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Whether onstage or onscreen, Ruth Wilson has never shied from intimate and demanding scenes, and she’s got plenty in her new film, True Things.
Based on the book by Deborah Kay Davies, it casts Wilson as Kate, a benefits worker who can’t resist a torrid affair with an ex-con known only as “Blond,” played by Tom Burke. Wilson says the pair and filmmaker Harry Wootliff loved working with “the queen of intimacy coaching,” Ita O’Brien.
“She was brilliant,” recalls Wilson, who reportedly left The Affair over issues with the way nude scenes on Showtime series were handled, among other concerns. “I’m really hoping it results in more interesting sex scenes on our screens because there’s a dialogue now and there wasn’t one before. Having an intimacy coach now means the discussion can happen in a pragmatic, practical, rational way.”
As the story goes, Wilson and Jude Law were sharing the stage in London on a “great production” of Anna Christie when the actor suggested she read Davies’ novel, thinking it might be worth adapting for the screen.
“I read it and I loved it,” Wilson says. “I felt that, at the time, there hadn’t been many stories from that subjective female perspective on this kind of moment in a relationship. It felt like such rich territory to investigate because we’ve all had those relationships, almost a rite of passage-type relationship, where you obsess over someone that’s completely wrong for you.”
Beyond diving into a complicated relationship, Wilson was inspired by a character like Kate, someone who is finding her way through a choppy period in life while having moments of levity as well as passion. “I found her quite quirky and by that point, I had done Luther and Jane Eyre and I wanted something more modern. I wanted to play a character that I hadn’t really played before. For all those reasons, I thought, yeah, this is great. Let’s do this. Let’s try and make it.”
Try they did, and while the development process took the better part of a decade, the mission was finally accomplished and True Things opens Sept. 9. Ahead of its debut, the actress opens up to THR about her first film producing credit through her Lady Lazarus company, navigating nude scenes and why she felt so “flat” after the film’s first festival screening.
Ten years is a long time to get something off the ground but not that unusual for a film. What were the biggest challenges?
As always, scheduling is a massive challenge. Then we had one writer on first and later brought on a writer-director after that, Harry Wootliff. The development process was quite difficult because we were working on getting this very internal book done in the right way. It’s told through a really subjective lens. There’s not much dialogue and it’s told from [Kate’s] point of view and often, inside her imagination. How do you lift that from the page into something cinematic? That was a challenge. Once we had Harry and producer Tristan Goligher on board from The Bureau, then it really started to move quickly. But then once we got it going, COVID happened. Didn’t think a worldwide pandemic was going to happen …
Were you already filming?
Yeah. We’d done one week of shooting, and Tom literally had come in for his first day and we had to shut down that night. It was the 16th of March. Close to six months later, we got back up and were able to finish it off and that was amazing. Harry, in the meantime, had a baby so she came back to set with a six-week old baby. It was quite extraordinary, really.
I’m sure that accelerated your education as a producer that much more, figuring out how to navigate the stop and start with the COVID of it all …
Yeah, it was a really interesting time. We had an amazing line producer, [Eimhear McMahon], and I realized again how vital they are. She was extraordinary because she really took care of the crew as well. We shut down and straight away, the question became, how are we going to pay [the crew]? Furlough came up and we could get our crew paid for a certain amount of time, at least to the end of what the job was going to be. By doing that, the crew came back three and four months later to complete the film because they had been treated so well by the production.
Suddenly, I was understanding how difficult it is to get stuff made all the while seeing how amazing these crews are. I mean, put them in charge of the country. They would definitely do a better job because it’s almost like a military operation. Those few months were really fascinating being inside the production to see how everything is done, especially with the challenges during the pandemic, the problems with insurance and money and health. Being that it was my first producing role, it was like a child being thrown into the deep end.
You’ve now been back at work as an actor for hire. How does it feel having that knowledge, has it changed your reality on set and how you move about?
