Wearing a casual polka dot dress and little makeup, you’d be hard pressed to recognize Agyness Deyn as the super-model that the British tabloids ordained as the new Kate Moss in the mid-aughts. With platinum blonde hair and a punkish street-style, Deyn was featured in campaigns for, pretty much, every major fashion house in the world. And if the tabloids had their way, a future filled with rock star boyfriends, cocaine nights and gossip column trainwrecks would have been all but certain. But that’s not what happened.
About six years ago, Deyn walked away from the runway and started a career shift into entrepreneurship and acting. Once you’ve met her, the decision to walk away from the jetset and into arthouse film makes a lot of sense. She has an exceedingly calm demeanor, but in no way does she come off as aloof. At times, it seems as if she’s trying to make up for her temperate, meditative nature by verbally emphasizing points twice. If she’s feels strongly about something it’s “really, really,” and “very, very,” and the fact is that she’s “very, very” passionate about being an actress.
Her latest film, Sunset Song, finds her in the lead role of Chris, a woman trying to make it through untold adversity in the Scottish countryside just before the outbreak of World War I. The film is directed by Terence Davies, a critical darling but woefully underexposed master of British miserablism. Deyn’s character is beaten down by the way of life and every man that she comes in contact with, but she maintains a determination that’s filled with forgiveness and acceptance—a determination that speaks to Deyn, deeply.
BULLETT sat down with Deyn in Manhattan’s Magnolia Productions offices to talk about becoming a leading lady, working with David Fincher and being a true blue sci-fi geek.
Is acting something you’ve always wanted to do?
No, I never really knew what I wanted to do. At school, I was a bit of a daydreamer—kind of middle of the road and then I seemed to fall into jobs. But, then when I started doing a few short films, I was like, ‘this is it. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.’
You had the bug.
Yeah, I just loved it—loved creating a role. I loved how you had to be really connected to the role and for me that meant I had to be connected to myself. And then kind of having to facilitate that to be able to portray these women, so it’s kind of cathartic.
What connection did you have to the role of Chris?
I was inspired by her more than anything—that someone could have such huge capacity for forgiveness. A woman that can be able to experience anything. Whatever it is she can experience it, learn from it, grow from it and feel it. Not just like, ‘Oh no, no, no, I’m fine, I’m fine yeah it is what it is.’ But really, really feel what it is and then forgive and move on. I find that so moving—kind of like, the human soul is unsquashable in some ways. Sometimes you think that it is squashable—that someone can be so beaten down, but really it can never be beaten down if you have that inherent strength. And that was inspiring to me. I was like, ‘Wow this woman is amazing,’ and not just in like, ‘Wow this woman is kickass,’ because she has such a modest view of herself, where she maneuvers all these things with such high self-integrity.
How did you connect with Terence Davies?
I was doing a play in the West End of London [The Leisure Society], and the casting directors came to see the play. The next day, I went over to their house for a cup of tea, and I was asking them what they’re currently working on and they said, ‘Terence’s new film.’ Because I was such a fan, I was like, ‘Please, please, please can I read it?’ They said, ‘Well we’re only seeing Scottish actors for it.’ I said, ‘That’s okay, I’m such a huge fan and I’d just love to read it.’ I was so moved from start to finish that I called my agent and was like, ‘Please can I get in any part.’ And they got me in and I auditioned with Terence. Then, I was apparently the first one in on that Monday morning and I had to run off to the play afterwards so I was kind of like, ‘Get it done, get it done.’ I had a wonderful experience with Terence and then he wanted me to play Chris, so that was the first initial contact. From that point it was a year-and-a-half to get funded. So, for a year-and-a-half, I would check in with him and see him during prep.
Did he just give you the role right there?
No, it was a few months later. I got a phone call. I was actually in L.A. He called and said, ‘Hello, this is Terence,’ and I was like, ‘Terence who?’ And he was like, ‘Terence Davies. I was calling to ask you, you don’t have to answer now, but if you’d do me the honor of playing Chris?’ And I was like, ‘Wow, yes of course I would.’ Then I came to London, I read with Kevin, they offered Kevin the part and that was it. Then we waited and prepped and it was two years ago we finished shooting.
One thing that Chris has to overcome is a sort of fraught relationship with her father, and Terence Davies is known for making films where he’s working out his own extremely fraught relationship with his actual father. What is your relationship with your parents like?
My parents split up and I didn’t see my dad as much as I’d like when I was a kid because, obviously, them splitting up, but I have a wonderful relationship with both of them. I’m very, very close to my siblings. I think that was one thing that really helps; the closeness that I have with all of them. [Chris] has a lot of loss in her life and if you have so much affinity for someone or something, then to lose it is very meaningful. Chris has that. She has a huge capacity for love, and really is loyal. Even though she has this [difficult] relationship with her father, she stays. [Her perspective is], ‘This is the right thing to do, it’s not about me anymore.’ But not in a way where she’s passive and meek. She’s selfless, but has stood there really strong with two feet on the ground.
