Sophie Kennedy Clark, who plays the young Philomena in Stephen Fears’ film Philomena.
By Danny Peary
Philomena, a highly-recommended crowd-pleaser that is playing at the UA East Hampton Cinema 6, boasts of a director, Stephen Frears, and male lead/screenwriter, Steve Googan, who each have a legion of fans, me among them. But certainly its top drawing card is its beloved leading lady, Judi Dench. I expect Dame Judi will collect some best-actress nominations for her standout performance as Philomena Lee, a goodhearted, religious Irish-Catholic woman who asks a discredited BBC journalist (Coogan as Martin Sixmith, author of the nonfiction bestseller, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee) to help her find her son–who the callous nuns at her convent gave up (sold) for adoption fifty years ago. It is a flawless, triumphant portrayal. But surely we wouldn’t care so much about her Philomena if not for supporting actress Sophie Kennedy Clark’s emotionally-charged performance as the young, unmarried Philomena who toils in the convent laundry to be near her child, only to have him sent away. Clark deserves a nomination or two herself. A few weeks ago I took part in the following roundtable with the delightfully gregarious Scottish actress. I note my questions.
Danny Peary: I’ve read about your audition for Philomena. It’s a great story worth repeating…
Sophie Kennedy Clark: Ah, right, here’s my audition story. I basically found out that there was a part for a young Judi Dench, so I thought I’d just go in, meet Judi Dench, do this nice little scene, and have the casting director say, “Okay, great, thanks very much.” But I got a call-back and found out I was meeting Stephen Frears. So I do this nice little scene again for him, and he goes, “Was that your interpretation of an Irish accent?” I’m thinking, “Well, Stephen, I’m a big fan of your work, lovely to meet you, have a nice day!” I thought I could at least put the idea of playing the part out of my mind, and carry on with my life.
Then I found out I’ve got a third audition. Now I’m thinking that he’s just toying with me, but I’ll go along anyway. It’s self-preservation when I go in thinking I’m not going to get a part, and I don’t tell anyone I’m auditioning because I don’t want them to keep bringing it up when I don’t want to talk about not getting a job. So I kept the auditions for Phiomena a secret, and I went for the second callback. This time they told me that I was going to be doing the scene where Philomena has just watched her child taken away. Now, at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, you want to play a scene like that as much as getting a hole in your head. Losing your child!?! I’m not a mother, so I had never had a child or lost a child. To do the script and Philomena justice I knew I was really going to have to commit to it, but it was quite nerve-wracking knowing I’d have to completely break down in front of strangers. At the time I’d never met Philomena and didn’t know Stephen well enough to feel I was in safe hands.
They’d rented out a big room below the casting office for me to do that scene. So I knocked on the casting office door and the casting director said, “Sophie, I’m afraid they’ve given the room away.” I knew it! She told me not to worry and then I heard Stephen’s booming voice from inside the casting office, saying, “Bring her in anyway!” I’m like, “Hi Stephen, nice to see you again.” He’s like, “We don’t have the room downstairs but you’re going to have to do something, aren’t you? Well, why don’t you just give birth instead?” He now wanted me to do the scene in which Philomena gives birth to Anthony! As an actress, you have to go, “Yeah, of course, I was working on that scene, last night. Let’s do it, Do you want me to do it here? Here’s fine. Do I go now?” And Stephen tells me to begin. Now he’s sitting there with a handheld camera. I put my head back, my legs akimbo, and I looked up and thought, “I’m going to so make him regret this. I’m going to scream the bloody roof off!”
I had to commit because I’d have looked like a fool if I didn’t. So I worked myself up, put myself into it and started screaming. He really left me out there, and there was a moment when I was looking at him and thinking, “Seriously?” Then after quite a long time, he said stop. I ended up with my body shaking and in a fit of tears. I could barely speak, so I just got up and walked out of the room. I had almost completely lost control because of where I put myself in my head, and of the very unnatural position I put my body in–because I was not really giving birth. I had plans to get coffee with friends afterwards, but I had to very quickly cancel because I looked like a train wreck. I was thinking, I never want to think about this again–but I haven’t really stopped thinking about it since. So that was my audition for Philomena. As luck would have it, two weeks later I got the role.
