Toronto Hidden Gem: How a First-Timer Landed a Red-Hot Cast for 'Una'

Una -Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of TIFF

Oscar nominee Rooney Mara joins 'Rogue One's' Ben Mendelsohn and Riz Ahmed for theater director Benedict Andrews adaptation of David Harrower's sexually-charged play.

Timing a film to land at the moment one of your stars is having an “it” moment is no mean feat, but Benedict Andrews appears to have done it three times on his debut feature.

For Una, the Australian theater director-turned-filmmaker lined up Rooney Mara just as the actress appears to be at her most in-demand peak, with Lion already generating Oscar buzz and the biblical biopic Mary Magdalene a sure-fire awards botherer come 2017. However, with Ben Mendelsohn and Riz Ahmed, he’s also managed to cast two actors set to go stratospheric this December when they appear in what is likely to be the year’s biggest film — Rogue One. It wasn’t planned, of course, though Andrews admits that when he found out about Star Wars after casting them, he took it as “quite a bonus.”

A taut emotional drama based on the Olivier-winning stage play by David Harrower, Una, which screens Sept. 11 in Toronto, tells the story of a young woman who tracks down the man with whom she had a sexual — and illegal — relationship 15 years earlier. Michelle Williams and Alison Pill have played the female lead on stage (Williams recently alongside Jeff Daniels on Broadway), but Andrews turned to Mara, whose “beguiling beauty” he says enables audiences to have a “fascination with her but they don’t quite get everything.”

Mendelsohn ditches the white robes of the Galactic Empire for warehouse overalls as Ray, who went to jail for his actions and finds his new life — and identity — interrupted by this visitor fromthe past.

Andrews had directed the actor on stage in Sydney for a production of Julius Caesar (Mendelsohn played Mark Antony). And, as it happens, Andrews had knowledge of the original play, helming a German-language adaptation on stage in Berlin just three months after its original Edinburgh run in 2005.

“For a long time, I was always trying to find the right project for a first film, and I remember after directing the play, even a couple of years after, still having the experience in me and being fascinated by the characters and also in how the film might differ from theater,” he says. “In theater, we’re trapped in the room with the two of them for an hour and a half, and it interested me how the cinema might have the opportunity to really open that up and be pulled more into their story.”

Although he says he “definitely wants to do more” and is now actively looking for his next film, Andrews has no plans to turn his back on his roots. “Theater has been my home for 20 years; it has a very deep place and has nurtured a strong connection with everything I do. But now I’m deliberately making space in my schedule for filmmaking.”