Last Night in Soho

HEROINE 15 cover story: Thomasin McKenzie in conversation with Edgar Wright
Film+TV | 29 October 2021
Above:

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At the dark and surreal centre of Edgar Wright’s new psychological thriller, Last Night in Soho, is Thomasin McKenzie, orchestrating the narrative through a career-defining performance as Eloise, a young woman who is mysteriously flung through timezones from modern-day to swinging 60s London.

Navigating this fever dream, on-screen McKenzie is utterly convincing; unlocking that same level of audience-immersion as her break-out performance in Debra Granik’s 2018 Leave No Trace. Recognising this potential, Wright not only offered McKenzie the lead role, but also the space to build Eloise in tune with her own sensibility – a level of trust dished out rarely. Two years after wrapping, Last Night in Soho is finally getting its day, and this actor-director duo are ready to “unleash the beast.”

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Thomasin McKenzie: I’m relieved to be doing this with you because in the interviews I’ve done so far I’m not wanting to say anything that’s going to [spoil the film].

Edgar Wright: I had a couple of bad ones where the interviewer spoiled the end of the movie in their questions, and I said, “Don’t print the question – people haven’t seen the movie yet!”T
M: Oh no!

EW: It happened twice, and I had to have a word with the publicist to say, “Just please ask them not to spoil the film. That’s the only request.”
TM: I wanted to ask about that secrecy, or wanting to be protective of the script. I’ve worked with a couple of directors for whom the script feels like a very precious thing that needs to be protected and preserved, so that once it’s released to the world it’s a big surprise. Then I’ve also worked with directors who aren’t quite so careful about what people know. I guess it depends on whether it’s an adaptation or based on real-life events, too.

EW: I’ve been promoting two films back-to-back and the other one, the documentary [The Sparks Brothers], I can talk about it until the cows come home, because it’s really easy to talk about a band you like. Then it’s a funny thing switching into gear with Last Night in Soho because I feel like the movie speaks for itself better than we can in 30 minutes [laughs]. You go on a journey with your character Eloise and one of the things I found interesting was that you’re exactly the same age. I feel like the entire production of the film was almost like your journey making it, would that be fair?
TM: Definitely [laughs]. I was eighteen at the time turning nineteen on the film, then during the re-shoots I turned twenty.

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EW: I remember where we were standing when you turned nineteen.
TM: Same! I was at the age where I was still figuring myself out, and my approach to work – I’m still figuring that out, you never stop. I hadn’t realised at the time the importance of separating yourself and your character and because it was such an intense shoot – long hours, three weeks of night shoots and a lot of really physical and emotional work – I think I just absorbed a lot of what Eloise was going through. There is a lot of the natural humour you bring to every film you create, also the intense, bright colours and the fast pace – the rhythm – and I wanted to have that while taking Eloise’s journey incredibly seriously. She went crazy because people weren’t believing her, so I wanted to believe her completely.

EW: You had the hardest job in a way because we shot for like three months and, as you said, there were a lot of night shoots and tough stuff, tough for anybody, but you’re in every scene. I was so impressed with how you managed to stay in the zone. I was in awe that you could do it and also mindful of making sure that you were OK at the same time [both laugh].

TM: I think at this point in my career I’ve started leaning further away from how I approached things on Last Night in Soho, in that I was so empathetic towards what Eloise was going through and in-between takes I wasn’t snapping in-and-out of the character, I was staying very tunnel-visioned. At that time I thought in order to give a good performance in a really intense emotional scene you have to be in that headspace yourself. I’ve realised since that you don’t have to be in order to be truthful to them. It’s actually best to be in a really happy, joyful headspace because then you’re confident and comfortable and you’re not constantly second-guessing the performance you’re giving. As an actor, you have to have complete faith in the director because they’ve got the vision, they’ve got the big picture. Also because you’ve got such a specific style, it was really exciting to open my eyes to what an Edgar Wright set is or what an Edgar Wright film is.

