Throughout her career, Alice Krige has breathed life into of the most captivating characters ever captured on film. From her debut theatrical role in the Academy Award-winning film ‘Chariots of Fire,’ to starring opposite Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in ‘Ghost Story,’ to her iconic role as the “Borg Queen” in’ Star Trek: First Contact,’ her work continues to inspire all those exposed to it. With almost five decades of experience, she remains a formidable creative force, continually challenging herself with the material she takes on. Alice’s work rarely goes unnoticed. Armed with an unrivaled skillset and unwavering passion for her craft, she continues to capture the attention of a new generation of filmmakers, raising the bar of every project of which she is a part.
Her journey began in South Africa when she began attending Rhodes University to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a psychologist. However, as fate would have it, she took a drama class – a decision that would prove a life-altering one, resulting in an honors degree in drama from Rhodes and a move to London to study at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. In 1980, Krige made her feature film debut as Sybil Gordon in the Academy Award-winning Best Picture, “Chariots of Fire.” She then appeared in the television adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” which was followed by her memorable, dual role as the avenging spirit in ‘Ghost Story.’ Also in 1981, she debuted in a West End theatre production of Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man”, for which she received the honors of both a Plays and Players Award and a Laurence Olivier Award for “Most Promising Newcomer.” It was this early success in theatre that she decided to focus her career on next by spending some time working with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Account. During her two seasons with the RSC she performed in such productions as “King Lear,” “The Tempest,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.” After her stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, she returned to work in film and television, where she has continued to breathe life into a plethora of wonderfully rich and compelling characters.
Alice’s most recent endeavor, Charlotte Colbert’s ‘She Will,’ is no exception to the rule. This haunting film explores the story of “Veronica Ghent,” an aging actress who, after a double mastectomy, goes to a healing retreat in rural Scotland with her young nurse, Desi (Kota Eberhardt). She discovers that the process of such surgery opens up questions about her very existence, leading her to start to question and confront past traumas, including the abuse she suffers at the hand of a director (Malcolm McDowell) on her very first film set at the age of 14. However, the two develop an unlikely bond as mysterious forces give Veronica the power to enact revenge within her dreams. The film, described as “A Superb, Sly Horror-Drama Debut Delivering Otherworldly Feminist Vengeance” by Jessica Kiang in Variety, was nominated for a “British Independent Film Award” at the London Film Festival and won the “Golden Leopard” for best first film at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. Academy Award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón has said that “it sits in the tradition of great psychological horror films [which] leaves one questioning long after [it] is finished.”
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Alice Krige for a powerful, career-spanning interview that explores the many facets of her “voyage of discovery” as an actress. She shares incredible insights on the roles that shaped her and continue to fuel her creative evolution.
Your career path has led to a fantastic body of work that has inspired many people. Was there a moment when you knew this was the right path for you to take?
It began when I was at University. It was pretty intense because there was a lot of practical work for the drama and the psychology. I loved it all, but I can remember a moment very, very clearly, quite early in my third year. I was sitting in an upstairs lecture room. It wasn’t a giant amphitheater but a tiny lecture room, and we were in a tutorial with an English lecturer. It was a small group of maybe 15 people, and we were studying a particularly beautiful and enigmatic lyric poem by Blake. It’s about a rose that is being eaten by a worm. It starts, “Oh rose, thou art sick.” It’s a very enigmatic, very potent, short poem. It dawned on me that I was the only person in the class who was engrossed in the process of trying to delve down into the layers of this short poem. Most everyone had to be in the tutorial. So some people were looking out the window, and others were doodling.
There was a precipitating factor. The English department had said to me, “We love the way you relate to English.” I was fascinated by it. We were studying Noam Chomsky, linguistics and it was all very exciting. So they said, “We will fast-track you to a Master’s Degree. Instead of doing an Honors degree and finishing your BA, doing an Honors degree, and then doing a Master’s degree, we will fast-track you to a Master’s. Then we will try to get you into Oxford because we’d love you to come back and teach in the department.”
I told my Mom and Dad, and my father was overjoyed! This was his idea of the ideal career path for me. It was safe, it would be interesting, I would have tenure, and I wouldn’t be far from them. For him, it was as if I had been handed a gift on a plate. I was mulling this over, and a day later, I was sitting in this tutorial, and my fellow students could be less interested. It was like a thunderbolt! I thought, “I can’t do this. I can’t spend my life coaxing people who are unmoved by some of the most beautiful poetry ever written To care or be interested.” I would find that soul-destroying.
