Andrew Scott and Ben Schnetzer are in separate rooms for our interviews during TIFF, but they’re definitely on the same team and the same page when it comes to talking about their roles in the massively cast UK ensemble drama Pride (opening in select cities this Friday). Equally excited and delighted to talk about their roles in the true life drama and how the roles function as changes of pace for them as actors, Scott and Schnetzer also showcase just how much research they put into their characters to add a sense of period authenticity and emotional weight to their work.
In the film from renowned theatrical director and Tony award winner Matthew Warchus (making his first work for the big screen since Simpatico in 1999), Scott and Schnetzer are key figures in a look back at a point in British history where the LGBT community joined striking labourers in solidarity against the increasingly oppressive Thatcher government of the 1980s. It’s a tale of unlikely friendship between rural Welsh miners and a group of gay and lesbian activists (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, or the LGSM) over the course of a landmark (but sadly unsuccessful) strike in 1984.
It’s a sprawling film told with a great deal of humour and humanity, featuring 75 speaking roles that still couldn’t help to tell the stories of everyone involved, and the cast assembled to match the material is so astounding that both a relative newcomer like the American born Schnetzer and the more seasoned veteran Scott can only stand in awe of their co-stars that include the likes of heavyweights such as Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine, and Freddie Fox.
While Scott – perhaps most recently known for playing the nefarious Moriarty in the ever popular Steven Moffat/Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman TV megahit Sherlock – plays a bit more of a supporting role in the group (and one of the film’s characters that stands as an amalgamation of several real life figures rolled into one), it’s precisely the kind of role the actor was looking for after playing such an iconic villain. Scott plays Gethin, a gay bookstore owner and former Welshman living in London with his far more flamboyant tailor boyfriend (West) with a poor relationship to the family he left behind.
Schnetzer (who most recently appeared in The Book Thief and Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club, which also debuted at TIFF this year) might be the closest thing the ensemble cast has to a leading man. He plays Irish born LGSM leader Mark Ashton, so his obviously American background didn’t exactly make him an easy choice for the role.
We chatted with the actors in two separate, and far too large hotel boardrooms to talk about what drew them to the material, working with such a huge cast, and what the story of the LGSM means to them.
This is a historical story that has brought together a huge cast and when I look at your bio, I’m amazed that you have anyone left in the UK that you have to work with after this.
Andrew Scott: (laughs) Yup! It’s getting smaller and smaller!
What’s it like being a part of such a big cast that also has to tell a really large story with a lot of different personalities and viewpoints in play? Especially when a lot of the figures being depicted in the film are still around and still remembered for what they were able to accomplish or bring to light.
AS: One of the most wonderful things about it is that the real life heroes depicted in the film are supporting the film. They’re absolutely thrilled with it. One of our biggest concerns was that we wanted to honour these people. To me, they’re heroes. They really are. And not a lot of people know this story. When we filmed down in Wales in the actual community where this takes place, I asked locals if they have heard the story, and very few people had.
To answer your question, though, I mostly feel proud. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more proud to be involved with a story than to be involved in this one. And yes, there’s a big group of actors! There’s a LOT of us! (laughs) I liked that about this, as well, and I think that’s because it’s just a really well written script that we were able to come together on this one. I’ve always believed that when you write a script and you have all these parts, whether they’re great or small, you get really good actors. And we have the most extraordinary actors both young and old together here, and that’s incredible to see all at once. A little overwhelming, too. (laughs)
And your character in the film is a bit of a composite of a few people, correct?
AS: Yeah, it’s a bit of an amalgamation. Gethin is really an amalgamation of two people, and there was a real Gethin in particular, and I met him, but his storyline in the film is a bit different.
A lot of the characters are real life characters, and there are a couple that were just for the movie. It was very important to us at the beginning that Stephen Beresford, our writer, said at the beginning to people that were involved in the real life events “don’t expect to see your life up there.” I think the main concern on their parts was that the political aspects of their lives would be somehow sidestepped, but I think that’s what’s great about the film and its greatest achievement.
It’s quite sophisticated to get a film that’s essentially a mainstream comedy like this and retain the politics that made it all come together in real life. We always wanted this to be a mainstream film. It was never intended as an arthouse film. It’s a moving and true story, but you also can’t sidestep the issues of AIDS or Union politics when talking about either of the groups involved. You just can’t do it. I always blanche at the idea of calling it a “feel good film” because that has slightly sinister connotations to that.
Especially when what both sides are fighting for isn’t an inherently “feel good” thing.
AS: Quite! Quite! And it the miner strike as we all know certainly doesn’t end in a positive way. The fact that you can still manage to be uplifted while the film maintains a sense of authenticity to it is a great achievement.