EW: I look at some films and I wonder how they were done, I’d be fascinated to watch that process. With Leave No Trace, presumably, Debra [Granik, director] would create the environment for you, Ben [Foster] and the other actors to just totally be in it and maybe not be conscious of the camera at all, would that be right?
TM: Yes, definitely. It was very much just working with the environment we were already in, as naturalistic, real, and quiet as possible. I think one of the biggest differences between the experiences is that Last Night in Soho had so many more factors, performance-wise, and kind of everything-wise, that had to be taken into account. Like firstly, the whole rhythm and choreography of the film, because it’s all timed to the soundtrack. I think that really added a lot of magic.

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“Last Night in Soho was the most physical film I’d ever done”

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EW: It’s like making you do a triathlon. “OK you’re going to act but also you’re going to be jumping over hurdles, and you can only go when the light is blue and also…” [both laugh]. In a film where there are a lot of other things going on, like choreography, lighting and special effects, what is amazing is you in the middle of all this phantasmagoria giving a very real, naturalistic performance. Whatever bells and whistles are in a movie like this, it all falls on you. You’re the centre of everything. I used to say that to Simon Pegg when we were making films like Shaun of the Dead – it was slightly different with Simon, he would complain sometimes that everybody else had all the funny lines even though he’d written the script with me [laughs]. I would say, “Yeah but if you’re not good the entire film doesn’t work, like literally, you are the thing that is allowing the entire film to be.” I think it took him a couple of films to realise that he’s really funny even when he’s being straight and natural.
TM: That’s why I took the role of Eloise so seriously, because I knew that everything was going on around her with the lights and the camera movement and the comedy and just like the whole, phantasmagoria, is that what you said? I love it. I knew I needed Eloise to be grounded and for it to feel real so everything going on around her could be as effective as possible.

EW: All of my movies have centred around one character, it’s just the nature of the stories I’ve written. Last Night is very subjective in that the story is entirely experienced through Eloise’s eyes and that is a very powerful thing. When I think about the movie, I think about your face and reactions. Seeing how you transform from the first scene to the last is really quite incredible.
TM: That’s how I felt when I watched Leave No Trace for the first time. We filmed in chronological order, so over the period of the film I was literally watching myself grow older. My features were changing and I felt like my hair was getting darker. Even though we didn’t film Last Night in Soho in chronological order, it had the same effect through the wig, the slowly deteriorating make-up and Eloise’s physique.

EW: What was it like watching the finished film for the first time? You watched it on your own, didn’t you?
TM: I had a very physical reaction. We had just gone on a walk together, a really beautiful walk…

EW: In Regents Park.
TM: And, coming from New Zealand, I had not dressed for the weather. I was wearing a flimsy flannel and was so cold, then arriving into the theatre I was already shivering a little bit and then when the movie started I kind of lost control of my body, I was literally shaking so hard. When I walked out and saw you all I couldn’t feel my knees. Also, Last Night in Soho was the most physical film I’d ever done, before that I didn’t realise that sometimes your mind knows things aren’t real but your body doesn’t. So when you’re doing all the sprinting through Soho streets, your brain knows that you’re not actually running away from something, but you are still panting, your heart is still beating incredibly fast. You’ve still got all this adrenaline rushing through your body because you’re sprinting away from something – sometimes there’s a disconnect. When I watched the film for the first time, my body still had the same reaction as on the day. Scientifically, that was cool to learn how much your body is affected by an emotional performance, not just your mind.

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“because you’ve got such a specific style it was really exciting to open my eyes to what an Edgar Wright film is” 

EW: I think what you did was incredible. There was never a point I thought you couldn’t do it. It was more looking at you like, “How did you do that?” [laughs] I felt like I was watching a little masterclass.
TM: When you’re on a film set, I think somehow you just get through it. We do long hours and it’s a very emotional thing for everybody, for those acting, watching, directing, for everybody. Somehow when you’re all there creating something you know has the potential to be incredible, you just rally together and get through it. I think a lot of people don’t realise how much work goes into making films. That’s one of my biggest regrets about movies sometimes, the audience sees an hour and a half, two hours of the final product, of very specific, selected takes, but they don’t see the whole three months of the journey. Even more of writing it, pitching it, etc. So it’s sort of weird for us watching the final thing for the first time, you see a scene but you also see all the memories and preparation that went into it.

