Shooting The Messenger

Samantha Morton talks about her new film.

by David Graham

The story of an intense friendship that forms between two men whose job it is to tell relatives about the deaths of soldiers, The Messenger opens in UK cinemas this week and is already receiving considerable acclaim. Samantha Morton plays a soldier's widow who becomes involved with one of the men. We caught up with her at a London Q&A where she talked about her experiences making the film.

Oren Moverman was an experienced writer making his first movie. Samantha worked with him ten years ago (on Jesus' Son). How did she get involved this time around?

"We had a long-running relationship previous to this film, where I've nearly done films he's gonna direct then they don't work out, or I've been attached to films he's written that for some reason I've not got to play in the end," she recounts. "When he sent me the script and asked if I'd do it, I really was about to have a baby any day, but then I read it and thought I couldn't not do it. They were really amenable to me, I was able to go with my very young child and shoot it."

Why does she think we've never seen a war movie from this perspective before?

"There's always so many things to say about war historically; to try and raise finance for a film like this here or in the States is not that easy. It depends on whether or not people think it's important what happens to men when they come home, and they're put back into the community in whatever state they're in, without any real counselling or support. It touches on what we deem important or not as a society. That was a reason for me to make the film."

Did she have to do any research for the role?

"I grew up in a military family, my brother has served in both wars in Sierra Leone. He's now a private security guard in Iraq. My brother's service and my father's time in Northern Ireland made me want to do the film, I grew up with a lot of that stuff. For me it was completely familiar territory. For anyone that's lost someone, this is my way of giving back; I'm not a charity worker, I'm not a doctor, this is the best I can do to try to share with people how it feels. With my character Olivia it was more about the fact that she had lost her husband a long time ago - psychologically - to the war, and then trying to be a single mum. I have been a single mum, so I felt like I could really identify with her. In a way it was one of the first characters I've played in a long time where we've had so much in common. And I play Americans a lot, I've lived in America on and off since I was 19, so the accent wasn't a problem. I'm an actor, it's what I do."

Did she ever think about where these characters might go after the film's ending?

"I don't really. My thrill is going there and doing the scenes on the day, and hoping that the director and everyone is really happy with their film at the end when it's been edited, and that it does well for them, for all of us. Of course, people stay in my mind; I occasionally think about characters that I've enjoyed playing. It wasn't difficult to come out of the character, but it was incredibly difficult to perform with a small child in a trailer! Because it's emotional stuff, you want to protect your child from that; I'm very good at that because I've been acting since I was a very young kid, I'm able to get out of character very quickly. But I did have to make sure that after the walk back to the trailer I could go in and be happy."

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster face tough ethical decisions in The Messenger
Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster face tough ethical decisions in The Messenger

Even though this film is very focused on America, does she think it has a universal appeal?

"The appeal for me was the universal aspects of grief and war; my personal opinion is that there's so much money spent on wars but it's the tragedies at home that are so profound. I like the fact that it's not just about the men, it felt like a very sensitive film with regards to the women that are left. I thought it was brave of Oren to allow the women to have their moment in this story."

How did she prepare for the scene where her character gets the news?

"I'm an incredibly focused actress, I get really concentrated on a role. I think I'm in character a lot, I didn't realize this years ago but I'm a bit of a method actress, certainly on set. Oren didn't want any rehearsal for that scene; we ended up doing about 12 takes that day, he wanted to get it very real. Preparation for me is often music; I listen to music to take me away from the hustle and bustle of a crew who are working really hard to achieve a lot in very little time. You just have to be as focused and as ready as you can be when they need you. For this scene I was listening to a song called 'Sad Sexy' by Dirty Three, they're an amazing band."

How did Oren direct her during these intense scenes? Was it rigidly scripted?

"He has a very definite idea of what he wants emotionally, but he'll give you freedom to perform. It's like fine-tuning a piano, he'll allow you the freedom to go somewhere and if he wants to make any adjustments, he'll go again. It isn't just, 'Do this, this is how I want it'; he's been around a long time and he's very generous with actors. He's not floppy and safe; that's quite frustrating as an actor, if directors are lazy and don't tell you anything."

There are lots of little touches that add to the film's poignancy; was any of this serendipitous, or was it all by design?

"If you read any of Oren's scripts, his attention to detail is second-to-none. He's really careful, he realizes that everything is going to mean something in the film. He's also very respectful with his crew, but there are no accidents. For example, I was listening to my earphones while preparing, and he asked me to keep them in."

What about her co-stars, Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson?

"I'm attached to work with Ben again on something, he's extraordinary," she says. "I'm very lucky to work with men like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn; these are men I consider to be highly individual, whatever they bring to their roles is really interesting. I think Ben falls into that 'young Sean Penn' category, we had really good chemistry, which you can't predict or plan. It's all about the work for him, but he's not someone who takes himself too seriously; there are some thespians who you're like, 'Go to the pub! Do something real!' If you don't live you can't really bring anything to roles, I don't think. And Woody's great, he's brilliant. We're all chalk and cheese, but we all got on really well. it's one of those films I'll remember for working with people who really care."

There's a lengthy, one-take kitchen scene between Ben and Samantha that looks very spontaneous. How did she handle that?

"I was still listening to that Dirty Three album! But no, it was an incredibly technically precise scene, with marks and focus; we had to walk through it a lot, almost like a play, hitting your marks and delivering your lines. Film is incredibly expensive, you try not to waste it. We had to do a few run-throughs to get the right marks physically before we could get the right marks emotionally."

Can she tell us about her own directorial aspirations?

"With The Unloved [the Channel 4 film that marked her directing debut] , it was actually shot on 35mm film. We had money from Revolution Films to shoot a movie that would have a dual release - it would come out in cinemas and on telly at the same time. But then something changed, and Channel suddenly 4 hit us with a release date. Me and Tony Grisoni wrote it, I shot it and edited it, it drove me a bit loopy. Edie was only 8 weeks old so it was a really hard time, but if you don't do it when they have the money then you don't get to do it. It did play in cinemas, it won awards and did incredibly well at Toronto, it's just being released in the States.

"Will I direct again? At the time I said 'no', because I hadn't really seen Edie properly. I felt it was insane, trying to be a parent and directing. I think acting and being a parent is a lot easier of course, but I'm ready again, I loved doing it."

Samantha has always said she never had a plan for her career; how does she feel things have panned out for her?

"I still don't have a plan. Every time I think it's been a while since a good script has come through or there hasn't been a part I've liked, then something amazing happens and it restores my faith in what we do and what the industry is about. There's a lot around at the moment that can dampen your spirit, whatever job you do. I don't have any regrets, I'm very lucky considering I'm very working class and have managed to do incredibly well in America and here in the UK. I think I've done it on my own terms, I don't think I'm a big celebrity, I don't feel I have to be a certain way. I just feel there are people out there that I admire that like to work with me if we get the opportunity."

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