I was only a few moments into my conversation with Andrew Scott when a look of puzzlement came on his face. And that’s when I realized, “Oh, no I’d spoiled the ‘Drag Race UK’ season, er, series 5 winner for him.” Granted, it had been almost two weeks since the finale and as a publically avid “Drag Race” fan, I just assumed he would have watched it. Especially considering his “All of Us Strangers” director, Andrew Haigh, was catching up every week.
Of course, Scott admitted he may have caught something on social media (yes, he’s out there), but considering I would be moderating a Q&A with both him and his co-stars Claire Foy and Jamie Bell only a few hours later, well, it was disconcerting. I needn’t have worried because Scott’s demeanor only brightened when the conversation transitioned to “Strangers,” a movie he clearly adores.
The Searchlight Pictures release finds him playing Adam, a struggling writer attempting to fashion a screenplay centered on the ’80s. When he returns to his childhood home for inspiration, he’s shocked to find physical apparitions of both his mother (Foy) and father (Bell) as they were before they passed in the same home. As the trio gets reacquainted, he finds himself involved with Harry (Paul Mescal), a younger resident in his apartment tower. Haigh’s adaptation of Taichi Yamada‘s original Tokyo-set novel is a portrait of a man finding a way to love again, in the most unusual of circumstances.
In the weeks since our chat, Scott has earned a Golden Globe nomination, won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Actor, and is on the shortlist for a BAFTA Awards nomination. Is an Oscar nomination around the corner? It’s certainly warranted.
Our conversation touches on a number of topics, but most intriguingly, is Scott’s own opinion on those “ghosts” in the movie. A theory neither his director or co-stars had touches on before.
The Playlist: I have to ask you about something because Mr. Haigh and I have very different opinions on this. What is your opinion of Ginger Johnson?
Andrew Scott: Ginger Johnson?
Did you not watch “Drag Race UK?”
Oh, wait. No, I’m only on episode four.
Oh, well, forget I said anything! Shh, keep it quiet. Down the road, hopefully, you’ll catch up and it’ll be a debate. Maybe that.
I feel like the other day it might’ve got spoiled.
Oh no, it’s got spoiled! Well, maybe not. Maybe it didn’t get spoiled.
You’ve confirmed something?
No, I haven’t confirmed it. It’s all good.
You’ve confirmed suspicion. [Laughs.]
But anyway, it doesn’t matter. More importantly, let’s talk about this movie. Mr. Haigh. He sent you this script. What was your reaction?
Oh, at first, I was so moved by it. I was just really upset reading it, but not in the kind of miserablest way. It was kind of cathartic. That’s the perfect word for it. I felt like we sort of go through it, and I just had an immediate feeling of recognizability in it. That’s what I felt. I felt like I recognized the tone of it, and I felt more than anything, I recognized the character. Adam, the character.
Did Andrew want to have lunch or dinner or something and talk about it, or was it a …
We did talk about it. I was actually away filming in Italy. I was doing [the upcoming Netflix series] “Ripley” in Italy, so I was not in town at the time. So, we had a Zoom conversation and a really wonderful one. I really remember that I came off just feeling completely energized and we just talked about, I suppose our shared experience, and there was a kind of familiarity almost immediately, and a kinship, and an infinity really genuinely immediately, which you don’t always get. But I certainly felt it right from the beginning.
Could you tell by reading the screenplay that there was a personal connection in terms of Andrew and his own family to it? Was that something he told you?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that I knew that it was personal because any writing that has that kind of flare in it, obviously I knew a little bit about Andrew because he’s so well known. But no, actually, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t actually. I’m glad that you just read something in the same way that audience members going to see the movie. I like when people say, I knew nothing about it, and you just have this story and you don’t have all the kind of stuff around it. Sometimes I think that’s a really nice way to see a film or we’re required, of course, to promote it so that people go see it. But sometimes isn’t it a lovely thing when somebody says to you, “Just go see it. Just watch this.” Or listen to this song or read this book. I’m not going to say anything more about it because kind of generous, but in this day and age, we have to talk about it because we have to make sure that we’re not smashed out by all these huge other movies.
Were you surprised when you showed up at the house to film and you found out it was his childhood home?
Oh, no. I knew by then, eventually. No, then we had loads of conversations just initially before I read it. I didn’t have a preamble, but yeah, I knew that it was, by the time we got to filming, we knew everything about that. We knew everything about each other.
Why do you think that Adam does not question when his parents show up? There’s no moment where he’s like, “Why are you here? What’s going on?”
Well, I think he conjures them up himself.
Interesting. Is that your theory or is that a theory that someone told you…
Well, it’s mine. I feel like he’s a writer, and he’s trying to write about them, and then they appear to him, and I feel like he needs them to turn up. But what I think is so special about the film is I keep saying that it has a kind of dreamlike quality to it. When we wake up with a really strong feeling, whether that’s desolation or rage, or we wake up laughing, you are more concerned with the feeling, and how potent that feeling is rather than the logic of the dream. Do you know what I’m saying?
When you wake up, you’re like, “Oh my God, I feel so upset,” or “I feel like that’s stayed with me.” You’re not like, “Yes, but I remember in minute three of the dream I did this.” That doesn’t make sense. You know what I mean? So I think he expertly guides the audience to feel as much as they can. The kind of plotty nature of it, even when we were rehearsing it, was sort of… Because of course, there are loads of questions like Claire and Jamie were like, “Do we eat? Where have we come from? What are our memories?” You know what I mean? “Do we know what an ATM machine is?” All that stuff.
