Set in modern day Britain, Harry Brown follows one man’s journey through a chaotic world where teenage violence runs rampant. The film is a powerful character-driven thriller starring two-time Academy Award winner Michael Caine in a tour-de-force performance opposite Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles. Shot on location in and around London’s The Elephant and Castle and at Elstree Studios, the film is directed by Academy Award nominee Daniel Barber (The Tonto Woman) from a screenplay written by Gary Young.
We sat down this week with Emily Mortimer, who recently starred in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, to talk about her new film. In Harry Brown, Emily plays Detective Inspector Frampton, the London police officer who is leading the investigation into the unsolved murder of Brown’s best friend. She told us what it was like playing opposite Michael Caine, how Daniel Barber’s direction elevated the material, and gave us an update on her upcoming film, Leonie, which is currently in post-production. She also told us about the status of Number 13.
Q: What was it like working with Michael Caine? Is it true he makes you watch Alfie as a pre-condition to working with him?
EM: (Laughs) Is that what you’ve heard? No, I had watched Alfie, but I didn’t consider it a prerequisite. He was just extremely fabulous. He’s one of the most professional actors I’ve ever worked with. I guess after a lifetime of doing it, you know what you’re doing. He’s incredibly uncomplaining, undemanding. He would turn up and deliver and then go home and there wasn’t any nonsense about it at all. I love being around him. And, despite being extremely professional, he has a giggle which was lethal for me because once you catch his eyes, once you realize the other person is a giggler too, it’s curtains. There were plenty of moments where one would see a look in his eye and know that he was going to go, and then it was just a question of who was going to go first. (Laughs)
Q: Were there any rehearsals? And when you’re going to work with someone like Michael Caine, do you want them more than usual?
EM: Yes, we had a couple days of rehearsing which is a huge privilege on a film. It’s very difficult to find the time or the money for people to organize rehearsals for these movies. It staggers me how little preparation often goes into these scenes which are difficult and complicated. You think, “God, it’s crazy. I’ve never met this person before and here I am having to work at how to do a whole performance on the set.” It was great to have a few days of just talking to Michael and Daniel (Barber) and thinking about the characters and the relationship between them before we started shooting.
Q: What drew you to make this film? What was it about the characters and themes that resonated with you the most?
EM: Partly it was because I didn’t feel I’d done anything like that before. If there’s any plan to what I do, it’s generally just an instinct for the next one to be different from the last one and not to bore myself or anyone else in the process. It felt like unfamiliar territory for me which is always a challenge and interesting.
I really was impressed by Daniel Barber when I met him. I was worried about this. I mean, I think the script is very gripping and brilliantly written, but the worry was that it was potentially clichéd material or territory. There are a million cop dramas on a million channels of television every night of the week and you feel like this territory is something that, as an audience, you’re so familiar with, and it would be awful for this film to fall into the trap of becoming clichéd or familiar somehow.
Then, I met Daniel and I saw his film, The Tonto Woman, that he made – this short film that was nominated for an Oscar. I realized that he had an auteur’s take on the whole thing and he was going to elevate it to something more than what one expected. The movie has a fatalistic, epic quality, almost like a Western, because of Daniel. So that was an exciting draw, and getting to work with Michael, and then just the character being in some ways both the opposite and the same as Michael’s character.
Q: It’s unusual to have a vigilante hero who’s a 76-year-old man with nothing to lose. What parallels do you see between your character and Michael Caine’s and how each views the senseless violence in their world?
EM: We’re two sides of the same coin. We’re both obsessed by the notion of justice but coming at it from different sides of the law. I’m obsessed by the kind of justice that due process of the law will bring, and he is totally disillusioned with the law and decides that the only way of finding justice is to take the law into one’s own hands. Vigilante justice is his thing. There’s a feeling in these scenes where we meet, which isn’t very often in the movie, but they’re important moments. There’s a sense of mutual understanding, even though in some ways I’m pursuing him or I’m onto him. We respect and understand each other in a way and there’s a tension there that I thought was interesting and unusual.
