There are moments in the film Philomena where the audience can laugh out loud. It's simple, with Dame Judi Dench at her cheekiest and Steve Coogan at his most bumbling. But, the more poignant offerings from the movie are the subtle instances of sadness, where Philomena's loss quietly permeates the film. It isn't just a story of Philomena searching for her stolen son, but it's also a story of overcoming shame — both her unknown son's and Philomena's own, being an unwed mother in '50s Ireland. It was Sophie Kennedy Clark, who played the younger version of Judi Dench's Philomena that gave life to the fragile girl who sets the story in motion.
"My friends are under the belief that I don’t have tear ducts in my normal life because I’m very rational about everything. But, I completely fell apart when I watched this film," Clark explains about her role. "I have to totally be in the most selfless, vulnerable state to be able to do Philomena justice and what she went through." The film is based on a true story of a woman who went to a convent after she discovered she was pregnant, only to have her child adopted out from under her. It was up to Clark to depict that panic and desperation.
Besides Philomena, Clark will also appear in Lars Von Trier's much-talked about film Nymphomaniac, in which, she reveals, she didn't actually have to have sex on screen. Well, kind of...
Philomena is currently in theaters.
Photographed by Sunny Shokrae.
Now, did you work with Judi Dench on perfecting her mannerisms?
“She did her set before I did. My bit was the last of the filming schedule. I never saw any of her work because Stephen Frears, the director, was strong in the fact that I play Philomena at a completely different point in her life.
My bit is completely untainted and raw. My role hasn’t lived a life on her own; she only knows what she’s been told because kids didn’t have access to information back then. You did not question what adults told you; you did not question the religious system. Whatever you were told, that was the word — you didn’t stray from that. I needed to be able to be completely pure in comparison to Judi’s performance, which was a lifetime of holding in a secret that shapes her character. It’s almost cathartic, her search for him, getting the story out that she’s been holding for 50 years. It’s an awful long time.”
Yeah, and there’s a lot of guilt, too.
“There’s a lot of guilt. I know that Philomena herself, when I’ve talked with her, a lot of the things that happened to her in the convent are scenarios that she plays over in her head. To have kept that inside — you know, these days we would get therapy and pointed in the direction of some kind of help. But, back then, that wasn’t there for you. It did take her 50 years to process it and feel at ease enough to speak about it because there was such shame in what she’d done, which had been instilled by the nuns. Equally, the fact that she let the shame happen, though…”
Photographed by Sunny Shokrae
Did she tell you any stories that you wish would have been able to include in the movie?
“I insisted on meeting her before filming began. I was incredibly nervous to meet her because you’re asking a person whom you don’t know about a difficult situation in their life, very personal questions. There’s something quite uncomfortable about that. Anyway, she welcomed me into her home and invited me in for a cup of tea and a chat. She’s quite accommodating and very witty — which is reflected in Steve’s writing. And, Martin, in real life, is so dry; hence, why the unlikely character travels is so wonderful to watch. They end up being quite reliant on one another because he needs her for the story and she needs him for the security and companionship.
Anyway, when I met her, I told her about some of the scenes I had to do and how I really wanted to do her justice. I didn’t care if anyone but her saw the movie, as long as she was happy. She told me she’d put in a good word to the man upstairs for you. I was like, ‘You’re still talking to him?’ She was like, ‘Well, of course. It’s my religion.’ I questioned her religion to which she replied, ‘Well, yeah, but he owes me one.’ I supposed so, yes, the big man upstairs owes you one. That was the most surprising thing to me. I knew it was like that in the film, but I didn’t know if it was for dramatic effect. It’s not. She still has her faith.
Now, my mother is religious and my father is not. It was interesting for my mom to watch the film because I’ve always been trying to find reasons to not go to church. Then I did this film, and thought it’s the perfect reason to not go anymore. But, there’s something about this film that doesn’t demonize religion. The main thing is the fact that Philomena used religion as a medium for forgiveness. If she hadn’t found that medium or had a faith, how would she have gone on to live her live?”
Did she tell you any stories that didn’t make it into the movie? Were you able to read the book?
“I didn’t read the book because the film and the book are very different tales. I’ve read the book since, but I didn’t read it before because the book is very much about Anthony, whereas the film is about the journey of finding that out. There are nuggets in the book that you’re obviously aware of having done or seen the film, but the book and the film are quite different animals.”
