Alex Garland built his career on cerebral sci-fi. The novelist-turned-screenwriter-turned-director was responsible for two of the most acclaimed science fiction films of the last decade in Ex Machina and Annihilation, and those were his only two features at the time. After a dip into TV with Devs, he’s back with his third feature: Men. Like Annihilation, it follows a grieving woman who, shortly after losing her husband, ventures into a hallucinatory natural place that doesn’t seem to play by the rules of space-time. Unlike Annihilation, it depicts a woman trying to let go, to heal.
On the rise as a household name over the past few years, recent Oscar nominee Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Lost Daughter) plays the lead, Harper, whose mind-bending experience of the terror and allure that unfolds seems as interpretable to her as it does to us. Rory Kinnear––whose acting career runs the gamut from the original Black Mirror to Bond franchise regular––plays, well, all men. Some are CGI de-aged tween boys. Some are cooky landlords. Some are cops. Hell, some are naked stalkers.
We sat with Buckley and Kinnear to talk about their roles, the themes at work in the film, the value of an interpretation, and the Edenic qualities of Men, among other things.
The Film Stage: I’ve noticed so far that everyone involved in the film has been pretty reluctant to give interpretations, which—
Rory Kinnear: Ah, and you’re gonna break us down now?
Jessie Buckley: [Laughs]
[Laughs] No, but it got me wondering: do you have concrete interpretations of the film that you just don’t want to pigeonhole it with? Or is this a film you play a part in without totally understanding?
Kinnear: “Interpretations” feels like there’s a puzzle to be solved. Um, it’s a provocation really, and it asks us… it sort of demands to be responded to. Obviously in the boldness in some of its choices and in the richness of the tapestry that it presents. Also, I’ve seen it twice, and I’ve obviously been in it …
Buckley: Eight times.
Kinnear: …and obviously read it several times beforehand. And each time something else has chimed with me. Quite often—according to the things that I’m doing that day, or how life has been within that period of time. So I think that’s the nice thing about the opacity. And, obviously, you know, you can divulge the way that you react, but because you’re in it, because you’ve been a part of the creative process, it might be afforded more authority than an audience member’s reaction. And it simply doesn’t have that. I mean, like, my response is not down to the fact that I’m in it. It’s down to who I am as a person. And I think it demands a multiplicity of responses, and it’ll be fun to see what conversations it provokes and what they produce.
Do you usually like films like this? Films that leave you with a million questions and perhaps challenge you more than they care to present a coherent story?
Buckley: Yeah, I love films like that. I’m terrified of scary films. But I don’t think this is a scary film. It’s an unnerving film, and I think it makes you lean into the things you’re probably scared of instead of fleeing them. But yeah, I mean, I guess I like films that I can put on and think about and totally escape and have a lovely time, and I also like films that stay with me, that I can have mad chats with my friends about or whatever.
Rory, how did you approach the role(s) of playing eight different people? As one man with many selves, as separate characters entirely, or…?
Kinnear: Yeah, I mean it’s, in some ways, sort of like a microcosm of the frustrations of acting in general, which is that it’s fantastically rewarding to get to play such a wide variety of people, from different periods of time, from different life experiences, with different attitudes, with different visions of the world––but eventually you realize they’re always through the prism of yourself, and that’s inescapable.
So the film does, particularly at the end, play into that fact—you know, that they all are coming from the same place. And so I was really keen to make sure each one was credible and distinct from each other. I also knew that I didn’t want to take the route of playing it as sort of sketch or stock characters whereby you would sort of be taken out of the story and invest in the acting. I didn’t want the acting to be of any interest, really, to anyone that watched the film. I wanted to make sure that we were serving what Alex’s choice was in casting the same person in all these roles, in terms of the impact it has on Harper’s story.
If you were telling someone about Men, what would you say it’s about, thematically?
Buckley: Grief. Like, coming to terms with grief. And, you know, death and rebirth and yeah. But grief I would say.
Kinnear: Yeah, I mean, in its many iterations of me seeing it, it’s had the most impact as an exploration of the lasting effects of trauma. But also, the lasting effects of the actions of others and how unwitting those effects can be. And that goes, obviously, from the micro to the macro in terms of the aggressions Harper suffers at the hands of these many male characters. But equally, how difficult it is instinctively to judge the impact of your behavior from another person’s perspective.
Did you talk much about the space she’s in as a sort of Garden of Eden? There’s a straightforward reference to it in the beginning, when she eats the apple, but I’m curious as to what degree that space—especially with how nature-heavy it was—was fleshed out as an Edenic place?
Buckley: Kind of, but like in the same way that the Green Man and the Sheela-Na-Gig are like touchstones for you to use in whatever way you want, you know? Some people won’t pick that up, the Garden of Eden—or, you know, they won’t react to that. But yeah, it gave us a scope for us to explore lots of that. And also even just, you know, this idea of Adam and Eve and the Green Man: they’re fables. They’re things that come in and out of our subconscious as a culture all the time. And I don’t think there was anything specific… they’re for you to do what you will with them.
Kinnear: They’re also all kind of representative stories that we have retold, and retold, and retold ourselves as humanity. And I think that’s probably something that Alex is picking up on––that sense of continuity and the unchanging nature of both human behavior and the way that we cope with existing, and couching it in these stories as old as all literature. Or how inescapable they are: the prisons we have created with these stories, as well how much they reflect society.
Buckley: But also, it’s like Harper has come to utopia––the most beautiful house. Like, she’s brought herself to a place. But, like, you know, Adam and Eve, they took a bite of the apple and fell from utopia. And it’s kind of like about the fall of man. Even within a relationship. You know, Harper and James, that conflict wasn’t something that was consistent in their relationship. It’s a one-stop situation. [Pauses] And I have no idea what I’m talking about. [Bursts into laughter]
Kinnear: It’s been a long day. It’s been a long day.
Buckley: [Laughing] Saying words. Words coming out of my mouth.
Kinnear: Lips flapping around [Makes a horse noise]. Like a horse! [Laughs]
Buckley: [Still laughing]
How often did you explicitly discuss gender while making the film?
Buckley: Yeah, well, we had to talk about that, you know? And I think Alex definitely was punk enough to try and ask something quite direct. And in our two weeks of rehearsal, before we started, we talked about everything, you know? It was just me and Rory, more or less, for most of the shoot. And Paapa [Essiedu], as well––that relationship was the catalyst of it. But I guess the big group thing was: what is our relationship between each other as men and women? And not something that’s divided, but actually, what is it? And what’s going wrong? And where does the pain come from? And what do you do with the pain that you have between each other.
But then also, like, those conversations fed into our understanding of the piece. It fed into little rewrites here and there from Alex. But once we actually got to filming it, you can’t think thematically anymore. You’ve just got to play the situation in front of each character. And so that kind of aspect of making the film sort of begins to retreat into the background––the questions you were asking yourself about this person’s day-to-day and what was provoking them into behaving like they are.
Men opens in theaters on Friday, May 20.