Interview: Director Phyllida Lloyd Discusses the Joy of Community at the Heart of ‘Herself’

Renowned theatre director Phyllida Lloyd made a big impact with her first two feature films. In 2008, she made her big screen debut by adapting her hit stage musical, Mamma Mia! starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried. Reflecting on the longevity of that delightfully quirky film today, she says, “I feel proud that it’s such a guilty pleasure for lots of people.” She adds, “But I feel proud that it goes on, giving people delight.”

She reunited with Meryl Streep three years later, directing the veteran actress to her third Oscar for the unfairly derided Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady. Her third film, Herself, premiered at Sundance a year ago to wide praise and enthusiasm.

Clare Dunne wrote the film and stars as Sandra, a mother who leaves her abusive husband and sets out to rebuild a life for her children and herself. As she struggles to navigate courts and bureaucracies, she slowly begins to find peace and community in unexpected places when she decides to develop the skills she needs to build a home.

I recently spoke with Phyllida Lloyd about Herself, about her brilliant cast, and about changes she has seen as the industry expands its inclusion of women filmmakers.

Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: Herself is such a beautiful film. Can use start off by talking about working with Clare Dunne, who stars in the film but also wrote the screenplay?

Phyllida Lloyd: Clare and I had been working together since 2012. Also with Harriet Walter, who plays Peggy. I had an all-female theater troupe who performed Shakespeare, all set in women’s prisons. We performed in London and New York over a five year period. And Clare and Harriet played leading roles in those productions. In fact Clare and Harriet played husband and wife, and warrior enemies and even father and son together. So there was very little self-consciousness between them. There was a real closeness.

I knew [Clare] to be an absolutely astonishing actress on stage, but I knew she’d never done any screen. One day she came to me with this screenplay. Her first piece of writing. At the beginning she was not intending to play Sandra, she was just thinking she wanted to get this story made. We were all very preoccupied. We were working in prisons. We’d met so many women who’d had childhoods of domestic violence that has led them into the criminal justice system. And then a friend of Clare’s became homeless. Her landlord decided to sell her apartment and evict her and there was nowhere for her to go. She had three kids.

Clare was just so outraged by what was going on in her home city of Dublin — where there was no social housing and no support for women in that situation — that she decided to sit down and write the script, and she was almost imagining her friend into a different future. And when she showed it to me, I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve seen the story of the abuse of battered woman before, but not one that was really clearly addressed partly to those women themselves.” It was as if Clare was sending them a message of hope and possibility. I don’t think either of us feel that a movie can save lives or single-handedly change the world, but I think what it could do would be to say to people who are in this situation, “You are being heard. You’re being seen. Maybe if you are able to make the step away, maybe there’s a community out there, maybe there’s more out there ready, waiting for you than you feared.”

And so I felt like, yes, of course, the film’s addressed to those of us lucky enough to feel safe in our homes, but I felt Clare knew who these women were, and she was speaking directly to them.

KP: This is a film that shows how one person being kind can have a big impact and can make such positive change. Can you talk a little bit about that message?

PL: Yeah, you know, this isn’t a fairy story. Sandra is definitely the agent of her own destiny and she creates this plan for herself and her children. She’s going to build a house. And she works it all out. She asks for help. And the help comes, not from where she asked it but from a completely different place, which is almost right under her nose. And the gesture that is made, the cynical builder says, “Nobody gives away anything for nothing.” And yet, Peggy does that.

The last ten months have shown people in such extremes. But also that people have made incredible acts of kindness towards each other. And that somehow maybe this gesture that Peggy makes of giving her the land seems all the more credible now. Just as we know more and more women are suffering and in abusive situations.

But yeah, that one act of kindness, and why people offer to help, and what is it that they’re getting out of it? At the heart of the film though is the Irish word, meitheal, which means when a group of neighbors come together to help each other, accomplish a task or help one of them who might be reroofing their barn or something, and the whole village will come and help them do that. So that lies very much at the heart of it.

KP: I love all the different characters that are part of the story in big ways and in small ways. Can you talk about casting the kids and some of the other actors?

PL: Knowing what Clare was capable of, having worked with her so many years, I knew I had to surround her with people who could be on that set, be on that building site where you couldn’t spot the acting. And of course that’s partly my job, to root out anything that feels over the top or artificial. It’s not easy. Some of those people were not professionals. And then there’s the children.

I started with Harriet Walter and Conleth Hill, both of whose work I knew intimately and knew that they could set a standard around Clare just being there, and that they would be able to improvise, and improvise with the kids.