Photographed by Sunny Shokrae.
Now, did you cut your hair for the film?
“It’s a wig. My hair is incredibly long. I have quite a lot of hair. When I say they cemented it to my head, I mean it. They got this weird glue gel thing that they wrapped around my head, and it wouldn’t wash out at night! For five days, my hair was slicked back like a shiny helmet. I had to put on a hat if I wanted to get groceries. I live in an area whereby I know people, and when I’d bump into them, they’d ask if I was ill. I’d try and brush it off explaining it was for a part. They’d be like; ‘Take your hat off,’ and I’d brush it off. It was brilliant, though, to be able to walk on set and just put the wig on. I had not a scrap of makeup on, too.
As an actor, you have to be selfless. As a female today, even if you’re just going out to get some milk or whatever, you put on a coat and you make a bit of an effort to look socially acceptable, even if there’s not a lot of makeup involved. Whereas in the film, I was red raw; they wouldn’t even put moisturizer on me. They let the elements affect my skin. They even put eczema on my hands. So, looking at my self in the mirror with the bob on was a completely out-of-body experience. And, then having a pregnancy belly strapped on to you is generally terrifying. It was one of those things where you know you’re doing it for the right reasons; yes, you don’t want your photograph taken, but it worked for the story. It’s just a brilliant tale that all they did was something I never questioned. I never felt insecure because it was for the greater good of the project.”
You’re probably getting a lot of questions working on Nymphomaniac, a wildly different role. Aside from the posters, the entire movie has been kept pretty much under wraps. How did you get that role?
“I auditioned for it. I auditioned for Philomena. I’m still at that point in my career where I work my socks off — every audition I treat like my last. It’s one of those things where you go in and you give it your all. I’m not being handed things; none of my work has come out. I’m still earning my stripes. So, when I went up for Nymphomaniac, my agent was a bit unsure that I should be doing it. So, I ended up speaking to the casting director. I told them, ‘I’ve got to come in for this audition. I absolutely love the script.’ I’m a big fan of Lars von Trier’s work. I know that he has the reputation of being a little tricky, but he’s definitely on my list of directors that I would so love to work with. I was filming Nymphomaniac actually, when I found out I got the role in Philomena. My parents were like, ‘Well, Soph, the convent is the only place for you now!’ Nymphomaniac was an entirely liberating experience as an actor because Lars trusts you when he casts you. He lets you go do your thing. It’s very instinctual, very real, and very raw. I can see why people find the way he works to be quite unusual and maybe uncomfortable, but it’s all for the good of the project. He doesn’t try to get one up on you. He’s not a mean person. He’s incredibly unusual, but he’s brilliant. There’s a reason actors work with him time and time again, so he can’t be as bad as the press makes him out to be.”
Photographed by Sunny Shokrae.
Totally. What was harder for you to film, your scenes in Nymphomaniac or your scenes in Philomena?
“Philomena. It’s based on a woman that I met. There’s a scene where I lose my child, and Philomena (no one told me this) was on set that day watching behind the monitor. It was completely heart wrenching when you realize she’s watching some little actress trying to emulate the worst moment of her life. She was crying, and I, then, completely lost the plot. The snot and tears are all real. Nymphomaniac was testing in the sense that you’re working with someone incredibly unusual. But, Philomena was quite a lonely process because everything that happened to her rendered quite a lonely existence. Whereas in Nymphomaniac, I was surrounded by a group of actors going through the same thing, it was far more sociable. I found filming Nymphomaniac to be a complete delight — peculiar, but all the best things are a bit weird. Philomena tested me emotionally, though. It was draining. A friend would come to you with a problem and I’d think they don’t really know what a problem is, they don’t know what it’s like to lose a child. I had to tell myself to stop harping on about it because it’s so far removed from people to understand.”
It touched you.
“Yeah, it did.”
For Nymphomaniac, did you have to have sex on screen?
“I do not have any sex scenes in the film. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t come out unscathed! I was very lucky with my character — not that anyone else was unlucky, but the experience I was after and the character I got to play completely appeals to me, a naughty little madam feminist. She’s about female empowerment, but I’m not entirely sure she even knows what she’s talking about. It was so much fun to play. And going from that to Philomena was completely different, but I found it quite easy to tap into both scenarios.”