Based on Martin Sixsmith’s non-fiction novel, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Philomena is the latest film from acclaimed filmmaker Stephen Frears. Powerful and moving, the film follows Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay) as he decides to help a woman, Philomena Lee, who is desperate to find her long-lost son. The boy was taken from her and given up for adoption by the nuns at a convent where she was forced to seek shelter.
In one of her first major film roles, Sophie Kennedy Clark plays Philomena as a young woman (Judi Dench plays her in later years). We had the chance to talk to the rising star about the film, the difficult birthing scene she had to endure and working with Lars Von Trier in the upcoming Nymphomaniac.
Tribeca: Were you familiar with Martin Sixsmith’s novel before you started this project?
Sophie Kennedy Clark: I wasn’t. I was familiar with the stories of the Magdalene sisters but there activities have never really been that publicized, which seems crazy. Their mistreatment of vulnerable girls has not been publicly acknowledged. The cover-up of the abuse continues, even with the publication of Martin’s book. These girls were practically enslaved by all definition.
If you do not pay someone and you make them work for twelve hours a day in a laundry – that’s slavery. Every other kind of slavery has been explored in the media, but this is something that just seems to have been slipped under the radar.
Tribeca: Right. There’s that line in the film when Martin’s editor talks about how the concept of “evil nuns” will hook in more readers.
SKC: Exactly. Evil nuns are something you dress up as for Halloween; you don’t actually think they existed. The way they instilled such fear in these girls was so warped. Religion then was so inter-woven with politics and social norms. The girls didn’t question the nuns because that would be questioning religion, and they had no access to outside information.
Philomena didn’t even know what sex was! It was a very bizarre time and though these nuns and their exploitation of the innocent seem so far removed from our generation, this happened in the 1950s. We should have been more enlightened.
Tribeca: Can you tell us about your first interaction with Stephen Frears? What was the audition process like?
SKC: I first met Stephen Frears at my second audition. I had already made it past the first round [laughs]. I remember the first thing he said to me after I did my scene in my callback was, “Was that your interpretation of an Irish accent?” [laughs] I thought I was pretty much done after that. So I was really surprised and delighted to get a third callback.
I found out the scene they wanted me to do was the scene where I lost my child, which at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning you need like a hole in the head [laughs]. They told me there was going to be a big room for me to run around crying and screaming in so that I could perform the scene at its best. I got there and they had to move into a room that was much, much smaller, so they had me do the birthing scene instead.
There’s that moment where you sit with your legs out, and you’re like, “Uhh, do you want me to go now?” I thought about what my friends would think if they could see me. It was one of those moments. I got so wound up because I had to completely commit to it otherwise I would look like a fool. When I found out I got the role, I was obviously completely thrilled [laughs]!
Evil nuns are something you dress up as for Halloween; you don’t actually think they existed.
Tribeca: I feel like a labor scene is a right of passage for any actress.
SKC: Yeah, I’ve had to take that on early on – like a breeched birth – give a girl a break! The forceps plunged in between your legs when you can’t see beyond the belly is not the place where you want to find yourself.
Tribeca: Did you get to speak with Judi Dench before starting?
SKC: I did meet Judi before, but I wasn’t able to use any of Judi’s mannerisms or anything. She plays Philomena at a part in her life where everything that has happened has gone on to make her the person she is. Plus, she lived in England for fifty years. Philomena is a very different person at the beginning of the film. She was completely raw. She was this little Irish girl, completely untouched and naïve. I really enjoyed meeting Judi Dench prior to filming, don’t get me wrong [laughs]. She is luminous and witty and everything you could imagine.
Tribeca: Is a character like Philomena difficult to shake? Was there a scene you felt that was particularly hard to tackle?
SKC: It affected me for like a good week. Plus, I had formed an emotional attachment to the real Philomena. I just wanted to do her justice. If no one else was to ever see this film apart from her, and she was happy with it, that would be enough.
When you’re in the hands of Stephen Frears, you know that you can get to the places you need to be without being prodding into a mindset. He very much lets you do what you think you need to, and if he wants it sort of bigger, faster, smaller, slower, he’ll let you know. That’s the kind of schooling he comes from—he has faith in the people he casts and that’s incredibly liberating for an actor. However, you know he’s always there to catch you, just in case.
