Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online
With Rose Glass’ Film4-backed psychological thriller Saint Maud out now in UK cinemas, we spoke to its breakout lead actress Morfydd Clark about her divine performance…
Morfydd Clark is having something of a moment. Earlier this year she charmed audiences with her role as the dog-whispering love interest of Dev Patel’s David Copperfield in Armando Iannucci’s delicious Dickens adaptation. And now she can currently be seen in two films at UK cinemas; as Sally Hawkins’ younger self in Craig Robert’s audacious meditation on schizophrenia Eternal Beauty, and as religious live-in nurse Maud in the Rose Glass’ terrifying feature debut, Saint Maud.
We caught up with the actress to discuss the differences between period and contemporary drama, the importance of depicting mental health with sensitivity and why Florence Pugh ended up inspiring her performance as Maud…
What was your initial reaction when reading the Saint Maud script? Was it an immediate ‘I have to do this’ moment?
Definitely. It was clear even before I read it that this was going to be something very special because my agent was so excited telling me about it. Then, when I read it, I was just engrossed. As a Dyslexic, I don’t find it easy to read long texts at once but I was so gripped by the story I couldn’t stop.
I immediately had a picture in my mind of this character and how I could portray her; often, you read a script and it’s brilliant but it’s just not yourself that you picture doing it. With Saint Maud, I thought that I had something to bring to the role, which is always a nice feeling! On the other hand, that comes with a lot of pressure on yourself not to mess up the audition!
I heard an interview where you mentioned Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth inspired your performance, what other films did Rose give you to watch to set the tone for Saint Maud?
Rose gave me a lot of films to watch, some of which were quite daunting as someone who can be a bit of a wimp! Generally, they were all films that put you inside the head of another character completely — so Repulsion, Prevenge, Taxi Driver. I think that’s where the connection with Lady Macbethcomes: the way that it’s shot and her performance just places you so completely in her world that the tension is almost unbearable when you watch it, even when nothing particularly sinister is happening. I think William Oldroyd said that Lady Macbeth was a film about boredom and the equivalent for Saint Maud is definitely loneliness.
Does your process or preparation change when you’re cast in an ensemble drama like The Personal History of David Copperfield, compared with a leading role in Saint Maud?
I don’t think so, really, apart from the fact that there’s obviously a lot more pressure! I’ve never been someone who takes a ‘method’ approach to acting or does anything radical to get into character, I just spend time thinking about them and how they might respond to situations I’m in. I think that I was lucky with Saint Maud because there was a big gap between me getting the role and starting filming, so I had a lot of time to mull over the character and build a detailed portrait of her for myself. It would have been very daunting without that hiatus.
Having also worked on several period dramas, did the contemporary setting of this film free you up at all? And if so, in what ways?
It’s funny because the film does have a contemporary setting, but Maud’s sort of created her own period drama for herself! I wouldn’t say that I found the setting freeing exactly — though of course the costumes are much more comfortable! — but more that I was more immediately able to connect with this character.
I think that Saint Maud is a very millennial story. Our generation, though “having it easy” in some material aspects, are put under a lot of pressure and encouraged to be limitlessly ambitious from an early age. We’ve also grown up through war, recession and now a pandemic, all in the shadow of climate change, so there’s an uncertainty and dread that never really goes away. And we’re also pretty isolated, often growing up far from where our parents grew up, and then ending up somewhere else again as adults. I think Maud combines all of those elements and pushes them to the extreme. She shares that “productivity” drive that so many millennials have but to the point of needing a divine mission. She’s banished uncertainty by putting absolute faith in God. And then she’s isolated in such an extreme way that her closest relationship is with God. In that way, I suppose it was freeing not to have to imagine the world this character lives in and the pressures she’s under, but more to think about how someone else might react to those pressures in a very extreme way.
There are two sides to Maud which make her such an interesting character; one is this restrained shyness, she’s quite reclusive and almost fearful of other people and yet the other is this almost manic sense of imagination or delusion where she believes she’s on a morally or spiritually higher plane. Did you find one easier to access or portray than the other and how did you find balancing those two aspects of her personality?
I think the two go together really: her experience has taught her that people ignore and belittle her, but internally she has a certain arrogance and regard for herself (particularly in her religious convictions) and it’s the contradiction between those things that is really forcing her to breaking point. I think that actually quite a lot of women, especially teenage girls, can identify with that to some degree: it’s like the Mary Sue thing (the trope in fan fiction of people writing a seemingly average girl — presumably based on themselves — who turns out to be the one to save the day and have people falling in love with her left, right and centre). We all want to be special in some way, deep down, and we all want people to see us and know us. Maud, once again, takes that to an extreme — she is the Mary Sue in her own fan fiction with God and she’s living it, instead of writing it!
Was working on a horror film quite emotionally draining? How did you mentally psych yourself up the more “delusional” takes?
It was actually lovely! Rose, Oliver and Andrea (Kassman and Cornwell, the producers) created such a harmonious, supportive team that it was just a pleasure to shoot, even though the subject matter was so intense. For me, it was more of a strain portraying how contained and tense and focused Maud is all the time so the more wild scenes were actually quite a nice release!
Something I’ve always been interested in when it comes to acting, is the idea that you have to relinquish control of your performance to some extent — in the sense that you might not always know which take will end up in the final cut. Do you sometimes have a sense that you’ve given the ‘final edit’ performance, or do you just have to accept that when a director wants to move on they’ve got what they need, regardless if you feel like you’ve given everything?
I am constantly running away from responsibility and so this aspect of shooting suits me very well. I thought I’d be a control freak about it but it’s actually a relief to surrender the choices to someone else. I’m the worst judge of myself and would make a very bad film if I was in control.
Given that Maud is a character whose mental health is precarious, did you feel a certain responsibility when manifesting that?
Absolutely, it was something that I thought about a lot — I really wanted Maud to be a rounded, sympathetic character who could not be defined simply by one mental illness or another. She has specific character traits and experiences — positive and negative — that lead her down a particular path, she isn’t just doing things because she’s “mad”. I was really lucky to be filming Saint Maud, The Personal History of David Copperfield and Eternal Beauty at the same time, which all portray mental illness in such different ways. I think the three films together actually say something about support and care and how they interact with mental illness: in David Copperfield, Mr Dick is surrounded with love and care; in Eternal Beauty, Jane has some support in her networks, particularly from her sister and nephew, and some relationships which are less supportive; in Saint Maud, Maud has no one and I think that’s why she goes down the route she does. The “horror” in the film for me isn’t Maud or any mental illness, it’s loneliness.