Levelling the Field
by Jay S. Jacobs
You always think of the bright, shiny places that young actors go to find stardom. However, acclaimed young British actress Ellie Kendrick is making a buzz by literally descending into the muck.
Though she is only 26, Kendrick has been making a name for herself in British television and film for well over a decade. Her first starring role was in a television version of The Diary of Anne Frank. She also had roles in the rebirth of the classic drama Upstairs Downstairs, was in a series of the popular crime drama Prime Suspect and had a strong supporting role in the acclaimed film An Education with Carey Mulligan.
Not long later, her career seems to be exploding. She has spent that past few years in a high-profile role on one of the most popular TV series in the world, Game of Thrones. Now she is courting critical adoration for her starring role in the downbeat independent drama The Levelling.
The Levelling tells the story of Clover, a young woman who has become estranged from her father and moved to the city to learn to become a veterinarian. She is forced to return to the family farm – six months after it was devastated by massive floods and left a filthy, moldy wreckage – when her younger brother suddenly commits suicide. She tries to come to terms with her stoic and uncommunicative father, the state of the old homestead (their insurance did not cover flooding) and the mystifying loss of a beloved brother. Plus, she must try to become comfortable again in a hometown where she no longer feels she belongs.
Even though it was a small script, which would call for a tiny cast and be filmed on a micro-budget, Kendrick was immediately drawn to The Levelling.
“I was really interested to read a really boiled-down script that basically focuses on such a level of character depth in a film,” Kendrick explained to me on a recent phone call from her native London. “It’s normally more common in theater that you see a small group of characters that are really explored, so I was really interested in that. I thought that the character Clover was such an exciting one, because she was so complex and flawed.”
These flaws and dichotomies made the role catnip for the adventurous young actress.
“She didn’t know herself… She was making so many mistakes that you could see,” Kendrick continued. “The fact that it’s a bit of a role that’s going to require a huge amount of emotional complexity and intensity; that stuff is really exciting to explore as an actor. I was very excited to read it. I was just thrilled that I ended up being given the part, because it was something that I knew as soon as I read it that I really wanted to do.”
As she pointed out, the hardest stories to tell are the ones with limited characters and limited settings. While there were several bit parts in The Levelling, essentially the film has two major characters that Kendrick interacts with the most. There were also long stretches when it was just the actress alone. This was her first starring role in a movie, and for huge portions of the screen time she would be carrying the load completely.
“It was a challenge, certainly,” Kendrick agreed. “It’s much harder to do that stuff in some ways than if you’re part of a huge production with lots of characters and special effects, computer graphics and all that stuff. It’s a whole new set of challenges that you have to undertake, when there’s only three of you really in the cast, and you’re on your own most of the time.”
However, she felt confident through reading the script and dealing with the writer/director that it would all work out.
“The character is so well written and the film was really carefully paced. I was able to work with Hope Dickson Leach, the director, quite closely to make sure that it didn’t feel too daunting, it didn’t feel too terrifying. We made sure at all times that I was completely aware of where Clover was in her head, even when I’m doing things without speech. I’m completely aware of what’s going on in her head and where she’s at emotionally in that moment.”
Dickson Leach, a former debutante who had previously worked on several short films and television shows, chose a world very different from her own lifestyle for her directorial debut. However, she had a surprisingly intense vision of this world, devastated by flood, poverty, filth and depression. The writer/director gave Kendrick a good amount of leeway with the role of Clover, though the actress acknowledges that leeway was not always necessary.
“The story remains very much Hope’s words, Hope’s idea, but she was fantastic at involving all of us really in the creative process,” Kendrick said. “We had limited rehearsal time because it was a micro-budget feature, yet she always made sure that we felt involved. There would be times where I would say, ‘I don’t think she would do this or say this.’ Sometimes we’d find another way of doing or saying that particular action or that line. Sometimes she’d say, ‘No, just stick with me on this’ and then we’d find out who was right. But she was a really collaborative director.”
