Playing twins for Our Flag Means Death and virtually all of the titular men in Men, Rory Kinnear’s 2022 has been packed. He’s had a dozen roles across just two projects—one an episodic TV comedy about pirates, the other A24's latest horror film—with the parts for each as different and demanding as the stories they serve. The British actor says he’s used to multi-tasking. Although best known for his London stage work (he won the 2014 Olivier Award for his turn as Iago in Othello at the Royal National Theater) and playing Bill Tanner in Daniel Craig’s James Bond movies, Kinnear has been doing double-duty on TV since his days as The Creature on Penny Dreadful and as Prince Rico/Gus on Inside No. 9.
In this followup to our 2019 look at Kinnear’s dazzling career (part of The A.V. Club’s Random Roles series), the actor reflects on this new chapter of coincidence—from the studied art of rehearsing horror to the goofy joy of playing pirates. Plus, he talks getting “haunted” by a 3D-printed model of his own skull and the truly disgusting side-effects of prosthetic makeup.
Spoiler alert: The following interview contains significant spoilers for both Our Flag Means Death and Men. It has also been edited for length and clarity.
The A.V. Club: You’ve had this incredible year playing multiple characters within single storytelling universes for both Men and Our Flag Means Death. How do you prepare for that kind of challenge?
Rory Kinnear: Obviously, they’re pretty different flavors as far as projects go. [Laughs] I shot Men first, actually, and then went straight to L.A. to do Our Flag Means Death. Weirdly, I’d been sort of been haunted by this 3D-printed skull of mine wherever I went, in every makeup truck. Leaving Men, there were various wigs and latex draped over them. Then I walked into a makeup truck on the set for Warner Brothers, and there was my 3D-printed skull again, sent to haunt me once more. It’s been an interesting niche to have found oneself in. I’d actually done it in both in Penny Dreadful and Inside No. 9, both British TV series that had me play multiple versions of myself in the same scene. So I’ve really got a handle on it now. [Laughs]
But, certainly for Men because there were so many of them, I knew that each had to be really distinct. I also knew that [writer-director Alex Garland] had written them as representative figures, and I had to make sure that they were fleshed out to be credible human beings; they were all sort of figures of authority of one sort or another. The fun was putting meat on those bones. I set about writing little biographies of them all and sending them off to Alex, sending them off to the heads of hair and makeup and costume. Because I had joined the project quite early in terms of its production, I got to sort of start in on the ground floor, as it were, and work with all the other creatives to create these personalities, and obviously create their looks. For me, I was looking out for who they are, who they were, where they’d come from, and what their history was. I knew that each one was a representational depiction of maleness from the micro- to the macro-aggression, but obviously that they’re not thinking like that and they’re not doing it intentionally, particularly. Each one is responding to a set of their own lived experience and circumstance. So I needed to really make sure I knew who they were.
With Our Flag Means Death, there was the first look and the first guy [Captain Nigel Badminton]. I’d signed up having read that first episode thinking it was really funny and I had been told that there would be a twin brother, but I didn’t know who he was and those episodes I hadn’t read yet. So as they came through, I knew that I wanted them [Nigel and Admiral Chauncey Badminton] to be distinctively different and that the comedy would come obviously from one of them having lots of hair and one being proudly bald like myself. Then, I thought, “Well, I should probably stretch those differences.” So they had different vocal patterns, different voices as well. One took himself incredibly seriously. I mean, they both take themselves pretty seriously, but one was a bit more of a jerk and the other one was a bit more threatening. [Laughs]
AVC: Watching those performances, particularly your roles in Men, I thought about stage plays like A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Is there a theater origin to these kinds of multi-performances that we’re seeing on screen?
RK: Yeah, often in productions of Shakespeare, you’ll get someone playing two different characters and that’s from the exigencies of production budgets they can afford; you know, nine or eight actors rather than the 14 that would be required to play the roles. You call it “doubling.” I don’t think there’s a word for oct-oubling like in Men. [Laughs] But yeah, I guess it’s doubling. That’s a well-used phrase in the theater: “Are you just playing one character or are you doubling?” That’s quite often the question if you say you’re into Shakespeare and you’re just starting out in your career.