EW: Oh yeah. I think the further you get away from a shoot the more you look back with rose-tinted spectacles. All films are hard to make, but if the finished thing looks kind of effortless… even that word implies that it looks effortless but was made with a lot of effort [laughs].
TM: It’s the same with ballet or gymnastics, the job of the ballerina is to make it look effortless. It looks like they’re floating but really they’re in a lot of pain, their toes are broken and they’ve got sore limbs. I feel the same thing with film.

EW: I think about this quote all the time, it’s such a random one to come out with, but there’s this film called Convoy about truck drivers. The main driver, played by Kris Kristofferson, his nickname is Rubber Duck and he has a duck on the front of his truck. Someone says, “Why do they call you Rubber Duck?” and he says, “Because I’m smooth on the surface and I’m paddling like the devil underneath” [both laugh]. That’s what we try and do, make it look like it’s easy but it’s not, you’re furiously paddling. I did a Q&A with film students during the pandemic and one asked, “Do you ever get imposter syndrome?” I said, “Do you mean do I ever go to work and feel like I’m going to be found out? Every day. That never goes away.” It’s not unhealthy, it’s a grounding thing. In that way I’m similar to Eloise – obviously I’m a 47 year-old man, not an eighteen-year-old girl from Cornwall…
TM: I think you could pass as an eighteen-year-old girl from Cornwall.

EW: [laughs] In my greatest performance. But I’ve never stopped feeling like the country mouse. In the movie, Eloise moves from Cornwall to London, and I moved from Somerset to London. Even though I’ve now lived in London for 27 years, and younger people in the film industry may see me as part of the establishment, I never feel like that. I always feel like the imposter, like I shouldn’t really be there. And even though I’ve now done several movies, I don’t ever not go to work without butterflies, without that gnawing anxiety about an hour before going on set. Then on top of that, I don’t know if you felt the same, maybe I even told you about this? When we went on stage and it was any scene in Eloise’s bedroom, I’d start to get mild anxiety [laughs]. Then as sets were getting struck off and there were less on stage, I was like, phew, I was able to breathe. Marcus [Rowland] our production designer had constructed almost like Russian dolls of sets within sets within sets within sets. It was really impressive but I honestly used to walk on set sometimes and see the entire film on top of each other, and be like, “Wow, this is a lot” [laughs].
TM: Yes, definitely. I found it quite hard getting my bearings because the whole movie for Eloise is like a fever dream.

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EW: I remember two specific scenes where I was really in awe of both you and Michael Ajao, and also Matt [Smith] and Anya [Taylor-Joy], and in the finished film they look completely seamless. But what people might not realise is that we were filming on location in the real world, but not necessarily in a locked-down set. It’s amazing when you see the finished film because, especially if it’s in a 60s scene, what you see on camera is amazing, but then just out of frame is the real world, and there’s like drunk people coming out of clubs, or people arguing with rickshaw drivers [Thomasin laughs]. There was one scene with you and Michael outside the nightclub in Vauxhall where some drunk people ran through the shot and were all like [waves arms and shouts]. I was impressed you guys just kept on going with the scene. Then they didn’t do it again because they didn’t make you break character…
TM: They didn’t get the reaction they wanted [laughs]. What was the street we used for night shoots in the middle of Soho?

EW: Oh yeah, Rupert Street, right in the heart of Soho.
TM: On that street there was a drunken guy who just refused to get out the shot. He was walking right through the middle of it and wouldn’t move.