I told my Mom and Dad, and my father was horrified. He drove over from about 120k at night after he had finished his medical practice. They drove to the University town where I was in a performance that night in the drama department. When I came out of the stage door, there were my Mom and Dad! He said, “I’ve come to tell you you must take the English department offer. I said, “Dad, I can’t. I can’t!” It was unheard of in South Africa at the time for someone of 17 to flatly refuse what their father wanted them to do. From my kind of family, it was the sort of thing you didn’t do. I had been the most compliant teenager! I never had issues, I was happy, I was friendly, and there was none of the angst or traumas that young people go through as they grapple with adolescence, hormonal changes, and young adulthood. There was none of that, but out of the blue, I said to my Dad, “No. No. A thousand times, no!” [laughs]
God Bless her; my mother said, “You’ve got to be allowed to follow your dream.” I was the only thing my parents ever argued about. It was this. My mother had, as a young woman, the war intervened, and she couldn’t become a doctor, which is what she wanted to be. She became a social worker. I think she thought, “I couldn’t, but she must have a shot at what she wants to do.” So, bless her. She didn’t believe for a moment that I would not return to South Africa when she sent me to acting school in England. Neither did I! The truth was, by the time I finished acting school, apartheid in South Africa had become so repressive, and I had gained such a distance from it that I could not go back and be a party to it. That is a double-edged sword because, as I discovered many years later, after my father’s death, he and my brother, a pulmonologist in the same town, went to extraordinary to get political prisoners who were held without charge out of prison and into hospital. Their goal was to keep them there so that they could meet their family, see a lawyer and at least make contact with the outside world before they were taken back into custody.
I didn’t even know about it, but my mother must have known. They didn’t tell anyone else what it was they were doing. If I had gone back as an actor, I would have wound up in prison, and I don’t think I would have done any good. You know, you always look back and think, “Did I run away? Was I a coward? Should I have gone back?” But there it is. I didn’t go back to live, and it broke my parent’s hearts. I did go back, and never would a year pass that we wouldn’t see each other, either here or in America. I never went back to live. I’ve had a very privileged life, for which I’m so grateful.
It’s incredible to hear about your formative years. Once you began acting, you hit the ground running with many great projects. When did you come into your own as an actor?
[laughs] I’m still getting there! I’ve got a way to go! [laughs] The truth is, you step into the void every time you start a new project. You have no idea what’s going to happen. Not really. I speak for myself. I’ve done as much prep as I can. I always go knowing the lines. I know it before I begin because you have to. You have to know it so well so you never have to reach for a line or a word so that it is you and you can say nothing but what she says. One has found the deep subtext of why you say what you say, and you can’t do that the night before. You can rethink it the night before, but you can’t do it the night before for the first time. Again, I speak for myself as other people have different ways of working that work for them. I read, look at art, and listen to music. I am always looking for whatever the trigger will be to make her show up, as opposed to me doing it. But I never know if she will or not.
It’s a dangerous voyage into the unknown, and there is no safety net. You can do all the prep you can, and I have a deep faith in my fellow actors. They are as exposed and vulnerable as I am. If you reach out, almost invariably, you will be met halfway by the people you are working with, and that’s the joy of the process. But, no. I’m still getting there. It’s probably a problem if I ever think I’ve gotten there! [laughs]
More recently, I’ve finally come to understand some very helpful things. For example, I’ve learned not to check myself so much in the moment of doing it. I’ve tried so hard to learn how to do that. Eventually, I stopped trying, and that was the key! [laughs] The key was to stop trying and do it! Just be there! [laughs] It’s taken me a very long time to get there!
What were some of the lessons you learned early on that have continued to resonate throughout your career?
One lesson comes from the first day of work I did on “Chariots of Fire,” which was the first feature I did. I had down a play by Michel Tremblay called “Forever Yours, Mary Lou.” I was straight out of acting school, and the play was done in a local art community center. No one got paid; we just did the play. Then I had one line in a BBC “Play For Today,” a period piece. Then I got “Chariots of Fire” through the grace and kind agency of a fellow student who was on the tech course at Central, and I was on the acting course. We got very friendly. People didn’t have mobile phones, the internet, or anything in those days. So, we all split and went into the wild blue yonder, trying to figure out how to make a living and whatnot.
