Note: This interview contains minor spoilers for “Men.”
Jessie Buckley didn’t come away from starring in “Men” with any answers. To her, pinning down the film’s exact meaning would be beside the point.
“I don’t really have a singular meaning to it,” the Irish actor and singer admitted in a recent interview with TheWrap. “I’m more interested in seeing what other people feel about [“Men”] – either side of it. If they hate it, or love it, then that’s absolutely fine.”
In writer-director Alex Garland and A24’s latest mindbender, Buckley plays Harper, a recently widowed woman who decamps to the English countryside hoping to heal. But she finds herself wrestling with more than just personal demons when her encounters with various men – all played by Rory Kinnear – become increasingly nightmarish.
Buckley, who broke out with her starring role in 2018’s “Wild Rose,” is a consummate performer where stories of gender dynamics and the female psyche are concerned. In 2020, she starred as the manifold Young Woman in Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” The following year, she received her first Oscar nomination for playing a young mother on the edge in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s psychological drama “The Lost Daughter.”
Despite the trauma and violence her character endures in nearly every frame of “Men,” Buckley described the filmmaking experience as a rewarding collaboration. After finding that she and Garland spoke “the same mad language,” they eschewed traditional rehearsals for two weeks of “collaborative conversations” with Kinnear and Paapa Essiedu, who plays Harper’s husband James. Some of the ideas that came from these mind-melding sessions made it into the script, or resurfaced while they were shooting.
Buckley credited Kinnear for setting the tone with any character he inhabited – and for keeping her laughing between takes. “When you get a chance to work with people like that, it’s easy,” she said. “You just kind of sit in and enjoy the ride and see what comes up.”
Read on for our full interview with Buckley about the making and meaning(s) of “Men,” including an improvised moment that made the final cut, what she hopes audiences take away and what it was like shooting that sequence.
TheWrap: How did the project come to your attention, and what was your first reaction to the script?
Jessie Buckley: It came the usual way, through my agent. I think I’d just finished filming “The Lost Daughter.” I met Alex [Garland] and we kind of immediately were speaking the same mad language. It was a very pure script, it was 90 pages, and there wasn’t much stuffing. Immediately when you have that kind of space, you feel – I felt inspired. It’s such [an] abstract, surreal film, but there is something quite human, and a sense of something quite relatable, that we feel as women within the script. So yeah, we immediately [started] diving into a kind of abstract conversation.
You spent much of the rehearsal period working out Harper’s reactions rather than running dialogue. How did you find the right balance between planning and authentically reacting when you’re filming?
Really, you’re creating something with everybody. The two weeks of rehearsals were a collaborative conversation between all of us, between Alex [Garland], between Rory [Kinnear], between Paapa [Essiedu]. Ultimately, it was a conversation about how we were going to enter into this world, but how it actually happened was up to the day. It was definitely a continually creative process. Every day I felt I [would] come in and offer something up to Alex, or Alex would offer something up to me and he would make the time for you to bring your wildest ideas, too. That’s always the funnest place to work from.
It seems like you and Rory Kinnear needed to have complete trust in each other to make these scenes work, and yet your character has such a fraught relationship with all of his characters. How do you reconcile that?
Well, Rory is one of the funniest actors I have ever worked with, so honestly, I spent a lot of the time laughing. He looked ridiculous and sometimes quite scary. In between takes, or sometimes during takes we’d be laughing because he’d have his [fake] teeth in. I think what Rory has done in this film is incredible. I have no idea how he’s done it. There would be a different sense on set every day when he came in as a different person, that definitely felt real. When you get a chance to work with people like that, it’s easy. You just kind of sit in and enjoy the ride and see what comes up.
It’s surprising to hear that you were able to joke around because you’re performing at such a high-octane level of terror and grief. Did you try to stay in that headspace the whole time?
I didn’t, because I think I would probably go mad if I did. These things kind of sink quite easily into me, so for me, I’ve got to turn them off. And also, I want to be surprised, and in some way, you want to have no expectation going into something because then you have a judgment. In a way, my role in this was to be somewhat a vessel [for] the way an audience is going to experience this, and to be present and to have my world within me, but just experience it and be challenged and change and be provoked and frightened, and also be goading and complicit and all the things that would make Harper’s relation to these archetypes of man [complex and interesting]. I’m not somebody who necessarily stays in, although when I did go home at the weekend, anytime my boyfriend would come into the room I would scream. [laughs] And he was like, “Um, I live here?”