Kendrick was pleasantly surprised by the sense of surety that Dickson Leach brought to the production, particularly as someone who had never made a full-length film before.
“I was really surprised it was her first feature, because she has such a level of tradition and calm control, even in the face of a very stressful film,” Kendrick explained. “On a fully-working farm, on a micro-budget for a four-week shoot she remained completely in control and conducted herself with real poise and warmth.”
The Levelling opens on a central mystery which can never be 100% explained. Kendrick’s character of Clover has a younger brother named Harry (Joe Blakemore) who has just killed himself – or if their father Aubrey (David Troughton) is to be believed the death may have been accidental. The rest of the town, police included, do not buy this theory. The suicide occurred after a long night of partying, after he has been given complete control of the family farm.
The film shows many of the reasons that probably led to Harry’s death. However, there is no way that anyone can ever know why he was so downhearted that death would seem to be the only viable option.
As an actress, Kendrick tried to come up with a backstory, but even for her it is an enigma.
“I think it is very important as an actor to try fully, if you can, to justify everything that happens in the script with a kind of mental process to go along with it,” Kendrick says. “You’re not just saying the words, you know why the character is saying the words. Why she’s doing X or Y. There’s a reason behind all of it. One of the most important things for me when I’m starting to approach a role, especially a film role, is I would create loads of backstories, often linked to memories that I’ll create. I was doing all of that with the Harry character.”
However, like Clover, Kendrick may never know exactly what it was that set Harry off. And perhaps that is the way it should be. It certainly is the way of the world.
“I invented all sorts of stories which helped me to get a latch on him and play the role of Clover. However, I think one of the things I really loved about the film is that it does not seek to completely explain Harry’s death. I think that’s really important. Something that really struck me was how freshly Hope was seeing this story, because that’s the nature of grief. You can never really get to the bottom of it, to the answer. You can never get to a black and white version of events, because that’s not how life works.
“I really liked that even until the end there’s still a bit of ambiguity because that’s part of what Clover has to learn on her journey: things can’t always be solved like an equation. Certainly, emotions can’t be boiled down to simple yes or no answers. She has to learn to confront her emotions as complex and unpredictable things that need to be shared, as opposed to solved.”
Kendrick thinks it’s not completely solved, what happened to Harry, but of course you can see the instigating factors of whatever happened.
“Clearly, he was depressed and he was alone on the farm,” Kendrick said. “I don’t know what it’s like in the US, but in the UK there is a lot of depression in rural farming communities, especially with young men. That’s something which isn’t really talked about here very much at all. It’s often covered up. It was interesting choosing to highlight that silencing of male depression that happens in rural communities. That was certainly huge instigating factor.”
Part of it was hereditary, as well. Aubrey, the father, is bad about talking about his feelings and making space for his children to do so. Clover has become estranged from the father and moved away from the family farm, which has the inadvertent effect of cutting her off from Harry as well. The mother is gone, but her memory lies heavily on the farm, particularly in the months that the dairy farm and the whole area was devastated by flooding and storms.
“All of those things I think create a heavy cocktail that puts Harry’s life in danger,” Kendrick said. “Try as she might, Clover can’t work out exactly which thing it was, which caused it. She’d like to blame Aubrey. She’s terrified of blaming herself. Really, the answer is not important. She has to learn that in the future she has to stop blaming and start talking.”
Ironically, even though Clover and Aubrey were very much estranged, in many ways they were very similar. As an actress, Kendrick enjoyed establishing that relationship with actor David Troughton playing her dad.
“David Troughton is a really well-respected theater actor in the UK,” Kendrick explained. “He’s worked a lot with the Royal Shakespeare Company and is on a radio show called The Archers, which is really popular here. He’s a very experienced actor, who was a lot of fun to work with. He’s a very nice guy, but he also dedicates himself to the work and making sure that he does it exactly right.”
Even though Clover fools herself that she and Aubrey have nothing in common, it is obvious how close their familial bond is on the screen.
