Will (Dan Stevens) and Anna (Rebecca Hall) are a seemingly happy couple on the brink of marriage when a drunken comment makes them question the wisdom of pledging monogamy-ever-after to the only person they’ve ever had sex with. Determined to see what they’ve been missing, the two embark on parallel yet steadily diverging experiments in dating other people in Permission. Old friends themselves, Hall and Stevens made the film with Hall’s husband, Morgan Spector, and another good friend, writer-director Brian Crano. We talked by phone about the persistent pressure to couple up, why Anna and Will are “a disaster,” and the joy of watching Bill Irwin dance.
Rebecca, you got married a couple years ago, so it seems like you were going through pretty much the opposite of what your character in Permission is going through when you were preparing to make this film: settling down in a way that you maybe never have before. Was having just gone through your own thought process about all of that part of what attracted you to this role?
Rebecca Hall: I wish it were as perfect as that. [laughs] Yeah, I see what you’re saying, but I don’t think it ever occurred to me. Also, I married an actor, so there’s nothing sort of settled about the lifestyle of two actors. In the two years that we’ve been married, we’ve lived in various sorts of places and been on the move pretty constantly. I imagine that even when we start a family and that chapter sort of starts, it will be the same. I’m not sure there are any kind of neat parallels, if I’m being honest with you.
So what did attract you to the film?
Hall: Well, it’s a combination of things. I’ve known the writer-director, Brian Crano, for a really long time. He’s one of my oldest friends. I met him when he was 19 and I was 20. He was doing a rehearsed reading of his play in London. We’ve been very good friends ever since. We’ve always collaborated. The first short film he made was an adaptation of a short story that I wrote and acted in. We’ve always had a discourse about ideas, and I think I was kind of on board with this one from quite early on. We were having a lot of discussions about depicting a relationship that was difficult to question.
The obvious take on this story is that it’s about what it is to be open in a relationship as opposed to monogamous. But I don’t really think it is, because there are ethical ways of being non-monogamous, and this couple are useless, I think. They don’t communicate; they don’t set ground rules; they’re a disaster. What it’s really about is, what does it take to question whether you are sexually in a good relationship? To have an honest conversation with your partner, or try something else in the hopes that it might open up the possibility of having an honest conversation.
This is something that Brian and I have been talking about: that however far we’ve come, there’s still so much weird pressure on people to not fail at relationships. And to be in happy, good relationships, and to get married and have a baby by the time you’re 25. Otherwise, you’re a failure. It’s very strange that that’s still true somehow, alongside being very liberated and more inclusive, and realizing there are different ways to have a relationship. I think that Permission came out of that discussion.
Dan, what’s your take on that view of relationships?
Dan Stevens: In terms of reappraising relationships, the word “failure” when used in terms of relationships that haven’t necessarily lasted or gone the distance—that idea was refuted by Dan Savage, who’s somebody that Brian introduced me to. The discourse on his podcast really opened my mind to a number of things. Brian is certainly trying to address that, the idea that just because a couple aren’t together anymore, that doesn’t mean it was a failure. It could actually be a very, very special relationship that somehow evolved into something else. That happens all the fucking time. And these people [Will and Anna] are embarrassed by that, somehow. There are many moments of discomfort in this film. It’s not necessarily an easy, cozy, cuddly romantic film. But then there are stages of romance that aren’t always cozy and cuddly.
Hall: Earlier in the year, I was in the film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which was about three people who were definitely non-monogamous: Their essence was absolutely polyamorous. This was how their lives were going to be. I think of that in contrast with Will and Anna, who are actually kind of dully conventional and sort of dabbling in what they think is trendsetting behavior, and who don’t know what they really want. They have no idea. That’s really what the film is about.
Did you bring Dan into this, Rebecca? I know you acted together in Macbeth at London’s National Theatre when you were younger, under your father’s direction, and you’re godmother to Dan’s oldest daughter. So I assume you must be pretty good friends?
Stevens: We’ve known each other a long time. That’s another reason for me wanting to do the film. It felt like a film really made by a group of friends. We’ve all sort of grown up around these ideas, and Will and Anna—all the characters, really—they’re sort of an amalgamation of stories and attitudes that we’ve had among us or with our friends, stories that we’ve sort of grown up with in the last 10 years, that transition from your 20s into your 30s. Similarly to Reality Bites, in a way, it’s about a certain generational moment, and that’s a really nice thing to celebrate with your friends.
Dan, I saw the first episode of the upcoming season of Legion and loved the dance-off between your character and Jemaine Clement’s. The moment is menacing and exhilarating and kind of silly all at once. Can you talk a little about what it was like to film it?
Stevens: It’s wonderful that Legion makes room for people like myself and Jemaine, but particularly Bill Irwin, to dance. Just being on set when Bill is dancing is a great joy, and it’s very nice to share that joy. There’s room in the show for a lot of music and madness, and I’m very, very fond of it.