The term ended at the end of July, and I got a phone call from the Central School of Speech and Drama the following March. It was the administrator, and she said, “Oh, Alice. We’ve had a call from Samantha, and she would like you to call her quite urgently. It’s about a role.” Sam was assisting her aunt, who was casting “Chariots of Fire.” She was printing scripts, collating photographs, and things of that sort. She said to me, “There is a role they’re casting. They are struggling to cast it, and I think you would be absolutely perfect for it. Won’t you send me your picture?” I don’t know what made her think I’d be perfect for it, but I got the role! It was because of Sam putting me forward and Milena Canonero, who was the costume designer. High Hudson was trying to cast an opera singer in the role. Milena, bless her, said, “Listen, the character is going to sing for about 30 seconds. For the rest of the film, she’s got to be acting. So, if you’re going to get an opera singer, you better get someone who is a really good actress as well.” Eventually, there decided that they would cast an actor. Either she would have a good voice or, like me, she would lip sync. That was the first film I did.
I think it was the first day, and we shot a scene where Sybil and Sam Mussabini (played by Ian Holm) are watching him train Harold (Ben Cross) on a wintry running track in the middle of the playing field. We didn’t have the luxury of things like caravans because there was a very tight budget. They put Ian Holm, this giant of a classical actor, in the men’s changing room, and I was on the other side of the wall in the ladies changing room with hair, makeup, and costume. When the set was ready for us, they called us out. I came out on one side, and Ian Holm came on the other. I was obviously very nervous and must have said, “Hello, Mr. Holm.” He would have said hello to me, but I could physically feel a kind of white-hot circle of concentration, and it was as if I was sucked into the center of it! It was not a heavy thing. It was just that his focus was so complete and so profound that I got drawn into that circle of concentration. It was an extraordinary lesson to have on your first day on a film set! I had been on a film set and played a role as a student, but this was a different order of production, not to speak ill of the other one I did as a student. It was remarkable!
The very next film I did was with Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks jr., John Houseman, and Patricia Neal. Then again, I got an object lesson as a young actor of how to be. They were gallant. They were curious. They were kind. They were funny. They were so well-prepared. They were all in their late 70s or early 80s. They solved the problems that they could solve before they came onto the set, so there was nothing to distract from the process. They were superb. All five of them were extraordinary! Then I did a mini-series, ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ which was wonderful too.
There was another lesson that I’ve never forgotten. Dame Flora Robson, I think it was, played Lucie Manette’s nurse or companion. When she wasn’t working, she used to sit in the wings knitting socks for charity. I was sitting in one of those canvas chairs next to her one day while she was knitting with a ball of wool. I can’t remember the context or if she thought I needed to be given some information, which is probably what it was. She said, “I’ve learned, as an actor, that when you have a really long speech, it’s like you are fishing. You throw your hook and lure way out to throw your intention to the end of the speech. Then you draw yourself to it, so you reel it in with that thought always as the endpoint.” I don’t know that I’ve ever consciously used that except that I know I have in my variation of it. It was very helpful to be told not to get lost in the weeds of a speech. Remember, this is a classical actress. An incredibly accomplished actress — this was Flora Robson talking! She had done so many classics from the Greeks to Shakespeare! When you’ve got that kind of language and structure, you must have that discipline of thought. Everyone I’ve worked with has taught me something invaluable.
I went on to do a play in the West End, a Bernard Shaw play called “Arms and The Man.” A wonderful comedian, a man named Richard Briers, was playing “the chocolate soldier.” He had the most exquisite comic timing. He was a very serious man, but he had lightness and humor. The lightness was almost as if he wasn’t touching the ground. He was not exactly a portly gentleman. He wasn’t exactly young anymore. He was in his 40s, and I was 26 or 27. I was playing his love interest, and my character falls in love with him. As I said, there was something indefinably light about him. Not lightweight, but there was a delicacy of touch to him that was very, very interesting. I could never get anywhere near in terms of comic timing! He was a master of it. Quite, quite remarkable!
