Armie Hammer and Lily James discuss the making of Ben Wheatley’s chilling new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’
The word has gone out — no personal questions please. Lily James, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone possessing a smartphone, is trying her best to keep matters private on the down-low this week, and one has the distinct impression that, were one daft enough to ask via Zoom ‘how’s the old love life then, Lil’, a troop of Netflix operatives would emerge from behind your sofa with a butterfly net.
We, of course, couldn’t care less about any of that — our business is film, and Ben Wheatley’s remake of Rebecca, in which Lily co-stars with Armie Hammer. He is Maxim de Winter, a Cornish aristocrat with a shady past who’s swanning around the Côte d’Azur in the 1920s when a pretty but badly dressed young woman catches his eye.
She (Ms James) is a mild and meek dormouse, the paid companion of Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), a fearsome socialite and grade A harpy who treats the unfortunate girl like dirt. Orphaned at any early age, she has no confidence and no one to protect her from the whims of Mrs Van H, until de Winter sweeps her off her feet and whisks her away to Manderley, his stately pile atop a Cornish cliff.
This, however, will not be quite the paradise she has anticipated, because her arrival is welcomed like a dose of the clap by Mrs Danvers, Manderley’s housekeeper and keeper also of the first Mrs De Winter’s flame. Though Rebecca died a year before, her malignant presence is palpable, and before long her ghost and Danvers’ scheming has the poor girl on the verge of madness.
This plot will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock version of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale, but these days not everyone has. Lily James had read the book, at least, having been given a copy by her mother. The story has fascinated her ever since.
“I read it when I was about 20,” she says. “And then I read it just like over and over and over again. I love it so much. I think maybe I love it too much, in some ways it’s been just like my lifeline… You’re completely in the mind of this character in the book, and you get a sense of everything she touches or feels, like the tick-tock of her brain. It’s visceral.”
Armie Hammer affably admits he’d never come across the film or book before being asked to play Maxim de Winter.
“Funny enough I’d never seen the Hitchcock version, I was aware of it of course but I had never seen it and I had also not read the book, which probably says more about the American education system than anything else! But when I got hired and Ben asked me had I seen the Hitchcock one I said no, I’ll go watch it. But he said no, no don’t do that, because we’re doing our own adaptation and I don’t want you to see it and get stuck in a rut of trying to copy Sir Laurence Olivier. Though apparently most of his performance came from the fact that he hated being there.”
Sir Laurence did not relish the experience of working with the prickly Hitchcock, and had wanted his wife Vivien Leigh, and not the unknown Joan Fontaine, to be his co-star. All of which no doubt contributed to his memorably grumpy performance, but Arnie saw none of that prior to shooting, and just as well perhaps.
“Yeah, you know we made our own adaptation in the end. And though Hitchcock changed du Maurier’s book a little bit, we stayed a little but more true to the source material I think.”
Armie’s Maxim seems sadder, less arrogant, and ultimately more vulnerable. And playing him, the actor tells me, was a case of less is more. “The character himself is a bit of a cypher,” he tells me, “and as the viewer you don’t ever really know what you’re getting. But it’s because he’s been through trauma, we find him in the beginning as a very broken man, I mean he’s wrestling with the guilty conscience of killing his wife, and he’s basically been on the run.” That, we agree, is the kind of matter that might weigh heavily on a chap’s conscience.
His chemistry with Lily James is good in the film, and Maxim seems drawn to her character for the very reason everyone else seems to despise her — her innocence. “Yeah, and she’s not the kind of person who would treat him the way Rebecca treated him, he finds something different in her. And then as the story goes on you start to see Maxim crumble, you see Lily’s character rise and find her strength and act as a buttress almost to Maxim.”
Lily James liked the way Wheatley and his writers emphasised her character’s confusion early on. “You feel drunk on these characters and on this house,” she says. “I think Ben Wheatley has captured that in a way where it starts to feel almost hallucinogenic. My character increasingly can’t tell what’s true and what’s not as the story goes on, and it becomes sort of overwhelming for her.”
Armie also liked how Wheatley subtly changed de Winter’s attitude. “With Ben’s approach, Maxim was less of this stiff upper class nobility, and he was a broken, damaged human being, like everyone else in the story in fact, they’re all kind of damaged in some way or other, from Rebecca to Danny to Lily’s character. It’s kind of like a study of broken people, and what they are willing to forgive, what they are willing to allow, and the moral ambiguity of all that, you know.
"But that blankness to him, it’s also part and parcel of his class, and where he comes from — he comes from a place where it’s very much children should be seen and not heard, it’s the stiff upper lip, and having problems is for the poor, kind of thing.”
He gets the cut glass English accent down pretty well too, for a first-timer. “I’ve up to this point in my career mainly played American nobs, so I’ve got that going for me!”
Kristin Scott Thomas is chillingly good as Danvers: was there, I wonder, any method shunning of the villainous Mrs D on the set?
“No, not at all,” says Hammer. “I’ll tell you one thing about Kristin Scott Thomas, Kristin once beat an entire pub full of people at darts with a pint glass in her hand, you know throw a dart and hit a bull’s eye, throw some crisps in her mouth, knock back a pint, grab the dart again. I mean she is formidable on screen and she is incredibly intimidating to do scenes with, but outside of work she’s a lot of fun.”
Lily agrees. “Kristin’s just incredible. I mean, I was so terrified the first time I saw her as Mrs Danvers. And she basically just bullies me and messes with my head throughout the entire movie. But Kristin’s incredible and we did manage to have loads of fun actually: and even though we have a few scenes that are really, really intense, we were laughing at ourselves thinking that we were being quite hammy and really falling into the melodrama of it .We had a lot of fun with that.”
When the shoot was over, and Armie Hammer finally got to watch the Hitchcock Rebecca, he was not overwhelmed. “I mean it’s obviously a great film, but I’m not sure it’s aged as gracefully as some of Hitchcock’s other work, em, just the way the set looks, the set design, it’s very black and white, very stark and shadowy and it looks very much like they’re on a set, and it’s just different.”
This Rebecca would have got a cinema release under normal circumstances, but thanks to Covid that won’t be happening, and the prospects aren’t good for Arnie Hammer’s next project either — Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot adventure Death on the Nile.
“I wouldn’t be holding my breath, no,” he says philosophically. “The cinemas are closed here in LA and New York. There are states, like Texas and other places, where they just seem to be convinced that the coronavirus is a Democratic ploy, like it isn’t happening, who cares! And it’s going about as well as you would expect that plan to go.
"I can’t go anywhere,” he says, shaking his head. “Having an American passport, it’s like it might as well be a coaster at this point.”