As Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack log on to Zoom to discuss their Hulu film Good luck to you, Leo Grande, their ease with each other is immediately clear. They’ve been texting, trying to find time to hang out, and before they get into interview mode, they talk about their mutual love of the brand Carhartt, which they both happen to be wearing. “We wear the same clothes, basically,” says Thompson.
This kind of closeness was necessary to make Leo Grande, a two-hander directed by Sophie Hyde from a script written by Katy Brand. Thompson plays a woman who calls herself Nancy, a widowed teacher who hires a sex worker going by the name of Leo Grande (McCormack). Nancy’s goal: to have an orgasm, because she has never had one. But it’s not so simple. The film is densely scripted and requires physical and emotional vulnerability from its actors, and Thompson and McCormack were more than ready to dig in. The pair spoke with THR about developing their characters together while working on the intense 19-day shoot.
Emma, you were attached to the project first. What were you thinking about as you and Sophie approached the casting process for the role of Leo?
EMMA THOMPSON We recognized the fact that Leo had to be young, and the question was how much younger, because some of the actors we saw were in their 30s, and that was a completely different dynamic. It’s funny, isn’t it? You think Leo could have been played so many different ways, and then when Daryl plays it, you think he could only be played that way. That’s how it works. We were thinking, “Well, if he were older, then he might feel a bit threatening.” You’ve got to feel that Nancy’s absolutely safe with this person. He had to be young and deeply, deeply modern, [had] to be up to fucking date. Someone who just couldn’t possibly have been part of the pre-#MeToo-movement shit. He’s someone who just is way past all of that, as Daryl is.
What was your first meeting like?
DARYL MCCORMACK We went for a walk and just hung out. We were so aware, on the basis of what was in the script, and what these two people go through together, that there had to be a level of comfort and familiarity with each other. You really have to be coming off the same page, you really have to have the same approach. That was vital. For me, it was always going to be a daunting experience, having to do a two-hander alongside someone like Emma. I felt like I was meeting someone who was open to meeting who I was as a person. It was very low-key, very normal.
Was that before or after you’d been offered the part?
MCCORMACK Before. That was the deciding thing, wasn’t it? That we got a sense of each other and that it clicked.
Emma, what was that walk like for you?
THOMPSON You’ve got to be able to feel comfortable with and at ease with the person. [Daryl,] you might have felt intimidated, but you didn’t give that off. What you gave off was just someone who was very thoughtful, and actually didn’t care about anything other than “Who’s this person, Leo? Who are these people?” Somebody who was really thinking about the piece. And you’ve got to have somebody who’s going to take it really seriously, who isn’t thinking about anything else. By the end of our walk, we were covered in mud, apart from anything else, because it was raining. It was just one of those easy things, and it was just so immediate. I rang Sophie and said, “I think absolutely no question. He’s the one.”
For a lot of the movie, these characters are wearing masks, essentially, not even using their real names. How did you approach that, knowing that their openness would flourish over the course of the film?
MCCORMACK That was one of the most enthralling things for me, in terms of Leo, because you meet a well-equipped, thoughtful man, but a man who knows who he is, despite his trauma and own journey to get to that level of comfort. What’s so fascinating is that no matter what we build ourselves into, we can’t always fully escape where our scarring comes from. It was about understanding that while he got to know Nancy, and while he loved more and more who she was, he wanted to continue to provide a service that he’s proud of, but also that she can really flourish within. In doing so, he had to also let some of his guard down. That naturally happens as he gets to know her, but her inquisitiveness is what pokes at his wounds. I thought that was just beautifully written by Katy, because that is the dance that both of them play. For Leo, it was particularly fun because [it’s] a professional environment for him. While he did really want to get to know Nancy more and more, there were levels of boundaries, because he had to just protect his overall emotional well-being. In the rehearsal process, that was our playground, and that was fun for me, having to know where he’s intrigued and wide open, and know when there’s something that’s slightly tested, and he has to tread with caution for his own sake.
What was the rehearsal process like?
THOMPSON Oh my God. We shot this damn thing in 19 days. Don’t you think that we sort of separated it out into three acts and we knew the first one really, really well, but we couldn’t learn it all?
MCCORMACK That’s so true.
THOMPSON Which was strange. It was as though we couldn’t quite digest all of it. In order to play it, we had to know it so well. So well, that you were never, ever reaching for a word, which meant that every day was a learning day, as well as a playing day. It was the most intense filming.
MCCORMACK I think you’re right in the sense that we couldn’t really learn the end of the film by the time we started shooting the beginning. And part of the reason is because each moment is under a magnifying glass. As actors, we were sitting in it quite heavily because there’s so much happening that we could only really contain the section that we were shooting and a bit of the section that was coming up. And then, as we got to the next section, we let the baggage of the first section fall away, and we were ready to invite the third and final part of the film. It was really cathartic. We went through, and step by step, bite-size chunks, and had a ball doing it, as well.
THOMPSON We were doing 12 pages of dialogue at a time. What was so great about it, was you would play a whole sequence, and then each time you’d find something different. The glory of being together in that tiny space. The movement, the seismic shift in their emotional states from one second to the next, it was such bliss to play.
The end of the film is also where the most physically intimate moments take place. How did it feel when those moments came about in the context of filming?
THOMPSON We were really lucky, because we had six days of rehearsal, and during that rehearsal period, we had one day where me and Sophie and Daryl just took our clothes off, and sat with each other, and talked about our bodies, what we liked. about them, what we don’t like about them, the bits that we feel we connect to, the bits we don’t connect to, the difficulties. The three of us had that, so we’d done that, so there were no worries about it. The other thing that we decided was when we got to it, we were the ones who were first on set, naked, and then the crew. [arrived]. So it was definitely our space. To be honest, it was just absolute sheer and utter bliss. They were great fun scenes to do because they’re very simple. There’s no bloody words. It mirrored Nancy and Leo getting to know each other, because as the editors said, when they got the material, it was so wonderful to see these two people having this wonderful time together and being able to find pleasure in each other. Yes, I know it’s sex and we’re a bit sort of pathetic about sex, because it’s all “hehehe.” This is human intimacy. This is something beautiful and free, and we really ought to talk about it more. We really ought to be a little bit more grown-up about how important it is. It was great joy to be able to release that within those two characters. And for us, it was a great relief because we didn’t have 17 pages of dialogue.
MCCORMACK It was like a half-day at school. It was blissful. I think the work that we did with Sophie was just so profound, actually. I had never been in a space where each and every one of us was brave in that moment. It serves such justice to what these people found at the end of the film. And what I found was that as we had our own connection with our bodies, and actually slowly disconnected from our bodies so we could step into them, and get past our own internal judgments, what I found at the end of the film was that as both performers and as the characters we were playing, at the core of the sex section, there was utter care. It was signifying a liberation for both those characters. And I just don’t think we could have gotten there if we weren’t led beautifully by Sophie.
THOMPSON It was great because there’s a huge respect, and dignity, and fun at the same time.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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