“There were a lot of similarities,” Kendrick said. “Most of them were pre-written into the script. A temperamental thing. A way that they have both come from a culture of silencing emotions, of denial and of seeking to blame other people, then running away from the truth. All of those dangerous things that can be seen sometimes as quintessentially British qualities which we’ve all got to try and get over.”
While much of this was drawn out in the script, Kendrick and Troughton picked up on little ticks in each other to make the point even more explicit. They added little subtle actions and attitudes that made the ancestry obvious in clever and nuanced ways.
“Some of my favorite scenes that Hope wrote – without dialogue or with very little dialogue – are the milking scenes we did together,” Kendrick explained. “We were wearing overalls which were the real-life milking overalls of the father and the son farming team who worked and owned the farm that were filming on…. Gradually over the course of the film and through these milking scenes, through these moments when they’re not talking, but are physically working together, they start to become closer.”
There were even moments where the actors tried to adapt the same physicality.
“There’s one moment where we’re both leaning up against the milking parlor wall wearing the same outfit and looking out,” Kendrick continued. “The characters can’t see how similar they are, but visually the audience is able to see that. In terms of language, it was already there in the script, but visually Hope worked towards creating little vignettes like that which make it a bit clearer. It’s just natural, isn’t it? When you’re playing father and daughter, you end up trying to figure out each other’s rhythms and work together in that way.”
Of course, the hard and dirty work of a dairy farm is also illustrated in more stark terms. One of the most disturbing moments in the film is when Aubrey tells Clover – a budding veterinarian and animal lover – that she had to kill a baby calf. (This was done off camera, thank goodness.) The audience hopes that she would refuse, though the scene points out that this kind of thing is all part of running a farm.
“It’s important that that moment is in there because what Hope is very good at doing is investigating the ambiguity of situations,” Kendrick said. “On the one side, farmers are the stewards of life. Genuinely, they care for and know the animals they look after. Certainly, the farms that we looked at did. On the other hand, if a male calf is born a dairy farm, then that calf won’t be useful to the farmer and so he will be killed. It’s important that there wasn’t a rose-tinted view of what farming life is about in the film.”
However, does Kendrick think she could do it if you were in her position?
“It was really necessary for Clover there to have that moment,” Kendrick continued. “She’s grappling between the identity of herself as a farmer who has grown up on her family’s farm, and the identity of herself as this vegetarian veterinarian semi-activist. We see those two identities clash in that moment where she must kill the calf. I don’t think it’s something I could do. No. I’m a vegetarian myself and I don’t think I’d be able to do it. But it says a lot about the state that Clover’s in emotionally that she is able to push herself to that extent.”
This is particularly true since the death of the little calf also had greater symbolic gravity in Clover’s life.
“The physical brutality in that moment is important because that calf, as many of the other nature elements in the film do, represents in part Harry and in part the part of herself that she’s trying to kill off to be stronger. The weakness in herself or how she sees the side that’s desperately sad and grieving and that needs to find words, but can’t. So, I agree, that moment for me feels like it’s certainly a quite disturbing moment, but I think it’s one that’s really important.”
She laughed and reiterated, “But I wouldn’t be able to do it myself.”
Kendrick, who lives in London, had some experience with the farm lifestyle growing up, so it was not completely foreign to her when she and the cast and crew arrived in Somerset to work on the real farms that made up the sets of The Levelling. However, she acknowledges that while she had grown up on the countryside for part of her life, and she was aware of what goes on in farms, she probably was a little guilty of idealizing the lifestyle.
“For pretty much anyone who doesn’t live on a farm or know how it works, you think of a nice place with lots of cows and sheep and everyone’s getting along well,” Kendrick admitted. “Of course, farms are working places. They’re not about stroking the nice animals. Dairy farms are about milking twice a day without fail, every day of the year. Even on Christmas day. They’re about getting up in whatever the weather – the rain, the snow, the sleet – and making it work. They’re about, as we said, killing the young males if it’s on a dairy farm and they can’t be of use.
