A formidable woman

Rosamund Pike on playing Ruth Williams in A United Kingdom.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Rosamund Pike stars with David Oyelowo in Amma Asante's potent A United Kingdom
Rosamund Pike stars with David Oyelowo in Amma Asante's potent A United Kingdom Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The last time I spoke with Rosamund Pike was on the opening night of the 52nd New York Film Festival for the World Premiere of David Fincher's Gone Girl, co-starring Ben Affleck. At The Peninsula in New York, we sat down for A United Kingdom conversation on her role as Ruth Williams, the wife of the man who would become the first president of Botswana, Seretse Khama. A betrayal by Winston Churchill, costume designer Anushia Nieradzik, Isabelle Huppert's advice on footwear, Amma Asante's desire to inject female elements into the script by Guy Hibbert, Cédric Jimenez's The Man With The Iron Heart, based on Laurent Binet's novel HHhH, and José Padilha's Entebbe were discussed.

Rosamund Pike on Seretse (David Oyelowo): "He is a very striking man who is talking with passion and interest and intellect."
Rosamund Pike on Seretse (David Oyelowo): "He is a very striking man who is talking with passion and interest and intellect."

In 1947 London, Ruth Williams (Pike) is taken to a Missionary Society hospitality evening at Nutford House by her sister Muriel (Laura Carmichael). There she meets Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a law student. His friends warn him that she is "a salesman's daughter, British and white." Her father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) threatens to never speak to her again and unleashes his prejudice. "How many other wives?" he asks and concludes with "You disgust me."

They are in love and live happily ever after. Not exactly - but it could have been that simple had there not been an almost insurmountable number of obstacles in their way. Winston Churchill in a particularly significant betrayal, does his best to keep the couple apart. "When a man tells a lie he loses his dignity - so does a country," Seretse concludes in a memorable speech.

Amma Asante's A United Kingdom combines the politics with the love story without having either lose their power. Pike and Oyelowo's great performances get to the core of why their struggle against all odds is still so relevant today. Maybe now more than ever.

Ruth and Seretse with their firstborn Jacqueline after coming back from being exiled.
Ruth and Seretse with their firstborn Jacqueline after coming back from being exiled.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I liked the meeting of the couple at the start of the film, the details of it on a private, as well as a much broader level.

Rosamund Pike: Oh, that's nice.

AKT: She [Ruth] notices him [Seretse] first.

RP: Yes.

AKT: But not only the way he looks but also that he talks about "unity, inclusiveness and equality."

RP: He is a very striking man who is talking with passion and interest and intellect. And Ruth was looking for that. She was looking for something. She was one of those women at the vanguard of new opportunities for women. Someone who has been liberated by her experience during the Second World War, I think. One of the many women, as we know, who stepped into men's roles while they were away fighting. She was someone who was really kind of opened up by those experiences to the possibility of what life could hold.

Rosamund Pike: "I always love costume fittings and finding the character."
Rosamund Pike: "I always love costume fittings and finding the character."

AKT: When you read the first encounter in the script, were you immediately attracted to the story?

RP: I was already attracted to the couple. Just through the photographs that I had seen of them. I couldn't work out why I found these photographs so powerful. Real photographs of the real Ruth and Seretse. I found them moving and incredibly strong. I think it must have been that I sort of connected with the love but also connected with the journey that it had taken to get to the point that those photographs were taken. You know, what did it cost them? All the struggles. I found it very moving.

AKT: It is one of the big love stories on screen. When they arrive, I was thinking of Out Of Africa or The English Patient. And this, A United Kingdom, is what we need now. A love story that is more than that.

RP: Yes. It's also a bridge, you know. It's bridging worlds, it's bridging gaps, it's inviting inclusivity. It's inviting people to open up to difference, not hide away from difference.

Rosamund Pike on Amma Asante: "She really wanted Ruth to gain acceptance first through the women."
Rosamund Pike on Amma Asante: "She really wanted Ruth to gain acceptance first through the women."

AKT: The film includes a travel ban.

RP: Sure.

AKT: The blocking of access.

RP: The blocking of access - absolutely. You can't believe it. I don't think Ruth could ever have foreseen that her romantic life would take her to a point where people were trying to block them. Exactly. Stop them traveling. Keep them contained.

AKT: The part of the story that she is trapped in Africa and he is in England while she is pregnant - that part of the journey shows the strength that she has. The scene with you in the car alone, driving …

RP: Driving to give birth! I know. I found that really inspiring. And it's all true! She did that. Pretty formidable, isn't it?