AVC: Do you think your many Shakespearean accolades and strong Shakespearean background helped to carve out this onscreen niche for you?
RK: I don’t know. I certainly can’t divorce my experience and development in theater from the actor that I am now, and I certainly grew up wanting to be an actor because of the theater. Basically all I wanted to do was work at the National Theater. That was my sole ambition. So to be able to get to do that not only once but multiple times in hugely challenging and exacting roles, in some ways, it felt like I then had to reset the gauge in terms of one’s next ambitions or hopes were. And I realized, with my ambitions, the thing I love about it is the moment of acting. It’s that moment of charge between you and an audience or that moment of charge between you and your fellow performer, and to get to work with people who challenge you and push you and get something surprising from you. I had that with both Alex and Jessie, both of them.
We sort of spotted it in each other quite quickly, and, in rehearsals, that this felt like it was going to be a not just harmonious, but a creatively fulfilling job. And it certainly was—not just obviously because of the challenges of playing so many different characters, but actually because of the characters that I was working with [Men star Jessie Buckley] and Alex. We had these two weeks of rehearsals, again similar to a play. And, also similar to the theatrical experience, Alex worked in sequence on this film. So you really got a sense, albeit in slow motion, of the arc of the whole story being told out in one—which obviously you get to do night after night in the theater, but you very rarely get to do it on film. So yeah, I guess there were lots of aspects of it for at least Men, being similar to a theater production, the smallness of the cast, the ability to rehearse and to thrash around ideas and characters and change the text. And also that sense of being able to follow the continuum of the characters and story arc.
AVC: With Men being shot in sequence, I imagine the theater parallel must have continued in a quick-change capacity. With a scene like the bar scene, for example, where you’re playing the bartender, the two bar patrons, and Geoffrey—and maybe even a police officer, now that I think about it—what’s happening for you logistically? Can you walk me through that?
RK: That’s a good example with the quick-change because that was pretty much the only time where I was playing multiple characters in a day. I guess there was the day where I played the Boy and the Vicar, but by and large I just managed to play one a day. I think it was probably worse for Jessie, trying to keep a hold of who was the “real Rory” because we had all these stand-ins dressed up as the characters. So I would just be the one character and get to play that one character through the bar scene and focus on it. All the other stand-ins were saying the lines of the other characters, and [Jessie] was having to obviously remember which one was the real Rory who she should actually be paying attention to in that scene. [Laughs]
But yeah, that was the only time where I was really dashing out. You had like 45 minutes to an hour to get into the next character, and certainly [it was fast with some characters], like with the landlord, that was the only day I got to play him. I had sort of made a vow that I was going to give as much attention to the history of each character. But, by the time he came around and he’d almost gone within about 2 hours, I realized I’d done all this work and he sort of just stood with his back to the bar. [Laughs] But that was sort of the vow that I had taken because I wanted to make sure that each one existed as credibly as the other.
AVC: In the Q&A after the Men screening I attended yesterday, you said something about each of these characters kind of “coming from” the British countryside, or having this very specific ensemble feel to them that’s very much born out of a certain part of the world. I’d be curious to know, to what extent do you feel like doubling has become kind of an inherently British acting challenge?
RK: I don’t know about that. Obviously the aspect of doing it twice in a year is a peculiar coincidence for me, but I think it is probably just a coincidence. But I feel like what Alex is addressing certainly with the policeman figure, the old posh man—maybe even the landlord—is the same thing that he’s doing with the “Green Man” [a biblical symbol seen throughout Men]. It’s that sense of continuum and that sense of both the comfort that we take in retelling these stories and playing these archetypes—but equally, the challenge that that presents, that we’re inescapable. Should we not question the stories we tell ourselves and the people that we are supposed to trust continually? So I felt like I knew what Alex was getting at by choosing these, these particularly British archetypes because there’s no point trying to play a theme.
AVC: Can you elaborate on the idea of not being able to “play theme?”