Then I went to The Royal Shakespeare Company. Again I worked with the greats! Michael Gambon was Lear, and I was Cordelia. That was imbibing his sheer presence on the stage and ownership of it. Then I worked with Derek Jacobi; I was Miranda, and he was Prospero. Subsequently, he played Cyrano, and I was Roxanne. He was remarkable! I don’t know if you know “The Tempest,” but it opens with this storm, and Miranda runs to her father to say, “Oh, they’re drowning. These people are drowning.” He puts a spell on her and puts her to sleep. Then he calls his spirit, Ariel, and she comes to him. There is this long speech to Ariel, and they go back and forth, but it’s mostly Prospero talking. I used to lie there on stage at night, and I never heard Derek do it the same way twice! Every night he developed the thought process. I used to lie there and marvel. I would think, “How do you do this?” He taught me a lesson I take with me into every piece of work. I arrive on the first day of the rehearsals for “The Tempest,” and I come with my script. I’m still laboring under this completely wrong idea that I somehow managed to attach myself to acting school. That idea was that you don’t learn the lines until you know what they mean, in case you learn them wrong. Derek knew the whole play, and he knew everyone’s lines. I’m reading, and Derek is looking at me and waiting for me to lift my eyes off of the script, look at him and give him something to work with. When we get to “Roxanne,” I think, “Alright, I am going to know this whole play on the first day of rehearsal. So I come, and I know it, but Derek knows every English translation and the original in French! Now, that is an ideal that I’ve reached for ever since! He was in the moment from the get-go. He was there, and he knew it. He was looking for us to create the exchange to make it come alive.
I can go on and on and on, but I have worked with many remarkable people. They have taught me, inadvertently, so much!
You’ve played some tremendous characters throughout your career. Which of them has impacted you the most?
Quite early on in my career, I played in a television series in the glory days of the mini-series, back in the 80s. I played two women, both of whom got caught up in one way or another in the holocaust. One was the wife of a general or a commander who was involved in shipping Jews and gypsies from Hungary to the concentration camps. She gets caught up in what a remarkable man called Raoul Wallenberg was doing to save Jews from the camps. I also played a young Polish woman who gets sent to a Siberian labor camp. That was called “Max and Helen,” and the other was called “Raoul Wallenberg.” It was extraordinary to be given an opportunity to imagine what that must have been like. So there was one extraordinary moment, but this one has always remained with me.
I was playing this character, Helen, a young Jewish woman, engaged to Max, a medical student. When the Nazis invaded Poland, they came into the ghetto and pulled out the Jews to send them to camps. Like this couple, the young ones in the community were sent to labor camps to build a road to Siberia for the German invasion of Russia. Max’s parents go to Treblinka, or wherever it was they were sent to, and, of course, die there. She and her quite sickly younger sister are sent to this labor camp. She promises her parents that she will look after her sister. At a certain moment, Max decides that he will try to escape and join the partisans in the forest as part of the resistance. This is all true! He begs Helen to go with him, and she won’t. As much as she loves him, she won’t leave her sister. So, he goes and the Nazi commandant, who was an unusually cruel and sadistic man, takes a shine to Helen. He pulls her off the labor of the road and brings her to be his housekeeper. She knows that if she complies, not that she has a choice, her sister will probably be safe. She will be able to give her sister food, the food that she is given. So, she goes to work in the house, and, of course, he rapes her.
She’s pregnant, and the moment that becomes apparent to him, the Nazis start retreating because the Russians are advancing. The tide of the war has turned. He is ordered to execute everyone in the camp. Which he does, except for her because she is carrying his child. He puts her on a train and sends her back to where she won’t be in danger. She arrives back in her city in Poland, and the war is almost over. However, she feels that she cannot go to her community pregnant by this man. So, she goes to a nunnery and asks for shelter. She works as a servant in the nunnery. They’re very kind to her. She washes the floors, cleans the habits, and makes beds. She works as a servant, and she gives birth to her baby. As the world rights itself post-war, she leaves the nunnery when the little boy is old enough because she’s a very bright woman and can speak multiple languages. So, she goes to Germany and becomes a translator.
