On the eve of the UK release of Ben Wheatley’s eagerly anticipated filmed adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, HIGH-RISE, I am exclusively posting the entire transcripts of a series of interviews that I conducted with the cast and crew of the film for the British Film Institute film magazine, Sight and Sound. The magazine’s editor, Nick James, has kindly given me permission to post these in full, extracts of which can be found in the April edition of the magazine. The content of all these interviews remains the copyright of Sight & Sound.
Thanks: Nick James at Sight & Sound, Ben Wheatley, Tom Hiddleston, Zoe Flower, Alaineé Kent at RPC, James Rocarols (co-interviewer), Justine McGlone (for transcribing everything!)
Interview #2 – Tom Hiddleston
Stats: Recorded 14th August 2014 – Audio recording 30:02 – Tom’s caravan on-set at Bangor Leisure Centre, Northern Ireland
Tom Hiddleston: Okay, alright. Is there anything I’m not allowed to talk about, by the way?
Zoe Flower: Yes! All those new, really exciting takes on the book! No, nothing. You know, I mean this piece won’t run until nearer to the film’s release. There might be a tiny, kind of newsy piece but it will be held for quite a while.
TH: I’m so used to the Marvel way, like not being allowed to talk about anything. People come on set and you go well I basically can’t tell you anything. Um, spoiler, spoiler, spoiler, spoiler, spoiler. Good luck. Go and write your piece.
S&S: We can talk about your work with Joanna Hogg if you like?
TH: I’m very happy to do that.
S&S: Or Terence Davis. I’d be quite happy with that.
TH: Ben and Amy are actually big fans of Joanna, which is really nice. I think the reason I’m in this film is because of Archipelago. Well, I don’t know that’s the reason but I know that Ben and Amy are really big fans of Joanna. It’s really nice that they’re quite similar in lots of ways. I mean, they’re dissimilar too, but they have a sort of admiration for the very refined. Their cinema heroes are European.
JR: They’re both cinephiles aren’t they?
TH: Yeah. They’re artists. Ultimately, they’re true artists.
S&S: So Laing’s an interesting, very interesting in a way, I mean…
TH: So have you read the…
S&S: I’ve read the book.
TH: You’ve read the book.
S&S: But not the screenplay.
TH: Right. Right.
S&S: So in the book, he’s a very, he’s kind of an aloof, very aloof character. He doesn’t have much judgment on what’s going on. He’s sort of almost observing everything. So he’s not quite a hero in a sense but he’s the most positive character, I suppose, out of the three main ones.
TH: It’s really interesting because I actually think in the book, in a way Laing is the principal if not one of three Ballard avatars in a way. Or he’s like a Ballard substitute. It’s really interesting, I read Miracles of Life, the first part of J. G. Ballard’s autobiography. He talks so much about going to Cambridge to read medicine for two years because he was interested in anatomy. He was interested in the machinery of the human body and that was born out of a childhood fascination with physical extremity from his time in Shanghai where his parents who were basically living a kind of almost Victorian colonial lifestyle, were cut off from the realities of the poverty of Shanghai, but as a child, because children go everywhere and children have no class, in a way they’re exposed, he was exposed to poverty, death, disease, and violence and joy and physical extremity. The polar opposites of the range of what the human body can experience. And there’s something about that in High Rise. Ballard’s favorite childhood novel was Robinson Crusoe. And it’s all over Concrete Island, he’s fascinated by this idea of what happens to human beings in extremis. As if there’s some kind of veneer of sophistication and civilization that is very, very shallow. And who we are really is revealed when we are up against it. We’re on a concrete island off the west way or we’re stuck in a high rise and in a way I think he’s fascinated by the human instincts that govern us. So to come back to Laing, I think Laing is a physiologist because Ballard is a physiologist in a way and Laing is detached and remote and independent because Ballard is very like that and Laing is in many ways who Ballard maybe wanted to be as a young man. I’m not sure, but also in a funny way I sort of took that as my diving board. That was my starting point. And then I met Amy and Ben and I said how much Ballard have you put into this? We were emailing a lot, and then I went over to see her. I said how much do you think this is Ballard? And she said well to some extent it’s Ballard and to some extent it’s me. And Ben says all the men are me and all the women are Amy. Then he said we want you, he said read as much Ballard as you like but we want you. And there was a kind of, an extraordinary kind of permission that like you know, bring Laing to yourself, bring yourself to Laing. Let Laing exist in you and let yourself exist in Laing. Respond accordingly and don’t feel like there’s no wrong decision, so your response is to what’s happening in the high rise are also Laing’s responses. So there’s a weird, it’s a funny, it’s a hard thing to articulate or summarize but I feel like the three of us did a lot of talking about who Jim Ballard was. And we haven’t talked about it for about six weeks because it’s become who I am in this context. So I wear my grey suit. I paint my flat shades of grey. Laing is someone who has moved into the high rise because he wants to get away from the colours and complications of real life. He wants to live in a faceless, elegant streamlined space. There’s a lovely line he says, the building is like a great ship.