“On the farm that we worked on, they were also about working with animals,” she continued. “About caring for them and at times even nurturing them. They’re interesting spaces. They’re much more complex than the outside eye might allow, or might see. It was fascinating to be on a working farm as we were doing it. We even learned to milk the cows. That was really important for the physicality of the roles; that we got it right and made it look like we’d been doing it a while.”
Of course, another reality of farming, particularly in this story, was that everything was so dirty and muddy. Kendrick spent a lot of time in streams, in muddy holes and out in the rain, basically just getting filthy. This also took some getting used to. As a visiting actress, was she craving having a nice long shower and some clean, dry clothes?
“All of us, all the cast and crew, had that feeling for the first couple of days when we worked,” Kendrick laughed. “Most of what you see on the farm – I’m afraid to tell you – it isn’t mud. It’s cow excrement. We all ended up getting covered in that at one or another point of the shoot. At first, before you abandon your city ways, you think: ‘God, this is awful. I want to get myself clean. Get home to scrub myself and have a shower.’ Then quickly you adjust to it.”
She soon realized that if she spent all her time worried about the dirt, she would never get anything done there. It eventually just became another building block for the character in her mind.
“I really relished the chance to literally get down and dirty with this role. To roll up my sleeves and properly get down to digging and plunging into that dirty river and mucking around on the farm. It’s not something you get to do very often. Especially women on a film set, normally you’re in clean sanitized studios with green screens. This was a slice of real life and one that I relished. I loved being in that environment. It was very lucky for us that we were able to shoot it on an actual working farm, because it meant that what you see is real. We were milking those cows for real.”
In recent years more and more farmers, and people in general, are losing everything to the storms and floods like the one that was dramatized in this film. Which suggests a basic question. What are Kendrick’s feelings about climate change? What, if anything, can we do about it?
“I think that the climate change issue is a massive one, and one that will be very difficult to go into in great depths in a 20-minute interview,” Kendrick laughed. “Of course, it’s hugely affecting the way not only that farms are run, but the way that the world is running and the way that our population will be affected in the next coming decades. I find it really scary. Like the film, there’s no easy answer to it. We all try and do what we can, but it’s terrifying to see the rate of this climb to which things are going, and how strongly that is affecting rural communities and farming communities.”
Furthermore, the storms which form the backstory of The Levelling and the destruction the audience sees in the area were very real, she explained.
“I don’t know if you’re aware, but the flooding of the levels which provides the heart of the film in that area of Somerset, it really happened,” Kendrick said. “That area is still years on recovering from the devastation of that event. Most of the policy decisions are made in big cities like London, where I live. In big cities, we all feel very far away from these rural communities. That’s dangerous, because that’s when they start to be forgotten. Climate change and bad policy making can not only affect industry and destroy community, but take lives as well.”
Though she has had sizable roles in several other films, including the acclaimed Oscar-nominated film An Education, Kendrick has mostly made a name in British television. Beyond the obvious buzz-worthy role on Game of Thrones, she has also starred in such series as the reboot of Upstairs Downstairs, Prime Suspect and The Diary of Anne Frank. The Levelling is her first feature film lead. How is working on the film different than some of the previous work that she had done on television?
“It was a real challenge because I was in every scene on the film,” Kendrick acknowledged. “I had to be incredibly disciplined and work very hard, do a lot of preparation and just solely concentrate on that project for those four weeks. I was pretty much living in the head of that character for that time, which is not something that I normally do, especially not in television. I suppose it was the closest thing I’d ever done to method acting, which isn’t something I necessarily believe in, but I had to think in Clover’s head for so many hours of the day that she started to overlap my own thoughts.”
Kendrick admitted was quite scary at first, particularly because she was living far away from home. She said it was strange: sometimes when she plays a character that goes through intense experiences and emotions, when she is doing it every minute of the day and not seeing any of her friends and family, it can start to take over.