Q: How many takes did you have to do when you actually shot the birth scene?
SKC: I did it three times. The first time was kind of a run-through. The second time they told me Philomena was on set–and for me it was game over. The weird thing is that I’m not a crier. My friends believe that I don’t have tear ducts. But then I found myself in that situation and the tears came really easily. Acting for me is being remotely human. When you’ve got your legs up and nuns are there and they come towards you to plunge a forceps between your legs, that will make you scream! It was so clinical and horrible being in that room with those utensils. They didn’t have breathing exercises back then so the only advise you were probably given was stay alive. I mean it was monstrous. And that was in the 1950s, not even that long ago! So Nymphomania seemed a bit like a walk in the park.
Q: Had you already worked with Lars von Trier on that film when you did this audition?
SKC: I was in the middle of filming Nymphomaniac when I got Philomena. That was a thrill. Proud parents! They couldn’t really tell their friends, “You know, Sophie’s in Nymphomaniac.” My father said, “Well she’s in a convent now!” My mom is a big fan of Judi Dench, so she was very happy, too
DP: Do you think that Judi Dench’s older Philomena is consistent with the young Philomena that you play? Do you see a believable transition?
SKC: I can almost watch the movie objectively because I don’t look at the young Philomena and recognize me. I have a different accent, and I’ve never had short hair. So I look and sound completely different and I am playing Philomena with a certain naiveté, and when I see Judi’s style and her face shape and that she also plays Philomena with a certain naiveté, I think the transition goes nicely. I’d like to think it does.
Q: When first seeing the film, were you so pleased that you were able to translate the character that you didn’t worry people may think you are not glamorous?
SKC: Ultimately, my job as an actor is to be a chameleon, and I feel the only healthy relationship an audience member has with me as an actor is believing I am my character. I felt that the way I appeared in the film did justice to the situation that Philomena went through and to everything that this film teaches people. That Philomena felt I was doing a good job for her was at the forefront of my mind. I know that she has seen the film four times now and absolutely loves it. She’s very pleased with both Judi and me, which is very important to both of us.
Q: Did you talk to Judi Dench about playing a younger version of the woman she was playing?
SKC: I actually made the decision not to speak to Judi. It was not because I haven’t wanted to speak to her forever and always, because she’s amazing. I decided it was best not to speak to her–and Stephen Frears felt strongly about this, too–because she plays Philomena at a stage in her life where she has been so shaped by what happened to her, whereas I play her at a point where she’s very raw and naïve. Those girls in the convents didn’t know anything. They didn’t have access to any kind of information, so what they were told they believed. The only person that I felt could really give me the information that I needed was the real Philomena. So I made the journey to her house in London to meet her, and she very kindly invited me inside for a cup of tea. It was difficult because I knew I was going to be asking her incredibly personal questions. I was meeting someone in her eighties who had been through an incredibly tragic circumstance, so I was nervous speaking to her about it. But she was so open and lovely and accommodated all of my questions very, very honestly. It was quite emotional because what happened still makes her well up. She still goes over this situation every day in her mind. I was asking her about certain types of situations with the nuns and her relationships with them, asking, “Why didn’t you just run away?” Because these days, kids fight back. She was like, “Don’t you worry, I’ll put in a good word for you with The Man Upstairs.” I was like, ” You’ll what? You’re still talking to Him?” She was like, “Yeah, He owes me one.” I was like, “He owes you one? I’d say He owes you quite a few!” It was amazing to realize that this woman still has a sense of humor, because through religion she found forgiveness–and if we can find forgiveness in any realm of our lives, we can go on living. That’s why I feel that in addition to telling Philomena’s story and the [harsh] truth, comedy is so important because that’s who she is, too.
