Interview with Phyllida Lloyd: “There are not enough roles for older women”
I thinks Meryl Streep really gave me the courage to build a world that is a little more fair and balanced [on a film set]. She encouraged me to think, ‘No, no, no, it doesn’t have to be like that’… It can be a gentler environment, ”says Somerset-born director Phyllida Lloyd. “I was able to create a less patriarchal environment. It was more of a morning hug than a hello.
Lloyd talks about The Iron Woman, her 2011 biopic of Margaret Thatcher starring Streep in an Oscar-winning performance as the former British Prime Minister. This was the second film that Lloyd has directed with the actor, who also played the free-spirited song and dance Donna Sheridan in Lloyd’s first film, the Abba-inspired blockbuster in 2008. Mom Mia! – one of the highest grossing British films ever made.
But now Lloyd, 64, has made a surprising move: she goes from blockbusters to independent films with her new Irish domestic violence drama Se, which releases September 10.
“I think it sounds ridiculous, but it was actually quite difficult to persuade people or to convince them that this was really what I wanted to do – work on a low budget movie,” says Lloyd, who is exceptionally down to earth. and drinking from a giant yellow mug. She speaks slowly and thoughtfully about Zoom from her home near Guildford, Surrey, where she lives with her partner and two children.
Se couldn’t be more different from the heaps of “fun and bubbly stuff” and “soccer mom movies” she was sent after Mom Mia!. It’s a moving and heartbreaking portrayal of domestic violence survivor and single mother, Sandra, played by Irish actress Clare Dunne, who also wrote the screenplay. Having escaped her abusive ex-partner with her two young daughters, Sandra finds herself trapped in temporary housing with an endless waiting list for social housing. That’s when she decides to build an affordable house on her own at the back of a garden owned by Peggy – played by Downton abbey‘s Harriet Walter – for whom Sandra cleans.
The film is triumphant and uplifting, like a gentle version of Billy Elliot, where the main character succeeds through thick and thin with the help of a friendly community. But it also brutally demonstrates that, despite the kindness of strangers and a brand new house, it does not stop the abuse. Se wonder why victims of domestic violence are asked so often “why didn’t you quit sooner?” », Which makes them bear the responsibility.
Lloyd has taken on leadership roles to ensure Dunne plays Sandra. “She really had a hard time finding screen work,” Lloyd says, “despite her amazing gifts” because “she didn’t have a conventional face.”
“She was asked to cover the mark on her eye – her birthmark – when she went for auditions,” Lloyd continues. “You know, I was outraged that she was judged that way, in a way that a man never would be.” Lloyd first met Dunne in 2012 when she cast her as Portia alongside Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar, the premiere of Lloyd’s all-female groundbreaking Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse. When she heard Dunne thinks the movie needs a bigger star than she is to get the funding, Lloyd thought, “Fuck that. She has to play the lead role and maybe if I commit to it, I can get there.
Either way, a more low-key work environment appealed to Lloyd, who describes big-budget movies as “a big juggernaut of a machine.”
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“I wanted to get into the realm of low budget movies because I thought it could help me bring the kind of work I was doing to the theater and align it more with what I want to do on screen.” , she says. . “It’s more simply to prevent the work environment from seeming so schizophrenic. And working on a low budget movie, it feels a bit more like the world I’m used to. It’s more down to earth.
Lloyd has always been a trailblazer: from her all-female Shakespeare plays to blockbuster movies and musicals, she has always put women center stage. When she left a girls’ boarding school at the foot of the Malvern Hills, where they “played all the parts in the plays,” she was “a little shocked” that the women had only “two little maid roles” in the real world of theater. “I thought, ‘My God, we have to get the program back here!’ Let’s go back to what it feels like when we have not just a tiny piece of the pie, but at least half of it. “
After reading English and Drama at the University of Birmingham, she spent five years in the Drama Department at BBC TV, before obtaining a scholarship from the Arts Council to train in directing. on stage in 1985, at the age of 28. His productions were daring, inventive, often radical, reaching right down to the roots of the characters’ psychological makeup – as in the case of his adaptation of Schiller Marie stuart, starring Janet McTeer (Mary) and Walter (Elizabeth I) at Donmar in 2005, in which Lloyd focused on the feeling of isolation of rival queens in a man’s world by dressing them in period costume, while that male courtiers wore a modern robe.
She also forged a career as a successful opera director, causing controversy with her ENO production of Wagner. Ring cycle in 2005, in which Brunnhilde, main character of a part of the four-cycle opera twilight of the gods, was portrayed as a suicide bomber. Her all-female Shakespeare trilogy – developed at HMP Holloway with a cast that included ex-offenders – was also deemed provocative at first, and dismissed as popular. “Some of the critics were annoyed. I think they thought it was some sort of establishment coup attempt, ”Lloyd says. But it was a game-changer by the time she finished it with Storm in 2017, with five-star reviews proving that a Shakespeare cast no longer needs to be a man.
A more optimistic work, his musical from 1999 Mom Mia! – which inspired the film version and which is still going on in the West End after 22 years – could have been cheesy but nonetheless sent an empowering feminist message: it was a show about the importance of female friendships and refused to do Shame on Streep’s character Donna for being promiscuous. And then Lloyd goes to New York to put Tina: The Tina Turner Musical back on Broadway in October after his suspension due to the Covid pandemic; it had its world premiere at the Aldwych Theater in London in 2018, before opening on Broadway in 2019.
I ask her what it is to be called a “director”? Lloyd only “accepted” this “for the first time” while working on the film. Mom Mia! – “Because the male / female ratio was a huge imbalance”.
“When I first entered the set of Mom Mia!, the film crew greeted each other “morning sir” and “morning governor”. It was “a bit like being in a military barracks,” she says. “There really wasn’t a word for me because they didn’t know what to say.”
It wasn’t until after a few weeks of filming, when the goofy boss turned to Lloyd and said “Hello, ma’am,” that she thought, “Okay, I’ve arrived.”
“But it was like they had gone to the dark side,” she says of the film crew.
Lloyd thinks there is still a lot of work to be done in favor of women in cinema, saying that “there are not enough roles for older women”.
“I think social media really doesn’t help, that old women, no matter what their age, are really not seen as sexy. A man can kind of get tall and daring and crazy and still have a great career in the movies until he falls. But a woman has to start worrying about her face long before that, which I think is a tragedy.
Lloyd, who remembers seeing actors like Glenda Jackson onscreen as a teenager, in roles that “didn’t play in the tropes of what femininity was supposed to be … and were incredibly sexy and powerful,” says things have “gone backwards” since the 1970s.
Lloyd always fought for women – and in the case of Se, not only by putting Dunne in the lead, but also by sending a message of hope to victims of domestic violence. When the film premiered on Amazon Prime Video in the United States earlier this year, rather than screened in theaters because they were closed due to the pandemic, she was initially “disappointed.”
“But as we start to think about the escalation of domestic violence, the number of people stuck in a heartbreaking lockdown in truly traumatic relationships, you start to think ‘My God,’” says Lloyd. “Clare’s mission was to try with this film, not only to instill compassion in those of us who feel safe in our homes, but to give hope to someone in this area. situation.”
‘Herself’ is now in UK cinemas