Interview: Agyness Deyn on Her Breakthrough in 'Sunset Song', and How Modeling Prepared Her for Film
Jose here. Agyness Deyn doesn’t have a very long list of screen credits, she played Aphrodite in Clash of the Titans, narrated a Rihanna video, and appeared in Pusher. That will undoubtedly change once directors see her gorgeous work in Terence Davies’ Sunset Song where she plays Chris Guthrie, a Scottish farm girl trying to fend for herself in the years before WWI. It’s a performance made of composed emotion, endless inner strength, and an otherworldly quality that makes one think of great work by Olivia de Havilland and Ingrid Bergman.
Many people will know Ms. Deyn from her work as a model, back in the mid-aughts there wasn’t an issue of Vogue where she didn’t appear. With her pixie cut, effortless chic and strong personality she brought a “punk/rock” edge to modeling. Since 2012, she’s been focusing her attention on film and Sunset Song is her first leading role.
I sat down to speak to Ms. Deyn about working with Terence Davies, her favorite actresses and how her life in the runway prepared her for her work on film. Read the conversation after the jump...
JOSE: Which are your favorites of Terence’s films?
AGYNESS DEYN: Distant Voices, Still Lives is my favorite. It’s the first of his I saw, I think it changed the way I watched films. It changed my range of films, the range of what I was watching. After I saw that I was like “wow, this is really powerful”, it was so beautiful. Even at the beginning of the film there’s a shot of the stairs, and he just holds on the stairs, and there is so much going on. He’s an amazing filmmaker and I was very aware of his work before I met him.
JOSE: Since you were a fan of his work, did you decide you needed to audition for this when you heard about it?
AGYNESS DEYN: I did actually. I was doing a play on the West End, and the people that were casting Sunset Song saw the play. The next day I went to their office to have a cup of tea and a chat, and they told me they were only seeing Scottish actresses for the role. I asked them if they could please let me read it, they agreed. I went home, read it and called my agent and asked him to do whatever it took to let me audition. They let me come, and I did the scene after Chris has been raped. It was amazing because I was doing the play, I ran there in the morning before rehearsals for the play, I ran there, did the scene, ran out and went to work. Then I got a phone call a few months later, “hello this is Terence”, I asked “Terence who?”, he said “Terence Davies”, and asked “would you do me the honor of playing Chris?” I told him the honor would be mine.
He has said in interviews that he knew you were Chris from the beginning. Do you remember what you thought when you first me thim?
I watched a lot of interviews, I felt I had a sense of him before going in there. So when I arrived it was more about what he evoked in me in a creative level. Terence has such a genteel quality about him, he’s very passionate, and very aware of his impact on actors. He’s very genteel and specific. He’s so passionate about what he wants. Even in the audition he said “it has to be more, this is what this scene is”, I remember doing it, and what he said ignited a fire in me. I’m not a confrontational person, I don’t know why I chose that scene for my audition, but I realized that whether I got the part or not, Terence had already had an impact on me in a creative level.
Did you find it necessary to read the book and watch the miniseries from the 70s? Or did you want to create your own Chris from the screenplay?
I didn’t watch the TV series because I didn’t want to have a visual reference to compare myself to, but I read the book continually from when I got offered it, I read it twice in a row and then would go back to read passages during the shoot. The book is like the soul of Chris, everything that is occurring off-screen, it’s like her mental diary. You get a sense of that in the voiceover, you get a sense of how reflective and analytical she is of herself as a woman in this world. The book was very inspiring for Terence as well, he took many important moments from the book that would make a good film, but he also had in mind things like what Chris did day to day.
Even though I know you did the voiceovers, the times I’ve watched the film I get a sense that it’s a different Agyness if that makes any sense. Your voice is so unlike what we see Chris do onscreen, how was the process of disembodying yourself in a way to portray these two aspects of the same character?
We did the voiceover after we filmed. It was funny because it took a year and a half after I was offered the part, for the filming to begin. There was me and Kevin Guthrie and Peter Mullan, we were all on board from the start. I had so much time to prepare that I decided that instead of it being me playing Chris, it would be Chris playing me. I wasn’t trying to play Chris anymore, she was taking me by the hand. I remember one day sitting on the car with Peter Mullan, as we were driving to the set, he asked if I was OK, and I told him I felt I’d lost my way with what we were doing, and he said “no, you find it, when you feel like you don’t have any control anymore, you find it”. From then on it felt different. From the voiceover I knew where she was within me, that’s the only way I can describe it.
How is it for you as a woman living in the 21st century to look at these men who made Chris’ life so terrible? I often wanted to kill all those guys.
I didn't, I always feel like having experiences like that, whether it’s in that time or now, when you encounter people that push back on you it makes you change, it makes you stronger, it makes you experienced. As a woman any kind of time period you have that not just from men, but from other women as well. I think that’s what creates a quiet strength within a woman which is inherent because it illuminates that.
