It seems like there would be a weighty pressure to playing “the woman” in Men, Alex Garland’s provocatively titled return to horror greatness. But for Academy Award nominee Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter), the character isn’t so much a gendered symbol to shoulder as she is a grounded chance to get primal.
Men stars Buckley as Harper Marlowe, a grieving woman who retreats to a home in the English country after a tragic “accident.” But when a lecherous male presence appears via revolving Rory Kinnears (the actor plays a whopping ten characters for Men), Harper must confront the terrors of her past—and present.
Despite Garland’s arthouse sensibilities and Men’s obvious allegorical and biblical influences, Buckley insists keeping Harper present is what made her work well. Speaking on the phone with The A.V. Club, the actor breaks down that acting challenge, as well as her first reaction to Garland’s “completely brilliant” script.
Spoiler alert: The following includes significant spoilers for Men, and has been edited for length and clarity.
The A.V. Club: What’s it like to be promoting not only the new Alex Garland, but the next A24 horror title? That seems like a lot of expectation for one movie.
Jessie Buckley: It’s great! [Laughs] I feel very lucky to be able to work with such amazing, talented, quality people who are actually making a really interesting, provocative film. I just feel very, very lucky, and I loved the experience so much. Alex, from the moment we met, we felt like we had a kind of common sensibility and were looking to create something from a similar place. That’s all you can hope for.
AVC: What was your first reaction to the script?
JB: I thought it was completely brilliant. You just don’t get a script like that very often. There is a kind of punk provocativeness about it that was asking you to stand and face the things that we probably are afraid or ashamed to face the most within ourselves and within society.
That married with Alex and his incredible visual perspective as a filmmaker, I was thrilled, and I felt challenged. I felt like he was asking me lots of questions that I didn’t have the answers for, and I probably still don’t have the answers for. [Laughs] But I could relate to it, and I think lots of people will be able to relate to it in whatever way that they want.
AVC: There’s an audacity to the title of Men because it seems like such a big, broad, sweeping statement. Your character becomes this conduit for female perspective. To what extent do you feel like you have to sort of do a dance of making sure that you’re not over characterizing something that, as you said, might be open to interpretation?
JB: I instinctively felt that my role in this was to experience it as directly and immediately as an audience member might experience it. And that meant that I had to not put anything on this character, but actually just live and experience it in every shape or form. It’s called Men, but it’s about relation — our relation to man and woman — the relationships between each other.
So I felt very present. It felt also quite grounded, very primal and real and archaic and ancient and present and so many things that were very rich to be able to stand into and to live with the men that Harper meets along the way. But also to live with herself and the parts of herself which she has to face.
AVC: The opening scene between Harper and James is so electric. What can you tell me about the preparation process for that?
JB: We actually shot most of the film in sequence—all of the stuff that happens at the house we shot in sequence. But that scene was actually the last thing we shot. So the catalyst of this whole story was something that I met after I had met and made the body of the story. And that was actually really, really interesting, because I had lived with the archetypes of Men and James and the pain and the wounds and the grief and the loss for weeks. Then I was meeting it again.
We spoke about it right at the beginning. Alex had a two week rehearsal process where we didn’t necessarily rehearse the scene; we spoke more about the themes, the questions that this script was asking us, the questions this relationship was asking us, the pain within this relationship. And we didn’t really touch it again until we got to shooting it on that day. But, [Paapa Essiedu] is such an extraordinary actor and I’d been on this journey for the last five weeks leading up to it, that we didn’t really rehearse it at all. I actually didn’t want to. I don’t think I did rehearse it at all on the day of shooting. He kind of just set up two cameras in profile and we just did it.
AVC: What was working with Rory Kinnear’s revolving door of characters like for you? Did that get overwhelming, constantly having your scene partner shifting in nature?
JB: No, but that’s a testament to Rory. I’m completely in awe, and kind of blown away by the feat that Rory did and did so incredibly well. It’s so delicate and so detailed. Each of those characters are seamless. It always felt like a different man was standing in front of me, and yet it was the same man.
AVC: Rory told me that he even had people treating him differently between scenes. Was that true for you?
JB: Yeah. I mean, everybody loved when Geoffrey came to set because Geoffrey was hilarious. Him as a character, what Rory created with him, it’s so delicious—to have something so comedic and heightened as that and actually also very human. It was a totally different atmosphere on set when Geoffrey came to when the Vicar came. And Rory kind of had to be like, “Guys, it’s still me!” Also, you know, Rory’s a very light actor. He’s not method and we got on great. And I think because the material was so intense, we were always very happy to step off and have a cup of tea and a laugh. It makes it fun. You have to have those moments.
AVC: Did you have a scene that was the most fun for you to shoot?
JB: Honestly, all of it. It’s so fulfilling getting to work on material that’s so rich like this. And Alex is such a collaborator, and really offers you a space to bring whatever mad thing you might think that morning to set. So it just felt really light and creative and that anything was possible. It dared you to go places that you might not have gone, if there was somebody who had a very specific idea and it was his way or the highway. But that was never the case with Alex, and he was thrilled by that way of working as well.
AVC: Did working on Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things help prepare you for Men? They seem similar in challenge, if only because those two characters have to be reflective of the complex story around them.
JB: No, I think they were quite different experiences actually. Maybe less so with Charlie’s, but with this, Harper is incredibly present. I don’t think she’s a reflective thing for Men. It was very important to me that she had agency. Charlie’s film was a little bit different because [that character] was somebody who was many things. In some ways, it was probably the opposite. I was kind of like [Rory Kinnear] in that situation. The films feel very different to me. Charlie’s was more...I don’t know. You can’t play surrealism. You just have to be there. Men feels much more grounded.
AVC: Wrapping things up with a question about the final shot: Can you tell me about that last moment between you and Gayle Rankin and the role female friendship plays in Men?
JB: That’s a really good question. It’s quite arresting when you finally meet Gayle’s character at the end and she’s a pregnant woman. In a way, there is an empathy but also an emboldening aspect between them as friends. And also there’s fear between them as friends, you know?
I think female friendships are just as complicated as relationships between men and women. I think humans are...we’re all pretty mad and complicated. And I think we all have everything in us. I actually think there’s more to be unearthed between female friendships than we let ourselves do as women. I’ve gone off on tangent now, but... [laughs].