“I suppose that happened in a way in this film,” she said. “But, it wasn’t entirely unpleasurable. It was exciting to be taken over by this brilliant role that Hope had written. I had to be more disciplined. It affected me much more emotionally than most of the roles I’ve done. Normally – especially in TV – you’re hopping in and out. You’ll do one day on one week, then two days on another, then you’ll do four weeks solid of filming, and then you’ll have the weekend off. It’s much more piecemeal. That level of exposure to this role meant that I could really properly drill down into it and spend time with it in a pure and intense way.”
The film also shows how it is weird and difficult to return home after you’ve moved on. Undoubtedly, Kendrick’s family life is a lot less dramatic than Clover’s, but how does it feel being out there working on TV and films then to go back and see the people and places she’d known growing up?
“Part of performing as another character is always trying on another life, trying on another brain almost,” Kendrick said. “It’s very strange to go through that experience and then go home to friends and family who have known you all your life. The only thing I could compare it to is the experience of if you’ve gone on a holiday on your own. You come back to your home airport a couple of weeks later and suddenly all your habits, things that you used to take for granted, for maybe a day they all seem strange and bizarre. That’s a little bit of what it’s like when you come out of a role that you’ve been playing for a long time, or for an intense period. Suddenly when you return to your own personality, you can be a little bewildered by what’s going on. But there’s not really space for that because you’re on to the next project.”
But then again, isn’t the next passage its own form of a trip?
“It’s a very strange mess that you start to take on. On one side, you become intensely attached to a role. You get into their head. Into every personal thought. Their way of speaking, talking, walking and their tiniest movements, which portrays what kind of a character they are. You have that attachment at one hand. Then the other you must be able to be completely detached from them at a moment’s notice. At the drop of a hat. For example, on The Levelling, I had a day and half in between finishing filming that and playing another character on something else. It’s a weird dichotomy that you must cultivate as an actor, but one strangely I find myself enjoying. I don’t know what that says about me, but I am grateful to have a chance to do it.”
Speaking of being grateful for chances, Kendrick currently has a rather important role on one of the most beloved shows currently on television, HBO’s medieval hit Game of Thrones, based on the novels of George RR Martin. Kendrick has played Meera Reed over the last few seasons of the series. What is it like to be part of such an international cultural phenomenon?
“It’s wonderful to be part of Game of Thrones because of the way that they are able to tell the stories they do on such a huge scale,” Kendrick said. “To reach such high audience numbers and with such huge production values. It’s brilliant to be part of that. It’s like nothing I’ve ever been involved in before. It’s a very different commitment to the one I made in The Levelling. It’s more piecemeal. You hop in and out more. It’s a whirlwind. You’ll never meet even a quarter of the people who are involved in making the production.”
Elements about that huge scale television making are exciting, and provide a real contrast to projects like The Levelling. On the film, there was a very small crew. Kendrick knew everyone’s name by the second day. She was having them over for dinner in the bungalow she was living at in Somerset. They all formed a very, very tightly knit team.
“Of course, [Game of Thrones] is different in terms of its scale, cast numbers and all of that stuff. It’s a challenge that I really relish when I’m asked to hop between those different kinds of environments. It’s great to be given the chance to try different ways of working. Both are brilliant, but in different ways.”
When we tried for a preview of what will be coming for her character in the upcoming seventh season, she good-naturedly demurred from giving even vague, non-spoiler-ish details on her character’s connection to Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and their respective parents.
“Very nice try,” Kendrick laughed. “I am not able to tell you anything. I feel like you all probably know as much as I do, because we’re only given our own part, our own scripts to read, the parts that our character features in. So, who knows? It could be doing that, but I wouldn’t even have a clue, because I wouldn’t have seen the element of the scripts which are dealing with that. It’s all a mystery to me.”
Speaking of iconic roles, one of the earliest roles that Kendrick played was Anne Frank in a miniseries of the legendary World War II book The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s such a classic important story, was that tough for her to take on as a young actress?