And your character’s biggest fear is coming back to your mother after so long away, which is an added layer to the story on top of everything else.
AS: Yeah! I always say that my character is in no way struggling with his sexuality at all, and that’s not what it’s about for him. It’s about someone struggling with his NATIONALITY, and who also has some struggles with his family. It’s that sort of look at the more tributary and insidious nature of prejudice; those parts of your life that you find completely surprising. That was the draw for me, to play somebody who in a group of very flamboyant people carries with him a world of sadness.
Which is a very interesting thing for you coming off of Sherlock where you have to play someone super confident and not at all conflicted about what he wants to achieve.
AS: This is really post-Sherlock EXACTLY the kind of stuff I have been looking for. I worked with Ken Loach last year and I’m going back to the theatre soon, too. I was working as an actor for a long time before Sherlock came about and I absolutely love the theatricality of what I got to do on Sherlock, but as an actor you want to play different notes. And why I really liked this character was because he was a very cinematic kind of character. He doesn’t say very much, and he has this element of mystery to him that sort of unfolds throughout the story. I thought that was really beautiful, and rather distinct given that everyone around him is so flamboyant.
Given that you have worked in theatre before and it’s made by people with theatrical backgrounds, was that something that also appealed to you as a change of pace?
AS: Yeah, I think you got it. Again, it’s another weird expression, but this is very much an “actors’ film.” (laughs)
(joking) You wouldn’t have taken this film otherwise?
AS: (laughs, sarcastically): Yeah! (laughs) But yeah, with Matthew, he knows how to bridge the stage and the picture, and here most of the time you’ll be in a scene with no less than fifteen other people at a time in some cases, so your eye as an audience member needs to be guided as to where you should be looking, and that’s half the battle that a stage director already faces. You have to be able to also direct the audience’s eye. He was very good at picking up where the story is and where it lies and where the story should go, because quite frankly we didn’t have the time to give everyone a close up for those moments to show where the story was. Stephen is obviously a playwright as well, and a lot of the actors like Imelda, Bill, Dom, and myself, we all do theatre. I think there can be a really nice balance with that. I always say that it’s nonsense when people say that theatre and film can’t coexist in the same place because I think they can.
Especially when you’re making a film that’s about a rally. I mean, not everyone who shows up in a stage production of Les Miserables is going to get to be singled out during the climax.
AS: (laughs) I like how you kind of stopped yourself to single out that you meant “stage” production specifically. (laughs) And certainly it’s a different experience when you see a film like this with a crowd. When we showed the film here the crowd stood for ten minutes, and that was absolutely extraordinary. To have that reaction here is totally overwhelming, and that’s the exciting thing about it. It’s about a specific group of people, but the demographic we’re looking for here ranges from eighty year olds to nineteen year olds. It’s for all the people inbetween. I think someone said that they felt like they were fed for something they never knew they were hungry for. That was certainly how I felt.
It definitely speaks to a lot of people, especially in a world now where we have social media, but we’ve become so much more isolated from each other. You Tweet something, and usually it’s about yourself and not about other people, and in order to make yourself enjoy life more you have to look at yourself sometimes and say, “You know, I am miserable and I am downtrodden and I am being bullied” and then wonder what you can do to stop someone else from feeling that way.
Because back in the early 1980s, gay people were vilified in the press in Britain. They were called the slime of society without any apology. It was totally acceptable to call gay people perverts, and that similar kind of vilification was definitely true of the miners under Thatcher. So rather than wallowing in that oppression, these guys whose average age was about 23 or 24, said, “You know what? These guys might not accept our money, but they really need it to stop being bullied.” To me that’s just extraordinary and we need to think more in those terms today.
You can get up in arms about something on social media, though, and sometimes it can make a difference, but when you look back at something like this and how hard it must have been to amass all these people together at once without such a tool, that’s quite impressive to look back on.
AS: Yes! It’s extraordinary, and it’s not like these people could hide behind some kind of clever username like Superman76 or whatever, but people had to put themselves out there. One of the most sinister things that we all find so dark now are comments boxes after online articles. That’s the most dark think you can look at. I do not look there. It’s just an outlet for people’s anger. It’s easy to be faceless and nameless and angry. It’s the virtual equivalent of standing on the sidelines and egging a car or throwing a brick through a window. It’s too easy.
Why do you think this story has become so forgotten about today?
AS: I don’t know. I think it took a long time for people to feel the effects of what the Miners strike meant to the whole country and for it to all settle in. I think perhaps in regard as to why it took so long to become a film or to become a larger story, perhaps people just didn’t think it was very commercial viable. It shows how far we are NOT removed from that, and that’s why it would be lovely if people came out and saw this.
