Rapid Round: 'Me Before You' Director Weighs In on Film's Controversy, Defends Friend Keira Knightley

'Me Before You' New York Premiere - H Getty 2016
Getty Images

"It has big themes in it that are very easy to make quick judgments on," Thea Sharrock tells THR of the Emilia Clarke starrer.

First-time feature director Thea Sharrock admits she “didn’t quite anticipate” the controversy surrounding her movie Me Before You, which some disability advocates have knocked for its depiction of assisted suicide.

The MGM/New Line film, released by Warner Bros., opens today. Based on Jojo Moyes’ 2012 best-seller, it stars Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke as a small-town woman who forms an unlikely bond with a recently paralyzed man (Sam Claflin).

Sharrock, a longtime theater and TV director who hails from England, got the job on Me Before You despite competition from some “very successful and established male directors,” helped by stellar theater credits including the award-winning Top Girls by Caryl Churchill and the BBC miniseries The Hollow Crown.

The married mother of two sons, ages 8 and 10, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter from her home in London about the challenges of Me; whom she’d pick to play James Bond (hint: His first name is Tom); and why director John Carney was dead wrong when he recently slammed Keira Knightley’s acting ability.

Some disability advocates are rankled by this film. Did you expect that?

I didn’t quite anticipate this. The disappointing thing is when people make a protest when they haven’t either read the book or seen the film. I have no problem with people seeing this film and not liking it for 101 different reasons; you go into every project with that as a possibility. I understood going into it how vulnerable a topic it is and susceptible to very strong opinions. It has big themes in it that are very easy to make quick judgments on.

What do you say to the critics who object that the movie’s message is offensive to those with disabilities?

It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the message is. I was attracted to this because I love the almost traditional love story that lies behind it. It reminds me of films that I don’t think have been made for a while that used to be made quite a lot. And I love the bravery of the studios wanting to produce such a film. It’s a fictional story about how important the right to choose is. The message of the film is to live boldly, push yourself, don’t settle.

You worked with Keira Knightley onstage. What was your experience with her?

Completely the opposite [of Carney’s]. I was pretty shocked, I have to say, because even if you feel things like that, you don’t say [them], and you certainly don’t say [them] publicly. Keira and I are great friends, and we wouldn’t be if we hadn’t got on well in a working environment. She is funny, smart and probably the most prepared actor I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been absolutely blessed to work with a huge number of film stars. She’s incredibly flexible, incredibly disciplined and fun to be with and willing to try anything. She is meticulous and reads around everything [to prepare for a role]. That’s how much she cares about her job. Also, that’s what gives her range. That’s why she’s willing to try a surprising amount of stuff because she’s got the background on it. I think her career speaks for herself.

What career would you do if you weren't doing this?

I’d probably be a shrink. It’s a major part of the job that I love — the psychology of working out why people behave the way they do.

Why did you make the switch from theater to film?

I did one of The Hollow Crown [episodes] for Sam Mendes and his production team a couple of years ago. Tom Hiddleston played Henry V. I had a great time doing it [and] got an American agent [CAA’s Carin Sage], and we have been reading film scripts ever since. When this came along, she kind of knew. She sent me the script and said, “I’ve got a feeling that this might be the one we really want to go for.”

Dream project?

Some undiscovered Arthur Miller play that’s unearthed from a pile of papers that nobody’s ever seen or done.

If you were given the next Bond movie to direct, who would you cast?

Tom [Hiddleston]. He would make a fine Bond. He has a huge number of qualities that Bond needs. He has such a classical feel to him that it would be like going back to the kind of Sean Connery, cool, stylized, classical figure. My outside choice would be James Norton.

Favorite movie?

[Anthony Minghella’s] Truly, Madly, Deeply; Ridley Scott’s The Duellists; and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. And by the way, I’m only not saying E.T. because everybody says that.

What are you currently reading?

I’m on the third book of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan Novels. I have a friend who’s from Naples, and she’s utterly convinced she knows who [Ferrante] is. [Ferrante is a pseudonymous Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known.] It’s incredibly impressive that the author has maintained the mystery.

Daniel Radcliffe is godfather to one of your children. Who else is in your Hollywood “family”?

Kevin [Spacey], I absolutely adore. I’d do anything for him and to work with him again. Tom [Hiddleston], Keira, Sam Mendes, Benedict Cumberbatch. There’s a really nice group of us who come from theater or I’ve had a theater experience with. Danny DeVito. He hadn’t been onstage for 40 years when he came over here to do Sunshine Boys. And Lawrence Kasdan.

What are you doing next?

I have a two-hander play that I really hope I can do next year in London. I’ve just been approached about doing a new musical. I did a musical a couple of years ago, a [stage] adaption of The Bodyguard, which had only Whitney Houston’s music in it. I’m very excited to be starting on a new musical from scratch [which Sharrock declined to name].

Is it In the Heights?

(Laughs.) Give them my phone number, please!

What’s the strangest dream you’ve had?

Last Monday morning, I was in New York for our New York premiere. I had this dream that I was in the car with Alan Rickman and his wife, Rima [Horton], both of whom I’ve known for years. They were driving me to the premiere, and we were in an open-top car. It was my way of feeling that the two of them were completely supporting me on the way to such a big event.

You’re one of two female directors with studio movies this summer, along with Jodie Foster (Money Monster). How do you explain that?

Hollywood is surprisingly old-fashioned, [and its] history has always been this way. Maybe it’s just a little slower than the rest of the world in catching up. On a positive note, I do feel strongly that it’s about to change. The figures are so low. It can only go one way.