London River: Brenda Blethyn Interview
Bounding through the door with just ten minutes to spare, I arrived at the Covent Garden Hotel and asked the manager where the Brenda Blethyn interview was due to take place. “Brenda who?” came the reply. No use name dropping Rachid Bouchareb into the equation then. Luckily my enquiry was overheard by an attentive PR assistant and I was swept up to the Library (a generous title for a room bereft of books, preferring a light garnish of the day’s papers instead) to join the other journalists. Brenda Blethyn, for all her doubtless acting talent, is not the household name I had been led to believe she was.
The star of London River has spent the majority of her professional acting career appearing in low budget films, television dramas and the theatre, earning high praise for what is arguably her best known work, Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies (1996). It was her performance in Leigh’s most celebrated film that caused Rachid Bouchareb to delay the filming of London River for a whole year, citing his desire to work with Blethyn as the reason for the project’s postponement.
The film follows two parents in a quest to locate their respective children in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on London. Shot on a shoe-string budget, London River is a moving account of two individuals forced under enormous pressure to confide in one another despite cultural and religious barriers. It also serves as a tasteful memorial to those who lost their lives and those who have since lived with the consequences, with the release coninciding with the 5th anniversary of the bombings.
Visibly honoured by the director’s want to collaborate, Blethyn spoke at some length about her role in London River, working with the recently deceased Sotigui Kouyaté and the circumstances that led to the film’s inception.
How soon was it after July 7th you got the offer to play the role?
Brenda: At least 2 ½ years. I was steering clear of it initially because I thought it was too recent. I thought it would be a huge extravaganza about the bombings but my agent assured me it was simply the catalyst that brought these two individuals together. I then met Rachid [Bouchareb] and I found him inspiring. I watched his film Days of Glory (2006) and I could tell he would be treating this backdrop of London very sensitively. When I heard Sotigui Kouyaté would be in it I knew I wanted to be a part of it. It’s not a political film and was really dealing about the human side of the tragedy. It’s about two people discovering one another’s similarities rather than their differences.
Was it hard to shake off such a harrowing role?
B: It’s always hard – you’ve got to stay in the moment if you want people to believe what you’re doing. But I’m not a method actor, I’m from the Mike Leigh school. It’s never me going through that drama. When the lights go off I’m Brenda again and that’s my character. It allows you to look at the character more objectively. I knew initially the audience might not like Elisabeth – on the outside she can look like a bit of racist. Initially there’s a gasp because she doesn’t shake Ousmane’s (Sotigui Kouyaté) hand but of course we’ve all met him – we know he’s an innocent man also looking for his son but she doesn’t know that. She’s in an alien part of London surrounded by Muslims, her daughter is missing, she realises her daughter is living an entirely different life to the one she thought she was living. There’s been a terrible event perpetrated by Muslim extremists, the police aren’t any help so she’s just frightened.
OTB: Your character’s paranoia in regards the Muslim community and Islam appears to reflect the atmosphere of the British press post the 7th of July. Did this influence your performance?
B: I improvised some of that and kind of did incorporate it into my performance. It’s not what I would think, but it’s what I thought Elisabeth would think. There’s a line that makes people gasp when Elisabeth says, “The place is crawling with Muslims”. If I was in Earl’s Court and said, “Bloody hell, this place is crawling with Aussies!” no-one would bat an eyelid but because it’s said in the context of such a sensitive subject suddenly everyone’s hackles go up. Mine would too if I was watching but a while ago I heard someone say that in a shop so I used it.
OTB: My initial reaction was that she is a bigot but I then considered the fact she is under immense pressure…
B: That’s what it is. I liked the idea that you can take an audience on a journey and change their mind about a character. It’s not all black and white. I like to think that peoples’ judgement of her at that moment as a racist is too extreme for its own good. Because you don’t know, when you get to know the woman you know she isn’t like that. We think that because we don’t have all the facts and most us tend to think we have all the facts.
Did you consult any survivors or family members of victims?
B: No I didn’t because I would have had more knowledge than my character had. Brenda already knows more than her so I thought she was better off being in a void. It wouldn’t have helped me to play a woman who knows nothing about the situation.
Did you already speak French already?
B: I did a crash-course in 3 weeks and then went straight onto the film which we shot in three weeks. I haven’t had the opportunity to speak it since, I haven’t had the occasion. I was pretty proud of myself though!
When you’re acting in an unfamiliar language, how does that affect the way in which you improvise?
B: Sometimes I made huge clangers, I said something really obscene! They’d have to cut, correct me and we’d start again. But everyone were friends, all trying to help because it was a challenge for me but I loved every minute of it.
Does the success of Secrets & Lies still follow you around?
B: No, Chance In A Million [a television show with Simon Callow] is what i’m remembered most for, even though it was 30 years ago now! I’m really proud of London River – I think it’s my best performance.
Were you in London at the time of the attacks?
B: No, I was due to go to London that day when I spoke to a friend who told me to turn on the news. I switched on and saw what had happened. It was awful.
OTB: There was a huge reaction from Hollywood to 9/11 but there don’t seem to be as many British films about the London bombings. Why do you think this is?
B: It doesn’t surprise me because what other film can you make other than this human story which isn’t about the London bombings per-say? In what way can you enhance it? Who wants to enjoy the thrill of it? I just think we have a better sensitivity to that.
Your breakdown at the end is so moving because it’s understated.
B: Rachid wanted it to be organic throughout. There was never any instruction to big it up or dull it down. Just for it to be real, to deal with the information you have at that time and to run with it.
Brenda Blethyn, thank you.