Despite having to fend off this carousel of attackers throughout the film, you’ve said that Harper is moving towards what’s terrorizing her instead of running away. Can you talk about where her agency comes from?
I think the core of Harper’s agency is that she chooses to choose life, regardless of what comes towards her. The core of her relationship with James is she is choosing to live out her fundamental right to choose her life and to not be small or scared or submissive within that relationship. So I’d say that is maybe the kind of agency that she has within her. And, you know, she has chosen to go to this place to confront something within her, and while she’s there, she does both: she confronts the thing within her, but also the thing outside of her which starts intruding her. When I was doing it, there were moments where there was almost a kind of goading, like an [awareness] that these things were going to come towards her. The growth was to come from the fear, and facing those fears.
Since we only see Harper and James at the bitter end of their marriage, how did you and Paapa Essiedu create a sense of history between your characters?
I’d shot the whole rest of the film by the time we got to shoot that scene. We’d shot everything in sequence except for this. That was a really interesting thing, because [my character] had gone on this emotional trip which was catalyzed from this very relationship. Like Rory, Paapa’s such an extraordinary actor, all you have to do is sit into it, and it comes out. I’m not somebody who likes talking about it, I just want to do it, and you know, be crap and hope it’ll get better.
Between “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “The Lost Daughter” and now “Men,” you’re no stranger to films that tend to inspire lots of theories. For you, is it important to know the “ultimate meaning” of “Men,” and to share that meaning with your collaborators?
I don’t really have a singular meaning to it. I don’t have any answers at all. I think what interests me about these films is that [the meaning is] never finite, it’s something which could return again and have a completely different meaning societally or personally, depending on what’s going on in the world at that time. I’m more interested in seeing what other people feel about [“Men”] – either side of it. If they hate it, or love it, then that’s absolutely fine. It’s brilliant. You know, I like things that provoke and things that provoke me, and that make me see the world in a different way than I might have beforehand. But I have no answers.
“Men” is premiering at an extremely perilous time for the bodily autonomy of non-men, which is one of the major themes. Has that been on your mind as you wait for it to come out? Do you think that will impact the conversations people are having around this film?
I mean, yeah, I personally think about that. With gender inequality and what we have to learn from each other – that’s never finite, either. And it’s something that we will go through many different kinds of transgressions of, and wrestle with and see the light again, and then wrestle again, see the light again. I don’t know where both of those things will marry with [“Men”]. But if it does, then that’s great, and I hope for the better. I think women have a fundamental right to choose their life.
The trailer has already evoked strong reactions from some corners of the internet along the lines of “not all men.” I feel like that says something about where society is at, in terms of gender relations.
I mean, people can pick this up in whatever way they want. Why I did [“Men”] was, I’m in relation to men and women in my life. I have amazing men in my life, and I made this film with amazing men. And I have amazing women in my life. For me, this wasn’t about being divisive. It was about actually trying to unlearn what we’ve learned, which is actually stagnating us, to live together and learn something new about each other. It isn’t about all men. This is about an aspect of men within a relationship which can be really destructive. It’s not [painting a broad stroke] of what that is. There is much more complexity to it.
I have to ask, what did it look like when you were filming that final sequence? In my mind, it’s just Rory Kinnear in a green screen body suit, doing somersaults.
My great pleasure about this question is that I can genuinely defer to the men, like, this one’s for you. But on the day [of the shoot], there was a prosthetic that [kind of] looked like a turkey that was brought on to set. Rory, with various forms of goo, banana, blood, and you know, green stuff would vacate this turkey in all his glory numerous times over the course of four days. So again, there were times when it was very funny. Poor Rory, he’d come in and be like, “Bad life choices, bad life choices.”
There’s a moment in the very beginning when Harper tells Geoffrey she doesn’t play piano, but after he leaves she starts playing. There was something so relatable about how she told this white lie to avoid discomfort. How did that end up in the film?
That was improvised [by] Rory. And again, that was a moment where I was corpsing fabulously because everybody loved Geoffrey. Whenever Geoffers came to set, it was party town. Rory would kind of just free-flow this amazing improvisation and be completely charming [and] charismatic in these little moments, which were half comfortable and half uncomfortable. Me playing the piano was also something [where] I was just fooling around one day in between takes, playing the one piano piece that I can remember from when I was like 17. Then Alex [was] like, “Let’s just shoot that.” So none of that was planned. But I quite like it too. I think that’s the part of Harper that’s keeping something for herself. And also, [her saying] “Let’s get out. Let me have my holiday.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Men” is now playing exclusively in theaters.