“That was really scary approaching that,” Kendrick admitted. “I was really daunted when I was given the role. It was a strange one. It was my first big role, so on one hand I couldn’t have expected to be given this opportunity. On the other hand, I was absolutely petrified, because as soon as I got it I thought: how am I going to do this? This is terrifying because not only was I entering a professional world which I had only dabbled with before then, but I was appearing in a TV show in which I was in every single scene apart from two across the whole series. With an amazing cast. Approaching a really iconic historical figure, who was so important to do justice to.”
This opportunity taught Kendrick something very elemental about herself as an actress. She liked challenge. The fact that it scared her made it more important to her.
“It was terrifying, but then I began to find a real sense of relish in terror from that moment,” Kendrick said. “The way that I choose my roles, it’s almost like thrill-seeking for me sometimes. I found it so scary that the achievement of just having got through it was exhilarating. Then I realized that I probably do my best performances when I’m at my most afraid. Now, the roles that I choose, I gauge them by how much they scare me. If they scare me, I say this is something I’ve got to do.
“That was exactly how I felt with The Levelling,” she said. “It terrified me. I thought here is a real story that I’ve got to do justice to. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, dealing with huge issues I could mess it up at any moment. I can’t predict how this is going to go, but I know it’s something I want to be involved in. It’s exactly that same feeling. The first time I had that was when I approached the Anne Frank role. I realized that it was probably good pattern to continue, at least for now, in choosing my next role. It was a formative experience for me.”
It has even formed her search for dream roles. More to the point, when asked if there was one fantasy role that she’d love more than anything to play, Kendrick said there really wasn’t a specific one.
“That’s a really good question and one that I get asked a lot,” she said. “The answer isn’t a simple one for me, because for me it’s always about how it’s been written. It’s not just the idea of what a character is. It’s how the script is created, how the words come out and how it all meshes into a complete drama. I suppose I couldn’t give you a simple answer of saying there’s one character that I’ve always wanted to play. It’s more that, just as many actors, the thing that I love most is something that is well written. For me roles like Clover which are very complex, difficult, sometimes even unlikeable. Also, of course, not completely reduced to their femininity or who they’re attracted to or who’s attracted to them. All of those things I look for and am excited by.”
Then one dream role did occur to her. She allowed that there was one character that she really wanted to play, and that she had been fortunate enough that she had already had the opportunity to perform the part.
“When I was 11 years old, I played the Artful Dodger in the musical Oliver! at my school,” she laughed. “I would say that was a role I always wanted to play. I saw the musical when I was about five years old and I wanted to do it. When I was 11, I did! So, lucky me, I achieved that goal early.”
So now, as Kendrick leaves Clover behind, we must wonder where she believes her character will end up. The film leaves it where it looks like she’s going to be home for a while, but had Kendrick considered when she was planning her out where she’d be in the future? Like maybe 10, 20 years from now, is she still going to be on the farm, is she going to be a veterinarian or is going to go in a totally different direction?
“That’s an interesting question,” Kendrick said, thoughtfully. “I suppose that the film leaves off where it does for a reason. You as the audience have to decide. You’re allowed to make that decision as to where you think she’s going to be. For me personally, I feel like she’s not going to give up being a vet, but I think that the most important thing is that she’s for now staying on the farm. She’s making herself vulnerable to her father. She’s opening up to him. For the first time, they are forging a connection that they both so badly need to make.
“Whatever happens, she started talking to her father and they’re letting each other in,” Kendrick concludes. “I suppose the ending of the film is the beginning of the rest of their lives together. Whatever happens next, Clover and Aubrey are beginning to re-forge the father and daughter relationship that they need to. I guess for me personally I feel like she stays on the farm for a while, but she wouldn’t give up being a vet, maybe she even tries to combine the two. But who knows?”
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 14, 2017.
Photos © 2016. Courtesy of Monterey Media. All rights reserved.