AKT: What I like so much about the details, as I mentioned before, is that the film connects these real events, what she did, with moments such as her joining the women sitting in the hospital after giving birth. Which is, I suppose an invention?

Rosamund Pike on her sandals: "They're quite innocent and grounding."
Rosamund Pike on her sandals: "They're quite innocent and grounding."

RP: Yes.

AKT: That successful combination is rare and lovely.

RP: Those details were definitely injected by Amma Asante, our director. You know, she really injected all those female elements. She really wanted Ruth to gain acceptance first through the women. Because it's being tough. One of the other things about the film that drew me was the experience of a white person trying to belong in an African world and wanting to be included and being excluded. I'd never seen that. You know, we tend to think that it's the black person who is being excluded. It's depictions of racism.

AKT: That beautiful speech: "Race must have no bearing on equality and justice." That's a great line.

RP: It is.

AKT: The political back dealings - apartheid, South Africa.

RP: Also the betrayal interested me. The whole section with Churchill. When I read that in the script, I thought, oh, you know, Churchill heralding how important marriage is. And that he will, when in power, return Seretse to his wife. I thought, oh, it's going to be alright then.

Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) and Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton)
Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) and Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton)

AKT: I did, too.

RP: Somehow, Churchill is usually included in a film to give a sense of order and to think the right thing will happen. I was astonished to see that he betrayed them like that.

AKT: It is one of a few moments where a theme, a scene, or even a sentence starts one way and then goes in the other direction. I think, Amma likes to do that. Even when Ruth agrees to get married, you start with what in your facial expression or the sentence looks like a no.

RP: Right, yes, yes. It's an interesting proposal because he starts off saying "Now, I know you'd want a lot of time to think about it and I don't expect an answer straight away." He starts off with giving you many things, many reasons to say no, Seretse did.

AKT: Also the scene where you get beaten up on the street has an interesting perspective. Ruth's nose is bleeding. Most films would have him bleeding.

A United Kingdom posters at The Peninsula
A United Kingdom posters at The Peninsula Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

RP: Him, sure.

AKT: And the woman protected as though this couldn't happen.

RP: That's a good point. I think it needed to be that it was her, sort of, her awakening into the struggles they were going to face. You know, into racism. And she needed to be bloodied, really. She needed to have it on her. She needed to physically wipe that stain away, metaphorically and actually.

AKT: I also liked the costumes.

RP: I think she [Anushia Nieradzik] is a brilliant designer. Very true to how Ruth dressed in real life.

AKT: Very colourful. The patterns, I noticed. At the first dance, her stripes and his V-neck sweater vest - they match the dizziness, the giddiness.

RP: Oh, that's nice. That's lovely, yeah. No, I think costume can be, is, a wonderful craft. You can do so much with costume. I always love costume fittings and finding the character. And also the costuming in Botswana was very interesting. Because since Seretse's grandfather asked for the protection of Queen Victoria, he also did away with traditional dress. So everybody in Botswana wore western clothes for many years, actually. To the point of our film. It was a lovely palette that she created there amongst the women and the men.

AKT: Great sandals you are wearing. Ruth's sandals.

Ruth with Jacqueline
Ruth with Jacqueline

RP: Those were actually modern. We found them in sort of modern shops. They're quite innocent and grounding.

AKT: Isabelle Huppert told me that for her it always starts with the shoes to get into a character.

RP: You know when the shoes are wrong, you know? And oftentimes, people don't notice them.

AKT: I saw that you have a film upcoming that is based on HHhH?

RP: Yes. You know that book [by Laurent Binet]?

AKT: Yes, I do.

RP: It's a brilliant book and a brilliant adaptation. I don't know where it is, the film. I think it will come out this year. It's very subtle. It's obviously the interesting structure of that book and getting it right on film is not easy. I played Lina Heydrich, a real monster. But in order to … I mean, you can't play her as a monster. You have to play the truth of her and find her. Find out who she was and find out what it was like to be German in 1940. It was a fascinating film to make.

AKT: I just spoke to Amma and it's interesting that she is also making a film [Where Hands Touch] that takes place in Germany - in 1944.

RP: And actually I just finished playing a German woman in another film called Entebbe where I've been playing a German, speaking German. A challenge.

AKT: How is your German?

RP: For those scenes I just worked on it like a dialect, like I was working on American.

AKT: HHhH is all in English, isn't it?

RP: In English, yes.

Coming up - Director Amma Asante on A United Kingdom.

A United Kingdom opens in the US on February 10.

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