In the meantime, Max has been overtaken by the Russian army. He’s in Russia because the territory is seeded to Russia. He discovers that many Russians at that time were as anti-Semitic as the Nazis. He speaks out against it and is sent to a gulag. Twenty years later, he is finally released. He goes back to their hometown, and he tries to find Helen. She had sent someone a postcard, and they gave it to him. He goes to the postmark, and he finds her. He knocks on her door, and, of course, the door is opened by her son. The son is the spitting image of the commandant. Max understands at that moment what must have happened. He’s about to retreat, and Helen comes to the door. She begs him to stay, and he stays. He stays for three days, and he can bear it no longer. He goes back to Paris, where he becomes a doctor. The commandant is still alive, and this famous Nazi hunter tracks down Max. Max tells him the story, and the Nazi hunter says, “You’re out of your mind. You should go back to her. She loves you.” He begs Max to take him to see Helen because he wants to bring the Nazi to justice. He has to have a certain number of victims, who are still alive, and who can give evidence. So, he needs Helen very badly. Max takes him to meet Helen. She refuses to give evidence because she’s never told her son who his father is, and she’s not prepared to tell him now. Because she won’t give evidence, the case falls apart. The commandant dies in a car accident shortly after that. Anyway, the son goes away to University and goes to live in Canada. Helen is alone, and Max comes to live with Helen when the son is gone. They live together for several years, and that’s where the mini-series ends, but, in fact, he ultimately commits suicide.
This is very true of what happened to many of the survivors. Some of them were able to put the past behind them. Some could just let it go, live in the present, and not bear the hurt, anger, and grief and be destroyed by it. They could let it go and move forward. Others could never let go of the horror. They either died of cancer or some catastrophic illness because they had taken it into themselves or some committed suicide. I had a friend whose mother was a survivor. Her name was Hannah. Her father was also a survivor but never recovered from his trauma. He was a profoundly wounded and withdrawn man. Hannah just put her best foot forward and lived life with as much joy, relish and optimism as she could. It made a very, very profound impression on me. As did playing the other woman, who was a countess who tried to help Wallenberg. Eventually, her husband discovers what she is doing. She’s been giving Wallenberg information that he gathers from her husband. He loves his wife very much, so he doesn’t tell anyone what she is doing. He sends her to Italy to her Italian family. He removes her from the situation. Ultimately, Wallenberg dies in a gulag. So, I’ve played a number of real people, and you learn a great deal!
I also had a profoundly dark experience playing a character called Christabella in “Silent Hill.” I had no idea it would be a voyage into the heart of darkness. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. You can’t go halfway! You commit to playing a role, and as the role unfolds, you’ve got to go there. It was the darkest thing that has ever happened to me, and I pray that it never happens again. I’m very, very wary of taking on roles that dark now.
I played a role several years ago, which I really grew to love. She was the witch in “Gretel and Hansel.” It was a beautiful film made by Oz Perkins. When I was first sent the script, I said to my husband, “I really don’t think I can go here. I can’t take the risk of another Christabella.” We discussed it at length and decided I’d put myself on tape. I could always say no if they were interested. So I put myself on tape, and apparently, the tape was of interest to Osgood, so he asked to meet me.
In the meanwhile, there had been a new generation of the script, which he had a very significant part of the rewrite. He did something very, very special. He introduced the language of Holda, which is so complex and rich. You don’t get to speak that type of language on film too often. It didn’t strike me as strongly in the first draft that I read. In the next draft, which was the draft that we ultimately made, he had gone into the heart of what makes Holda, Holda. He told me, “She is an addict, and, at this point in her life, she is utterly disgusted with herself. She’s revolted by herself but cannot stop doing what she is doing.” I felt so much for her.
It was fascinating to play an addict who is disgusted, disgusted, and disgusted until a moment when the compulsion suddenly reasserts itself, wiping out everything except itself. It was an extraordinary experience to play this character. Or, for example, The Borg Queen, who genuinely believes she is offering all of the entities she assimilates perfection. She is sharing with them her heart’s desire that she is offering them the best possible outcome for their existence. She genuinely believes that! I mean, she’s utterly amoral but not vicious! [laughs] She’s just being what she is! Terrible, terrible! [laughs] What a fascinating process this is, getting to examine and live inside all of these different psyches and ways of experiencing reality. It’s been extraordinary for me and a great privilege.
You mentioned the role of Christabella in ‘Silent Hill’ as being a profoundly dark experience. Tell us more about what inhabiting that role and the toll it took on you.
