A title like Living is hard to, well, live up to. Simple as the concept may be, its narrative heft can sometimes be taken for granted. More so, if, as in the case of Oliver Hermanus’ latest film, the title aims to translate (and adapt) one of Akira Kurosawa’s most treasured projects, Ikiru. Thankfully, in the hands of screenwriter (and Nobel Prize-winner) Kazuo Ishiguro and boasting a melancholy leading performance by Bill Nighy, this critically acclaimed London-set period drama soars all on its own. Nighy plays Mr. Williams, a career bureaucrat coping with his own mortality when he learns he may not have many more months to live. Forced to reassess his life and purpose, he embarks on an unlikely journey of self-discovery.
Aimee Lou Wood, best known for bringing depth and light to blonde, bubbly Aimee in Netflix’s Sex Education, is tasked here with similarly turning a wide-eyed young co-worker in Mr. Williams’ office into a complex character itching for more from life. Wood’s Miss Margaret Harris serves as a welcome foil to Nighy’s protagonist, a chatty beam of light who helps the old bureaucrat open his eyes to what’s around him. Here, the BAFTA Award-winning rising star reflects on how the role of Miss Harris and her experience shooting Living helped her appreciate life’s quiet moments, why acting opposite Nighy initially terrified her, and why she believes this 1950s-set U.K. drama has something to teach us all in 2022.
The A.V. Club: What first drew you to Living and the role of Miss Harris?
Aimee Lou Wood: From the minute I read the first line of dialogue she had, I was like, God I really want this part. This was during lockdown and I got this script through. A lot of the time you get a script and you go, Okay, yeah, I can see how I could maybe you know … But then this one, just straight in, I was crying. Obviously, he’s one of the greatest writers ever. I just felt so connected to it immediately. I couldn’t wait to do the tape—and I hate self-tapes! I love going into the room for auditions, but hate doing self-tapes more than anything. So the fact that I was actually excited to do one spoke volumes to me. I just knew who she was straight away. There’s been a lot of times where I’ve gotten scripts and the character is underwritten or just not very vivid. And part of the fun is going, Okay, so how am I going to make her vivid? And that’s a great acting challenge. But the fact that I just felt immediately like I understood who this person was, was just a really lovely feeling and an exciting feeling. [Ishiguro] always says, “Aimee brought her to life.” But she was already alive on the page. I find her very aspirational; I really want to be more like her, and be perhaps as present as she is and as dynamic as she is. She’s so kind but she’s also assertive. I just adore her.
AVC: Ishiguro’s dialogue is very sparse and interior; a lot of it is happening in people’s heads. How much was there in the script that you could feed on but that we don’t get to see as audiences?
ALW: Yeah, there was a lot. It was a beautiful script. And you’re right, the dialogue is sparse. But I think because it’s so well written, there were just certain anchor points for me. So like when Margaret first sees Mr. Williams outside of the office, and she said, “Oooh, new hat!” I’m like, Oh, I get who this person is. I understand her. You know, she tells him that she calls him “Mr. Zombie.” And then only after she says it does she go, “I’m really sorry, that was so bad.” I understand that. And she does that a lot in the film. She says something and then she goes, “Sorry about that!” So, okay, she’s deeply honest.
And I think also of that scene in the pub where Mr. Williams tells her about his diagnosis. Because Margaret does most of the talking and then all of a sudden it changes and she just gives him the space. And then he speaks so beautifully and eloquently and thoughtfully. He’s putting so much thought into what he’s saying. I think that Mr. Williams’ true self is revealed in that moment after pages of him being so restrained. He’s so small and he doesn’t want to take up any space and he doesn’t want to ever be looked at for too long or be seen for too long. And then all of a sudden he speaks. In that moment it’s so beautiful the way that it reverses and he just speaks and she just listens. And I think that really reveals her kindness too. Because I think one of the kindest things you can do for someone is give them a space to just talk and to just hold them and listen to them. So I was like, “Oh, she’s a great person and also he is so full of depth.” In that moment, she’s like, “This person that I have been sitting next to for 16 months, who has barely said a word, and has barely looked at me or noticed me and I haven’t really noticed him… he’s actually got this life and this and these feelings.” That’s when you really know who the two of them are.
