When Brandon Cronenberg sought out someone as an idealization of beauty that the rest of society would hopelessly try to embody by procuring viruses she may have had in his debut film “Antiviral,” his mind raced to Sarah Gadon, but the actress was far more hesitant.
“I didn’t have any inclination to play Hannah when I first read the screenplay,” Gadon told Moviefone, just after the film premiered at Toronto. “She spends the first half of the script as an image – and who can relate to an image? I told him that I wasn’t interested in portraying this fetishized image of a woman.”
One only needed to see Cronenberg’s industrial-grade acidic sendup of celebrity-obsessed culture gone too far to see that the writer/director wasn’t interested in that either, but Gadon’s insistence on being more than just a pretty face has been the defining characteristic of her career thus far. After all, it isn’t every actress who would take the time to write so thoughtfully as Gadon does in the latest edition of the feminist film review The Cléo Journal about the marginalization of women in Italian neorealist cinema, nor are there that many who would use their accruing stature in the industry to seek out such a variety of such adventurous parts in films such as Denis Villenueve’s “Enemy” and David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars.” Still, it isn’t surprising that with her silky blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and a poise suggesting a royal air, that the Canadian actress appears in two films — the lighthearted British comedy “A Royal Night Out” and the Finnish drama “The Girl King” — hitting American theaters this week in which her characters are just inches away from the throne.
Wearing such regality lightly, it is in “A Royal Night Out” in which Gadon really has a chance to shine, playing Princess Elizabeth just seven years before she would become queen. Directed by Julian Jarrold, who previously helmed the similar greatness-in-waiting tale “Becoming Jane” about the young Jane Austen, the comedy, which also features “Diary of a Teenage Girl” star Bel Powley as Princess Margaret, imagines what it was like for the two royal teens to spend an evening out amongst their subjects, taking advantage of the excitement of VE Day following the Allies’ victory in World War II to experience life outside Buckingham Palace. While the sisters’ one-evening excursion really did happen, it likely wasn’t as rollicking as what Jarrold and writers Trevor de Silva and Kevin Hood have come up with, with the young ladies hustling in and around Trafalgar Square as the partying throngs of soldiers and other celebrators danced about as much as the Union Jacks that were being waved in the air. Yet the real energy comes from the performances from Gadon and Powley, who balance a charming sense of discovery as the night unfolds with an anxiety over what they know destiny ultimately holds for them, resulting in what a love child between “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Young Victoria.”
As busy as Gadon is these days, she still had the time to talk up her most recent turn as well as her personal connection to “A Royal Night Out,” figuring out how to play a queen in waiting and doing a rare comedic role.
So I’ll get to the movie in a moment, but after reading your wonderful Cleo Journal piece, I wondered how much your time spent studying film theory actually has affected what you do as an actress?
It has, absolutely. I love film theory and film criticism. When I was doing my degree, I really felt like it made me very dogmatic in my approach in terms of wanting to work with auteur filmmakers. Studying film exposed me to the different kinds of films that are made out there, and so when people often talk to me and they’re like, “Oh wow, you’ve done so many different kinds of film, it’s really hard to map out what you do,” I like that because there are so many different ways you can make a movie. There are so many different countries and so many genres, and I’m having fun experiencing them all.
You were acting well before college, but was that how you got interested in film or is film what got you interested in acting?
I actually started in dance at a young age. The first professional performance I did was when I was 7 in “The Nutcracker” at the National Ballet School of Canada, and I remember very clearly the entire experience – the audition, the costume fittings and the rehearsals – and stepping out on the stage for the first time and looking out at that sea of darkness and having that rush of performance, just loving every step of that process. I really feel like I fell in love with performing through dance and then I fell in love with movies through school.
What got you interested in “A Royal Night Out”?
I was just charmed by the story. It had a vibrancy to it even though it had all the notes of a great classic romance and a coming-of-age story, so I was really excited. I put together this [audition] tape right away and sent it to Julian [Jarrold, the director] and then afterwards I did a live audition for him, and I booked the role.
