If you’ve heard the premise of Sundance Film Festival hit Good Luck To You, Leo Grande—a retired widow hires a sex worker to achieve her first orgasm—you might have the same reaction director Sophie Hyde did: Emma Thompson is the perfect actor to play that character. As Thompson herself tells The A.V. Club, an older woman grappling with her taboo sexuality feels like an extension of the complicated femininity she’s depicted for decades onscreen. An equally brilliant casting choice was Daryl McCormack as the titular sex worker; the two ignite a complicated, compelling chemistry—alone in a hotel room for the vast majority of the film.
Hyde, Thompson, and McCormack spoke candidly about the challenges of screenwriter Katy Brand’s two-hander, and how they managed to achieve the distinct vulnerabilities of an all-too-rare character dynamic—without sacrificing the inherent comedy of, say, Thompson’s character ticking various sex acts off a list.
The A.V. Club: What resonated with each of you in your first reading of this script? And how did your perception of the story change throughout filming?
Sophie Hyde: I was at home in Australia and we were in the middle of lockdown, like the whole world was. And I got sent this idea: an older woman, she’s in a hotel room, she’s hired a sex worker to have good sex for the first time in her life. And that woman will be Emma Thompson. And I remember just being like, That’s the perfect combination. I love Emma and I love that concept. And just together, I mean, that’s just irresistible. And I remember thinking also that I love the idea of two people in one room. I love just focusing on this, the performers, all of that.
And at the time Katy had written a script that was very fast, quite funny, very much like the first meeting is in the film. She herself would say she kind of blurted it out. And so from the time I came on, we really shifted and changed the character of Nancy, which Emma really responded to very strongly. She actually was there in that first draft, her voice was there. And I had to kind of go, How do I tap into this character? She seems very unusual to me. But Katy and Emma really, really got her ... And I worked a lot with sex worker consultants and talked to a lot of sex workers. And that really fed into the process and the character building of Leo.
Emma Thompson: Sophie, who’s just wonderful, I think her instinct to make it all about how to make people feel—feel these people, feel what they’re going through—was so right. Because the words lead us into these great, huge sort of mountains of discovery, and lakes. The landscape of discovery in it is so beautiful. And just reading it, you could see obviously the possibility was there, but it was in the playing that we really could find all of that. It was a great privilege to be there with those people
Daryl McCormack: Sometimes it’s hard to lead, as an actor, with your head in terms of what you feel like you should be saying. Obviously, there’s things that we care about, but sometimes work finds us and can really just touch our spirit. And for me, that was the case with this job. Because as much as I very much share the approach on sex work in this film, I haven’t, as a person, done much exploration into it. But I was joyful seeing this representation of sex work. And I think that’s something that’s really surprising ... Sometimes spiritually, you want to find [that kind of material] and in a way, it can find you.
AVC: Sophie, it’s interesting that the character of Nancy seemed unusual to you. Is that because of the lack of films about female pleasure or older women’s sexuality?
SH: I think so. I actually think the things that I found difficult about Nancy on the first read are the things that I love most about her now. She’s quite abrasive as a character, you know? It’s so nice to see a woman who hasn’t had a satisfying sex life, for instance, but is actually quite opinionated and outspoken ... But for sure, she’s not a character that we see a lot of. I mean, we love older women or ... what we tend to do is, like, they’re mums or grandmas or we kind of find them funny. Not especially sexual, you know. And so I think that the level of reality that’s in her is really thrilling.
AVC: Back to this idea of the perfect marriage between actor and part—it felt like Nancy was a culmination of so much of Emma’s onscreen career. Where does Leo Grande fit into the Emma Thompson filmography?