EW: [laughs] That bit where you and Michael were running through the rain? I remember we were at the previous location and our AD Richard [Graysmark] got word from the next location, he said something like, “I hear it’s pretty lively down there” [laughs]. I was like, “Oh god, what does that mean?” Then when we got there, it was midnight on a Thursday and the place was just kind of… in little moments like that I thought, “Hmm, maybe we’re not going to get this scene.” Then somehow, just through the war of attrition, you get the shot. Maybe you and Michael did it like five times, and then eventually we’re like, “Yeah, we got a shot where we managed to get rid of all the people.” But it was amazing how the real world was like right there. I wanted to ask you about when we first met, I remember it was in 2018 in Little Dom’s in Los Feliz, we were sat in the booth talking about the script. How did you feel when you read it?
TM: A part of the script I reacted strongest to was the relationship between Eloise and her grandma, who she lives with and grew up with. That really rang true in terms of my relationship with my grandma, because I’ve lived with her my entire life and my bedroom is right next to hers, so I can hear her snoring in the middle of the night [laughs]. She’s 94 now and I’m really close to her. In a way, doing Last Night in Soho was me paying tribute to the love I have for my grandma and the support I feel from her. Also, like you mentioned before, where I was in my life at that time was very similar to where Eloise was in hers. Entering into this whole new world, naive and with a lot of hope and expectations. I was being introduced to the international film industry and trying to figure things out. And then of course the excitement of working with you – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is my absolute favourite of your films, I just think it’s so smart. The script [for Last Night in Soho] was on a timer actually, I think I had three or so hours to read it.

EW: I didn’t know that [laughs].
TM: I felt quite special.

EW: It’s funny actually, talking about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in a way I think Michael Cera had a similar experience working on that film as you did on this. In terms of, prior to that movie he was very used to being in a certain zone of performance; being in a scene and letting it happen. But then Scott Pilgrim was a very technical film and I know sometimes he struggled with it – he had so much choreography to learn.
TM: And all the animation.

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EW: There’s a lot happening. Again, it’s credit to him that he gives an amazing performance in the middle of everything. He said he had separation depression after the shoot because once it was over he missed everybody. But he also said… when we were making those fight scenes in the film, every time somebody would connect with a punch or a kick, a lightbulb would go off. We had real lightbulbs on-set and would paint them out. So you can sort of see in the finished film these flashes going off the entire time. Michael said after finishing the film whenever he closed his eyes all he could hear were [makes lightbulb noises], the sound of lightbulbs haunted him for months afterwards [both laugh]. I wondered if there was anything, once we’d finished the shoot, that you either missed or were glad to never hear again? [laughs]
TM: I was very glad to not be running on concrete in those sneakers, the least supportive running shoes [laughs]. That was such a relief. One of the most beautiful but also most brutal things about making films is that it’s like a crash course in forming friendships and relationships with people. You become incredibly close and intimate with people you’ve never met before – you see them every single day. Make-up artists are touching your face and your hair, costume people are pulling at your clothes and everything. You constantly have people around you who you grow to trust. Then once you’ve wrapped, you don’t see them again, either ever or not for a very long time, and you’re never going to be with that same group of people all together in the same room ever again. So there’s a kind of grieving period after every single shoot. That’s always something I take a while to get over.

EW: It’s true. Other directors say this too, that when you get to the end of a shoot sometimes you want to go, “Hey, we’ve finally figured out how this works, let’s do another film right now!” [laughs] It never works out like that because usually it’s another two or three years. But I’ve worked with a lot of the same people again and again just because they become your extended family. You want to make a movie to be back with your friends and family again, to be within that supportive bubble.
TM: That’s something I’m really excited about for the future, to continue working with people I admire. I think the most important thing about making a film is the feeling of teamwork, of family and making sure every single person feels valued. The connections between everyone are so strong on a film set. Also, what you said about finishing a film and wanting to go straight into another, sometimes you’ll film something and then you won’t be on set again for a few months or several years after that, so you have to relearn how to do it all again in a completely different environment with a completely different team and a different story. So that feeds into that feeling of imposter syndrome because you’re constantly beginning again.

EW: I always envy those directors who just keep on making movies. I understand it. It’s strange because you get to do your job for like three months every four years [laughs]. I like promoting movies but it’s that thing of [making the film] and then a year of talking about it.
TM: And with Last Night in Soho, it’s like two years after filming.

EW: Someone asked me, “You shot the film two years ago, do you feel it’s lost any power whilst it’s been sitting there?” And I said, “No, if anything it’s been getting stronger” [laughs]. I feel like we’re finally ready to unleash the beast. We have this film nobody has seen yet and I can’t wait for people to see it!

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Last Night in Soho is released on 29th October 2021.

Interview originally published in HEROINE 15

hair MARK HAMPTON at JULIAN WATSON AGENCY; make-up JENNY COMBS at THE WALL GROUP; photography assistant BRUNO McGUFFIE 

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