The search for the children was a lengthy one. Eventually I brought Clare in to workshop with various groups of kids, and we just fell in love with those two. The elder one, Ruby Rose [O’Hara], had never done a film before. In fact, she’s never going to do another one because, having heard all about this story, she now wants to be a lawyer. She’s going to go work to help women out of this situation. They were remarkable kids. They were very mature, they knew what they were part of, they listened really well, which was the key for me.

And that diverse group of people who came, who made up the meitheal, who were Russian and Brazilian, from the Cameroon, we became a kind of – in the short time we were together – like a kind of almost a mirror of the characters themselves. The act of actually making the film was like the act of helping Sandra build the house.

KP: This year in particular, there’ve been so many films by women and by female directors. How do you feel things have changed over the years and do you feel there really are more opportunities for women now?

PL: I must say, reading the number of women who have made films that have been released over this Christmas period, I was absolutely stunned and delighted to see so many films directed by women. And not just indie films, low budget. Women are, I think, now finally getting to do… I had deliberately wanted to try to do a lower budget film, but those people who want to go in the other direction, more opportunities are being made, and that’s fantastic.

Of course, we’ve got a long way to go in many departments. Someone was saying to me that only 3% of films are composed by women, which is scandalous. I think things are changing. But it’s not until things truly change in the world generally that things will ultimately change in the movie industry. In Germany, Angela Merkel has legislated that corporate boards have to have something like at least 30 or 40% women on them. Which doesn’t sound very much. You think really they should legislate 50-50 like they have in Norway or somewhere like that. But until that happens, there isn’t going to be equality.

Of course, behind the scenes there’s still a long way to go, particularly in cameras and sound. But yeah, I feel very optimistic and excited that there are some women being talked about. Every year there might be a film directed by a woman that’s kind of being talked about as being a contender. And now this year, oh my god. There’s this film and that film and another film, and isn’t that fantastic?

KP: How do you feel as someone who has really helped inspire a lot of women storytellers and audiences in general?

PL: Somebody asked me a while ago, “What does success look like?” And I was like, “I think success is when younger people with whom you’ve collaborated and whom you might have done a bit of mentoring actually make it.”

I spent this morning with my friend Cush Jumbo — actually not with her,  on Zoom. She and I started out in our troupe. And then she and I came to New York with a show about Josephine Baker, and then Cush got taken up to become a big TV star. Somehow the success of Clare, if she has success out of this, that is the best thing in the world. It’s like being her parent. I’m so pleased that generation of women, what I think of in my mind as 30-somethings who have been a lot of my colleagues over the last 10 years, they seem so much less neurotic than my generation. They feel they are more entitled; they are taking matters into their own hands, not just being actors, but being writers and being producers. It’s really comforting they’re somehow old enough not to have been crushed by the pressure of social media when they were 10 in a way that the present generation, I really worry about their dependence on social media.

KP: When you’re getting ready to make a film, do you feel pressure from that expectation that audiences are going to have?

PL: Yes, of course, you want the movie to speak. This experience of the pandemic and this movie has really been a very interesting one for me because I started in January. All I could think was, “Oh my god. We’ve sold the movie to Amazon and they’re going to let us play it for 90 days in the movie theater.” And this is the best of any possible world. We’ve got three months in the movie theater — which is what every movie director wants, their movie on the big screen. I was thinking this movie is about community, and it needs to be enjoyed in a group, in a community.

Then cut to global lockdown, pandemic, etc. You begin to think, there are all these people suffering behind closed doors in situations of domestic abuse. Forget all my vanity and my dreams of the big screen. Let’s just get this movie into people’s hands and don’t let’s worry about critics. Let’s just think about the mission of this, which is to get the film to speak to those women who are suffering this, and anyone who might have empathy, and perhaps reach out to someone who is suffering in this way. You know, someone in the apartment upstairs who you’ve seen on the stairs, who looks like they might have been being abused. If you watch this movie, would it make you think twice to go and knock on their door?

So I suppose what I’m saying or I think about is sharing the movie at Sundance and women standing up in the audience at the end and saying, “That’s my story. I was Molly and Emma. I was Sandra.” I was thinking, my god, we did have to get this message out. This is a mission. This goes beyond my career. It’s not about that. It’s about social change. I’ve always in the work I’ve done tried to headline women’s stories and women’s voices. Starting with Mamma Mia, I’ve always wanted to create gripping entertainment. And I don’t want people to be bored; I want them to be riveted. This isn’t a lecture. We want to enchant the audience and make them empathize.

KP: If there’s one thing you hope for people who maybe haven’t had this experience but are seeing Herself, what’s something that you hope they will take away from it?

PL: I hope it’s, could I be part of a meitheal? Could I could I be a better neighbor? And actually would I enjoy it? Would I enjoy being a better neighbor? Because it can be, as the film shows, not just an act of charity, but really good fun to be part of something.

Herself is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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