Andrew Scott wasn't looking for his next project when he was sent the script for All of Us Strangers. On the contrary, "I was working very hard at the time, and I wasn't planning on working anymore. I needed a break," he recalls. "But I was like, 'F**k that! I'm going to do this film. I have to do this film.'"
After breaking out as Fleabag's "Hot Priest," the Irishman has been a regular presence on TV screens and on the London stage. (For the 2019 revival of Noël Coward's Present Laughter, Scott won the Olivier Award for Best Actor.) He also had memorable supporting turns in Sam Mendes' Oscar-winning 1917 in 2019 and Lena Dunham's Catherine Called Birdy in 2022. With All of Us Strangers, he takes the lead.
British filmmaker Andrew Haigh's loose adaptation of Taichi Yamada's novel, Strangers, transforms the traditional Japanese ghost story into something more lyrical; All of Us Strangers is at once romantic and melancholic, heartbreaking and affirming, intensely personal but not exactly autobiographical. It is a love story about strangers finding connection in lonely world, and about a son and his parents getting a second chance to say all that has been left unsaid.
The drama centers on a lonely screenwriter, Adam, who lives in a nearly empty high-rise on the outskirts of London. Seeking inspiration for his latest script, he returns to his childhood home — shot in Haigh's actual childhood home outside Croydon, England — where he encounters his long-dead parents (played by Jamie Bell and Claire Foy), somehow just as he'd left them. At the same time, he begins a romance with a handsome neighbor, Harry (Oscar nominee Paul Mescal). Scott was the first one to join the cast.
"I really liked him as an actor, and then I sat down with him and he really connected with the story on a deep level. Whenever I speak to an actor, I want to know what, of themselves, they want to bring to the story," Haigh says. "I don't like to audition, so I don't ever put anyone on tape or any of that kind of stuff. I just know if I like someone, and then I want to develop an intimacy with that person that we can then bring into making the film."
As Scott tells A.frame, "I thought it was sort of unlike anything I'd ever read. I mean, it's very difficult to define the genre, really, except that it is completely original."
A.frame: When you read Andrew's script for the first time, what spoke to you?
I bawled crying when I read this. I recognized the character immediately, and some of the dialogue really spoke to me. I particularly remember the scene between the father and the son. It's that idea of wanting to be hugged. I remember the brutality of the scene between Adam and his mother, and then the beautiful scene between Adam and Harry after they sleep with each other for the first time, where they're talking about being strangers in their own family. So many. And it was really interesting how we shot it; I had two weeks with Jamie and Claire in Andrew's family home, where we shot, and then I had another four or five weeks with Paul. It was absolutely right the way we did that, because they completely inform each other, you know what I mean? I don't think the character can allow himself to love somebody else until he's got the love of his parents. I think that's why he's so lonely at the beginning.
You talk to Paul and he's someone who says, 'I want to do things that challenge me as an actor, and that challenge how an audience perceives me as an actor.' Do you share that sentiment?
Yeah, yeah. I think you have to have a feeling of playing a different note. I think of it like music, that if you've been playing something specific that it's refreshing to be able to play a different note. I think that makes for a much happier set, when people want to be there and they want to play their parts. I think that's why Paul is such an exceptional actor, too, because I'm not sure every actor would've seen the potential in that role, and he makes such gold out of it.
You said that you recognized this character, but what was your process of finding your way into Adam and building out his internal life?
It was very easy, I suppose, with this one. Because Andrew had given so much of himself and we were filming in his own house — which is insane — I felt like, I have to go to myself. That's the source. That's what I recognized from at the beginning. In a way, [it wasn't about] necessarily creating a world for Adam but focusing on what my own psychological and emotional world is, and that's just about bringing myself to it. It's finding lightness in the despair, because that's what we do as human beings. I think when you feel sad, you try and look to the sun. You don't wallow in your own misery. And then really, just being open and listening to the other brilliant actors. I knew Andrew was going to get amazing actors, and oh my God, he did. All that stuff with Claire and Jamie, it just didn't feel, 'Oh, these actors are younger than me, and they're playing my parents.' I just felt like they were my parents! [Laughs] I do think the most important thing that actors can have is a sense of imagination. There are two things, actually: An imagination and a sense of humor. They are the two essentials for me.