The most difficult scene for me was the day Philomena’s child was taken away. The real Philomena was actually on set behind the monitor and nobody told me for the first couple of takes. Somebody then told me that she was there behind the monitor crying, which is the most heart-wrenching thing you can possibly imagine.
My heart went out to her because she had to watch some little actress emulate possibly the worst moment in her entire life, one that she replayed over and over and over again in her mind. My tears during that scene were real. That snot was also real; it was incredibly cold [laughs].
It’s difficult to separate yourself from a project like that and then lead a day-to-day normal life. You ask, what the hell else matters? This woman has been through so much and it does stick with you. I usually take a couple of days to a week to get my head out of roles. Not because I’m into method acting, but because things affect you, you draw things up from yourself into a scene that sometimes are not things you really want to be thinking about.
Tribeca: As a young actress, how important is it to take risks? How much of your performance is preparation vs. instinct?
Sophie: I don’t really prepare that much. If I’m lucky enough to be in front of other fine actors, I have faith in the fact that they are going to do a good enough job to make me feel the way their lines are meant to make me feel. I don’t know how valuable research is unless you’re doing an accent you’re totally unfamiliar with or if you are playing a real person. If you’re playing a real person, I think you owe it to them to do a bit of research and prep with them to find out what’s going on.
Philomena was my first experience with that. I’ve done films since where I would just turn up and perform in the way that I thought it would be, and that’s worked out okay too. I think there’s a balance. If you think you don’t naturally have the performance in you, then go out and look.
I do think it’s important to take risks. That’s what makes an interesting performance. Plus, you have to be completely selfless. By no means do I look particularly hot in Philomena [laughs]. I would even go as far to say this isn’t a reel I’d be showing to a potential date! [laughs]. However, you’ve got to stay so true to the performance. That’s your job as an actor.
I so appreciate Lars’ work because I think what he does is he looks at things that are taboo and asks, “Why? Why is this taboo?” He puts it on screen and challenges his audience.
Tribeca: I did want to ask you a little bit about Lars Von Trier. I know you can’t talk about details of Nymphomaniac, but do you remember your first experience watching a Lars Von Trier movie?
Sophie: Yes. Weirdly enough, the first Lars Von Trier movie that I watched was Melancholia. Melancholia is one of those films that stays with you for a couple of months. It kind of haunts the back of your mind. It’s art with a kick. Just when you’re settling into one of the most beautifully shot scenes—something comes flying at you that makes you all of a sudden challenge your own thoughts about the situation. I find his work so thought provoking that he was absolutely on my list of directors I want to work with.
I found out I got the role for Nymphomaniac before Philomena. I was actually in the middle of filming Nymphomaniac when I got the role in Philomena. So my god, was I pleased when Philomena came along because my parents would have quite happily disowned me after thinking my career was ending at Nymphomaniac [laughs]. So as my father so rightly put it, “Sophie, a convent is the only place for you.”
I so appreciate Lars’ work because I think what he does is he looks at things that are taboo and asks, “Why? Why is this taboo?” He puts it on screen and challenges his audience. He respects the audience enough to go, “What do you think? Look at this. It’s on your screen, you bought the ticket.” I think cinema these days is all so mind numbing. People are very shocked by the sex or the nudity or whatever, but shouldn’t they be more shocked by watching war scenes or people being shot in the head than by someone being naked? It seems slightly bizarre, doesn’t it?
On social media, I think you lose that element of mystery. All actors should be seen as chameleons.
Tribeca: I noticed you have a growing social media presence. Did you feel any pressure to use social media? Is participating in the social media that promotes a film becoming part of the job requirement?
SKC: I’m not going to lie—I’m pretty old-fashioned. I don’t have Internet at my flat. I also don’t have television. I do have an iPhone, because otherwise I would be a feather in the wind getting to places. However, I love Instagram because everyone looks pretty with a filter and food looks a lot better with a filter as well, so my home cooking benefits [laughs].
With Twitter, I use it as a kind of way say thank you on work-related things. Nothing gets too personal. On social media, I think you lose that element of mystery. All actors should be seen as chameleons. The only relationship between an actor and an audience member should come from the audience believing the actor in that moment in that scene. Though, it’s important to do press when you’ve got a movie coming out because you do need to spread the word. Plus, you get to meet some very lovely people! I do think there’s a happy medium to find.
Philomena opens in select theaters this Friday, November 22.