In what is one of our favourite interviews we’ve ever done, we sat down with the wonderful Marianne Jean-Baptiste to discuss her work in In Fabric, her collaboration with Peter Strickland – out in cinemas this weekend. During her visit back to London, we met up during the London Film Festival to get into a chat all about the art of being a character actor, and how – and why – she has decided at this stage in her career to try new things and develop her own artistry. She also coins the phrase Stricklandland when describing what it’s like being on this set, and yeah, that’s one we’re going to be using again.
What attracted you to getting involved in this project?
Oh my gosh, Berberian Sound Studio. I saw that and I was like, okay, I’d love to work with this guy, I love his way of thinking. I’m not even sure I know what it is that he’s thinking, but the way he tells stories, the way he paints the pictures that he paints on screen. I remember when I loved here I did a few radio plays and I loved laughing about the foley, that always intrigued me, so watching that and going behind the scenes on film, I found really intriguing. I just loved the character of Sheila, this is refreshing is to play this sad woman.
The film does seem to revel in the character’s misfortune. Can it be cathartic to have unrelenting bad luck upon your character, you almost get to experience those emotions through the prism of another body.
Yes, and that’s what I enjoyed about it so much. Because what would you do in that situation? I wouldn’t let my son speak to me like that, I’d tell that girl to get out my house – but I’m not her, and how does this woman deal with that? How does she handle this stuff? It’s very therapeutic.
Do you find across the course of your career you’re always adopting little traits from your characters?
My husband might say yes, but I’d say no. What does happen for me though, is that is I have more empathy for people, because I’ll recognise something in them from a character I’ve played, so I won’t judge them as harshly.
Berberian Sound Studio is amazing, and there’s a real atmosphere and tone that is very true of Peter’s work – when you’re on the set, does it feel like you’re on a Peter Strickland set? Or is that all added in post?
I think what happens is, you’re so in the world, I called it Stricklandland, and you’re so in it that you’re invested in those particular relationships and those moments. The scenes in the bank with Sheila and her bosses are hilarious, but obviously at the time you’re sat there and you’re just trying to play the reality of the situation.
What’s he like to collaborate with? When you have filmmakers who have a very clear vision, their meticulousness can extend to their personality, driven by specifics. Were you granted much freedom?
He knows exactly what he wants, but in that it’s quite freeing. It’s all quite laid out, there are confines, but you have freedom within that to explore and to work, which is interesting, because you’d think it would be quite restrictive, but it wasn’t. At times you’d have to be patient because he has this whole thing with mirrors, and you’re standing there, but because you’ve watched Berberian Sound Studio, or Duke of Burgundy, you think, he’;s going to do something really beautiful so let me just go with it.
It must be helpful when you’ve got previous work to go off – because it creates a trust. Is that something you don’t get with first-time filmmakers?
Yeah, you just don’t know. But then why do you do something? Do you do it for the end result or the process? Because I like the process, I’m a rehearser as opposed to a performer, I enjoy finding stuff. Once I’ve done all that, I very rarely watch the stuff that I’ve done. I might see it once at a screening or something, but I don’t like watching myself in stuff, so it’s not the end result for me. It’s quite selfish.
I love the idea of a piece of clothing being haunted, because when you buy clothes from a charity shop, they do come with a history. Do you have any items of clothes you have a great attachment to?
Yeah I do, I love clothes. I’m attached to all of them. But I have a t-shirt of my dads that is worn to pieces, but the thought of his body having been it, it’s just very comforting. They have a magic to them, clothes. The thought of somebody else wearing it that I didn’t particularly know or like, to me would be just the oddest thing, I don’t think I’d be at all comfortable with that. It’s the thing with this dress, and it taking on this sort of malevolence that travels and goes to other people and messes with them.
Did you perceive this as a ghost story? His films are very nuanced and have so many layers so its reductive to pigeonhole it, but it’s been spoken of on those terms. Did you see it as being that?
Nah. Somebody said it was a horror, and it isn’t a horror either. It’s a chiller. It’s creepy, you know, but I wouldn’t say it’s a ghost story – there’s no ghosts!
Looking at your career, you’ve moved so seamlessly between film and TV, and over the last decade or so, the latter has become a real force.
Yeah television is killing it right now.
You’ve been watching this happen from within the industry, it’s been remarkable what TV has become.
It is, but TV at its best has overtaken film, in the way people are able to tell stories on television that you can’t tell on film. They wouldn’t get the budget, or nobody wants to see it, because you’re competing with Marvel in terms of bums on seats and all that sort of thing.
What do you make about our relationship with TV at the moment? Because it used to be every Sunday night at 9pm there would be a new episode and you’d spend all week waiting for it. These days, entire series are given to you in one go, and you’re encouraged to binge-watch. Where do you stand on that? Do you like the control that comes with having it all available in one go?
I like enjoying what I watch, I like to sit down and spend the weekend watching Mindhunter or what have you. That’s how I like to watch, I don’t want to wait.
Is it easier for actors starting off in the industry today that it was when you first began? In a sense that, when I grew up it felt like there were film actors and TV actors, whereas now it’s so blurred and so many doors are open. You have people like Matthew McConaughey and Meryl Streep doing TV now.
Yeah, but I think that’s also a symptom as well of TV just getting so much better. When you say TV you’re actually talking about cable, and not the network procedural type drama, so that’s what has really facilitated it, shows like Mad Men which came on, with really good writing, great performances. The Wire, shows like that. What actor in their right mind would say, ‘I’m not doing television’, because you’re getting the opportunity to have a fully fleshed out character over what, the equivalent of four or five mini films.
I guess then it’s hard in a film like In Fabric, because you have to give all of that, in quite a short amount of time. That must be quite challenging?
Yep. I’m in a third of the film [laughs].
You mentioned before you don’t live in London anymore?
Yeah I live in Los Angeles.
What’s the one thing you miss most about home?
My family. Just being able to pop in. Or have them pop in.
Well we miss you here. You’re one of those actors impossible to second guess, always trying new things. Has that been a conscious move on your part, or do you just follow the best stories and see where it takes you?
I think it’s a bit of both. After I left Without a Trace, I took a couple of years, I did some theatre and stuff and I did another couple of those procedural type TV things, and then I was like, I want to explore my artistry and find out what that is, and go for that now. It’s just been about trying to find projects that suit me.
It must be wonderful to be at that stage? Because at the start of any actor’s career there’s that wrestle between picking only great roles, but needing exposure. You may end up saying yes to things that aren’t creatively inspiring you.
Oh, totally. So yeah, where I’m at now, it’s a dream. So many people don’t work that you feel grateful you’ve been offered something, and you do things because of that rather than whether the role will improve your artistry, what will you learn, what will you gain from this? So for me, I just keep thinking, it’s not worth not painting for a while and missing my art classes, missing my piano lessons, I’m not going to do it, because I don’t want to take the time away from the things that are really feeding my soul.