How did you react when Andrew told you that you would be shooting in his actual childhood home?
He told me almost immediately that's what he was thinking of doing, and it was so extraordinary to actually go there. He'd be like, 'Yeah, that's my room in there.' And I was like, 'Oh my god, all the crew are here stomping around!' I remember having this feeling of like, when he lost his little baby teeth, that would've happened just there! And he's sitting just there! But he didn't let that overwhelm him, because he was giving that to us. I just think that's a really generous thing to do.
He told me that he knew this character and you, as the actor playing this character, would be going on a journey with this film, and he wanted to do as much as he could to go along for the ride with you. What did that mean to you to have your director putting himself out there as much as he hoped you would?
I felt such a massive affinity with him, because I do think of other queer people as my comrades. Not that this film is just for queer people. I really don't think it is, and I've learned that. One of my questions was, 'How will it feel for people who haven't had that exact experience? That queer experience?' It's not that. It really isn't. It affects everyone, because coming out, so to speak, isn't about sexuality. It's about identity more than anything. It's about, will you accept this part of me? So, I really felt strongly that he's my comrade in it, and I wanted to be able to say, I see you and we can together create this character and this world that — hopefully — people will recognize.
Did the vibe on set feel different filming the scenes in Andrew's childhood home, versus at the apartment with Paul?
I think of them very separately, I really do. I suppose it's that sort of tactile world, where you know that remember what your father's sweater might feel like, or your mother's perfume, or the smell of your parents' bedroom, or your childhood duvet. Those things are so visceral. And then in the actual physical world, this kind of anonymous tower block in West London, there was a different sort of joy in it, because in those scenes with Paul, you are depicting two lonely characters who were falling in love with each other. It's a very beautiful thing to play, and it was actually less of a punch in the heart. I cried less. I went to happier memories in my life, and not the painful ones.
I know you and Paul knew each other a bit before this, but this movie requires so much trust between you two as actors. Is trust just something you have to buy into as a job requirement, or do you actually have to build it?
It's not necessary. I mean, you could get away with it if you didn't really trust the other person or whatever. But it makes the process so much more enjoyable when you think, what if I said this? What if I suggested this? What if we do this? And the fact that somebody else wants to be there as much as you do, and is so grateful to be there, and is enjoying the process so much, and who's decent to the crew, that makes a huge difference. I just think there's no better actor. There's no better actor than him to act with. We know each other so much better now. We're so close now, but in a way, I'm glad that we were just discovering that about each other at the time.
This is a tactile movie, as you said, and much has already been said about the sex scenes — because they are very sexy, and they are romantic. But when Adam and Harry are together, the way their bodies find each other is very intimate and tender too.
I think both of us were very interested in playing love with these two very lonely characters. I think that's why it's affected people so much, because it's so tender. There's obviously lots of sex and physical intimacy, but there's a genuine emotional intimacy between the two of them, and I think that's why it's so affecting for people. Even just the way they look at each other and talk to each other, and there's the whole montage sequence where it's just them on the couch, or it's just them sleeping together with T-shirts on. It's not sexual. I think that's what people want. That's the stuff of life. And then I think what the film says is that it can end, so love while you can. It's that beautiful line in that amazing song, "The Power of Love": Make love your goal.
It is a really tactile film, I think. There's so much touching in it, even between the family. When we're young children, we are so affectionate with not just our parents but with everybody, and that kind of dissipates as we get older. But it's all related. Everything's all related.
What does leaving behind a character like Adam look like for you?
There's a thing when you're telling a story, it's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. It requires a beginning, middle, and an end. And it's weird. With a story, you want to get to the end. That's naturally what we want to do, and then you have to give it up. But I've never really minded leaving a character behind. You only hope that you're going to get an experience like that again.
By John Boone