You could spend your whole time in some ways, concerning yourself with that. I think that’s, of course, it’s interesting to some sleuthing-type audience members. But that’s not what we were remotely interested in at any point. It was just really accessing the truth, the gritty truth of what it’s like within families.
I saw the movie for the second time on Saturday night. I haven’t seen it in a couple of months. I remembered the scene with Claire where she finds out that he’s gay. Her reaction is not what he’d hoped. Maybe it was the screening room that I saw in the first time, but it really impacted me more the second time. How did you two work through that scene?
I think it was personal for both of us and not just both of us. I think there are personal elements with Jamie and Claire that they had to bring Paul. I do love the fact, the surprising nature of the film. I think sometimes the maternal figures are the ones that are the ones that are a little softer, and Jamie’s character is so soft in this. The thing that I adore about the film is that both of those things can exist. You can have really quite brutal, insensitive, kind of insulting questions and assumptions that are made by his parents, but also there’s deep love there. I think that exists for so many families, that your family can make you so sensitive about what they think about you, and they have an understanding of you, and that’s such a love for you, that it can manifest itself in fear sometimes. They act out of fear rather than love. I love the fact that those two things can exist, that the father says, “I didn’t come into your room when you were crying, because I would’ve probably been one of those people who I would’ve bullied you as well.” It’s a lot. But he also is desperately sorry, and he loves his son. I think those things, I think that’s a more common thing within families. It’s an uncomfortable truth. It’s nevertheless the truth. Those two extremes can exist.
I do think that one of the brilliant things about the film is that the storyline with Paul’s character and this storyline can appeal to so many different people in many different ways. I also hear so many people who are not queer, LGBTQ, that’s the part that speaks to them and makes them ball and cry. I’m sort of curious, have your parents seen this movie? I’m curious what they think?
They haven’t seen it yet. They’re seeing it next Sunday.
Will you be there?
No, I won’t be there. I think that will be a bit too much for me to be there with them.
By the way, can you sit through it again, or are you one of those actors who watch it once and that’s it?
It depends on the project. The first time I saw it, Paul and I saw it in a screening room together, and we were affected by it, both of us. But like you, the second time I saw it, I saw it with an audience, which I think helped. But also, the second time, it just completely devastated me. I think the first time, as an actor, you’re so involved in it and you know the plot, and you know the thing, and you’re kind of looking at it, you’re just kind of scanning for noise. So no, I do find it hard to look at myself. This time I found that it was so exposing. After I saw it, I felt like, wow, I feel like I’ve been sitting naked in front of 350 people. I was like, “Wow! That is…” I feel like Andrew caught us all in a very, sort of profound way.
Do you feel it’s the most “you” in a character that you’ve portrayed on screen, at least?
I think it is. Yeah.
That’s the uncomfortable part.
At first, it was uncomfortable, and then you think, well. At first, you think, “Oh my God, I’ve shown myself.” When you’re dealing with issues of shame and vulnerability and places that you go where you felt, “Oh my God, nobody can ever see this.” So when you’re showing that, and the film ends, you just feel, “I hope I don’t get, I don’t know, beaten up, or put in jail” or whatever is the thing that is a big fear or whatever. So, that’s what’s both uncomfortable at the beginning, but also the most miraculous to me that something that I felt so burdened by has now been something that has been of use to people. It’s incredible.
You’ve won BAFTAs, you’ve won Olivier awards, and you’ve been the lead on the stage, but you’ve never really been the lead in a movie before. Were you nervous about that going into this?
Well, the thing is, I have been the lead in a few movies, but nobody’s ever seen that.
That didn’t bother me. That wasn’t a consideration of mine, to be honest. I just finished “Ripley.” I’d spent a year playing Tom Ripley. It was nearly every frame of that story. I’ve also done it before. But I’ve never really been guided by [the requisite that] I have to play a leading role now in order to feel like I’m on the right track. Maybe because I’ve always done it in the theater, and I don’t necessarily always feel like they’re the characters that I want to play. This one was. So yeah, it is kind of unusual in a sense, but I haven’t really thought about it until I’ve been asked when we’re talking about the movie. Because maybe people have known that I have been around for a while, and then you go, “Oh, this is the first time we’ve seen him as a protagonist.”
My last question for you is, was there a moment shooting this where you thought “Wait, this is special. This is what we hoped”?
I kind of knew there were so many, as you know, there are set pieces within the film. I knew my job, I had sort of listed all these scenes, and Adam appears in practically every scene. I was like, I want to do that justice because they were so brilliantly written, and every day I felt like it surpassed something magical sort of happened. We did this section with Jamie and Claire first. So, it was almost like we had a kind of mini childhood, and then I had to say goodbye to them literally, saying goodbye to Jamie going back to America. And then you go into a new sort of phase where you’re like, “I hope this next phase works out with the Harry and Adam storyline.” That was completely magical and wonderful and a completely different dynamic. I felt like we’d collated a huge amount of really special stuff. So the concern was then was how do they affect each other. But we constantly talked about it imaginatively, what he might’ve just been coming from. So, those two storylines affect each other rather than just being two separate in the wrong way.
“All of Us Strangers” is now in limited release.