Today I have Chiara D’Anna in to chat about her new film The Duke of Burgundy which is in cinemas now. I loved the film (review here) and it was great to talk with Chiara and learn more about the process behind the film and about her background as an actor. Read on for our interview…
My first question for you is a simple one, what was your initial impression when you were first given the script?
It was very positive, I really loved the script. I was familiar with it already because before the script even existed Peter had already asked me if I wanted to work with him and that he had these ideas, so we had had a few exchanges in person and via email.
The first version of the script was quite different in terms of what the characters did; my character was an actress and the setting itself was different. I think the script improved but there were fundamental features of the script which stayed the same. I always say this but the thing for me which really got me fascinated was that the atmosphere and mood were so clear that they almost came out of the page; that dream like, autumnal, melancholic and surreal quality. I really loved that.
Did your view of the character develop as you read the script? Because when we initially see her we are mislead by the layers of deception in the film…
Yes, this was the thing which we discussed with Peter. The trick is to get the audience into believing that I’m the poor little sweetheart, the victim. But then it turns when you realise that it’s my game and I set the rules. That was the fun part of playing this character because it allowed you to play different characters as she is playing her role.
The thing which made me somewhat scared is that when we are playing our roles it’s rather wooden as our characters aren’t good actresses and you’re worried that your performance will be judged on that. In the first few scenes the audience will think that as they don’t know we are playing a game and you can’t help but think ‘I hope they don’t think I am not able to act’! But I suppose it then becomes clear later on that it was part of the characters and that Evelyn is not a professional actress.
It’s a wonderful revelation when you realise that they are acting and you’re trying to work out exactly what level of the game they are at and to what degree are they acting within the film… Did you feel that much research was needed for the film?
The film is highly stylised and since the beginning it wasn’t Peter’s intention to get into a psychoanalytical approach to the characters and understand why they do what they do, and neither was mine. Probably because I come from a physical theatre background where the approach is very much physical, where you don’t start from a psychological perspective but it comes through working through the physicality, the situations and the relationships.
Now because this was the first time I had a lead role in a film of course I asked myself is that enough? How do I approach it? So I decided to do a bit of research and try different approaches for fun. I had a few months to prepare and play around and I explored different avenues; I researched a bit about S&M and its effects, and then also Lepidoptera in order to get a sense of where these things came from. So I had a background story but I think what worked better for me in terms of getting into Evelyn’s world was the visual, the senses. I think that is because the film is very much interested in stimulating the senses, with the images, footage and music. It worked for me because it’s what I do in theatre.
Well I’ve done a little bit of that just for fun and so I have a very amateur idea of what it’s about… do you find that that style of theatre affects your acting generally because in my understanding it’s a very technical act of positioning the body and using the body’s physicality to communicate…
Well I don’t think it directly informed this film with Peter because as you say it’s so technical. You really transform your body and your voice, and then the mask you put on really changes you. I have this feeling that it really does change you. Also the relationship you have with the audience, the space and the other performers is just a completely different thing compared to what I felt the relationship I had with Sidse (Sidse Babett Knudsen) was and with the other actresses, the camera and Nicholas D. Knowland (Cinematography).
So not directly no, but I thought extensively about this and I think the physical training and the background I have has taught me to really work on my awareness of the space; of the other person, the environment and the objects. And I think that is very useful on set in a visual movie like this where my experience was all about serving the camera. Also it’s about getting the rhythm needed for the camera which I find to be very artificial. In real life and on stage I would walk towards you with a very natural pace but the camera requires something really specific because the technicality of the take demands that. I think that physical background that I have helps me instinctively start to get that rhythm as I sense the space and become aware of everything around me.
Did you have a chance to rehearse at all?
No, we didn’t. Time was a tyrant here as we only had four weeks for the shoot, including time off. And obviously a lot of time was taken up with costume and makeup, so Peter, Sidse and I had a chat a few months earlier and then we had just a few words at the beginning of each day before the scenes. That was it.
What was the first scene you shot then?
Well obviously we started with that which was easiest and it was actually the first scene in the film too. So there was a lot of cycling and me coming to the door. Of course that scene coming to the door was done many times! The more intimate scenes were done in week two so we had a chance to get to know each other a bit better.
At the very beginning I did, and of course the same scene in a script can be shot in many different ways from being very graphic to using other devices, so I was a bit concerned about a couple of scenes. But I was immediately reassured as I found out there was no nudity which made me feel less vulnerable, I would have probably had issues with nudity. And also Peter was very clear in explaining what he wanted. I think the first versions of the script were a bit more audacious and then he mellowed. The script kept changing, even on set, and that’s great because I see it as something quite alive, that changes progressively.
My big surprise was that the intimate scenes were the easiest because it’s like a dance, like choreography. And with Peter telling you what to do you don’t feel so vulnerable. Also Sidse and I had some great chemistry so it wasn’t uncomfortable at all.
And was there much room for improvisation on your part?
Yes, yes there was. I think it’s the way Peter works, based on my little experience with him. He trusts his actors; he gives you a framework with some indications of what he wants, the scene’s emotions and tone and then you offer what you have. He isn’t prescriptive with his direction.
Also Sidse and I didn’t tell each other what we were going to do so there were some big surprises! That was great, it kept it fresh.
I was talking to Fatma Mohamed a few days ago and something she said which struck me was that it was a script written by a man solely about the relationships between women…
Hmmm yes, this is a situation that’s typical for someone to argue about the issue of the male gaze with a director, writer and cinematographer who are all male, but we haven’t had those criticisms. I think it’s because there’s a lot of sensitivity in the film. It’s gentle and delicate. The gender element isn’t important to me because by removing one of the genders it removes the film from the conventional everyday where we have to deal with male, female, heterosexual, homosexual etc. I think that by placing it in this weird situation it removes it from that discourse.
It’s rather like a fable isn’t it…
Exactly, it’s removed from the mundane world and its conventions.
Well I have a strange story… I actually studied science. I’m a geologist. And during the time when I was studying for my first degree I studied theatre in evening classes. One summer a Commedia practitioner called Claudia Contin came and I did this master-class with her. When I saw her performance I discovered that I wanted to do this! I was hit with such a blast and was just crying due to being so emotionally drawn to that specific performance. There was something really raw about it in this small chapel which we would use for performances, everything about it seemed so real and visceral.
Then when I came over to England I finally decided to leave science and did my master in theatre. Because there were fewer experts on Commedia I started to teach it at university and now I’m doing a PHD on it! I’m interested in immersive performances within theatre and there is something about the masks and that world which has that.
How did you move from theatre into film work?
Well it was a lucky event. I wasn’t thinking about it happening but I was on Spotlight and they were casting for Berberian Sound Studio and were looking for Italian actresses. When we finished on that Peter asked me if I wanted to work with him on his next project and I very much wanted to be in the film but I don’t think I trusted that I could. I would say to myself ‘oh well it’s too late now, I should have done it earlier. There is so much competition and it’s such a difficult part!’ but for months I had been visualising myself on a set with a very interesting script and a director who let me improvise and… somehow it happened for me.
And are you looking to do film long term, or is this a casual interest alongside theatre? What are your plans?
My plan is to do both because I don’t think they are mutually exclusive and I think they challenge you in different ways and give you different rewards. And also they train you, the training which you have on one can be transferred and vice versa despite being so different, so I hope to do both. I would really like to be able to do both.
And there we have it everyone. I do hope you enjoyed this interview with Chiara D’Anna, it was a real pleasure to chat with her! As always be sure to leave your thoughts in the comment box below!