Any kind of topical film is of no intrinsic value if it’s not well done. The reason this story could be successful is because it’s pulled off with such panache. It’s funny. It’s a funny, funny film that can deftly carry the politics in the film.
Wow. I am actually very taken aback by how American you actually are.
Ben Schnetzer: (laughs) Yeah, I’ve been getting that a lot.
Between this and The Book Thief I really expected someone European.
BS: (laughs) It’s beginning to feel like I am just NEVER going to play an American ever again!
And here you have to play a huge, spearhead figure for a massive ensemble cast or British actors for a largely British period piece.
BS: Yeah, I think every working Britsh actor is involved even tangentially with this in one way or another. (laughs) But this is an amazing experience. We all had such a short time to tell this story, and it was something that we were all so passionate about telling, so everyone kicked into fifth gear and we really went for it.
The nature of the story and the struggle itself really puts any neuroses you might have or any pressure that you might be feeling into perspective. Being humbled in that sense and to be able to tell that story and to band together with these amazing craftspeople and crew to shoulder this responsibility together was phenomenal. There was such a sense of collaboration and support throughout the cast and crew, and it wasn’t a case of any of us thinking, “Look at this challenge! Holy shit, it’s going to crush me!” It was more like, “Look at this challenge we have and let’s dive into it.” I hope that’s reflected in the film. I know it really informed our sense of community on set, for sure.
There’s a real universality to it. I’ve had discussions with young people who have left the film saying how moved they were, and older people have the same reaction to it. Matthew was talking about this in the press conference today, and we were really able to tap into the sentiment of it all without getting preachy or sentimental. We never wanted to say, “Here’s an agenda, now let’s beat you over the head with it for two hours until you go away.” We wanted to say, “Here’s a story about people and take from it what you will.”
But logistically, I remember technically thinking about all of this as a storyteller and just how you can properly leave an audience wanting more. Don’t ever overstay your welcome. You don’t need to always finish the story for them. Matthew does that so well. It almost approaches moments that could quikly become sappy, but those are undercut by a joke or something more serious happening. There’s always a beat, and Matthew is a real craftsman in that respect.
It’s a very politically charged story, and yet there is a great deal of humour to the film that I think people won’t necessarily be expecting when they glance at what the film is about, and especially what they communities involved were going through at the time.
BS: Absolutely! I remember Sian James, who was just with us and who is played by Jess Gunning in our movie, said very matter of factly, “What we were going through at the time, if we didn’t laugh we would have died.” She told us that you have to find that humour to propel you forward. You learn that no matter how dire the situation, the human spirit endures and you can find humour in it. It’s interesting because I think Stephen crafted the humour in this so masterfully, and I think that humour helps the film to avoid feeling preachy or like it has an agenda. Sometimes when you’re in a crazy situation, you just laugh at yourself, and I don’t think anyone wanted to shy away from that.
There are also a lot of parallels between issues back then and issues today with regards to LGBT and union issues.
BS: Yeah, and that’s what I think really drew me into the story more than anything. It’s a story about people, and a lot of the central characters are young people. It’s about youth accomplishing something greater than themselves. Andrew made a really interesting point yesterday about how this is the generation that has really coined and owned up to the term “selfie,” but hopefully this will encourage people to be selfless and look beyond just “Oh, look at my brunch” or “Look at my shoes today.”
I just talked to him about this a few seconds before I came in here…
BS: Oh, Andrew is THE MAN.
But there’s a distinct difference between yesterday and today, where now a lot of people can Tweet their outrage, but it’s another thing to actually see people coming together for a cause and what it can look like in a huge group that lacks anonymity.
BS: Exactly! And social media can be a real tool, but it’s not a substitute for action. I think it can facilitate a discussion, but this is an age where information is so readily available, but action itself is just dwindling. It’s no longer enough to just say #savethewhales.
What you’re talking about is the difference between advocacy and activism.
BS: Yes! Exactly! That’s the best way of putting it. One of my favourite moments in the film that kind of speaks to that is actually a really brief clip that happens in a montage in the film. It goes by so fast, but it really hit me when I watched it. It’s when Fay Marsay, who plays Steph, is taping a sign onto a bucket and it hit me. These are young people who were hanging around their friend’s bookstore that are on their hands and knees taping signs to buckets and just walking outside. That’s how any movement worth its salt really starts, man. It always starts from the ground up. It’s grassroots work and it’s never handed to you. The Lesbian and Gay rights movement became a huge part of the Labour Party agenda because it was voted on there by the miners, and that probably never would have happened had the LGSM not shown their support to them when they needed it the most. These things have a real ripple effect and they can really transcend.
And it’s in the film that the strike wasn’t a success in real life. These people lost. But at the same time what they achieved and the symbolism of it was greater than the circumstances that were that catalysts for all this.