didn’t get into film until ten years ago. So it was just various actors I had admired along the way, but then working with Andrea Arnold was a big turning point for me. I would maybe say that she has had the biggest impact, not because it was my first film, but because of what she taught me about filming, screen acting and such. So she has been a very big inspiration, and funnily enough I am working with Juliet Stevenson just now on a TV show, and I was saying to her that one of the big movies she was in that came out when I was in drama school had such an impact on me. I don’t know what it was, but there was just something about that movie. But I didn’t set out with a goal in mind, and every time I got a job I used to phone my sister and say: “I have another job and this time I am going to be found out… People are going to say: ‘Why is she working?'” My thing was that I couldn’t quite believe that I kept getting jobs, and I don’t think I would have dared to have wished for this specific career or for anything.
Actors have often expressed the opinion that the theatre is the best training ground for an actor, although there is a contrarian opinion amongst the actors I have interviewed. How do you compare and contrast theatre with film?
I always see film as being like a whisper and theatre as being like the spoken word, because onscreen you can become such a focus in every detail. In film you are not worrying about projecting and everyone hearing it, and so those things become a lesser concern. In film it actually becomes about what you don’t show and what’s going on underneath, which happens in theatre as well, but it’s just very different.
When I did Red Road for Andrea the thing she was always saying was: “Less, less” because I had never done a film before, and so I didn’t know where to place myself. I was used to doing theatre acting and in film you can literally just blink and it can have meaning. And what I like about film is that everything is stripped back.
When you first read the script for Couple In A Hole what was the appeal of both the character and the story?
I just felt that there was something about Karen that I understood. I think if you have suffered any kind of grief you literally understand that want to cut yourself off from the world, and to not engage with it in any way. And to actually not understand that the world could continue on without that person you are grieving for. So I understood that about her and I was also interested in her day to day life and how domesticated, I know it’s not, but how they both try to live an almost domesticated normal human life. He would bring the food home and she would prepare it, clean the hole, and so they tried to live as normally as possible, except it’s a very odd circumstance and she’s not well. I liked the love that there was between them and how much he tried to stay with her to help her.
How did you go about discovering the character of Karen, and how did this process of discovery compare and contrast to other characters you have played?
Karen did start off with her physical thing, with her walk, which was something I looked at and Tom and I both worked on a lot. Most of my characters start in here, but with Karen a lot of it started with a walk and a lot of her was in this quill she’s obsessively making. So things like that were different because she’s very pure compared to a lot of the other characters. John’s got this complicated life of going out to get food and then the secret life that starts unfolding with Andre, but my life is very simple. I kind of worship our son, I keep the cave clean and I make my quill. So it was very simple compared to other characters that are much more engaged in the world, and have things to worry and to think about. But Karen’s grief makes her very selfish and single minded. So this time it was rather being here, and it started off with the walk and then how it felt. I found the costume amazing and I used music a lot, and I put together a playlist for her. I also looked at a lot of paintings and photos to try to get a feeling. It’s hard to explain, but I start to get a feeling of a character and I don’t know why you feel some characters and end up saying: “That feels kind of right.” It’s like making little branches from a tree that then leads to another thing. But Karen’s physicality was very important for this film particularly.
Karen and John try to isolate themselves to create separation, but in truth they are equally creating a connection because we never leave that sense of order behind. We are creatures of order and routine and this is reflected in our domesticity, and so Couple In A Hole is at its heart a study of human nature and its intricacies, and perhaps a reluctance to change.
Yeah, and even to the point when they are eating, she sits and she uses her skirt. All of the little habits of being at home have just been transferred to this little place, and even with the clothes, John still has his jacket. They are very ordinary people and you are not even really sure what era it’s in until you see the plane go overhead in the sky. You just don’t know at first and because they have got such a domestic routine, and I should say maybe not so much his normality, but for her she’s certainly got all she wants. She doesn’t want anything out of the safety of the hole and the safety of those tiny parameters that’s she’s made her life.
The forest has long been a character in storytelling, and for grieving characters the spatial setting of the forest can interact with them in a way that exposes their emotions and psychology. What do you attribute the reason being for this connection?
The forest is very much the fifth character in the movie, but it’s not your picnicking benign lets go out in the country kind of forest. It’s like a feral animal the way it changes and twists and it turns, and then sometimes it is our friend and other times it is not. I think for Karen she becomes so animalistic and feral that she needs to be living in a place like this. It’s strange because she’s caught between the domestic routines and all of those habits she’s had all her life that she doesn’t break, and yet here she’s not much more than an animal, and she doesn’t want to be any more than an animal. When Andre makes references about how winter is coming and how it will be very harsh, John says: “Oh we are Scottish” and such. But they kind of give themselves up to the forest and they don’t fight it too much. It’s not like a battle between them and the forest where they try to conquer it, but they just become part of it and it becomes a part of them as well. So I think Karen can’t cope with people at all because she’s so phobic about the outside world, and so the forest becomes a friend.