Yeah. It’s definitely really holistic. It feels more satisfying producing because you get to know everyone way before the first day of shoot, you get to know the designer, the editor, the writer. You have much more complex and brilliant and detailed relationships with everyone involved in telling a story. I do also enjoy purely doing a job as an actor. I had a role recently where my job was just to act and that’s quite nice, to have the responsibility really on everyone else. But I’m looking to do more [producing]. It definitely feels really satisfying. We got the movie into Venice. The first time it screened there was the first time any audience had seen it because of COVID. It was such an extraordinary feeling that we got this movie made and were able to get it into Venice. It’s such a different feeling from just acting in a film.
This film, in particular, feels like it would lend itself really well to a festival environment. How was it to experience with an audience?
It was really interesting because we hadn’t done any public screenings. Usually you’d test your film with an audience prior to putting it out there. Because so many films had been held back because of COVID, there was a real competition to get films into Venice as well as Toronto. We were very tight to get into Cannes so it was either Cannes or Venice and that was something that I never realized there was that kind of competition. If you get into one, you can’t get into the other. The politics around all of that is quite amazing to learn.
Venice was a perfect place for the film. Now, I’d never been to Venice before, which was shameful of me, but they really love film. We got such an amazing response and the whole experience was completely magical. We had amazing reviews. Once it was all over, I weirdly felt incredibly flat. It was, like, that’s it? It was such a strange feeling. I usually come out of those things really quite elated but I was so flat. I think it was just the letting go of it all, feeling like I was abandoning something.
I can see how that would happen after such a big accomplishment. The movie asks so much of you as a performer. Like you said, so much of what Kate goes through is internal, told through your face, your expressions. How did you find her?
In some ways, this is probably the closest to me or parts of me than any role I’ve played. It’s the most, perhaps, raw, exposed and vulnerable I’ve been. Because there’s very little dialogue, it’s really about the inner workings of this imaginative woman, who is a lost soul in some ways. Often, I feel like in TV or film, you’re pitching a journey and you go, OK, at this point, she’s like that and then this happens and this happens, and you are now here. With this, I didn’t feel as if that were the case. I was just being observed. There was a sense that it was just me being in front of the camera and I don’t think I’ve done so much of that before.
The plot is not overtly heavy. It’s just a real observation of a human in a circumstance in her life. The performance became about finding the nuance. How is she at home? How does she conduct herself at work? How does her body fold in different ways when she’s quirky or inarticulate with her words. How doe she smile to herself when no one gets the joke? It’s all of those things that make her incredibly real and honest and truthful. I don’t know if that sounds really simple — that’s acting — but it felt like I had to allow the camera to see all of that. The first week of filming, I felt the most vulnerable and it was really hard. I felt exposed and self-conscious and then, weirdly, I found it incredibly liberating as time went on.
When did that switch?
Probably when Tom came on filming, actually, because suddenly I knew who this woman was in relationship to this guy. The first week was all filming inside the office, when she’s the most awkward and uncomfortable. She feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere, doesn’t feel connected to anyone or anything. I think that felt really quite difficult but as soon as we started working with Tom, I had a play partner, someone I could hold onto and spar with.
So much of the film hinges on your chemistry with Tom’s character. Did you read or test together before hand?
No, I’ve known Tom for years. He’s a peer of mine and we came into the industry at the same time. We had never worked together but always hoped to. When his name came up, I initially thought, oh, he’s quite cerebral to play Blond, who, in the wrong hands, could actually be very two dimensional. Some part of me thought that maybe we needed someone more simple, in a way, to play that role. But it was definitely the right choice. I love Tom and I love what he brought to the character, such complexity and vulnerability that you understand why Kate is drawn to him.
He’s not a good guy. He doesn’t treat her that well but he sees things in her that other people don’t see. He has this vulnerability that makes her lean and that’s all Tom. He did a brilliant job. It’s always about really having complete trust with the person playing opposite you so that you can push boundaries, find nuance, specificity and spontaneous moments to take risks with each other. With him, we instantly had that.