SH: I love how driven Em is by a kind of purpose. In our rehearsal room, we were very strongly talking about why we wanted to do a film like this or what it was for. Not just the enjoyment part, which was also [important]; the first time I met [Thompson], she was like, “It’s got to be funny. It’s got to stay funny.” So we were driven by that too. But also just driven by a desire to see people on screen and to see a connection that we don’t get a chance to see very much. She’s an incredibly smart person and it’s lovely to listen to her talk about these things. Because she has an ability to put herself on the screen to reveal a character like this and yet still come out and be really articulate about the meaning behind it. She’s also an amazing person because she uses her body and her mind and all of those things to tell us a story, even if at times she’s uncomfortable. She’s talked about this herself, that, for instance, the last [nude] scene was really difficult for her to film, but she believes enough in the meaning of that moment to do it and to do it in full honesty. And that amazes me. Like, that’s the kind of thing that I find incredible about actors.
ET: It’s such a great question. I do think that I couldn’t have played her before now. But everything that’s gone before—I mean, Margaret Schlegel [in Howard’s End] prefigures Nancy, really literally—[Leo Grande] is a direct trajectory through so many bits of work because it’s about the female experience. And it is so interesting, so subtly and so truthfully about the female experience; [Katy Brand’s script] is not trying to make points. It’s funny and delicious and delightful to watch. And so you’re very happy to go on this journey. And then you suddenly realize that everything you know in life has been questioned in front of you! And that you’ve gone, “Oh, my God, you’re right. Yeah, maybe not everyone is pleased with their children or actually feels that having been a mother has been really the best thing they could have done with their lives.” That sort of thing, which is hugely taboo.
Never mind the ostracizing of our sexual pleasure, our sense of ourselves as sexual beings, which has been also taken away from us by the systems in which we live, and which I think has done us absolutely no good at all. I think it’s very bad for our health. I think it’s the root of a great deal of sexual violence. And I think that the sooner we have these conversations and begin to reconnect the erotic and the pleasure of sex with our spiritual lives, the better. Because that’s where we’ve made this disconnect. It’s like, “No, this kind of pleasure, that’s just a low, base, animal kind of pleasure and that we should feel ashamed about. Yes, we can have it, especially if it’s been industrialized and monetized and belongs in the sort of consumer capitalist system. Then, it’s fine, because there’s a purpose to it.” But actually [sexual pleasure is] a completely free thing that we can have and we don’t talk about it at all. And so it was such a gift, really, to have this person, Nancy, who was so sort of a normal, nice, ordinary, quiet, dignified, intelligent woman who’s also quite stupid sometimes and a bit bigoted and slightly misogynistic, if we’re honest. And tricky. And then suddenly she meets this person, Leo, who’s someone I’ve never seen before, a version of manhood I’ve never seen before. And he’s so masculine and virile and yet so compassionate, so kind, and so intelligent. [Points at McCormack] Nothing, of course, like Daryl, who’s brutally underdeveloped, clearly. [Laughs]
AVC: The idea that the script is not trying to make points is an interesting one. Sophie, how much is it a filmmaker’s job to educate or challenge or provoke? What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
SH: You certainly set out to make a pleasurable experience, through the humor and the pathos and everything. But for sure, I want audiences to go away and feel they can speak about this stuff. They can speak frankly about sexual pleasure and their own bodies, they might connect with somebody that they wouldn’t normally. These things are important. I guess mostly I hope that people just go, “Oh, right, our bodies are doing all these gorgeous things. Our bodies are here for pleasure and to look after us. And they’re our homes. And they actually aren’t there for how they look to someone else.” That would be the main thing, that our bodies are not something for someone else’s gaze.
AVC: And what was the biggest lesson you learned that you’ll take into future projects?
SH: I guess this is something that I’ve always loved, but the idea of the performance being at the center of something, actors being the center of the material. I’ve always thought that, but I felt that that solidified for me in a way in this film, because a lot of things fell away and that became the center, the most important thing, the priority all the time: to support that performance. And every decision was about doing that ... I think that whatever is going on—there’s an explosion here or a dance number there—that acting still has to be there.