AVC: You talked about reading the script during lockdown, and it struck me that this is actually a very timely film. Many are reassessing what they wanted out of life, out of work. Did it feel that way to you?
ALW: It does feel very timely. It felt very timely when I read it. Because my world had gotten a lot smaller, as everyone’s had. You really did have to take to noticing the tiny things that might have happened on that day. Then I read this script about this, this man who had stopped noticing things, and he’d been on autopilot. I think lockdown really made us all go, “Oh crap. I kind of stopped paying attention to the small things in life!” Part of what I think is really timely, too, is that Margaret is very happy being ordinary. She wants to have a good time. She wants to have a chance to live. But she notices all the small things, like when she sees that ice cream sundae. She delights in all the small moments. I think she leaves a job that’s crushing her—that’s actually a very respectable job to go to one that people wouldn’t see as respectable, but she wants to do it. She wants to give it a shot. What I loved about Margaret is that she’s a real tonic; she doesn’t really care about what others think of her. She feels and she cares about other people deeply, but in an honest way. She says to Mr. Williams, “I’ve got no such special quality. I’m ordinary, as like everyone else.” But that kind of makes her extraordinary.
AVC: There’s an honesty about it which is also very encouraging, this idea that you can find beauty and can find satisfaction in smallness. Like Mr. Williams says about the park—they may not have changed the world, the park may wither and die. But for that shining moment, there should be a kind of celebration of that small success.
ALW: I mean, I forget! I can get so trapped in my head! And then it’s the moments where I go, Oh my god, I was actually just really here. And it was really lovely. Even though it wasn’t lovely, maybe. At least I’m here and not actually in what Bill [Nighy] calls it, this imaginary future or the imaginary past that we end up all falling into rather than just being because we’re avoiding the now. Because the now can be scary because of the feelings that come with it. But now is the only place, really, that actually exists.
AVC: Speaking of Bill, I can’t let you go without talking about what it was like acting opposite such a screen legend.
ALW: When I got it and then when I found out it was Bill, I was honestly like, How am I going to do this? Genuinely. Because I feel I’m not going to be able to sit opposite him in a scene. I’m not going to be able to because I love him so much from afar. I can’t do it. I actually won’t be able to do this. And then, all of a sudden, something kicks in and you can and you really throw yourself into the story. But then, in between takes or at lunchtimes when I was sat having pasta with him, because he is just the most charismatic, charming, kind ... everything that you would want him to be and more, truly. It was just unreal. It was genuinely the best time in my life.
AVC: What did you learn about yourself in the process of working on Living?
ALW: This is the thing that I’ve done in my acting career that’s changed me the most, I think. I think it is the story. This is a film about a man who’s dying that’s called Living. Death is something that I really avoid thinking about. It freaks me out. Of course, it freaks everyone out. But like Bill says that he thinks about it about 12 times a day. But when you’re doing a project like this one, you actually have to look it in the eyes. And be like, “Oh, it happens. We actually do one day die. So, okay, how do I actually want my life to be? What do I want my life to be full of?” That made me realize I want it to be full of abundance. But also simplicity. I can be extremely content on my most simple days when I just have like, a great chat with my friend and I have a really nice latte. And when I get to read a script that’s great and inspiring. I think simplicity was a real thing I took from Living. To stop complicating things so much because I think Margaret has that. She’s mastered the art of simplicity. And that brings her a lot of joy. It gives space for joy because she’s not all kind of tangled up.
AVC: As a final question, what nickname do you think Margaret would come up with for you?
ALW: I’m gonna say Miss Tangled. And, you know, it’s one of the things about me that I like, which is that I have a lot of thoughts very quickly. But I can get myself tied in knots, definitely. What would she give you?
AVC: Oh, me? Mr. Overthinker. I live in my head. Which is, I think, why I also enjoy Margaret … She may be simple but she’s not simple-minded.
ALW: Yeah, and there’s a difference. You can have complexity and thought and depth in thought and feeling. But you can also cultivate simplicity, to just kind of help you be here in the now and noticing the small things, which she does effortlessly.