You mentioned that they were only looking for Scottish actors while they were casting. I’m assuming you had to go through some sort of training to handle the accent.
Yeah. It was actually good because I had so much time. I worked with some wonderful voice coaches. It was basically all about the amount of hours that I put in really. For me, I’m not one of those people who can just hear an accent and just do all different voices and impressions. I really have to get into the nitty-gritty of it and start at the ground level and work it up. But, I think being English and Scottish, it’s kind of the same land. You know what that is. You know where those people are from and the landscape of it all. So that was a stepping stone to it in a way.
So what’s the process like to learn an accent? Is it just rudimentary exercises with vowels or what?
Yeah, there’s all of that kind of stuff and then also [it’s important to] be willing to be really bad. Do you know what I mean? To be okay with being terrible. I think that’s really, really important—to be terrible and to know what’s wrong, what it doesn’t sound like and kind of find the ear of it. So, then you can start to correct yourself. But, I was blessed because all the actors in the film were all Scottish, so I kind of had it around. When there were certain things I wasn’t sure about I could be like, ‘Kevin, how does this sound?” I would be very open to advice.
You had to do a number of things in this film that would normally scare even a seasoned actress. In addition to an accent, you have to do nudity and you have a big scene in which you sing acapella. What was the toughest part?
I don’t know actually. I think the hardest thing wasn’t like specific moments of it. The hardest thing was the first few scenes that we ever filmed. Because, once you have those, you’re like, ‘This is who she is.’ Maybe not the hardest, but the most nerve-wracking thing. Then the other things weren’t hard per se. What helped is that Chris is a person that throws herself into everything 1,000 percent. So if I’m playing her, I’m throwing myself, 1,000 percent in, which actually helps. I didn’t really have any thoughts of counter-intention on myself. But, also while I was working with Terence and the other actors, they create such a safe place with Kevin, the rape scene and these really intense physical scenes, which Terence only let us do once, twice max. We had such trust with each other. In some ways it’s not hard to do because you have this kind of platform that you can do anything, they can do anything and you don’t have any fear.
Is one or two takes standard for him?
He doesn’t do a lot of takes. Some scenes, we’d have a one camera setup and only do one take. Kevin and I would be like, ‘Do you think we have it? Do you think we have it? Can we just do one more for us?’ But he’s so specific in what he wants and he’s so driven by truth that if he feels it’s true, he’s like, ‘That’s it.’ It’s a very bold way of working, but you believe that. You feel safe within that.
What’s a Terence Davies set like?
It’s very family-like. There’s a feeling of monumental-ness to his sets, a feeling of togetherness, a feeling of holding the tension of what we’re doing constantly. But with a lot of air. So, even though there’s a lot of tension it’s because everyone is holding that space. But then there’s a lightness to it where everyone is so close. I was the first one there and the last one to leave so, it was a very personal vibe for me.
The film seems to be set in the middle of nowhere. Were you isolated the whole time?
We were kind of in the middle of nowhere in all [of the locations]. It did feel isolated in a way of we’re away doing this tather than the comparative quality of shooting in New York or L.A. and being able to go home. It was very much an encapsulated experience.
We haven’t talked about modeling at all. Is that side of your career something you’re done with?
Never say never. But, nearly 100 percent of my time now is acting. I’ve not really modeled as a job for six years. I’ve done the odd thing here and there for friends, for fun. But, yeah, I’m just predominantly acting. The logistic of the amount of time spent is just acting, which is exciting.
Do you miss it, at all?
No. I loved it. I loved it. But, I don’t miss it. I’m so excited to learn and grow in this relatively new career.
Who would be your dream director to work with?
I mean, Fincher. I was supposed to be working with him on Utopia, his [currently delayed] HBO series.
Is it not happening anymore?
He offered me the part of Becky and we started rehearsing. It was the most amazing experience. Just even auditioning for him and starting rehearsal was so life-changing as an actor. I watched an interview before I auditioned, which kind of was the gem of all gems. [It was Mark Ruffalo, addressing Fincher’s infamous tendency to do countless takes] saying, that he went into this hole of being like, ‘I am a terrible actor, I’m never ever going to work again. Because if I have to pick up this cup another time—I mean, I just can’t pick up the cup right.’ When I went into the audition, we were doing this two-page monologue where I’m kind of begging for my life. And we’re doing it for the 15th time, I knew, ‘Oh this is what excites him.’ The littles bits. The, ‘keep that,’ and, ‘let’s do it again.’ That’s what excites me as an actor. Fincher says if you want to do one of my films, you’re going to be acting 90 percent of the time. That’s the dream. Fingers crossed it comes back and if not hopefully something else [with him].
So it’s still possible?
You never know.
What actors did you admire growing up?
Ingrid Bergman, I love. Winona Ryder, I love. I just think she has such a quirky, heaviness to her that I love. Michelle Williams, I think she’s great as well.
What’s surprised you most about acting?
I don’t really know if I was surprised by anything. More like, things that I really knew about is that I would have to work my ass off. Maybe the surprise was that the things that I thought were possible, are possible.