Two versatile actors of different generations and backgrounds, Patricia Clarkson and Cillian Murphy collaborated for the first time on the set of writer-director Sally Potter's The Party, a spirited and rather surprising commentary on life and relationships in the wake of Brexit. It begins as a jolly celebration of Kristin Scott Thomas's Janet entering the political mainstream after becoming her liberal opposition party's shadow health minister, only for things to quickly turn intense and, finally, quite tragic—with regrets and heavy accusations aired with abandon and blood stains left on the floor. As an ex-political activist and an investment banker, respectively, Clarkson and Murphy bring an electric conviction to their liberal types.
Following The Party's world premiere at Berlinale last year, I sat down with Clarkson and Murphy to discuss the film's political satire, Potter's approach to her screenplay, their thirst for collaboration, and more.
You're two of a magnificent lot of seven actors who appear in the film. How was the dynamic between you all on set?
Patricia Clarkson: Sally was the reason we all came together. Of course, it's all very nice if you have seven seasoned actors who have so much experience working in film, theater, and television. We've all been in ensembles, we've all led films, supported other leads. Here, on set of The Party we gathered and knew what it was going to be immediately. This is a beautiful ensemble film. We didn't have much time for personal squabbles and indulgences. We just had to show up and say our lines. It sounds very matter of fact, but it's true. If you wanted to complain, you could only do it silently. [laughs]
How did you two manage to balance the intensity of the characters, the interactions with each other, and your personal acting styles?
Cillian Murphy: It was intense! We only had about three weeks to shoot, and quite a lot of text to memorize. But everyone was very honest about the job. We offered our hearts and came well prepared. The script was so finely tuned, and Sally was in complete control of it all. You knew where you were supposed to be all the time, so there was no flailing around. The absolute worst, a nightmarish thing that can happen to an actor, is when you just wonder where the fuck you are and what are you doing.
Clarkson: I know what you mean. Sally is very specific and it was very clear from the start. We arrived on set every day, went to the dressing rooms which were down the hall. We'd change our clothes and we'd all go to this very realistic place: the living room, or the kitchen, the garden, wherever. We would all be together throughout most of the shoot, either in the background or in the center of the scene. It was all very meticulously planned. The tone and timbre of this piece required us to kind of be “in the zone” all the time.
You once said that Sally knows exactly what she wants and how to achieve that. Is that what you expect from directors you work with?
Clarkson: I had the great pleasure of working with extraordinary directors who have fulfilled all my wildest fantasies.
Murphy: Same for me. Worst thing that can happen to you as an actor is when you have to defend yourself and your role in a film. You know, the movie business can be a sinking ship. Sometimes it's a scary situation to be in. That's why if you go and reveal yourself, be vulnerable, it should be with the best director possible, someone you can really trust. And Sally definitely is that person. You always want the director to push you, because feeling too cozy can be dangerous. With my character, Tom, we had to make a lot of bold choices, and Sally knew we could afford it and push him to this place he found himself in. You see Tom transform until a point when he realizes that what's important is love, passion, emotion.
Is that what you have in common with Tom?
Murphy: There's a little bit of you in all the characters you play. Morally speaking, Tom's beliefs and convictions don't apply to me at all. In the end, he just appears to be a little boy who can't cope with reality. Having said that, I have to admit I didn't bring a lot of myself to this particular character. To tell you the truth, I wouldn't probably go to this party in the first place. [laughs] But also when there's a fight at a party or dinner, everyone stays—out of sheer curiosity. People love to stare and are drawn toward action. Anyway, even in these conditions, and maybe because of them, I enjoyed the process of getting to know Tom and trying to understand his point of view.
Clarkson: Life and art merged when we shot The Party. With Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Janet, we shared a few good moments in the bathroom when we were really exhausted and shooting one of the last scenes. We were both 56 at the time and we just thought, “Fuck!” [laughs] This is what we had in common with our characters! We were sitting in this ugly bathroom, the two of us, whose faces still move. That's the beauty of acting.
Judging by the intensity of the characters and each of the dynamic scenes, it seems like the only missing part is a possibility of a catfight between your April and Kristin Scott Thomas's Janet.
Clarkson: [laughs] I love her as an actress and my character loves her as well! But, indeed, we were and are in real life very different people. It's been a pleasure sharing a few scenes with her.
Talking about age in the movie business, a year ago everyone asked you, Cillian, how was it turning 40. Has anything changed in the meantime?
Murphy: Well, I don't feel terrifically old at 40. It's a funny thing actually, especially when I started acting quite early and I saw the transformation to when directors start getting younger than you. Then people start being born in the 90s. But you know, I'm quite happy with my face, and besides, there isn't much I can do about that anyway. You can't be 40 and live like a 25-year-old. I know a few guys who try, but who am I to judge. [laughs] Despite my age, I still play physically demanding roles and I do that gladly.