RK: Because that’s not what humans do. For each character that I was playing, in terms of the bigger picture of each of their lives, Harper is fairly insignificant. For Harper, it’s the accretion of the dealings with these people in this village, which has a cumulative effect. But for them, up until it begins to become quite hallucinogenic towards the end, it’s that they have more important things in their lives and maybe that explains some of their flippancy or some of their thoughtlessness or some of their outright aggression. I had to focus on that hinterland of their life to be able to stay away from that sense of knowing too much what I was meant to represent.
AVC: And that comes from not wanting your performance to incorrectly pull the audience’s focus?
RK: Yeah. As I said last night, I didn’t want to do the job if it was just about showing off how versatile I was. I didn’t want anyone to really come away talking about acting. Obviously, I find acting interesting and I love to do it, but I don’t want to come away from something thinking about the acting or talking about the acting. I want to come away from something thinking about what it’s provoked in me and the themes and how I responded to something. Acting obviously helps that, but it only helps by being invisible. So I wanted to make sure that however much I knew I was working hard, that the audience didn’t.
That sense of trying to remove oneself when you’re playing a character hopefully adds up to what I like when I see stuff that moves me or affects me; it tends to sort of have a creeping feeling rather than necessarily announcing what it is, both for an actor and a director in their work. I guess that’s sort of how I like to be viewed. Hopefully there is something cumulative that you take away and that sort of begins to make you ask questions of your own rather than necessarily knowing exactly what it is from the off.
AVC: Conversely, when you’re playing for comedy, do you want more of an overt sense that it pulls the audience’s attention?
RK: It’s definitely a much trickier ask, I think. Because we can all find things funny when we’re doing them on set, and certainly, I’ve done stuff where I thought I was being hilarious and then watched it and thought, “Oh, shit. How did we all miss that when we thought it was all so funny at the time?”
So I did have to rely on [Our Flag Means Death creator David Jenkins] and the other writers’ work to make sure I was bringing to life their words and being assured that the situations themselves were funny enough that you didn’t have to over-egg it. But equally, I knew themes I was being asked to potentially investigate in a comic way. Part of it was a very free and liberating set to work on, and we were all encouraged to improvise and make discoveries for ourselves throughout, which led to just as many touching as it did comic moments in the series. With Chauncey, I played with how much I could ratchet that up [across takes], but then left it to the editors and the director to see which one they chose.
AVC: Did you have a favorite visual transformation in these two projects?
RK: What’s quite interesting about all of them is the way people treat you depending on who you’ve come dressed as. We don’t experience that too often in our own lives. I wasn’t staying in-character between takes; I was Rory. But people had completely different ways of approaching me and ways of socializing with me, depending on who I was playing that day. Basically, the whole set felt easier and more charmed and jollier whenever Geoffrey was around. Then people would slightly close up whenever the Vicar was around, and I had to remind everyone that I was still Rory. [Laughs] Sometimes, particularly with one of the farmhand men in the pub, people didn’t actually know it was me at all. So it was interesting to see how I guess judgmental we are all instinctively to appearance and how much the surface leads to what we presume about people.
AVC: Did you get treated differently on the set of Our Flag Means Death when you did—and didn’t—have a sword through your head?
RK: Well, I had to always try and remember that I did have the sword in my head because it was quite a long sword. So I had to walk through doorways very carefully. Eventually, I was able to remember that I could actually detach it at the end, but it was quite, um...I won’t go into too much detail, but because I had prosthetics over my actual eye and I was filming in quite significant heat, there was obviously a pooling thing.
AVC: Oh God.
RK: Yes, which at the end of the day was quite a repulsive sensation.
AVC: Well, in the vein of repulsive sensations, I’ve got to ask: Which was worse, the pooling around the sword or what I can only imagine was a very wet experience for the finale birthing sequence in Men?
RK: Oh, I’m hopeful that nothing will be as disgusting as the final sequence of Men in terms of physical discomfort. [Laughs] Sure, 98 degrees can be a little challenging, but, you know, minus two degrees centigrade, not really wearing very much, covered in mashed banana, and synthetic blood coming out of all kinds of manner of apertures? I imagine that will take some beating.