When the filmmaker Andrew Haigh read venerable Japanese author Taichi Yamada's novel, Strangers, one aspect stood out to him most: What if you met your parents again long after they were gone, only now they are the same age as you?
Haigh's adaptation, All of Us Strangers, follows a lonely screenwriter, Adam (played by Andrew Scott), back to his childhood home, where he finds his long-dead parents, exactly as they'd existed when he last saw them. In casting who would play Adam's parents, Haigh needed to find actors that made sense as Scott's parents — and perhaps as his own parents, too. He found Dad and Mum, as the characters are known, in Jamie Bell and Claire Foy.
"I was like, 'Is this going to work? Is anyone going to believe it?' It was the very concept of whether anybody would buy the idea that they are his parents; they look younger than him, but they still have to act like his parents," Haigh says. "And then we shot the first scene, and we finished it and I was like, 'Yeah, I think it will work.' It was just the way that Jamie and Claire and Andrew, they became parents and child."
In re-meeting his parents as an adult in his own right, Adam is given the chance to say what he couldn't — or wouldn't — as a child, including coming out to his mom, who is initially put off, and his dad, who is surprisingly supportive. In the latter role, Bell finds something of a kismet connection to his first ever role in 2000's Billy Elliot: In that film, he played a son whose father wasn't initially accepting; in this one, he gets to take on the role of an understanding father.
"I made that connection really quickly," Bell tells A.frame. "There's some spirit animal relation. They have a big heart, both of these films." Having begun acting at such a young age — he was 13 when he shot Billy Elliot — the actor also confesses to harboring a lingering sense of imposter syndrome that reared its head on All of Us Strangers. "I'm like, 'I don't deserve to be here. I'm not as talented as these people are. These are real actors!'"
"I look at them and I think, I did this from so young. I didn't learn a way of working. I just did it. It's like, 'Did you capture it? Because it might not come back!' Whereas they look to have so much more control of what they're doing, and so much more technique to fall back on. You feel like Bambi on ice a little bit, and then when you see a figure skater, I was sometimes just out of body. Watching Andrew Scott, I was like, 'That was really good! F**k, it's my line,'" Bell laughs. "I did feel in awe of them. The other thing is I admire their work so profoundly, that it was intimidating. I am a massive fans of theirs. I'm still doing interviews with Claire and looking at her like, 'She's really smart. She's really clever.' And Claire, she always tells me, 'Shut the f**k up!' Always."
A.frame: When you first got Andrew's script and read it, what spoke to you?
Claire Foy: He speaks to me as a filmmaker, and so I already was like, 'God, I hope he wants me to do something in it!' I love Weekend. My friend Tom [Cullen]'s in it, and he had said to me how he loved the process of working with Andrew so much and that he continued to try and find that in jobs afterwards and never succeeded. I love the silence in that film. 45 Years, as well, I think is so beautiful and heartbreaking.
Jamie Bell: I'm just always looking for great auteur filmmakers to work with. I've been fortunate to work with a good handful of really talented people with unique, distinct styles and tastes, and very singular perspectives. I'd certainly consider Andrew to be one of those types of filmmakers. You pair that with the cast, which is really — it's impeccable. I felt like an imposter sometimes. I was like, 'How the f**k is this happening?' So, you'd just be an idiot not to do it.
Foy: Then when I read it, I loved how small the film was but how huge the ideas were, and how significant love was in the story. Andrew's scenes and the way he writes them are so true to life, in the sense that they're not a device. Watching it as an audience member, I don't feel like I'm being manipulated. I feel like I'm genuinely watching two different people try and talk about things from a different point of view, and not saying what they mean, and struggling with themselves and not being self-aware. You read so many scripts that follow the same path all the time, and so it was so refreshing to read something where I recognized so many people that I know, and so many aspects of myself.
Bell: The way the script spoke to me and relationships with my parents, my relationship towards my own children — being a parent to three kids — the way all the characters are so brilliantly rendered. They all have a task in sculpting who this man is going to become in such a beautiful, cruel, harmful way. There's some real brutality in families. There's so many scenes where you think the scene is going to be a loving scene, and yet it's so thorny and it's so complicated and there's a lot of things that aren't being said actually, and intention is being lost and Andrew just realized all that stuff so f*****g brilliantly.
There's also this layer of how much Andrew Haigh put of his own life into this film. You shot in his childhood home. He modeled Mum and Dad after his own parents, even though they are obviously not his parents. In your conversations with him, how much were you discussing that component of these characters?
Foy: He told me a lot about his family and his upbringing, and his mother in particular. When we first met, we talked at length about the role of the mother in the movie, and also his mother and my mother, and the complexities of relationships where you are almost too close to someone and you stop seeing them as a human being, in a way, and see them as your parent or your child. When he was talking about the character, I really felt like, I know who that is. The building of the character, it's different because they are living out of space and time and they're obviously dead, so that's unusual. But the fundamentals, it was very clear to me who she was.
