Don’t tell a soul

Fionn Whitehead talks absent fathers and sibling rivalry in his new role alongside Jack Dylan Grazer
By Finn Blythe | Film+TV | 17 July 2021

Sibling rivalry is as old as the hills. Cane and Abel, Romulus and Remus, the Gallagher brothers…its resonance across millennia has yielded countless tales, fact as well as fiction. The latest comes from US writer and director Alex McAulay, whose new film Don’t Tell A Soul, casts Fionn Whitehead and Jack Dylan Grazer in a tense fraternity that recalls timeless themes of absent fathers and hereditary flaws.  

In a small town somewhere in rural Kentucky, blanketed by the suffocating grey miasma of a nearby refinery, older sibling Matt (Whitehead) has hit a brick wall. Having to provide for his sick mum (Mena Suvari) while also looking after younger brother Joey (Grazer) and dealing with the conflicting emotions of his recently deceased father has reduced him to a snarling, embittered mess. 

Things escalate quickly once the two are discovered robbing a nearby house for cash that Matt claims he needs to pay their mother’s medical bills. A chase ensues, during which the pursuing security guard (Dave Hamby, played by Rainn Wilson) slips down a well hidden in the forest floor with no hope of escape. As sole witness to their crime, the man’s survival rests entirely on the moral fortitude of the two brothers, a predicament that threatens to stoke their relation to breaking point. For Matt, the helpless man is an opportunity to exorcise old demons and vent against his late abusive father. For his little brother, whose concerns for their prisoner’s well-being do not sit well with Matt, the man offers to fill some of that raw paternal void. 

Having circled heavy material previously with roles in Dunkirk and Black Mirror, this film presented a chance for Whitehead to throw himself into something darker still. Not only did he add considerable heft to his normally lean frame in preparation, he faced up the challenge of adding nuance to well-worn character tropes by pursuing redemptive qualities of insecurity and repressed trauma. The result is a slick, punchy performance that affirms Whitehead’s status as one of this country’s most exciting talents.

still, ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ by Alex McAulay, 2021

Finn Blythe: Matt is an interesting character in many ways. I feel we all knew a Matt growing up, there’s something very familiar to him. What initially drew you to the character and the story as a whole?
Fionn Whitehead: I read the script in early 2018 and just loved it. Alex has done something very interesting with the characters and the way it’s written. It’s very stylised and a lot of characters are pushed to the extremes of human nature which makes them almost animalistic. So I was really drawn to the script and then to Matt in particular. Like you said, we all know a Matt and I think Matt is the dark thoughts that cross all our brain’s but that we sort of banish, whereas he just goes with it every time. One of the things I find really interesting about characters like Matt is that immediate gratification thing, he lives for the moment. There’s no long-term plan and there’s something so freeing about playing someone like that, who has no thoughts about what’s going to happen next, everything can be totally in the moment. You get a lot more scope to push things further than you would otherwise. I can’t think of many characters where I get to put a plastic bag over my brother’s head. 

FB: How did you find accessing that dark space and delivering that hostile energy? Did it change your preparation at all?
FW: I’m a firm believer that any kind of violence, anger or aggression comes from a place of pain and trauma. I think it’s just boring if you play anger for the sake of anger. So it was a lot of thinking about Matt’s backstory, about his relationship with his mum and his dad in particular. It’s sort of hinted at that his dad was a violent man, and being the eldest brother we decided that Matt would have borne the brunt of that. You see it happen all the time. When someone has no male role model or the only one they have is someone violent, they think that’s how they have to be. He should just be being a kid but he’s trying to take on this thing without really knowing how to, which I think everyone can kind of relate to. I think everyone reaches a point in their life where they’re sort of thrown into adulthood and they don’t feel ready for it. I tend to have a moment like that every day. 

“Everyone reaches a point in their life where they’re sort of thrown into adulthood and they don’t feel ready for it. I tend to have a moment like that every day.”

still, ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ by Alex McAulay, 2021

FB: It certainly made me think about how the burden of an emotional trauma is often unevenly distributed between siblings. I guess the older sibling is just that much more present and aware of what’s going on and therefore feels a duty of responsibility to protect the younger one. How much of that dynamic resonated with your own experience of siblings?
FW: I think you’re on the money with the trauma thing. The family is going through a massive loss, and like so many families they don’t really know how to. They don’t really talk about it, the mum’s really sick and there’s no-one to really turn to. We talked a lot about that dynamic between Matt and Joey and about when their dad was alive and we sort of came to the conclusion that Matt probably stepped in when the dad tried to go for Joey or whatever. So I think he does feel massively protective over his brother but he just doesn’t know what to do with it. I’ve got a brother and there was a lot about the script that resonated with me. Mainly I just found it really touching, that sibling bond is really strong and cuts through so much stuff. Everyone has fights with their siblings, I don’t think there’s a person alive who hasn’t, and especially with teenage boys it can be quite volatile. Me and my brother used to fight like crazy but there’s always that protective thing inside you which is like, “I can punch my brother but no-one else can.”

FB: Did you also feel that, bound up in Matt’s hostility towards his little brother, is a jealousy over the fact his innocence is still intact?
FW: I think Matt is so far down that road by the time we meet him at the beginning of the film and has experienced so much pain and violence from their father that he’s jealous of a lot of things related to Joey. I think he’s jealous Joey didn’t necessarily get as much stick from his dad, he’s jealous of his innocence and he’s jealous of the way Joey sees the world. He’s not been ground down by anything yet and I think Matt feels very trapped. One of the big reasons Matt acts out is because he knows he’s never going to go anywhere. This is it.  He’s going to be in this small town forever and that feeds the immediate gratification thing. He just wants these quick hits all the time because he doesn’t want to think about the future that he doesn’t really have. 

“There’s always that protective thing inside you which is like, ‘I can punch my brother but no-one else can.'”

still, ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ by Alex McAulay, 2021

FB: In terms of your preparation, did you bulk up a bit?
FW: Yeah I definitely did. I thought a lot about his physicality and it’s the kind of thing where I wanted to get bigger to have that physical dominance over [Joey] but not to be, it sounds like an excuse [laughs], but not ripped or anything. It’s that thing of like, the teenager who just lifts weights in his bedroom and probably only works out his arms and his chest while lumbering around like a gorilla. That physicality is really important to me, I really like thinking about how they walk and how they carry themselves. Matt is really gorilla-y. 

FB: Kind of rounded shoulders.
FW: Yeah rounded shoulders to make him seem bigger and no neck. It helped massively that Jack was like fifteen and really skinny when we filmed. The scene where I hit him with the Xbox controller and we have that little fight was a lot of fun to do because he’s light as a feather, so I actually did lift him off the floor and pin him against the wall. So having that physical presence was important but also, it plays such a big role in kind of your teenage years. Having physical dominance means you can kind of be king of your town.

FB: I wanted to ask you about another claustrophobic teen thriller that you’re starring in with Voyagers [a new sci-fi film starring Lily-Rose Depp, Tye Sheridan and Colin Farrell], which looks really great. Why are you excited for people to see that?
FW: I just loved the script, I think it’s such a cool idea and it’s so claustrophobic, like you said. What I liked the most about it is the way it tackles such big themes. Why should you be good? What is good and bad? Are we inherently good or do we need to be socially conditioned? That really drew me in and again, I’m playing a character battling with all this stuff who doesn’t know how to deal with it. Really what he wants is connection with other people but he’s never been taught how to, he’s never been shown that love and care and so he gets carried away and takes it too far. I love things that question morality, nature versus nurture and the constructs of good and evil, so I’m really excited for people to see it. 

Don’t Tell A Soul is available on digital download now.

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