What Karen and John are encountering is how we are a product of past memories, and our encounter as storytellers, actors and spectators with stories can act as a reminder of memories and the past as being intrinsic to who we are. In some ways the past is the central focus in any story because it is from where the present and the future emerge.
It is true, and also how your memory can actually play tricks on you. There is a scene in the movie where I say to John: “He would be ashamed of you. You don’t even know who he his anymore” because I have a constructed a son that probably didn’t even exist the way I’ve remembered him. Karen cannot get away from the past and John’s reaching into the future. She feels that she would betray everything or rather it would be wrong to enjoy anything or to want to look to the future. So Karen’s past is really her present because she lives in the past. But she doesn’t even live in the past; she lives in a kind of idea of her past that has become so twisted up to think that their son would be ashamed of him for having a friend. She has become lost and even the past isn’t the correct past anymore – it’s one that she has built because even it is too painful. It’s odd because she lives in a very strange place and I have never met anyone quite like her.
A story is really about what has happened before, and why you are the person you are now. But it is only because of what has happened in your life. You bring the past with you all the time and you are a product of it. So it’s interesting because you think storytelling is about what is happening now, and that’s an interesting way to look at it actually because everything is the past then.
The spectatorial experience of a film in one sense could be perceived as being located in the artists past in which the spectator is always in pursuit of the artist. So we are living in the artists past and this strikes me as an intriguing dynamic in our relationship to you in which the past, present and future collapse in on themselves.
And I guess it is the same for the actors then because they are chasing the past of the person that wrote it. And the person who wrote it is… It goes on and on and on.
When you finally sat down in front of the completed film, despite your knowledge and awareness did it still have that impact?
Well we saw it for the first time last Thursday with the audience, and afterwards we had to leap up to do a Q&A. It was interesting watching it because we never saw any screenings nor any rushes. But what I did with this script which I haven’t done before was I also read the first drafts. And then once I was cast I made a decision that I wasn’t going to look at anything outside the hole. So I didn’t know what John was going off to do. I obviously knew there were other actors in the movie, and so I knew he met up with Andre, but I didn’t know the dialogue nor what they were doing together. So last week I watched it like a member of the audience, and at one point John’s: “Bonjour”, and he looks so happy.I was absolutely stunned and very emotional because I realised how unhappy she’d made him by taking him away from society, and by being so blinkered and selfish with her grief that she just stopped his life.
Normally you know a script so well, but I was thinking: “Oh God, what are they going to..?” They were sitting and talking in the deck chairs and it was amazing for me because I got the feeling of what it must be like to be the audience. But you needed those scenes between the men because it was so joyless and cold in the cave; not even sad, but there was nothing from Karen. She’s completely lost and John’s so lonely, and so it was an interesting journey. I was like a kid in a sweet shop and I was thinking: “You’re smiling”, and I honestly could have cried. So that was interesting for me because normally I don’t like watching my stuff, but I didn’t care about my scenes because I was immersed in their scenes. And you realise how much we humans need contact and warmth; a chat or a look or something, because living without that is hard; living with someone who gives you no physical or emotional contact. Karen gives him nothing and it was then I realised how much he loved her because he stays even when she tells him to go. He knows that if he leaves her she would just lie down and die like an animal.
So the making of the film offered you one experience and then watching it offered you a dramatically alternative experience?
Yeah, I felt this is what it feels like as an audience because I didn’t know what was going to happen between the men, and I didn’t know what they were going to talk about. I found myself feeling quite excited that John was going to see him again and we were going to get some contact with a smile and people looking into each other’s eyes. Karen’s really ill and I think it is an interesting look at mental health, grief, loss and so many other forms of human behavior that feature in the film.
German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative experience?
I think most characters change you because you experience a different reality and a whole different life that you’ve maybe never experienced. And if as an actor you manage to really sink into those shoes and not just turn up and act, then it is like having a life experience. I feel that someone gives me the character and I take them, hold them, speak for them and look after them. Then I have to say cheerio at the end, and I go through horrible times letting go of characters, as well as a certain way of living and thinking. They do affect me, and I find it so difficult to let go that it can take me a long time to leave a character behind because they stay with you, and so they do change you in different ways. But the roles I play are quite dark and those definitely change you.
Couple In A Hole was released theatrically in the UK on Friday April 8th 2016.
Interview with Kate Dickie by Paul Risker