Phyllida Lloyd discusses her Irish domestic abuse drama, Herself, and collaborating with Claire Dunne and Harriet Walter on stage and screen. Herself is now available on Amazon Prime in Canada and the US.
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Before directing Herself in 2019, Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia, The Iron Lady) staged three all-female Shakespeare productions at the Donmar Warehouse in London, all featuring Herself’s lead and screenwriter, Claire Dunne, and co-star Harriet Walter. On stage, Dunne and Walter played father and son (Henry IV and Hal in Henry IV) and husband and wife (Brutus and Portia in Julius Caesar), and in Herself, they have a kind of mother-daughter relationship. To prepare for their roles as male characters on stage, Dunne, Walter, and Lloyd spent a lot of time thinking about male physicality and how that differs from women’s. Walter has talked a lot about how it taught her stillness, as an actress, something she uses to great effect in Herself.
It’s a striking contrast to see Walter and Dunne acting on stage together as men in Shakespeare and then on screen as women in Herself. As Henry IV and Hal, they are relaxed, loose, slouchy, and relatively still. As Sandra (Claire Dunne), a mother of two who has recently left her abusive husband, and Peggy, Sandra’s employer who offers her land to build a tiny house in Dublin, the pair are the physical opposites of their characters in the Donmar Shakespeare trilogy. Where Dunne’s Hal was loose and languorous, her Sandra is tense, fidgety, and always on the move. Where Walter’s Henry IV was still and commanding while slumped in a chair wearing a bathrobe, her Peggy is straight-backed and also tense, though she brings some of that same stillness to the role, making Peggy quietly commanding. As husband (Walter) and wife in Julius Caesar, the pair are open with each other — and Portia (Dunne) is particularly fierce and forceful. One imagines Sandra and Peggy only ever dreamed of being so candid with their romantic partners, as both women have a history of experiencing domestic violence.
In Herself, Dunne’s Sandra is much more subdued, lacking the power or resources of either Portia or Hal. When the film begins, Sandra leaves her abusive husband after receiving a beating so bad it permanently damages her hand. Because she lives in Dublin, which is in the midst of a major housing crisis (previously depicted beautifully in Rosie), it’s impossible to find a new home for herself and her two daughters. Sandra spends much of the film exhausted but determined to make a better life for herself, and she gets a helping hand from Peggy, for whom she works as a cleaner. With the gift of Peggy’s land, Sandra embarks on the difficult process of building a tiny house for herself with very little money and no expertise, bringing together a community of friends and acquaintances to help her build her dream. But she is constantly plagued by her husband who stalks her and does everything in his power to undermine and sabotage her newfound independence.
Although the film’s central metaphor of building a house as a means of rebuilding one’s future is a bit trite, Dunne, Walter, and Lloyd elevate the material through the specificity of how Sandra and Peggy deal with a violent, patriarchal culture. Lloyd slowly reveals a sort of whisper network of emotional support for women from domestic violence backgrounds, while also highlighting how damaging the silence around this violence is — especially considering how commonplace it is. Dunne and Walter bring such specificity to their roles as battered women who have found or are finding their independence, subtly revealing how Peggy wants to give Sandra the help she never received herself. This is probably helped enormously by the research that the trio did by meeting women in prisons for the Donmar Shakespeare trilogy, many of whom came from domestic violence.
The trio have also, at this point, built a thriving collaborative process and strong trusting relationships. Lloyd initiated the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy in 2012, revived it in 2016, brought it to New York in 2017, and filmed the productions, which are now streaming online, in 2018. Walter starred in all three, with Dunne taking co-lead or key roles in each, giving them years to build a working relationship as actors and a strong bond with Lloyd as a director. That instantly translates on screen, even though this is Dunne’s first major screen role: you feel the history and trust between the characters, and Lloyd told me about how the more seasoned Walter helped shepherd Dunne and the production along without taking up space.
Although Herself is a project initiated by Dunne, who wrote the script, she didn’t think of starring in the film until she sent the script to Lloyd who immediately wanted to direct with Dunne at the centre. Lloyd wanted Dunne to have a film career. Working together on stage had taught Lloyd that Dunne there was “a warrior in Claire,” which was so necessary for the role of Sandra, a woman with virtually no support network struggling to care for her children.
Over the phone, I talked with Lloyd about how she got involved with making Herself, her ongoing collaboration with Walter and Dunne, and the differences between directing for stage and screen.
Seventh Row (7R): You’ve worked with both Claire and Harriet together on stage. What got you interested in working on this project?
Phyllida Lloyd: I was looking for a low-budget film to do. Claire Dunne and I were working together in the theatre, in this all-female collective. We were working in women’s prisons. We were very passionate about women’s stories. We met a lot of women in prison who had spent most of their lives in households of domestic violence. It was something we were talking about a lot.
One day, a friend of Claire’s in Dublin was [suddenly] thrown out of her apartment because the landlord was selling. She had three kids. And there was literally nowhere for her to live in Dublin. She had to declare herself homeless. Claire was so appalled. She sat down and started writing the script.