What happened with Christabella is very difficult to fathom actually – in fact, I don’t quite know what did happen. When you take on a role, you can’t go halfway toward her; you have to go all the way. And by that, I don’t mean, by way of a very dark example, if you are playing someone who has killed another person, you have to kill someone – but you do have to try and imagine and inhabit imaginatively what that would be like.
So Christabella, driven by unresolved issues from her childhood and adolescence, is a religious fanatic, prepared to punish by death those she judges to be heretics. This is anyway an extreme of human experience and behavior to explore. But with Christabella it felt, in retrospect, when I finally got home, as if some entity had actually attached itself to me.
We were filming in Toronto, and the last two weeks or so were just the burnings in the church and Christabella’s death (which was rewritten after we started filming as rather more violent and shocking). At night I’d go back to the hotel room and think: “I’ve got to do yoga or meditate; I’ve got to somehow shift the experience of the day’s filming.” But I just couldn’t; I’d just fall into bed.
When I arrived home, the car dropped me off at the front gate, where my little dog was waiting for me – she always knew when I’d be coming home and would be at the gate waiting. She was little and had had her tail docked before we rescued her – so there she was doing a full body wag. As I came to the gate, she stopped wagging, stared at me with growing consternation, and then backed off – she would have nothing to do with me. It was as if she could sense or see some dark energy field around me – and she was probably right. Three weeks later, I went off to Bulgaria to work on another project. When I returned, Skipper was at the gate, but clearly wondering if I was going to show up again with Christabella in tow! I was so disturbed by the whole experience I went and worked with a therapist who is highly intuitive to clear Christabella out of my own energy field. I’d never had an experience like Christabella before and haven’t had one since.
But working on ‘Silent Hill’ did make me acutely aware of how graphically violent a lot of content has become compared to the film and TV industry when I started working in the eighties. And it does concern me greatly – and I realized that if I said no to all scripts with violent content, I might find it hard to get work!
You mentioned how fascinating a process it is to examine so many different psyches and ways of experiencing reality. Your portrayal of The Borg Queen has made a big impression on fans and impacted the ‘Star Trek’ universe. I’m curious about your experience bringing her to life and how that experience might compare and contrast with the characters you’ve inhabited.
Taking on a role is a bit like stepping off the edge of a cliff! It’s like entering a void, and so as always, in preparing, I was searching around for who she was. Rereading material like Stephen Hawkins’ ‘ A Brief History of Time,’ watching Borg episodes, but also working with Scott Wheeler as he started to build the Borg Queen’s makeup. Being party to this was a fantastic experience, as was the process of fitting her body suit, which was built by Todd Masters.
One can’t imagine the Borg Queen as distinct from what she looks like; I mean, you can’t really imagine me showing up on set looking like myself and being the Borg Queen! [laughs] So, as her physical presence developed and emerged, it greatly influenced her inner life. Film is one of the most collaborative of arts, and I always speak of her as the ultimate collaborative experience. She couldn’t have come into being without Scott’s and Todd’s creative participation.
Also, a few days after I was cast in the role, the whole company went off to the mountains to start filming, and only Brent Spiner was left in LA and agreed to chat with me about the Borg Queen and Data. He was very kind, helpful, and really illuminating in his input.
I always hope deep inside somewhere that the character will just show up and be herself. Sometimes you are just a channel or conduit – and that happened with the Borg Queen – but somehow it was not a negative or malign experience like Christabella – where perhaps it was both the character and something else as well that showed up. No matter how much searching and prep you do, it’s always a voyage of discovery!
And of course, you are helped greatly in this process of exploration by your fellow actors and your director in the creative exchange that happens on set, by key members of the crew, and indeed by the whole atmosphere on the set.
What do you look for in the material you take on these days?
Well, there is also the necessity of making a living! [laughs] It does play a part. But, unfortunately, I don’t get to choose from a huge pile of projects on my doorstep!
Well, you’ve got an excellent track record for finding and bringing unique characters to life. Is there a common thread amongst the material chosen?
I can’t explain that. Here’s an example. It was the middle of the pandemic, and I had no idea if I would ever work again. I got offered this tiny role in the most recent version of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” I would have never imagined myself in that franchise. I would have never imagined myself in that franchise. Not in a month of Sundays! Lo and behold, I wind up doing the role. It was three scenes, and I was surprised by the character. When I read her, I didn’t fully understand the impact that she would have on me. She totally surprised me!
