"We have that phrase — it seems like only yesterday — for a reason, do we not?" ponders English theater director-turned-filmmaker Michael Grandage. In My Policeman, an adaptation of the 2012 romance novel by Bethan Roberts, he saw an opportunity to tap into the cinematic power of that very sensation. The film, adapted by Oscar-nominated scribe Ron Nyswaner, is a love triangle told across two time periods, first in the 1950s, and then, when the lovers reunite some 40 years later.
"I can think about certain things and it does literally only feel like yesterday," Grandage explains. "It feels like I'm looking at it as I looked at it for the first time when I was 20. And then, in a different moment, those exact same things can be turned on their head, and you can feel the weight of 40 years and navigating your way to that moment is very different and very difficult."
My Policeman begins in Brighton in 1957 and follows a police officer, Tom Burgess, who is gay in a time when it is illegal to be so. He is married to schoolteacher Marion, but having an affair with an art curator, Patrick. In the late 1990s, the trio are reunited when Tom and Marion take in Patrick after he suffers a stroke. To accomplish his vision, Grandage needed to first cast the actors who would play the younger versions of the characters, and then, cast those same roles with 40-year-older counterparts.
He found his Tom in Harry Styles, who even the director recognizes was an unexpected choice. (At the time, the pop star had yet to appear in Don't Worry Darling or the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) He then cast Emma Corrin (ahead of their debut as Princess Diana in The Crown) to play Marion, and stage actor David Dawson as Patrick. Grandage found their older matches in Linus Roache as Tom, Gina McKee as Marion, and Rupert Everett as Patrick.
"It plays with memory and time in a way that I understand. I am the age of the older trio. In fact, I was at college with Linus Roache, so I'm bang on the same age as him," says Grandage. "Also, I was very aware that we were dealing with three time frames anyway. You always watch the film in your own time frame; so, 2022 plays a part in this. Somehow, there's a kind of weird time machine thing going on as you take into account the societal changes that have happened right up until the present."
In conversation with A.frame, Grandage reflects on his first meeting with Styles, what went into threading together the two timelines, and why he never considered having the same actors play both ages through makeup and movie magic.
A.frame: This is the year of Harry the actor, but, when you cast him in this, he'd only had the minor role in Dunkirk. You were taking a risk on him. What convinced you he was right for this leading role?
Well, he did the convincing. The weirdest thing that happened was, when you start to circulate a script, it travels around agencies, and you have absolutely no idea who's reading it. And, suddenly, this call came. 'Harry Styles has read the script to My Policeman and would like to take a meeting.' I thought, 'That is totally out of left field! Where's that coming from?' I'm obviously going to take a meeting with the world's greatest pop star — that's a no-brainer. I want to do that just so I can say I've done it — but, apart from anything else, I want to take a meeting to understand why this appealed to him.
He came in and met me and what I sat opposite was somebody who was phenomenally articulate about Tom Burgess. He knew how difficult it was going to be to play Tom — not for him, for any actor. Because you have to believe as an audience that two people fall in love with him. So, he's clearly got to be beautiful and charismatic. Yet, because he's a policeman in a society where it's illegal to be gay, he's going to keep everything close to his chest. He's almost going to be monosyllabic. He's going to be shy. He's going to be all of these things. And yet, two people are in love with him. How do you play that? Harry Styles sat opposite me and was incredibly articulate about why he wanted to get under the skin of that person and do that. It's very rare, I have to tell you. Normally a director is in the room convincing an actor to be in their movie. So, to have the actor telling you why they wanted to play the role and being so articulate doing so, it was a no-brainer for me. And Harry himself is somebody who is kind of shy, offstage. All of these things were there in front of me and, when I saw them, I thought, 'I don't need to carry on looking now. I found who I want to play Tom Burgess.'
"I'm obviously going to take a meeting with the world's greatest pop star — that's a no-brainer. I want to do that just so I can say I've done it — but, apart from anything else, I want to take a meeting to understand why this appealed to him."
It's one thing to intellectualize a role. It's another to know that the chops are there. At the time, did it feel like you were taking a leap of faith?
Casting is always a leap of faith. Even when you've got tons and tons of films to look at for actors. You know that they can act, and they can do all this and they can do that, you're still taking a tiny leap of faith even then to wonder if they can actually play the character you're offering them. And when it gets to the younger generation, they're never going to have masses of films under their belt anyway, unless they were a child actor. There's always going to be a leap of faith.
Also, he and Emma and David wonderfully expressed why they wanted to be part of a film with such an important message at the center of it. That appealed to me enormously. I wanted to go on a journey with people like me, who feel like this film — fingers crossed — could be part of a debate. That's exciting! You don't want to make a piece of work, and then, suddenly, it gets buried. You want to go out there and meet as rich a demographic as possible and as wide an audience as possible. One of the things that casting people like Emma and Harry also does is they bring a big fan base with them, and it is a young fan base, and I would love those young people to see what it was like to live in a society where you couldn't be free. We take so much for granted now. It's great to be able to offer something up about where, inconceivably but possibly, we could go back to if we're not careful.
So much of chemistry is innate, but I know you also had rehearsals with your trios. With Emma and Harry and David, was there a moment that confirmed for you that the chemistry was there?
Yeah, weirdly, it came out of a sense of fun. There isn't a great deal of fun to be had in this movie because of the subject matter, but, in rehearsals, there was a lot of laughter in the room, and a lot of generosity flying around the room. I saw that very quickly — I think it was day three and we had three weeks nearly — and I just relaxed completely, because I thought, 'They're going to bring this onto set. This is going to be there in front of the camera. This is going to be fine. It's just about making sure we harness all of the stuff that's coming out of it.' And you're right, it's entirely about chemistry. But I never had any worries after that moment.
Each of us, me especially, in a way, we all need to earn the trust of each other. Particularly when you're approaching scenes with intimacy scenes like we have in this film, and difficult, emotional scenes like we have in this film. You can't just go, 'Do it, please. Let's do it.' It doesn't work like that. You have to really create trust amongst all of us, and you have to build trust, and very early on in rehearsals, I could see we all trusted each other and we were all prepared to go on this journey together. So, it was kind of gorgeous.
You cast the younger three first. What did you see in Harry, Emma and David that you were then hoping to capture an echo of in Linus, Gina and Rupert?
Great phrase because it is only an echo that I needed. I did not need a lookie-likie. I did not need somebody who was intellectually or emotionally in the same place as their younger selves. It was quite literally an echo. I look back at my 20-year self and I don't see hardly any of me. I wish to God I did! But it's not there anymore physically. And, emotionally and intellectually, there's been such a development. We are different human beings almost. Yes, there's a DNA at the center. Yes, there's a grace note of our past. But, actually, that's why there's never been a discussion ever of, 'Should we cast three young people and do their older selves with prosthetics?' It was never even discussed, because it would be so absurd.
Possibly with 15 years, you could do a little bit of something. But between 20 and 60? That's a big gulf! And the film doesn't address those 40 years, except it invites the audience to address them. It invites the audience to think about that period between. But it was looking for a flavor of something. And those three actors did something incredibly generous. Because they knew that they were being filmed at the end, they all asked for footage of their three younger selves so that they could lean in a little bit. In Linus' case, he said, 'I'm going to lean in a little bit to Harry's vocals.' And I remember Gina said, 'She does a couple of little physical things that I'd love to use.' It was a phenomenally generous way of working, to be honest with you.
I'm glad you cast the movie as you did, but I would have enjoyed seeing at least a makeup test of Harry and David in their 40-years older prosthetics.
I don't want to see that! [Laughs]
By John Boone