Q: Why do you think she was able to walk away from what happened and not be totally scarred or damned by it?
SKC: Philomena’s faith wavered for a long time. She said that she always still prayed, always had faith, but she started to heavily question some of the lessons she’d been taught and the reasons behind some people’s behavior. Her “therapy” came from her becoming a psychiatric nurse and speaking to many other people who had gone through equally terrible things. She realized that it was not her faith that was the problem. What had happened was the problem, and that didn’t mean she should lose her faith. What happened to her in the convent didn’t cause her to demonize religion. You’ve got to give it to the woman to be able to find goodness. The “religion” she experienced was awful, but as a psychiatric nurse she got to understand psychology, and I think for her that was very important. Philomena is an incredibly strong-willed woman. She and Judi Dench, two women I’m completely in awe of, taught me things that I’ll try to have for the rest of my life.
Q: Did you look at pictures of her as well, when she was your age?
SKC: She was in a convent when she’s like 18, 19; it’s completely mind-boggling.
I’ve seen one or two pictures. The picture of Anthony as a two-year-old! When you see that little face and know the story, I defy you not to weep.
DP: Philomena left the convent and eventually married and had a daughter. We learn in the movie, in a scene with Judi Dench, that the young Philomena enjoyed the sexual encounter that led to Anthony’s birth. I doubt if you asked her this, but do you think Philomena had premarital sex again?
SKC: I think she probably did. She said the sexual experience she had at the fairgrounds was the most amazing thing, like with a knight…
DP: But she was always told by her parents and the nuns that she had sinned, and she believed that.
SKC: Maybe when she was getting married again, she looked back and said it wasn’t a sin. You can rationalize it more when you’re slightly older and you’ve lived a life, as opposed to when you’re a child and have no access to any kind of information, and have no family to tell you otherwise. You believe what you’re told. Once these girls, who have no families and no money, are stripped of the title of Mother, they don’t have anything. I think when they move on and meet other people, they will try to block all that out. So I can’t say for sure, but I believe she would have had sex again before marrying.
Q: Have you had experience with nuns?
SKC: My experience with nuns is very minimal, although my sister went to a Catholic school for a while. I’m Protestant; my mother is Protestant, my father is not so religious. My mother’s always dragged my brother, sister, father and me to church every Christmas. She a practicing Christian and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I just don’t particularly want to go to church. We all had to go, wherever were in the world. Now my father sees Philomena as his opportunity not to go. He does send me texts now and again, still seething he is at the Catholic Church. But I feel this is just to get out of going to church with my mother. He says, “I’ve seen that film Sophie did. I’m not going anymore! She’s like, “We’re not even Catholic!” I’m now used as a scapegoat! I think this film brings to life a very extreme side of religion. My sister’s experience with nuns was not like Philomena’s, but it was atrocious. She won’t be very happy to read what I’ve said. Oh dear, she just got married, so she’ll have my guts for garters, I swear!
Q: Will your parents see Nymphomaniac?
SKC: I’m sure they will. I think they’re curious, like the rest of the world, after seeing all those little snippets they keep on releasing. They are something I didn’t really want to ever discuss with my parents, to be honest. I don’t know if you’ve ever discussed your orgasm with your parents, but I certainly haven’t.
Q: You’re also going to be in Brad Anderson’s Eliza Graves.
SKC: I made that in the summer. It’s also wonderfully different. I’ve been very lucky that it’s been a really diverse year. I’m doing a bit of repetition though, only doing movies with Sirs and Dames. Eliza Graves has got Sir Ben Kingsley and Sir Michael Caine in it. along with Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, two fine, fine British actors. Getting to work opposite Sir Ben Kingsley was astonishing It has a real corker of a script and is wonderfully fantastical in that Edgar Allan Poe way. It was a lot of fun being the ultimate weirdo that is within us all. She’s a lunatic. It wasn’t much of a stretch!