You arrived at a time in modeling when a model didn’t have to be just “a model”. I remember in one of your interviews you explained that when you were on the runway you were acting, that the glamorous woman on the runway wasn’t Agyness. People for the longest time assume that models are born like Venus in that Botticelli painting, but you were very outspoken about the process and how it was a performance.
How did your experience in runways, which are stages, and in photo shoots inform your decisions as a film actor?
The fundamental things like being in the gaze, as a model you’re always in the gaze, everyone is looking at you, so you start to be OK with that. Being able to exist within the environment of a set was familiar. It’s quite complicated and complex because being a model you have to take on a role. I was always a tomboy, I wasn’t very model-y. I pretended to be a model, I found it fun to take on roles who were the opposite of me. But they are roles on a small scale. You can say that modeling is two-dimensional, even on a psychological level, and acting is multifaceted on every level. It’s like the speck of sand to the beach. It’s the first sparks that take you to this other place, which in so many ways is the opposite. As a model you have to be able to be a blank canvas to be open to projection of what everyone else wants you to be. That’s your job, you facilitate what everyone else wants you to be. With acting, you create a role which is in line with the director, the writer, but is coming from within you and your soul quality has to be there. In modeling you sometimes have to switch that off, you have to put yourself in the back burner to be what they want you to be.
It’s so interesting that you mentioned gaze, because in the film we see Chris become aware of who she is sexually when a random stranger grabs her ankle, and then for the first time we see her looking at herself in the mirror. As if only once she knew she was desired by men, she allowed herself to become a sexual being. What was shooting that scene like?
I had Terence there, and he had a very simplistic view of the scene, which is never simplistic for Terence. He says “the camera will be here, you go there and look at yourself”, it sounds so simple, but when he says it there is a stillness that he captures. I always feel like in scenes like that he evokes stillness which says so much, it allows so much space for everything else. Also that passage in the book is very powerful, there’s so much in it, a giddy child, being a woman and touching her body for the first time, there’s also fear about the expectations of being a woman, how does she exist in a masculine world? There’s all this going on. I think everyone goes through that, but the difference between men and women, is that for women it’s a physical thing. A woman’s body changes so much into a woman.
You changed your name influenced by numerology, and I find it interesting that Chris has such a masculine name. What were your thoughts on Chris in relation to the meaning of names and how they affect our place in the world?
There’s a scene in the film when Ewan calls her Chrissie, and she says “no Ewan, my name is Chris”. I always thought about that in a way she was bringing it all down to the most straightforward interpretation of herself. She was always trying to bring it down to a simple interpretation. I thought the fact she didn’t want the embellishment of names and being a woman and what that meant, to be quite interesting. She likes everything with truth and meaning.
I love that when we first see her, she looks like she’s being born from the earth. Chris Guthrie now is joining this amazing tradition of female characters who are the earth, like Scarlett O’Hara and Bathsheba Everdene. Was it exciting to join this legacy?
Yes, symbolically a woman is earth. There’s a quiet power in being connected to our roots and the earth. Women are really affected by that, I know it affects me to go back to nature, it’s like a recharge. Chris knows that as long as she is connected to that everything will be OK.
The film was shot in three different countries, did you have instances of the earth and weather making it impossible for the shoot to happen?
In New Zealand they were having the worst storms they’d had in years, and we had gone there to shoot the summer scenes. We found it at the same time the weather in Scotland was beautiful (laughs), but then the sun broke and it was magnificent. In Scotland we had the trials and tribulations of the Scottish weather, with rain and cold, Terence was so wonderful during these moments. I loved it though, I saw it what it would have been like to be Chris and walking miles in the cold to go to town.
On a totally random note, there were rumors of an Alexander McQueen biopic last year and I immediately put you in my wishlist to play Stella Tennant. Would that be something that interests you?
(Laughs) I haven’t really thought about it. I mean, he was wonderful, he was so creative and what he did was art over fashion. I haven’t thought of being in the film, but I’d definitely watch it!
You’ve done music, stage and film. What other creative outlet are you interested in pursuing?
Just film. The beauty of film is that every project feels like a totally new job, it’s wonderful to have that, you start from square one and go from there. Film is definitely where I’m going to stay.
Do you watch your movies?
I do, it’s an essential part of seeing how it translates. I feel that to watch the film is not just the actors, it’s a creative collaboration, so I’d want to watch Terence’s work for instance, and see things I could have done differently.
You mentioned earlier that Terence’s work opened your perception to what films could do. What directors did you seek after him?
Terrence Malick, I also went on a Hitchcock binge, Godard. I went back to watch all these obscure Criterion Collection films like The Passion of Joan of Arc, things that aren’t put in front of you on a daily basis. Things you have to seek out.
Last, I have to ask who are your three favorite actresses?
Ingrid Bergman, Meryl Streep and Dame Judi Dench. She’s amazing, I love her in the theatre and she’s amazing on films as well.