Anne Hathaway knows her audacious new film is eliciting gasps and raised eyebrows, and her reaction to those reactions is quintessential Anne Hathaway. If you've not read the novel that Eileen is adapted from, it is best to go in knowing as little as possible and experience the movie's sordid surprises unspoiled. (That's how I experienced it.) "You went on a wild ride!" Hathaway laughs, breaking into a million-watt smile and clapping her hands. "Yay!"
Directed by Lady Macbeth's William Oldroyd and adapted by Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel from her 2015 novel of the same name, Eileen centers on the eponymous 24 year old (played by Jojo Rabbit's Thomasin McKenzie), who is desperate to escape her small town life. She works at a juvenile prison and tends to her booze-soaked father at home, while harboring fantasies unbecoming of a young woman of her time. The arrival of a new prison psychologist, Dr. Rebecca Saint John (Hathaway), changes everything. Rebecca arrives with her movie-star looks and Harvard PhD, and Eileen is soon swept up in a psychosexual noir thriller she can call her own.
A.frame: When you read a script like this for the first time, are you able to read it as the audience would experience it? Or while you're reading it, are you already thinking, 'How am I going to pull a character like this off?'
Thomasin McKenzie: That one. [Laughs] I feel like if I'm reading something with potentially playing the character in mind, I can't help but not just imagine myself in the role and try to figure out what kind of a challenge it might be. It's quite hard to look at it objectively.
Anne Hathaway: Oh, yeah. No, I have absolutely no objectivity. Because we try to articulate it, but there is something mysterious about the whole thing. I don't know why certain scripts you pick up, and it's like a bolt of electricity goes through you. But I can always tell you that when I see my character appear, if I'm saying the dialogue by the end of the first page, I'm probably going to do the movie. In this case, Rebecca just popped out. And I thought I knew what the movie was, and then it became something way deeper than I could have imagined. It's very tempting to say, 'oh and darker than I could have imagined,' but I actually think that the ending — which I won't say too much about — is the starting point for a conversation that we all need to be having.
Independent film doesn't always come with the luxury of rehearsals. Did you get time to rehearse, or were you thrown in into it together?
McKenzie: We didn't get a lot of rehearsal time, but we had a couple days to read through the script and discuss it, to talk about our ideas and about Rebecca and Eileen's relationship. I don't think we ever did any rehearsal on location, though. We kind of just begun.
Hathaway: That's true. Also, Will is a fantastic director, a fantastic human, and a wonderful communicator. He has a background in the theater, so he really knew how to harness the limited rehearsal time that we had to yield the best results. I became attached to this in 2020, and so he and I, we would check in with each other every so often. I would reread it, and tell him what I was thinking. He would send me inspiration images, and we just slowly walked towards each other. So, by the time we were filming, it felt really hand in glove.
What did you discover in either those conversations or while reading through the script that was key as you were stepping into these characters and the relationship between them?
McKenzie: Oh, it's a good question, and I'm going to—
Hathaway: You're going to throw it to me, aren't you?
McKenzie: Yeah. [Laughs]
Hathaway: Well, Will does this thing that I've never had a director do before. And by the way, we were a low-budget film. I don't know how he did it, but he managed to give Ari Wegner, our cinematographer, all the time she needed to light a shot — and if I may be so bold, light it brilliantly. I think this film is a visual feast. And somehow, he bent time around us as actors. We never felt like we weren't going to make our day. He stood in front of us and gave us the space to work in. We went so deep that time felt dilated. He managed to dilate time, and it felt like we had so much more time to shoot than it actually turned out we'd used.
One of the things that he did was he would have us do the dialogue, and once we were satisfied with the performance of the dialogue, he would then have us do a take where we didn't talk. We just thought the dialogue. And that was a discovery. My first day was like reams of dialogue. My character is a serial monologuer, and so it was just pages and pages and pages of talking at Eileen. Then we got to go back and do it, and we did this take where I was just thinking and existing, and it was really in that realm of there's no mistakes. It's outside of good and bad, and you're just really present. I said to Will at the end of it, "Oh my God, can I just do it one more time? I feel like I understand it so much more that you just took all the pressure off of it."
McKenzie: I loved the silent takes, but it also meant that you had to show up and know your lines even better. Because you have to know your lines without your cues from the other actor. You're basically talking to yourself, or you have to know the other actor's line so you know the context for your line.
Hathaway: So, what you're saying is maybe it was just very clever of Will to do it this way? [Laughs] To make sure that we were really prepared?
McKenzie: Yeah, making sure we knew our lines. Keeping us on our toes.
You're off-book like you've never been before. Anne, Ottessa has always said that the character of Rebecca was inspired by the Hitchcock film. Did you go back and look at that movie for any inspiration?
Hathaway: Rebecca is really hard to find. I had a hard time finding it, but yes. I found The Birds really helpful, too. But Will and I really talked a lot about Monica Vitti being our North Star for this one, and then also Patricia Neal. In the '70s, she did a commercial for an instant coffee company, and her voice in it is really great. So, I took my visual cue from Hitchcock. Also, I really wanted to know the beats about who you expect a Hitchcock heroine to be. But then in terms of who Rebecca was, I wanted her to be her own thing, but with inspiration from Katharine Hepburn, Monica Vitti, and Patricia Neal. And Ottessa Moshfegh!
As a non-actor, I always assume one of the hardest things to do is nail an accent, and both of your accents here are so specific. When everyone is doing an accent, does that make it easier or harder?
McKenzie: It depends. If everyone's accent is in the same realm — like, if we are all doing an RP accent — it makes it easier, because then if you aren't sure how you're supposed to be saying a word, you can check in with one of the other actors. But if you're all doing different accents, then it can be a little bit confusing.
Hathaway: I always get really excited by being in a universe where sound is a texture that the actors get to participate in. Because it's really lonely when you were the only person doing an accent. It's really, really frightening. And I've been that person. So, I was really happy that everybody had their own thing that they were working on, and everybody had their own time with their headphones. The thing that was scary for me was I was doing an accent that didn't exist, because I'm playing someone who's self-invented. It was a Mid-Atlantic thing, but that Rebecca had developed for herself over time as she was crafting this identity as this very glamorous doctor. So, my biggest thing was, would the audience lean into it? Or would they just say, 'No, no, no. You've gone too far this time, Hathaway.'
I don't think you could go too far for an audience. Personally, I love whenever you take a big swing.
Hathaway: It was a big swing. I'm very lucky I had a wonderful dialect coach. But I actually felt released. There's a line in the book, which I think I'm going to paraphrase, but Ottessa wrote this of Rebecca, she says, 'If she sounds affected, it's because she was. If this seems over-the-top, it's because she was.' But that being Eileen's take on Rebecca, that idea that someone is heightened and the other person notices it but then delights in it for a time, I felt like I maybe had a little bit extra room to push some of the grand instincts of Rebecca.
By John Boone