“Meryl Streep, who’s a great hero of mine, says, ‘Take your broken heart and turn it into art.’ There’s something really beautiful about how you can have something deeply painful and shameful even, and in revealing of that, you can do something that makes other people feel seen and feel better, like their hand is being held through the screen,” says All of Us Strangers star Andrew Scott. “In order to do that, you’ve got to show yourself. You’ve got to be unadorned and you’ve got to try not to act. In a way, playing Adam was a challenge, but in another way, it felt so wonderful because I felt so seen by what Andrew had created in the screenplay.”
Scott, speaking with writer/director Andrew Haigh (Weekend) to a group of journalists during a virtual press conference, gives the performance of a lifetime in All of Us Strangers. The film is a deeply moving consideration of queerness and love both romantic and familial. Scott stars as Adam, a screenwriter who revisits the ghosts of his past—his parents—while penning a new script. At the same time, he begins a passionate relationship with his neighbour, Harry (Paul Mescal), in his empty apartment building. The two haunting yet affecting storylines illustrate Scott’s point about pain and art. There’s something profoundly therapeutic about sharing loss through storytelling in a way that allows others to heal.
For Haigh, the chance to explore this ghost story in which Adam repairs things unsaid with his late parents was part of the appeal of adapting the novel Strangers by Japanese author Taichi Yamada. “There was something in that original novel that I could not get out of my head, which was this idea about meeting your parents again long after they are no longer in your life,” observes Haigh. “That conceit was fascinating to me as a way to explore family, to explore love, to explore the pain from our past.”
Where the novel follows a traditional ghost story, Haigh filters the adaptation through his experience. As Adam finds closure with his parents, his conversations include a revelatory coming out scene with his mother (Claire Foy) in which he takes pride in sharing the progress for gay rights that have been achieved since her passing. Back home, Adam finds an ability to express love with Harry in ways that he hadn’t been able to before with a man. Moreover, Harry’s presence illustrates the subtle ingenuity of Haigh’s adaptation. In the novel, Adam begins a relationship with a melancholy woman. In the film, Haigh takes the themes to new heights as the elder Adam’s care for the younger Harry invites readings of the AIDS crisis and all the people who died alone when the world forgot to love.
“I am gay myself, so it made sense to change the sexuality of the main character. I also wanted to tell a story about family and its relationship to queerness and how, as a queer kid, it can be very different growing up within essentially a heterosexual family,” explains Haigh. “Turning the sexuality made a big difference, I think, to the story as a whole. In many ways, the story is about understanding the nature of love. It’s about how romantic love is associated with familial love and how connected and intertwined they are. Doing that felt like the perfect way to explore that element of the story.”
Haigh explores these elements quite powerfully in the scenes with Adam’s parents. The film refreshingly treats the parents empathetically while rejecting the conventional coming out narrative that often put the emotional weight on the parents. Rather, Haigh serves love in equal doses for the mother (Claire Foy) and father (Jamie Bell) who never got to see their son grow old.
“I think that what I learned about myself as a parent is that I never want to leave anything unsaid,” adds Foy. “What this film teaches you is that life is too short to not say what you want to say, even if it hurts someone’s feelings. Even if you feel like you might not be heard, either you’ve said it or you’ve offered someone something—you’ve given someone else an opportunity in life to think about things differently or hear you. I think the most painful thing that can happen is that you don’t get heard.” All of Us Strangers further explores these intimate family dynamics by setting the story in Haigh’s childhood home, which adds a touching personal element to the intimate space that Haigh creates for this fictional family.
Scott, who is also gay, recognizes the personal interplay between life and art with which Haigh crafts Adam’s character. Scott’s performance appropriately carries the depth and nuance that arises when an actor truly knows what it feels like to embody his character’s skin. Scott says that he deliberately avoided reading the book in order to stay true to the experience of Haigh’s character. “Our initial conversations were about not acting, so to speak,” says Scott. “It would’ve felt a little perverse to create a character who was too far away from Andrew’s experience of growing up and my experience might’ve been grown up.”
While Scott almost grows more youthful in the presence of Bell and Foy—fun changes in Adam’s costuming, including old pyjamas, make him seem more childlike—he really makes the character his own in his scenes with Mescal. Whereas Yamada’s protagonist is haunted by the past in the present, Adam grows through Harry’s touch. The closure he gains with his parents affords him confidence to explore love more confidently.
“What I think is so beautiful is that once he begins to be loved by his parents, he is able to step out of that purgatory and start to love somebody else,” observes Scott. “I think that’s a real experience for so many people. You go, ‘I don’t have to worry about that anymore because I’m being literally embraced.’ So much of the film is tactile and tender. There’s so much physical touch in there.”
Haigh accentuates this tenderness as the camera lingers on Scott and Mescal in the afterglow of morning following long nights in bed spent making love and sharing their experiences. The film’s final twist, one of bittersweet tragedy, underscores the weight of things said and unsaid. For Haigh, the complexity of this intimacy involves considering the elements of Yamada’s novel that create the ghost story. All of Us Strangers dials back the supernatural elements, yet creates something profound by affording Adam an idyllic fantasy in which he’s loved for who he is. “I could lean into the ghost elements of it, the supernatural element, but that didn’t feel totally right,” admits Haigh. “I’m trying to traverse different worlds, essentially his world in the present and this world of the parents too. I tried to concentrate on the emotional truth of what Adam is needing or wanting in this moment.”
Scott agrees and notes that he could relate to the experience of finding catharsis by imagining love. “I just immediately recognised it as something that I feel, which is the accidental cruelty of families. Through love, we say things to our families that are brutalising and make your family members feel unseen and you feel angry with them,” he says. “Working through that is so beautiful because, for a lot of people in Adam’s situation, when they come out, it’s not about necessarily outright rejection, nor is it about full-hearted embracing. It’s somewhere in between. I think that’s an experience for a lot of gay people, queer people, and people in the LGBTQ+ community.”
What makes All of Us Strangers a new landmark for queer cinema is the continuity of love through tough conversations. Haigh hopes that audiences find this element of the story cathartic—and he sees something of himself in Adam’s own creative process. “The fact that Adam gets to have those conversations with his parents is so powerful,” says Haigh. “I’ve managed to have conversations with my parents through making the film. Even if I don’t actually have those conversations for real with my parents, I’ve now had them, somehow, and that’s quite powerful.”