S&S: That’s actually something that reminds me of Joanna Hogg and Exhibition, her film about the couple that are so obsessed with property and expensive things that everything else in their lives is meaningless. But with Laing in the film is there a sense of his complicity in everything that’s going on because he doesn’t challenge it overtly, or is that something that’s been played with or not so much?
TH: Yeah, I think that definitely, absolutely. Laing isn’t by no means blameless or by no means without responsibility. He just occupies a fascinating position in the high rise because it becomes very clear that it’s going to be organized along these almost Darwinian lines of class structure and power is the top and those at the bottom are going to suffer because of the needs of those at the top. And Laing from the twenty-fifth floor. Which means he’s not on the second floor and he’s not on the fortieth floor. And he’s also independent, he has no dependents he has no children he has no wife, which is I think why he survives. Because of his capacity for detachment, both intellectual and physical. He has fewer blind spots and fewer weak spots. Whereas everybody else who has their Achilles heels are more, they’re more obvious in a way. Laing is not a saint and he’s not a cut and dried hero without complication or fallibility. We were very clear about that and it happens in the book and it happens in the film, is that there is a, a moment of revelation and recognition for Laing that almost happens at the middle point of the story where he realizes, he almost has a nervous breakdown, that he realizes, Ballard writes he knew he was leaving part of his mind behind. He knew he would never again leave the high rise. And there’s an extraordinary scene, which actually we’ve kept it, well it wasn’t in the film and I asked Amy to put it back, as soon as we talked about it she agreed. Which is when about half way through, it’s on the, who knows if it’s on the fourth dawn or the fourteenth dawn or the thirtieth but he decides, he’s looking himself in the mirror and the water’s off and the electricity is down and the sun is coming up and he’s been up all night and he’s trying to shave, he’s trying to dry shave in the mirror and he’s got to go to work and he puts on a crisp white shirt and takes off his kind of smelly squash clothes and tries to tidy himself up and tidy his face and tidy his hair and he goes out. And the air is filled with knives. And he stands in the middle of the drained concrete lake that is yet to be filled with water. And he can’t cope with the outside world and he runs back into the building, runs back up the stairs back into his flat. Locks the door, changes out of his suit and his crisp white shirt and puts back on the kind of oily, sweaty rags he’s been wearing because it’s a more honest acknowledgement of who he is. Basically, basically, the crisp white shirt is a lie. The suit is a lie. The daylight is a lie to him and there’s some sort of acknowledgement of a more primal, more feral, more honest version of himself that he’s discovered living in the high rise and that he can never again don the mantel of that deception in a way that the doctor Robert Laing who exists in the world before that is, is a pretense. It’s a, it’s a, what do I mean? It’s a…
S&S: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.
TH: No but there’s an architectural word for it, um.
S&S: Like a construct?
TH: Yeah, a construct, yeah.
S&S: So in terms of what you were saying about there being a sort of tri part type character, did that inform how you approached the role in terms of if there were three main characters or that there were three parts of the same character?
TH: How do you mean?
S&S: I just mean…
TH: You mean me, Amy, and Ben or…?
S&S: No, no I mean Laing, Wilder, and…
TH: Yeah I think, I think it’s a very interesting thing in the book where I think Ballard has like split himself between Royal, Wilder, and Laing. I think Laing is his head and Wilder is his guts and it’s interesting in the book how it kind of almost alternates in chapters in terms of who gets a voice.. And Laing is certainly the quietest, I think it’s interesting because Wilder is all instinct. He is all guts and fire. Laing is, in a way, he’s all head. He’s a chess player. He’s thinking all the time, he’s a much better tactician and has a capacity for intellectual detachment that Wilder doesn’t have. It’s funny how you think about these things and up to a point it informs a context of the playing space. Once you start you’re just filming, you’re just playing the role and responding accordingly and the joy of doing this, in a sense, has been that the high rise is populated with so many extreme characters who have either very kind of immediate, powerful, charisma or very, very violent, forceful energy that is impossible to ignore in the room. And Laing is, is watching. So he’s doing a lot, Laing is responding rather than engaging. He’s reactive as opposed to proactive. And the pleasure, I find it enormous, it’s a real privilege when you play a part like this is, I’m almost in every scene. I’m in every day. And, I quite often have the least dialogue or the least to do in the scene because Laing is on the fringes observing, responding and thinking about it. I personally take great pleasure in playing those roles because I think, in many respects, that’s what cinema audiences are doing.