Is it true your grandparents actually met in Trafalgar Square?
Yeah, absolutely. My grandmother was in the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and my grandfather sailed for the British Royal Navy, and they met during World War II. My nana was a war bride and they were there celebrating. They’ve passed away, but when I watch the film, it feels like this love letter to them, and that time, and their love really. It was a real personal connection for me.
Was there a detail you honed in on that helped you figure out the character?
When I was doing a lot of the research, I really got a sense of who Elizabeth was. It was all very much there on the page, and the screenplay was so tight understanding her vulnerability and her reserve were things that I learned from my research. I also read something interesting in Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of the Queen, which was that when the princesses were young, they were taught when you fall, you don’t make a face. You keep your feelings to yourself. That for me was a real ah-ha moment because I was raised in the antithesis of that. Everything was like, “How does that make you feel? How are you feeling? Express yourself.” It was a real different way of thinking to wrap my head around, and it made me think that they really had a clear idea of their public self versus their private self. It’s like an actress in a way.
When you play a role in a period piece, are there modern mannerisms or tics you have to be careful about or even some that you could bring in so it feels more contemporary? [Minor spoilers ahead]
There was a lot that I had to lose myself in this role -everything from the accent to the posture to the way she carried herself and moved, but I don’t really think that there were a lot of modern things that I could bring into this world because it was such a different time and culture.
It was really interesting because there was a kiss at the end of the movie that I was a big champion of, but lots of British producers and Julian felt like, “Oh no, we can’t put a kiss at the end of the movie because she was with Philip at that time. People will be up in arms.” I was looking at it from a North American [perspective], thinking it’s a love story – the audience needs a kiss at the end, [otherwise] they’ll be so unsatisfied. It was really funny to see where those cultural lines were.
You’ve said “Roman Holiday” was an influence and I’ll save you the trouble of comparing yourself to Audrey Hepburn, but you do find that sweet spot of being elegant in the midst of ridiculous scenarios. You also haven’t done a lot of comedy before, so was this something different?
It was different, but that’s one of the things that I wanted to explore. My character in “Belle” was much lighter and sillier and even though that film has some pretty dramatic points in it, doing that film opened me up to this world of wanting to do something that was a little bit lighter. But it was so daunting to step into the life of a living icon, I could draw on that pressure and relate it to Elizabeth’s pressure to being the heir presumptive, so all those things that she was feeling were things that I felt very close to.
This appears to be one of the biggest productions you’ve been on, with lots of locations and tons of extras. Were there crazy days?
Yeah, every day was. It was physically demanding, too. We were running around all the entire shoot basically, and dancing, and learning the lindy hop. I actually had this great pair of platform running shoes that I’m wearing pretty much in every shot where you can’t see my feet because of how much we were on our feet. We were running around the Lake District in the nighttime, doing this lovely, classic kind of romantic comedy at 4 in the morning when people were stumbling home from the bar. We’re in a period and people were walking through our sets going, “What’s going on?” There were lots of funny moments for us.
It seems like the film was warmly received when it was released in England and I understand you were able to meet some of the pensioners who were there. Was that special for you?
That was incredible. It was amazing to meet all the veterans. I really enjoyed that part of our press tour, because when they watched the film, to hear them say, “You captured that time period so well,” it felt like such a stamp of approval. I got to meet with a few of them, and they talked about their experiences during the war and how the energy on VE Night was the most amazing energy they’ve ever felt. It’s a thing to wrap your head around, the idea of the world going without for so long and suffering through this war, and then just having that final moment celebration must have been incredible.
It’s captured nicely here. Just as a final question, now that you have all these choices when it comes to parts to play, has it been interesting figuring out what you want to do?
I love my job and I love working and I love transforming into different people. I really believe sometimes, as much as you look for work, the work finds you.