Paapa Essiedu has appeared in fare as varied as Michaela Coel’s critically acclaimed drama “I May Destroy You” and crime series “Gangs of London” but his latest turn, as James in Alex Garland’s latest feature “Men,” may be his most unusual role yet. The opinion-splitting film – described by Variety as a “folk-horror bizart-house offering” – sees Jessie Buckley (“The Lost Daughter”) as a woman trying to get over the shocking death of her husband (played by Essiedu) after he falls out of a window, a scene rendered in the film in painstaking slow motion.
“Men,” which also stars Rory Kinnear and Gayle Rankin, will premiere in Cannes in the Directors’ Fortnight strand.
What attracted you to this project?
I was attracted to the film by the script, really. Alex sent me the script over a couple years ago and I remember the experience of reading it, I kind of inhaled the whole thing in one. And I usually read scripts in bits but this took me by the scruff of the neck. I read it and imagined the whole thing in one. I’ve always been a great admirer of Alex and his work and the diversity and breadth of his work and the boldness of it. So this script coupled with his vision – it was a very attractive opportunity.
How did you prepare for the role?
Before we shot, I spent some time with Alex in London and I spent some time with Jessie in London, and then as a cast – and it’s very small cast, just me, Jesse and Gayle and Rory – we spent about two weeks together in the Cotswolds [in the U.K.] walking around, talking, arguing and getting to know each other really. The main preparation that we needed was that in order for us to be building from a place of mutual experience and to kind of make sure that we’re singing from the same hymn sheet.
Garland’s films often need to be watched multiple times to decode them. For “Men” did you ask him to explain the film in order for you to be able to play your role?
I don’t think he feels that responsibility as a filmmaker to make people fully understand what the film is about. It’s obviously very important that we understand what our characters are doing and what the relationships between each other are. That’s the priority and we spoke at length about that. But in terms of like, the overarching meaning as it were of the film, I think he purposely leaves it up to the viewer to draw what meaning they might find relevant to them.
How did you film the scene where Buckley’s character Harper watches you fall off a building in slow motion?
I don’t really want to give away the tricks of the trade thing but that scene took about a day and there are many artists way, way smarter than myself that contributed to making it look the way it did in the final edit.
So no injuries?
It’s just funny because I did actually get an injury from shooting that film but weirdly not from that scene. I got an injury from shooting a way, way, way more sedentary scene but it was a scene that was so intense and there was so much tension in my body that I ended up spraining my ankle even though I wasn’t moving.
You’ve done theater, television and film – which medium do you prefer?
They’re same-same but different. Ultimately, you’re still pursuing truth and you’re pursuing an authentic representation. There’s pros and cons to them. There’s something amazing about being in the theatre and having immediate feedback or a palpable relationship with the person that’s engorging on your performance, on your storytelling. But there’s something amazing about film and television in terms of the reach and the breadth of people that can engage with the work that you do. You can do a little show set in East London, and it can end up being watched by someone in the Philippines. That’s amazing.
Speaking of breadth, if you could play any superhero who would it be?
I think one day they need to make a proper film of “Bernard’s Watch.” [Ed note: “Bernard’s Watch” was a late 1990s British’ drama series that aired on kids network CITV about a boy who could stop time.] That was the show that I watched when I was a kid and I think that’s the ultimate superhero. The ultimate superpower of being able to stop time. And maybe there’s a way of making it a little bit sexier than it was on CITV in the nineties but I think there’s something there.
That’s hilarious. I think about “Bernard’s Watch” all the time. But I don’t know if our readers outside the U.K. will appreciate the show so is there another superhero you’d choose?
Send them to Wikipedia! It’s not hard to appreciate, they need to get on Wikipedia, they need to get on YouTube. This is like one of the greatest shows of all time.
Done. Finally, you attended the Met Gala earlier this month – how was that?
The Met Gala’s pretty weird but it’s fine. It’s like, super intense moments, but I suppose I was quite lucky that there were a few people there that I knew so I wasn’t fully by myself but it’s completely bizarre and fantastic and wild and wonderful.
Check out “Bernard’s Watch” below…