In Stephen Daldry’s latest, the “Billy Elliot” director tackles life in quarantine and the rhythms of lockdown during COVID-19 with “Together.” The film is immediately bolstered by clever and enlightening dialogue and committed and passionate performances from Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy. The two play a couple who have been together for over a decade but have only remained in a quasi-relationship for the sake of their son. However, it’s made abundantly clear in the first scene that the two can’t stand one another, finding everything from the shape of their mouths to the way they eat to be infuriating. Written by celebrated British playwright and screenwriter Dennis Kelly (HBO’s “The Third Day,” “The Black Sea“), as the film makes the trek from the beginning of lockdown to just about the present day, we watch as their relationship unfolds, collapses, and opens up again as they’re faced with loss, career instability, and the general feeling of the unknown that comes with living in 2020/2021.
Our critic found the film “riveting,” writing “…judged against the burgeoning genre of “locked down drama,” “Together” represents a welcome tonal shift, unafraid to showcase the nastiness associated with isolation and, paradoxically, becoming one of the most humane things Daldry has directed.” We spoke to McAvoy and Horgan about the endurance test of shooting the film in such a short period of time, learning each other’s lines to help the script better, and finding the human moments in their couple’s relationship.
With how the production of this film is set up and the heightened emotions expected of you the entire time, was this an exhausting film to shoot?
Sharon Horgan: It was kind of like the best fun I’ve ever had making anything ever, but also I was so exhausted during it. It was a huge amount of lines to learn but also on top of that, we couldn’t shoot it traditionally since we only had ten days to shoot, so we couldn’t keep doing new setups all the time, and you couldn’t do your single close up, mid, wide – we kind of had to do it on the move. We spent eight days rehearsing it and choreographing it to be able to do that. We had to do all of these shots, and some of them were 25-minute shots that just went on continuously, and we’d get to the end and just like, three sentences before you’d fuck it up and have to go back and do it again. Emotionally it was exhausting because I just felt like ‘oh I’m letting everyone down,’ or ‘that was a great one, and I messed it up,’ and then you go again. On top of that, there were many emotions in there and a lot of things to feel, but I don’t think they were any harder than trying to get the comedy of it right and the sort of timing and banter down. It was exhausting and amazing,
James McAvoy: It propels you along. Good work does that, and you don’t realize it until you get on, but you come in like a bag of smashed bread the next day.
Were you able to channel real-life emotions into these characters since we’re not very far removed from where they are in the film, or did you have to separate that from your performance?
Horgan: Oh, no, I think it was all just real-life emotions. I don’t know if I ever separate myself from anything I’ve ever done. It just happens – you use what you’re feeling, and it might be that you’re feeling something else entirely or thinking of something else entirely, but you’re using that. The thing about Dennis’ [Kelly] writing, in all honesty, was that it works on so many different levels, and there are so many layers to it that even that speech when you’re listing numbers and facts, you just saw it as people and as families. So it was very emotional, even when you’re just explaining a mishandling of events. It feels like it could be kind of cold, but the way he writes it, you’re feeling every single bit of it, so it might not be your very particular pain you’re using, but you feel extreme empathy for the families he’s talking about.
You mentioned that you had eight days for rehearsal but were there still allowances on set and room for improvising on the spot if a particular scene wasn’t working out the way it had been planned?
McAvoy: Yeah, some moments didn’t work or moments that we thought were great on the page and were hilarious in rehearsals, and then you get there on the day, and it’s just like ‘hmm, we’re undermining the whole thing.’ There was a bit at the end of the speech where I’m making the aubergine, and I’m talking about my second confrontation with the Tesco worker and the shelf stacker at the local supermarket, and I was just convinced the ending should come back to Sharon. That this whole thing, this whole road to Damascus that he’d been on, should be Sharon. We didn’t really realize that until it wasn’t quite working, so some things changed at the moment. Still, generally, Dennis’ writing is so brilliant, so detailed, and so dense as well that in a good way that it’s more like working in a good theater or any good work that it’s more about you coming to it, you are trying to make yourself work for it rather than you trying to make every line bend to what you’re good at doing.
Even though we are introduced to your characters as they’re saying truly horrible things to one another, there’s still an inherent want to root for the two of them. How was it building that chemistry and rehearsing the dialogue in a way that is often you two speaking over one another?
McAvoy: They finished each other’s sentences like crazy, and as much as they might dislike being with each other, they work well together, even just in conversation. That was a bit of a joy to play a couple that finished each other’s sentences. It is difficult to learn because we had to learn each other’s lines, isn’t that right, Sharon?
Horgan: Completely, and I forget who said it, whether Dennis or Stephen, but we tried it loads of different ways. We tried it really angry and then more so jokingly, and you try all of these different versions, and in the end, it was like they’re really working well together because they really want the audience to understand how much they hate each other. They’re helping each other explain it as viscerally as possible, and that sort of really worked with the chemistry of how they told a story together and how entertaining they made it. The more entertaining it is, the more you’ll listen to them.
You see that chemistry from the start, too – from moments where they get things for one another or how they move around the house together, or even how they’ll begrudgingly compliment the other on something they’re good at. Did you enjoy the human element of playing these characters who are openly hostile with one another but have noticeable affection between them?
McAvoy: It’s like what Sharon said a minute ago. They’re more concerned with informing the audience and trying and get across just how hard this is for them. And the arguments are almost on the side, and when they really go, especially in the first scene, they spend most of it disagreeing about how best to inform the audience how much they don’t get on, which is a whole level to the argument that isn’t on the surface. And then, when they really go for each other, we’ve really earned it. It looks like we’ve been arguing the whole time, but we haven’t actually because Dennis is so clever that he’s not just got us arguing. Still, he’s got us giving treatises almost, like an essay on the problem with our relationship.
Horgan: I did love the scene where we were just around the Christmas tree, and we’d just had sex again, and we’re trying to explain it and get our heads around it, but there’s this whole new level of something. Suddenly she feels good. There’s this certain level of being wanted again. What sex brings into their relationship is their body language around each other is completely different, and we’re suddenly laughing differently.
McAvoy: One of my favorite things in acting is when I make myself forget my lines by doing something I either think is good or funny or something like that, and while I’m going ‘oh that was a good bit of acting’ or ‘that was funny’ or something like that I’m like ‘Oh fuck it’s my line! Oh, shit’ and then I mess up. Usually, they’ll cut that out in a film, but in this film, you can see it where we were sitting around the tree. There was a bit where Sharon was talking, and she had a few good lines in a row, and I thought about how we’re talking about how we’re attracted to one another again and how we’re having sex, so I should actually check her out. So I have him leaning over just checking out Sharon’s bum, and he gets almost a bit dirty and a bit of a guy, and as I was doing it, I was thinking, ‘oh, this is really good – this is a really good bit of acting that I’m doing right now.’ Then I was like, ‘why is nobody talking’ and Sharon had stopped talking.
Horgan: But that stayed in!
McAvoy: It totally stayed in, and I’m so glad it did.
“Together” is in theaters today via Bleecker Street.