Speaking of trust, what were your conversations with Harry in terms of how the love scenes and nude scenes would be shot? In many ways, Blond is more exposed physically than you are…
It was really important that it be shown that this is a woman who has a sexuality; she has a sex drive and needs. That, for me, was really important not to judge. Harry and I both felt that we needed to put that on screen and it’s not something to be ashamed of. Some people might feel awkward about it, but actually, that’s who she is and a lot of women have that sexual drive. We knew that the sexuality for this would really be key.
Everything is from her point of view, the obsessive quality of this relationship and the sort of feeling that this is like a waking dream or a nightmare. So yes, there is a bit more of a lens on him, in a way, than on her. We didn’t avoid nudity but neither of us really like seeing that much of it, necessarily. There’s so much in films and TV and it’s so easily done. I actually think what’s more interesting to look at is what makes people connect, what makes it sexy. It’s not the naked body, it’s what’s going on between the people. We both shared that believe that what makes a scene sexy is the chemistry, the nuance of how these people interact with each other.
Something that has changed from when you first acquired the material is that now, in Hollywood, intimacy coordinators are the norm. Did you employ one?
Yeah, we employed Ita O’Brien, who’s is the queen of intimacy coaching. She was brilliant. It’s really interesting. I’m really hoping it results in more interesting sex scenes on our screens because there’s a dialogue now and there wasn’t one before. It wasn’t even a discussion. And if there was, it was very menial and it happened on the day of filming. Everyone felt awkward about it, not just the actors but the director, producers, everyone would avoid discussing sex scenes. Having an intimacy coach now means the discussion can happen in a pragmatic, practical and rational way where the director can express what they hope to get from the scene and the actors can express their insecurities and what they feel comfortable with and where their boundaries are.
Through that discussion, you now have a middle person who can help negotiate. I’ve heard from a lot of directors that they feel a lot more comfortable having an intimacy coach there because they have the language for those discussions and that makes it easier for everyone. I loved having Ita there, and I know that Tom and Harry did as well.
There was a bit of a stir online recently because Sean Bean said he doesn’t like intimacy coaches because he prefers to be spontaneous. Will you always use one?
I don’t know. It’s always dependent upon the dynamics of the people involved and how much you trust the person opposite you. Sometimes if you just let actors get on with it, yes, they might do it, but the camera might not get what the [director] wants. It’s really useful to have a practical conversation about what the director wants, where the camera is, how do you make sure the position is right and how will you make it work for the camera. I’m quite up for having the conversation to make sure it’s a practical decision for everyone. People talk about it similarly to stunt scenes and you need to make sure that you get someone who can make it feel safe but also get the right angle for the camera and make it look real without actually being real.
Another recent headline I wanted to ask you about is how Florence Pugh expressed frustration with the fact that headlines about her film Don’t Worry Darling focused on an oral sex scene. She didn’t appreciate that the work was reduced in that way. Your film, True Things, opens with an oral sex scene. Do you ever get concerned that your work is being similarly reduced?
That’s probably because most people haven’t watched the movie [Don’t Worry Darling] and that’s unfortunately what happens. Sex has become such an explosive topic. But maybe that’s the choice of putting that in the trailer so that it will get a reaction. There’s a bigger [conversation] to be had about how society deals with sex. It’s become such a taboo subject, that, in some ways, seems vaguely bizarre to me. We just need more dialogue around it. I don’t know how you stop [the work from being reduced]. It’s just what sells, isn’t it?
Last question: Kate seems like she’s going to be OK in the end. Is she?
I think so. Even though she seems like she’s at the will of this man and she’s a bit passive or a victim, she’s not. That’s what was so interesting to me about this role is that she’s the one who get his number. She pursues him. She’s the one who finally ends the relationship when he no longer does what he does for her. That’s what happens when you have those relationships. First you have infatuation, then you obsess, then you project so much onto someone when it isn’t really there. This poor person then has to try and match those expectations to fulfill this romantic dream that doesn’t exist. It’s like the Midsummer Night’s Dream effect with the magic dust. Suddenly, you’ve fallen off the donkey and you realize, no he’s just a donkey. We’ve all been there.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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