Hostages to fortune, part two

More from 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

The story of a serial killer and the strange bond she forms with the private detective who becomes her captive, Poor Agnes has been garnering rave reviews from festivals around the world, not least thanks to the talents of actors Lora Burke and Robert Notman. In the first part of our conversation about the film, they shared their thoughts on developing their characters and the chemistry that makes the film come to life. In part two, we began by talking about the relationship between the characters and the audience and why it mattered so much to show that they were both intelligent people.

"Agnes completely relies on her intelligence," observes Lora. "I mean, she uses her feminine wiles here and there, but speaking to Navin (Ramaswaran), our director, and James, our writer, I know it was important for them that they wanted to cast somebody quite petite and innocent looking. It was important to them that Agnes is relying on her intellect to do what she does."

"I personally don't like watching shows and movies with dumb characters," says Rob. "Especially if they're supposed to be somewhat central to the plot. I'm like, I don't care about this person. They're so dumb."

Lora murmurs her agreement.

Focusing on his character, Mike, Rob continues, "I didn't want the audience to not care about what was happening to him. Because if I hadn't presented it a certain way it would be very easy for the audience to say oh, well, he kind of deserves what's happening to him; why would he not do this or do this. And it's important to show that he's exhausted all those possibilities by about 30 to 40 minutes into the film when he's been captured for, you know, X amount of weeks. He likely has tried everything he could to escape, but that damn Agnes..."

"Yeah," says Lora. "I think with Mike showing his intellect matters because it has to make them question why is he staying, if he's just this dumb detective... it has to get them thinking about it."

"It also helps us understand why Agnes cares about him the way she does," I suggest.

"Exactly," says Lora, and laughs. "Oh yeah. She would not be intrigued by anybody that seemed very surface level. She's very much intrigued by Mike."

So what are the moments in the film that they think say most about their characters? Lora can't immediately pin one down, so Rob steps in.

"I'll tell you mine," he says. "One of my favourite bits is actually the wood chopping scene, and there was a little bit omitted from that where Agnes is chopping wood and then Mike puts another log on the chopping block, and the part that we filmed that didn't quite make the cut was where she says 'Hold onto it,' like put your hands on either side of the log. And after that she says 'Put your head on the log,' and to me that was Mike's moment of being like she's not going to kill me. That was his moment to start pushing back a little bit, obviously not to the extent where he could escape, but that was the point where he started to become weary of the situation. He felt he was being toyed with."

"Do you think he finds his strength there?" Lora asks.

"Yeah. I think he finds a little bit of pushback. It's where he decides, now you're playing with me. This is not a power thing anymore, it's a cat and mouse thing."

"Cat and mouse, yeah," says Lora, and apologises for doing my job (as if I minded). She's now had a bit of time to think about her own character moment. "I guess, in opposition to that, a pivotal point for Agnes - I mean, she's strong and cool, calm and collected - when they're out digging the grave... I think that's the thread that starts to unravel Agnes' cool demeanour, and in terms of relationship, she goes to Mike, she doesn't want to, but she has to ask for his opinion on the cop stuff... I think that's the start of the downfall."

"I think by that point there is a bit of Stockholm Syndrome going on," says Rob. "He becomes very protective of Agnes and of their relationship together." He describes the way that, at least briefly, Mike sees a third character as a potential threat to that. "I think that resentment carries on, because Agnes does detail exactly what they've done together. So that was an interesting thing to the character - this woman who's done such awful things to him, why would he go out of his way to protect her and make sure she's safe? I think it's also because he's also come to depend on her to keep himself safe and keep him protected from various things. Because there's the time that she says 'You know that I'm the only one who can make you feel good,' and feel safe."

"We honestly had no idea how it was going to be received," says Lora, speaking of the film more generally. "It is very interesting material - our writer James Gordon Ross has a very twisted mind - but I guess we've been blown away by the reception and the fantastic reviews and, yeah, just people being so into it."

"When we were with Navin a couple of days ago he mentioned that at Fantasia when we had our premiere he was very nervous," Rob reveals, "because he didn't know how it was going to be received. Some of the reviews started rolling in earlier that day and that kind of put us all at ease a little bit because the reviews were overwhelmingly positive." He laughs. "I've been seeking out the less favourable reviews but even those are not mean. The people that have criticisms with the film, they're all generally things that myself or others in the team have brought up. It's good to see that people have their criticisms with it but they don't just write it off as a bad film."

"We're seeing a lot of strong women in film right now, but to see a strong woman at the centre of a film when, well, she's not Wonder Woman, she's not fighting fo the good cause, she's doing bad things, I think it's very interesting," says Lora, explaining what she thinks drew viewers in.

Rob agrees. "I think what's interesting about Agnes is that she knows how to use flirtation and sex but she's not sexualised. You know what I mean? She uses sex as a tool, really, and as a reward system or as a tactic. So I thought it was interesting because you know Lora's obviously a very attractive young lady..."

Lora laughs. "Robert Notman!"

He continues. "They could have easily tarted her up and put her in a low cut top and all of that..." Now they are both laughing. "And she would have gone for it because you should see how Lora dresses when we're just hanging out, but no, they gave her that very well rounded character to work with and I think that's great."

"Yeah," says Lora. "It was nice to be very not tarted up. It was liberating, I think. It was all about character and emotion and everything was coming from within as opposed to this superficial look which we see so much in film and television at the moment. I'd do it again. Agnes part two!"

Next up for Lora is a 'shape-shifting horror film' set to be directed by Justin McConnell. "I play Julia, a woman who has lived a hard and tragic life, who unknowingly becomes the object of a shape-shifter's affection," she explains. "I'm looking forward to playing another strong female role, she's completely different to Agnes, in that I'm really going to have to explore some raw emotion here as Julia has lead a very affected life, and as you know- Agnes was not very easily affected by much at all!"

This film has made a big impression on her, however, and she says she's been talking with the producers about working with them again in future - "hopefully 2018."

"I work primarily in commercials so there's always a lot of that work going on," says Rob. "I'm just kind of taking things as they come just now," He agrees, though, that working on Poor Agnes was a great experience, and says that he too would love to be involved in another project with the same team. "Everyone was really professional - it was just a really tight crew. I didn't feel like there was any wasted time when we were up there."

"We used every second we could!" says Lora.

"Yeah. We had two weeks. Lora and I have often talked about filming a fan-made sequel that's like five years later and Agnes and Mike are living together and Mike's burned the toast and she's like 'I'll kill you!' and he's like, 'I know!'"

It would make a good sitcom, I suggest.

"Yeah, exactly. we're gonna work that out. Webisodes! We're gonna do that."

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