She was this old, sick woman, doggedly doing what she believed was the best for this orphan in her charge. She knew he was peculiar and that she had to protect him from the world, or he would do some damage. She is also a racist, although inadvertently so. She doesn’t even realize that she is being a racist and doesn’t think of herself in that way, but she is. She’s completely at sea in the modern world. She has no idea what has happened in the world in the last 50 years. She is left behind, can barely walk, and is lugging an oxygen cylinder with an oxygen mask.
The town that she is living in is a ghost town. There is no one else living there but her and Leatherface. The town is bought by a group of young people from Atlanta. They walk up and tell her that they own her house. She believes that she does. She has a Confederate flag hanging outside the front door. She does this because her great grand-poppy had fought in that war and loved him. That is his flag. They tell her that her house is theirs and she’s racist but not deliberately, just in her general worldview. They leave, there is a great hullabaloo, and she has a heart attack and dies. The more I got into her reality, and it’s about 4 or 5 minutes of screen time, my heart broke for her. I felt so bad for her.
It’s interesting. She simply showed up all by herself. She’s got this weird little high voice. She wears little barrettes in her hair. She is sick and old, yet she still thinks in a way that she is still a Southern Belle. The character just materialized. I don’t know where she came from; it was the last thing I expected! There you are. You can choose a role. I was overjoyed to be offered “She Will,” and I knew it would be an enormous journey. It was, and it was a wonderful experience. It truly was a growth experience for me as an actor. Then “Mamma Mac” just popped out of a crack in the sidewalk and took my breath away! I was completely not expecting that. The thing about this is that there are no rules. Well, there are a couple. Somehow, your quest is to find the truth of the character, the truth of that person’s experience. The other thing is that you are doing it with other people. What they give you is as important as what you find within yourself or the script. It is the most profoundly collaborative process, and if one fully embraces that, you are given so much. So much that you could never have dreamt of while sitting alone doing prep by yourself; it is a voyage of discovery. I start at the beginning, and I have no idea where it will go. No idea! It’s an act of faith, but it’s difficult to have faith. You also need to make sure not to try so hard that you have stopped the process, which is easy to do. It’s about faith in the material and whatever the creative process is. I don’t know what it is, and I can’t put a name to it. There is also faith in the people you are working with and that they are on the same path of seeking the truth.
You mentioned your recent role in “She Will.” It’s a fantastic film. Tell us a bit about your experience with the project.
It’s a wonderfully complex script! The director, Charlotte Colbert, is a fascinating woman. This is her first film, but she is an established artist in her own right. We took the film to a series of festivals, so I’ve heard her speak, and she’s obviously been asked about it. She always says that she used her fine art to explore areas of hurt or trauma within herself. She’s always used art to explore, understand, and comprehend. She brings all of that, along with her very particular and rich visual sensibility, to the film.
It’s truly a beautiful piece of work.
A huge contributor to that was Jamie Ramsay, the cinematographer, who also operated. They worked hand and glove, and then I was part of that exchange. Then, of course, we were joined by Kota Eberhardt when she came into the scene. It was a very, very rich process of collaboration and exchange. I love it when a director talks to me about what they are seeing and getting. I said to Charlotte, “Talk to me.” And she did, which was great! There was this constant flow between us which was a wonderfully rich experience. It was also wonderful to play a character that has such a huge arc of understanding.
You first meet her immediately after she has had a bilateral mastectomy, and she is applying makeup to her face in front of a mirror. She’s talking to herself and to the audience, I suppose, but primarily to herself. She describes putting on the makeup as a mask and that the particular mask is a mask of preservation. The film is about how she comes to remove that mask. For her, the mask has become a bull walk against the rest of the world. It’s like a carapace or a shell. It’s a wall that she puts up against the rest of the world because she has been so hurt that she cannot afford ever to be hurt again. So, she shuts out the possibility of love, companionship, affection, or joy. The film is a journey to the place where she can once again entertain the idea of loving someone, and it is through the agency of a young woman who is sent with her as a nurse. Also, she has been very hurt by the fact that she was molested as a young woman as a film director [played by Malcolm McDowell]. Of course, it’s never been addressed and was swept under the carpet. It has grown like a tumor, both figuratively and literally, inside of her. We met her when the tumors had been excised from her body. What happens then, without realizing it, is that she embarks on a journey to remove it from her spirit as well.