The Party can be perceived as a funny film, but it actually deals with very serious matters. Do you believe that sense of humor can also be rebellious and can provide cathartic relief in dark times?
Murphy: The comedy that appeals to me is of blacker sort. I love laughing when you shouldn't laugh. It's the best sort of laugh. It's the Irish in me.
What makes you laugh Patricia?
Clarkson: Great writing, of course! We discussed the project at length when we first gathered together. Humor and pathos are all in equal measure here. It's a fiercely intelligent script but also very emotional. You have to be a great gymnast to be able to balance it all well. That was the everyday challenge. And Despite what we both said about the intensity of working with Sally, I do strongly believe that an actor can never feel safe. Perhaps “safe” is a wrong word for it, but I guess in a perfect world I'd say I felt safe with Sally. Having said that, I don't think Sally is a safe person, not at all. She's quite radical, opinionated. But that's what's so divine about her.
Your mother was an active politician, and you're not backing away from political issues that also include women's rights. But in The Party it's Janet who chose a life working for the government.
Clarkson: My mother is retired now, but she's still very close to the mayor and speaks to him often. She quite enjoys her life behind the scenes.
Were you ever tempted to enter that world?
Clarkson: Not really. Well, there was a moment when my mom was retiring that I had this this crazy that I should maybe run for her seat. But no, I preferred to keep making movies. It's a lot easier and they pay you way more! [laughs]
How did you react to the political tone of the film? Did you all as actors have a discussion with Sally about the politics?
Murphy: There's politics there, because Janet's just been appointed health minister and it's quite clear it's the labor party we're talking about here. It's also clear that this is a group of leftists.
Clarkson: Fading leftism echoes the current political situation.
Murphy: I didn't think we needed to explicitly discuss it among ourselves. You know, I grew up in Ireland. A lot of my contemporaries and the guys that would actually finish college got to study the financial sector in Britain. There were some clever guys about to make a lot of money fast. So it adds a little extra being an Irishman in Britain and making a lot of money like Tom does in The Party, especially given the troubled history of both countries. When I read the part, there wasn't any mention of Tom's nationality and heritage but we decided to keep him Irish. I know that financial world a bit. We've seen it all very well: money-driven, materialistic. I tried to have that particle in Tom too.
Are you good with money?
Murphy: I have no interest or inclination. Acquiring things is not something that interests me, at all.
No designer suits then?
Murphy: No, well—occasionally.
Clarkson: I like my Dior gowns here and there and my Alberta Ferretti. [laughs]
Do you have an opinion on the difference between the paygrade of male and female actors? Do you even take part in that conversation?
Clarkson: Obviously it needs to end and end now. There was a brief period of time when it was getting better, now it's again even worse. What's most important about this horrid situation is that women are vocal about it, but who really knows where it can lead politically. I don't know what's going to happen in America right now, but what we need to do is just keep being vocal about it and not being satisfied with making less then men. Here, with The Party we were paid the same, I think. It wasn't much, but still.
Cillian, you're swiftly changing sets these days, from modest ones, like The Party and Ben Wheatley's Free Fire, to huge productions, like Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk and Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea.
Murphy: The beauty of the job is that I get to compare the different scales of things, and get to work in different historical periods. That's why I love being an actor. You never know what's going to happen next and you always end up in strange places with strange people, in full costume and with weird haircuts.
Dunkirk is the fifth Christopher Nolan film you've appeared in. What continues to draw you toward collaborating with him?
Murphy: Nolan is justifiably reluctant about giving out details about his productions, before or after everyone's seen them. That's what I value about him. The thing with Dunkirk is that actually everyone already knows the outcome, it's history. What we wanted to achieve was to show the moment when a disaster, a mass failure, turns into a rescue mission. A very “Churchillian” thing. I was very interested to see how Americans respond to that. It's not their history after all.
You've both done some television work recently. Some 20 years ago people were very much into labeling. Either you were a TV or a film actor. The Sopranos and Six Feet Under changed a lot.
Clarkson: I haven't done much TV since Six Feet Under. I did some work on Broad City and Parks and Recreation, but I came back to do seven episodes of House of Cards and it was quite brutal, I have to say. Mine is a wonderful character though. Having seen how it's done from behind the scenes I can only say that the conniving nature of these people we're showing in the show is just breathtaking. It's evil and wonderful at the same time!
For different reasons, people have been talking a lot about House of Cards and Peaky Blinders recently.
Clarkson: Oh, I love Peaky Blinders!
Murphy: What's most important about it is the story and the writing. The medium is rather secondary. In the last 20 years, there has been this great migration of wonderful writing from film to television and actors just follow it. We can smell it. Also, thanks to Peaky Blinders I feel like I got much more competent with guns. [laughs]