When she showed it to me, just for friendly input, I was immediately taken by the fact that this is a story that we’ve seen, the story of the battered woman and what happens to her, but I hadn’t read this take on it ever before. The story starts at the moment where the woman leaves an abusive partner. It’s a story that is not without hope, and that’s an understatement. Sandra is a kind of towering figure of strength who is this agent of her own destiny. Help comes to her, but she actually has already carved out a plan of what she wants to do. It’s just a very different approach.
I loved the light and shade of the kind of thriller momentum to it. I thought she wrote the mother and child world of it so beautifully. And I was passionate that Claire would have a film career. She wasn’t even thinking of playing Sandra. She was thinking of playing a small, sister role that she’d written in it.
She thought maybe it was one bridge too far to think she would be able to play the lead in it, that to get it financed would take a leading star. When I found that out, I thought, my God, you know what,I’m going to direct it, and I’m going to absolutely make sure that you are playing the lead in your own movie.
7R: Is there a difference between directing Shakespeare vs. directing something that’s written by your lead?
Phyllida Lloyd: It’s the same, to be honest. It’s a very practical thing when you have a real intimate relationship with an actor. On a movie set, the difference is that, as the director, you’re the only one who knows what you’re seeing. In the theatre, in some ways, the actor has control and power because there is a direct line between them and the audience. It’s kind of humbling the kind of power and control that the movie actor surrenders to the director, who is free to light them in any way you want.
Fundamentally, the trust between Claire and I was huge. We’d been on such an incredible journey together. We had such a shorthand. We didn’t need to waste any energy on our relationship. It was much more about how do we bring the rest of the group in. How do we build a community with a new group of people? Harriet, Claire, and I were all friends. It was about how to make everyone else part of our family.
7R: Is there a difference between directing actors on stage and screen?
Phyllida Lloyd: Not really. You’re just asking for what you want. You have a lot more time to rehearse on stage. You have a lot more experimentation. You may go down blind alleys. You may try wild and crazy things that never end up in front of an audience. On a movie, you have to be a little more judicious and organised and know what you’re going for.
The miracle was that Claire had had so little experience on screen, but she just took to it like a natural. She just understood how to pitch it. Sometimes, I’d say, “You’re not going far enough,” or “You’re going too far.” But that’s the same if you’re working with Claire or with Meryl Streep. They want to know what you want to see because they can’t see it. It’s a very practical thing.
7R: One of the things you worked on with the actors in the Shakespeare trilogy was on male physicality whereas Herself is more about female relationships between Sandra and her children and Sandra and Harriet’s character. Did thinking about male physicality affect how you thought about how to approach this film, which is a very different world?
Phyllida Lloyd: I suppose I knew there was a warrior in Claire. She’d played on stage these amazing warriors who had to do boxing and wrestling and fighting and carousing. When I asked her to pick up a pickaxe, swing it, and throw it into the ground, I didn’t have to think, “I wonder if she’s strong enough to do this.” I knew what she was capable of in all departments. I knew the level of anger that was inside her. It wasn’t really about male or female. I just knew who she was as a person and the range of emotions that she was capable of.
In some ways, Harriet had a very easy job, by her standards of what she’s been asked to do in the past, of playing Peggy. She was fundamental to giving Claire support on the set. There was so much trust between them. There was almost a mother-daughter feeling between them.
7R: In what way do you feel that support Harriet gave Claire was important?
Phyllida Lloyd: Claire was having to go right out there to these extremes of emotions. Harriet was really being the rock, taking up very little space and energy. She’s Dame Harriet Walter, with decades of experience and a big reputation. But she didn’t take up much space on the set. She was just always ready, knew exactly what she was doing, and had really good ideas. She improvised some fantastic moments in the film, as all of the actors did, but Harriet particularly. That moment in the bathroom in the middle of the courtroom scene, there are pieces in there that Harriet improvised that were really really helpful.
7R: On film, you’ve directed all kinds of genres, and you’ve also done lots of theatre. What do you see as the opportunities of directing on screen vs in theatre or vice versa?
Phyllida Lloyd: On screen, there’s the opportunity to have total control of every aspect of it, right through to the final moment. For eternity, it remains in the can, for better or worse, as you wanted it.
With a stage play, you can create something, but it’s like a living organism, like a plant or a tree. Every night, it goes in front of the audience, it’s growing. If you create something that you’re proud of, it will grow in a way that pleases you and is true to the subject, but it will change. You have to, to some extent, surrender. It’s like watching a boat with your children or family on it, sailing away from you, when a play is born.
In a movie, you say goodbye to the actors, and then you make the movie. Making a movie is a story in three acts: the development of the script, the shooting of it, and the edit. It’s really just you and the editor when you get to that point.
7R: What is the editing process like for you?
Phyllida Lloyd: I love it. It’s like being on holiday compared to actually shooting. I’m not saying it is like being on holiday, but it’s a wonderful reprieve after the siege that is shooting, because shooting is so precious.
Being able to be in a room, with just one other person, for weeks upon weeks, is a real treat. Of course, you invite other people in to see it, and that’s really helpful.
After we finished shooting this, Claire went away on a kind of pilgrimage to the other far parts of the world, and I got on with editing this. We were able to come back in and think about what we’d done.
Herself is now available to watch on Amazon Prime in Canada and the US.
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