Q: How was it being directed by Daniel Barber? What was that process like and did he have you do any research for your character?
EM: He was pretty specific about what he wanted. I spent a lot of time with a real detective, a lady detective inspector who was the only female detective inspector in the whole of East London. She and I hung out a lot. She showed me what she did and I spent time with her. So, [she was] a lot of the inspiration for the way I dressed and sometimes the dialogue in those interview scenes where we’re cross examining and questioning the youths and trying to get a confession out of them. A lot of that was improvised and I’d spent a long time talking to my police detective about what that was like. She showed me tapes of people being interviewed and questioned by the police. It was really interesting and instructive and I used quite a lot of the real dialogue from those tapes in those scenes.
Q: To give the film a more authentic tone, Daniel cast some roles with people from the local neighborhood. How was that experience?
EM: The youths are such brilliant actors, and in many cases, it’s not too far from their experience of life. These guys come from that world and they have such an innate understanding of it, so it was really exciting getting to act opposite them. There are some really scary moments, but they were so comfortable with what they were doing that improvising with them in those scenes was exciting.
Q: There were several particularly intense, physically demanding scenes that you were in. How do you prepare for something that violent?
EM: That final scene was hairy at times. You don’t need to do much preparation for something like that because it’s so harrowing as it’s going on. I can remember Sir Ben Kingsley telling me that. We did a film together called Transsiberian and there was this extremely violent, difficult scene in that. He was saying you go through [it] physically in some ways, that what’s happening to your character is happening to you.
Physiologically, it is an exhausting day. Even if you are pretending to be pummeled, in some ways you are being pummeled, and you’re screaming and reacting. Your body doesn’t know the difference between pretending those things and actually doing those things. Somehow, by the end of it, you feel completely exhausted and hurled around and pummeled by the whole experience, both physically and emotionally, so you don’t need to prepare very hard for that.
There were moments where I was being kicked in the stomach, and even though I had this brace on to protect me, I still had to prepare myself for it because you have to make sure you brace yourself and don’t relax. You can’t be relaxed when that’s happening. You have to brace your muscles. I can remember thinking as it was about to happen “Wasn’t that how Houdini died?” I think it was. He didn’t have time to prepare and someone punched him in the stomach.
Q: Can you tell me about your upcoming projects? I believe Leonie is currently in post production. Can you describe your character in that and what that experience was like?
EM: Leonie did get made and it was an extremely wonderful experience. I got to travel the world. I filmed for 6 months – 3 months in New Orleans and 3 months in Japan.
I play the title character who is the mother of Isamu Noguchi, the Japanese sculptor, and it’s her life story. It’s a story of a new woman at the turn of the last century who went to the university and was educated. She was a free-thinking lady who had an affair with this Japanese poet in New York while she was editing his poetry. She got pregnant by him and had this child, this young half-Japanese boy, out of wedlock and then ended up in Japan. She followed this guy to Japan, got there, and realized that he was married and had a whole other family. Then, making her way she got pregnant again and no one knew who the father of that child was. She had these two mixed-race children without fathers at a time when it was very shocking to have done such a thing. She’s this unconventional lady and the film follows her life from age 18 until when she died at about age 63.
It was just an amazing experience and directed by a Japanese female filmmaker called Hisako Matsui who’s incredible. It was lit by all of [Akira] Kurosawa’s lighting crew, these elderly guys in the 70s and 80s who lit all of his movies. I’m so pleased to have been through it.
Q: What about the status of Number 13?
EM: Number 13 I’m afraid never got made. That ran out of money just before it was meant to start filming. The money didn’t come through.
Q: Are you working on anything else right now?
EM: No, I’m not. I’m taking a break. I have a 3-month old baby named May. In fact, this week is my first foray back into trying to have meetings, get work, read scripts and deal with real life. So, I’m in L.A. with the baby in the next room trying to work it all out. (Laughs)
EM: Thank you so much.
Harry Brown opens in theater on April 30th.