To me, it was never a story of vengeance. She didn’t set out to exact vengeance; she set out to have him tell the truth because he was about to do it again. She thought that if he told the truth, he wouldn’t do it again but, of course, he can’t tell the truth. It’s a very, very rich story, and that is what I loved! Every element of all these apparently dispirit threads finally weaves together, and by the end, you can see the big picture that’s being painted stroke by stroke. In the beginning, Charlotte shows you the cosmos, all these nebulae. By degrees, you are taken down into the Earth with caterpillars, worms, moss, and mud. You journey into the substrata of the soil. Then, you are taken into the microcosm of the human body and the synapses therein. You start to realize sort of “As above, so below” or “As without, so within.” She builds the universe of the film where you have the cosmos, heaven, and Earth with humankind in the midst of it and the inextricable way that we are all part of the same thing. Out of that also comes an exploration of different dimensions. She is there drinking the water that has come down the mountain and has been filtered through the peat bogs. In this water, in the peat, are the remains of the burned witches, which actually took place where we filmed. Scotland burned about 2000 people in the space of nearly a century, which is more than any other country per capita. All of that is inherent in the landscape, but slowly a picture is revealed whereby the remains of the witches are in the soil. You are imbibing who they were, and their spirits are still abroad in this extraordinary landscape in a parallel dimension, which she starts to traverse. It’s this incredibly rich and complex view of what we are. It’s a very unusual piece of work, and I had no idea how it would be received. None whatsoever but a lot of people are quite fascinated by it, which is very gratifying. It certainly was a fabulous challenge to go on that character’s journey.
We’ve learned so much about the characters you embodied and their journeys. So what is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
It’s very important to try to see the other person’s point of view. The famous words of Shylock in “Merchant of Venice” are something along the lines of “If I’m pricked, do I not bleed?” We are all human. If you kick a cat, it hurts. If I’ve learned anything that anyone can learn anything from, it’s about empathy for the other. We are all struggling with what it means to be human and what it means to be a sentient being. Compassion and empathy, to my way of thinking, are the best way through this enigmatic, incomprehensible experience of being human. I’ve learned to withhold judgment until you have as deep an understanding as possible. I’m not saying that one doesn’t draw conclusions about situations; I certainly do, but I do it with as open a heart as one can.
Where do you see yourself headed in the future?
In terms of projects that are coming up, I am producing two that are challenging and interesting. I find these scripts compelling. One is a true story, and it’s called “Naked Abuse,” and is set in the 80s. The other project, which will probably be made first, is called “Three Widows.” It’s about three widows who have lost their husbands during Covid, not necessarily to Covid. It’s about the process of devastating loss and grief and how it can bring one to a place of great compassion for others and oneself in a surprising way. It’s their journey, and they all wind up together and go on a journey. They’re very interesting projects. We are in the early stages of casting. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, you and I can also have a conversation about those!
Before we part ways, I know you lend your voice to some terrific causes. What are some of the charity organizations whose work moves you?
There are so many wonderful charities. There is a wonderful organization in England called the Dog’s Trust. I support several charities, mostly for animals but some for humans! [laughs] Animals have so little agency, and they get caught up in all the chaos we create. Because of circumstance, many human beings have very limited agency, but that’s another story. Anyway, there is a charity called Network for Animals, which goes into places like the Ukraine or places where animals are treated very cruelly habitually. They do enormously good work and keep you abreast of their accomplishments. They don’t just take your contribution; they tell you what they’ve done with it very specifically. Then there is another truly wonderful charity called the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that rescues orphaned elephants in Kenya. They raise these animals to be returned to the wild. They are instrumental in expanding protected land for animals in Kenya. There are so many people doing wonderful, inspiring charitable work.
Thanks so much for sharing your incredible insights with me today, Alice. It’s been a beautiful experience.
Thank you, Jason. I greatly enjoyed our conversation.
Don’t miss Alice Krige’s spellbinding performance in Charlotte Colbert’s captivating directorial debut, ‘She Will.’ The film is now streaming everywhere via IFC Midnight. Visit the official site of the film at www.shewillmovie.com.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.