S&S: Yeah yeah it is because there’s that connection with the audience
TH: You think I’m watching this, you’re watching this. I think this is pretty strange, do you think this is strange? I basically love when my own tastes in film acting are always drawn to the silent figure standing in the corner watching. There’s a wonderful film by the Russian filmmaker Larisa Shepitko, You and I (1971).
S&S: I gave that to Ben recently. He may have shown it to you.
TH: Yeah, so he showed it to me and there’s that lead guy. What’s his name? Um…
S&S: It’s an incredible film. I watched it myself quite recently.
TH: What’s the name of the lead guy?
S&S: It’s a very unusual film to get a handle on in some ways, but yes it is, well the characters are very detached in that.
TH: Well, the doctor is. That’s the thing the lead character’s a doctor and he’s trying to get out of St. Petersburg or Moscow? I can’t remember where they start now.
TH: Here we go. So yeah, the guy who plays Pyotr um the actor’s name is Leonid Dyachkov, and I remember when Ben showed it to me, actually it was Amy who sent it to me, and I didn’t watch it until right before we started. And his performance is full of real stillness and solitude and you get the sense that he’s just observing Russian life as he travels further and further into Siberia. And that quality of observation is, is very compelling. I mean you also get the same sense in Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970)
S&S: You often think of Jean-Louis Trintignant because he always seemed so detached from everything. Yeah it is a kind of European cinema way of doing things.
TH: It’s funny how it’s evolved because we shot the entire film out of sequence. I mean, its the nature of the schedule because of just the way the film’s been put together and it was so great to get Jeremy Irons to play Royal but he was only available for three weeks. So he and I did this whole other film for three weeks. And then Luke Evans and Sienna Miller arrived and we went back to the beginning and it almost feels like a different film. So because of locations as people do, you shoot the location out. So in terms of the story and Laing’s arc, you start as this immaculate crisply dressed bachelor who arrives for his new life in the high rise and travel all the way through this kind of nervous breakdown and into an admission of his animalistic, truer self. I’ve been jumping, if the story takes place over two weeks or two months, I’ve been jumping around and it’s been very interesting to plot where to work out where exactly he is on the graph of his own sanity or his physical degradation. Even just having talked about like what level of beard he should have!
S&S: I can imagine it being quite difficult.
TH: You know you’re jumping around so it’s been quite an interesting thing to organize.
S&S: There’s another film that came to mind though, because of the set up of High Rise where you know you have these different people who obviously have the ability to get up and leave but don’t leave. It’s like the Bunuel film The Exterminating Angel (1962) where you have these bourgeois people sitting around the table and they can’t leave, for whatever reason they just can’t leave that table.
TH: Yeah but I think it’s, let me get my script actually.
S&S: How long have we got? How are we doing…?
TH: We’ve got loads of time, got loads of time.
ZF: Are you sure?
TH: Yeah, yeah. Please stay because it’s actually fascinating. It’s funny when you’re filming, you actually stop talking about it in a way. It’s all become a silent language between you. Ben and I don’t need to talk about it anymore because he’ll just uh…don’t stop anything. I think I left my script in the make-up bus. But I…there are passages of the book I want to read you which are really something.
S&S: Is everything in yellow yours (highlighted script)?
TH: Yeah. It’s a strange childish thing. Just trying to, I basically try to absorb scripts without consciously learning them, do you know what I mean? Just read it over and over again and you find you know it. Here’s a great bit. This is when he runs back from being outside. “He felt like a visitor to a malevolent zoo.” This is Ballard. “Where terraces of vertically mounted cages contain creatures of random and ferocious cruelty. The sense of strangeness far more powerful than anything within the building extended around the apartment, black on all sides, reaching across the concrete plazas and the causeway to the development project. The brilliant light reflected off the chromium trim of hundreds of cars and filled the air with knives. He knew he was testing himself against the excitements of the world outside, exposing himself to its hidden dangers. He reached the edge of the ornamental Lady Grace oval, two hundred yards in length, stepped down to the concrete floor. Following his shadow he walked along the gently sloping lake bed. The damp concrete, like the surface of an enormous mould, curved away on all sides, smooth and bland, but in some ways as menacing as the contours of some deep reductive psychosis. The absence of any rectilinear structure summed up for Laing all the hazards of the world beyond the high rise.”
