Hostages to fortune, part one

Lora Burke and Robert Notman on Poor Agnes

by Jennie Kermode

Lora Burke and Robert Notman in Poor Agnes
Lora Burke and Robert Notman in Poor Agnes

One of the standout films of the year - and not just in the horror/psychological thriller genres, Poor Agnes is the story of a serial killer who holds a private eye hostage, intending to murder him. There have been any number of films about men holding women hostage, but somehow the gender reversal here gives the film a different cast, as does the strange way that a bond begins to form between the two characters. Lora Burke, who plays the titular Agnes, and Robert Notman, who plays Mike, her captive, met with me on Skype to discuss what the film meant to them.

Sometimes actors struggle with promoting their work, saying the same things over and over again and getting frustrated. These two, by contrast, are clearly still passionate about the film. I started out by asking them how they first got involved with it.

"Me first?" asks Laura.

"Go for it." Rob smiles, settling back on his sofa.

"Thanks Rob. Ever a gentleman! Well, I auditioned for the role, I saw the script and weirdly kind of connected with Agnes right away - not in the sense of killing people but, I don't know, as I was reading the script I could see it all playing out in my head and hear her voice, and I knew right away that I really wanted to do it."

"What was the connection you found, then?" I ask.

"You know, maybe it was the connection in how dissimilar we are. I'm a pretty shy person and very polite." She laughs. "And she's the complete opposite! So maybe it was the admiration for who she is, and being able to play a character that's so far fetched from what I am in real life... I knew right away that I wanted it and I put a lot of effort into preparing. I think it was probably the most research that I've ever done for an audition."

Rob says that his process was much the same. "I got the audition and we were just given a small snippet of the script but I was drawn immediately to the reversal of the power roles between men and women, so that drew me to the project initially, and then at the callback with Will [Conlon] and Lora, it was really great chemistry. It was the dinner scene, I think, that everybody talks about, and it just clicked and I thought these are people I really want to work with. I almost didn't make the callback. I was filming on a commercial and they very kindly let me leave early so I could go to the callback."

"We got together a couple of times, didn't we, before filming?" she recalls.

"Yeah, just sort of to read through. I remember meeting at your place" he says to Lora, who nods, "and I think for both of us there were a few things we wanted to clarify, so it helps to gain perspective from either side and bounce things off each other. As far as developing that chemistry, a lot of it happened on set. The way that it was filmed, we were all just up there together - cast, crew, everybody. So we really quickly gained this really great bond where we could ask for things and we could make sure we as performers were getting what we needed and the crew could make sure they were getting what they needed. It was just a very comfortable environment to film in."

"Yeah, and Rob and I lived in the same house, with a couple of crew members for the whole duration, so we'd, you know, wake up and..."

He picks up her sentence. "Yeah, wake up and then go to work and come back and..."

"...and watch Reddit videos for three hours when we should be sleeping!" Lora concludes.

How did they approach the relationship between the characters?

"There's one thing that I've been hearing from a lot of people who've seen the film, and they want to know why didn't Mike just leave?" observes Rob. "Once he gains a bit of freedom or, I should say, Agnes lets him have a little more leash. Why not just leave? Why not just take the truck and skip town? And it was playing in that that I found interesting. I remember reading the script and thinking what the hell's wrong with him? When you yourself don't totally agree with what that character's doing, how do you convey that to the audience to get them on your side?"

"Right off the get go, reading the script, it was like yeah, this could be done really badly," says Lora. "It could just be like oh, yes, she's crazy. But I thought, okay, this is Agnes' film. The audience has to relate to her somehow. So one of my main goals was I want people to like her, even though they know that they shouldn't... She has a great sense of humour! It's dark and it's twisted but finding those lighter moments and allowing her lighter side of her personality to come out in little snippets I think really helped with becoming relatable."

The film gives the impression that there's a level on which Agnes was trying to sabotage the relationship she's developing with Mike.

"Yeah. She was kind of scared of this whole relationship and I felt that she hadn't had romantic relationships before where she'd actually cared about somebody. I don't know if I'd say she loves Mike" - she draws out the word, hesitantly - "but there's something there that she hasn't felt. I think we even do it as non-sociopathic serial killers, you get close to somebody and you're like no, no, this is too much, I don't know if I can do this. And she's such a strong independent woman, I think that she had to put her guard back up a few times when she felt herself slipping into this weird relationship with Mike."

Any film tackling issues like these is going to be controversial. I ask if either of them were concerned about that and what it could mean for their careers.

"Not for my character," says Rob. "It's hard to look at the character of Mike and be, like, ooh, that's a bad guy! There's some films that are controversial just for the sake of being controversial, that have that buzz around them. But I feel like what we did with Poor Agnes was, I mean, there were moments that were uncomfortable to watch and definitely some moments that were uncomfortable to film, but it was all served by a good story - and that, I think, can make or break a film. Because those moments don't feel out of place if you get the vibe that that's just how the film goes. It makes for a more comfortable viewing experience even if what you're viewing is not altogether pleasant."

"A few people walked out of one screening," Lora notes.

"That's right, yeah. We lost some seniors, unfortunately. It wasn't our target demo..."

They both laugh.

"At least they're going to go and talk about it and be like, Woah! We watched this film and it was..." She laughs again. "The thought did cross my mind. Especially reading it, with that damn dinner scene. I thought Oh God, this is really bad. But I thought, you know, how many times is a role like this going to come around for me, or for any woman in general? It doesn't come around often, and so what if it's controversial? It wasn't just the fact that she's a serial killer but for me, as a woman, playing such an intelligent role, someone who was physically strong, all these check boxes for me, and, you know, it's fun to be the bad guy."

Coming up in part two, Lora and Rob discuss why intelligent characters matter and talk about the key moments that brought their characters to life.

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