Bell: We spoke about that side of things very little. I grew up without a father, but I have three children. I've assumed this role and I don't really have this role model of what that is, and actually, in some ways that's been beneficial because you're not making other people's mistakes in a way. You're making all your own ones, and that's interesting and fascinating. So, he gave us this beautiful gift, and he knew that he was getting people who were going to bring stuff of their own to it. Obviously, I was asking all those questions like, 'Oh my god, are you really laying yourself bare here? Jesus Christ, you're so brave,' things like that, and so he would offer a little bit, and then obviously I would add my two cents. Honestly, we felt like we had two jobs: one to parent Andrew Scott, and the other one to take care of Andrew Haigh at the same time.
Usually in these interviews, you want to ask about the most emotional scene. But all of your scenes are emotional. There are no easy scenes for either of you.
Bell: Yeah, I was going to say, there's so many! Andrew Haigh would come to us. He'd be like, 'One of you cannot be crying. Just one of you, please don't cry. It's absurd! Like, this is the wettest movie ever.' [Laughs] The other thing is when you're working on something like this and the crew is small and the crew is really close-knit, they're all bringing in family pictures, and they're all bringing their own personal reference to it. So, I'd come in some days and you'd get into the makeup truck and you could feel this sense of heaviness. I'd get in the chair and they'd be like, 'Andrew came out to Claire yesterday. It was so intense.' Really, every day had some really big, devastating impact for people.
Was there one scene that proved even more emotional than you expected on the day, or that was the most challenging for you?
Bell: Well, the goodbye is ridiculous. That was insane. Because the other thing is, we never talked about that scene. We didn't really talk about any of the scenes, really, but we did not talk about how that was going to work until we got there to do it. Because I think we knew the importance of it, and we knew the heaviness. We'd all created these bonds with each other — we were living as a family basically — so when we got there, it was like, 'Oh god, now we're going to do the thing.'
Foy: I know I definitely hadn't wanted to think about it, probably as a self-preservation thing. Also, I just didn't want to tempt fate. I didn't want to overanalyze. We shot it chronologically, as well, so by the time we got there, we'd spent so much time together, and it really was so surprising how that scene went. I'll never forget it. It was one of the most wonderful moments to see how those other actors portrayed those emotions, and knowing by that point who they were. Sometimes a film blurs the line between the actor and the character, and I felt like in that scene, it really was so honest and open and vulnerable, and really amazing to have watched those performances.
Bell: Of course, when we were shooting it, we were playing Heads Up and all kind of stuff. No one was bringing that heaviness to the set. But you're just seeing Andrew perform this brilliant, very demanding thing, and he's with me and then he's drawn into her, and Andrew Haigh is like, 'Can you do it again?' And I'm like, 'You want him to do it again?! I can't handle this. I can't handle it!' [Laughs] We were caught up in that scene, so often, we would just kind of look at each other and share very little between us between each take. And then, that night, me and Claire and Andrew got dinner together. And then we said goodbye, and he went off and made the film with Paul. I can only imagine how great that was for him, because he had true histrionics there. When he's remembering, he's remembering this extremely intense two weeks in this weird f*****g house in Croydon.
Claire, you knew Andrew Scott before this, but you hadn't worked together. Could you ever have imagined that when you would work together, you'd be playing his mom?
Foy: No, no. [Laughs] I could definitely imagine myself being a relation of his in some way — which, we probably are related somewhere down the line. But he was always a person that I gravitated towards. We shared a group of friends, and he would be the person I'd want to sit next to and talk to all night. That's just who he is. He makes everything better. When we were at the Governors [Awards] for Women Talking, he was there, and when we would find out that he was going to be there, we would all be like, 'Andrew Scott's coming. Andrew's coming!' We would all find each other, and we'd find Paul as well, because Paul was there with Aftersun. We'd all find each other at these events, and you just knew it was going to be a great night, because of who they are. I feel like our friendship only helped the feeling of the film, and getting to spend that time together. Because when do you ever get to spend that time and talk to your friend like that? So, that was wonderful. And Jamie as well, now I have another friend, which is really wonderful. I have a lot of love for him, I think he's an absolutely wonderful human being.
Bell: Claire is formidable. That's the word I would use. She's really formidable as an actor. Also, what she was doing with that character, it was so unexpected. There's a flusteredness to her. There's this quite clipped-ness about it. It was so great, because it's not what I had in my mind at all. So, when you're surprised by the people you're working with, it really is a testament to the craft that they're bringing to it. But the thing with her is that she's also so funny and can laugh at herself and doesn't take her seriously at all. In fact, in some ways, when we are all about to say the words out loud for the first time, it was so nice to see that everyone was just as scared and nervous as the rest of them. It's not always that way. It's not always the way that people create space for one another. So, they're humans, these people. They're just like us.
By John Boone