S&S: I mean, that’s pure Ballard. That kind of sense of architecture and the anime or whatever. The description of society as well.
TH: And the fascinating thing as an actor is trying to communicate that complexity without telegraphing it or broadcasting or explaining it or demonstrating it. But trying to play a man who somewhere very deeply beneath the surface is understanding himself perhaps for the first time and the situation the context that he finds himself in is deeply, spiritually challenging. But quite often the symptoms that manifest on the surface are invisible. I was saying to Ben it’s like the difference between a saucepan on a cooker with the lid on. You have two saucepans next to each other and they both have a lid on and one of them is empty and one of them has boiling water in it. But you know to the outside eye they look the same. But trying to find a way of literally having the boiling water and occasionally letting out some steam.
S&S: It’s interesting isn’t it, because you know a lot of discourse these days is that technology and architecture sort of de-humanize us and turn us into robots but for Ballard it’s almost like they become more human in this book, more animal.
TH: Well, I think it’s this acknowledgement that actually there is and I do think it’s to do with his formative fourteen years in Shanghai. Not just the internment camp but these other strange experiences of random violence and surprising sanity that people laugh at moments of extreme cruelty and that the truth is so much more complicated than we think it is. Savagery and kindness appears in the strangest places. And specifically middle class British civilized society is a pretense. It doesn’t exist. It’s an idea. And beneath all of that are these appetites and desires and ambitions which are more honest and somehow we’ve been inculcated to believe are shameful and wrong. The thing I think he’s most proud of as a writer is that he’s never had a limit on his imagination, so in High Rise he doesn’t stop. He takes it to a place where many, many creative people would probably say well that’s enough. Now in come the moral lobbiests to say well actually you’ve probably taken it to the limit and he says well actually nobody leaves and this is who we are. Potentially this is who we are if left to our own devices. You know High Rise for him is his desert island.
S&S: There’s a kind of Lord of the Flies moment in there too.
TH: Yeah there is that Yeah, if left to your own devices who do you become?
S&S: But yeah it is a post-war thing, isn’t it? It’s very much looked at as a conversation that’s going on
TH: Except heroes in the seventies. But I think it’s something that must have occupied his imagination. He said he always felt like an outsider in England even though, Jeremy Thomas says “he was the most gentle professorial charming obeying kind man that had a brain that was incredibly open and non-judgmental.” So yeah, it is this thing of, as you say, an admission of something more honest about the darker sides of our humanity.
S&S: Would you say this is perhaps one of the most challenging roles you’ve played so far in your career, in terms of what the actor has to physically and mentally go through?
TH: Yeah, it’s very strange. There are so many parts I’ve played that have some kind of physical element to them in fact I’m stretched to think of a role which hasn’t involved some kind of physical extremity. Often which is actually strangely invisible to the eye, you hope is invisible to an audiences eye because all they’re doing is believing in what they’re seeing. I remember fighting in chain mail in subzero temperatures in Ritler’s Worth on Henry IV. It’s pretty intense. Chain mail takes on the quality of the temperature around it so if it’s minus ten and you’re wearing it you’re basically wearing a sheet of ice. No, I’ll answer the question properly.
S&S: I suppose I was thinking more, because of the character, the mental…
TH: I have to say yeah, the sophistication of Ballard’s sensibility and Ben’s taste has been challenging in the most joyful way. I’ve said this to him and you’re the first people I’ve spoken to who have recorded this on a microphone. For me it has been like falling in love again and that sounds very extreme but I have had more fun on this film than I think I’ve ever had ever. I think because of the breadth and bravery of the playing field. It demands an engagement which is incredibly adult, incredibly sophisticated, you can’t embrace these. I wrote to Jeremy after the first two weeks and said this novel and the screenplay have created this playing range of beautiful extremes; On one side it’s cool and elegant and refined and sophisticated and on the other end it’s raw and wild and completely uninhibited. There are scenes where Laing is leaning against a wall sipping a whiskey and soda, observing the circus and other scenes where he is the central act in the circus and he’s governed by lust and greed and desperation and torture and humiliation and it’s been really interesting to go to those places. And I love this team. Laurie Rose is an absolute dream. Bobby Entwhistle too, every single person, I mean it’s been one of those dream creative experiences for me. It’s going to be very tough to do anything else. I was talking last night with Luke and Sienna, and I said I don’t know what’s going to happen, we finish in nine days. I’m gonna be at a loss as to who the hell I am and what I’m supposed to do now.