Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear: ‘I like the extremes of opinion Men will instil in people’

‘We had no illusions that we were making the next Billy Elliot’: ‘Men’ stars Rory Kinnear and Jessie Buckley (Getty/IMDb)
‘We had no illusions that we were making the next Billy Elliot’: ‘Men’ stars Rory Kinnear and Jessie Buckley (Getty/IMDb)

In her new film Men, Jessie Buckley seeks peaceful tranquillity in the English countryside, only to be stalked and terrorised by a succession of males. By coincidence, Buckley was offered the role just as she traded her one-bedroom in London for… a Gothic 17th-century house in rural Norfolk. “My boyfriend read the script one day and he’s like: you’re leaving me in this house?” she recalls, while suppressing a guilty laugh. “This house where the back light goes on and off on its own accord? And there are weird plinths in the garden?” The 32-year-old Irish star, who won an Olivier Award this year for her portrayal of Sally Bowles in Cabaret and was Oscar-nominated for her role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, felt bad for a minute. Then she made the film anyway.

Written and directed by Ex Machina’s Alex Garland, Men is grisly, cryptic and slathered in human viscera. It’s a social thriller wrapped in a folk horror story, and lightly inspired by the Green Man, a pagan symbol of rebirth that – once you notice it – seems to be everywhere, decorating pubs, churches and historic buildings. Buckley is Harper, whom we first meet bloodied and shell-shocked as her husband (I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu) throws himself to his death from a balcony outside their flat. Once she flees the city in grief, Harper finds herself in a surreal country village teeming with scary locals, among them a naked vagrant, a cruel vicar, and a bullying little boy. All of whom – and here’s the kicker – are played by Rory Kinnear.

Speaking to the pair in a central London hotel – Buckley, blonde and chic in an oversized suit; Kinnear, in jeans and a shirt with a popped-open collar – I say that I understand if some viewers find Men’s inconclusiveness alienating. “So do I!” Buckley replies. Kinnear, as droll in reality as he is frightening in Men, agrees. “We had no illusions that we were making the next Billy Elliot.”

Men is cut from the same blood-stained cloth as Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake and Jennifer Lawrence’s noisy Bible story Mother!, two other films that drip in allegory and build to peculiar crescendos. A key difference is that Men is being released into an era of “Ending Explained!” videos on YouTube, where even the most conventionally plotted of movies inexplicably requires post-viewing elucidation. Why do we seem in dire need of spoon-feeding? “There can be a fear around art,” Kinnear suggests. “Sometimes being open to it requires forgetting your rational side, and most of our lives as humans involve us trying to understand stuff. Art sits out of that.”

Both he and Buckley admit to not knowing the answers to Men’s perplexing climax. Or why Kinnear is playing almost all of the male characters in the film. Or whether the whole film is a metaphor for grief, for misogyny or something else entirely. “I don’t think Alex has the answer, either,” Buckley says. “I think he’s posing questions to himself as much as he is to us and to the people watching.”

Men is a film that’s upfront about being a provocation,” Kinnear adds. “There is no right answer to it,” Buckley nods, explaining: “That’s what I love about it. The absolute worst films I’ve made have been ones that wrap everything up in a nice bow. They’re so beige and palatable, and Alex’s work is the complete opposite. There’s nothing finite about them. They’re conversation starters. I mean, when did he write The Beach? Because people still debate The Beach!”

Garland was just 26 when The Beach was published in 1996, inspiring generations of rowdy students to jet off to Bali to pop pills and tangle with pseudo-religious cults. After Danny Boyle adapted it into a film with Leonardo DiCaprio four years later, Garland became one of his closest collaborators – scripting Boyle’s subsequent thrillers 28 Days Later and Sunshine, before stepping behind the camera himself. Men is his third film, following his back-to-back sci-fi puzzle boxes Ex Machina and Annihilation. In conversation with The New York Times a few days before Men’s US release, though, Garland seemed bereft and skittish, going so far as to suggest he might soon stop directing. “At the end of the day [on set], you feel fraudulent and exhausted,” he said. Is he doing all right? “Directors have an unusually isolated and lonely job,” Kinnear says. “I don’t think Alex likes the fact that he’s afforded so much respect, and gets complimented for all these decisions he’s made when he really considers [filmmaking] to be a collaborative process.”

Alex Garland directs Jessie Buckley on the set of ‘Men’ (A24)
Alex Garland directs Jessie Buckley on the set of ‘Men’ (A24)

Buckley is similarly sympathetic to whatever Garland is going through. “It’s a lot to be a leader,” she says, adding that he’s currently filming a movie with Kirsten Dunst and may just be tired. “Sometimes you do want a normal life, you know? You want to garden or cook or eat a piece of toast. You want to disappear from it sometimes, because [making films] is so surreal. You get up at six and you go to bed at midnight, and sometimes you forget where you are in the middle of all that. You forget yourself a bit.”

Both actors are less interested in presenting their own theories about Men than they are in listening to what audiences come up with. “I like the extremes of opinion it’s going to instil in people,” Buckley says. At a screening of the film the night before, I noticed nervous laughter at scenes that I found more disturbing than funny. Namely one in which Kinnear peers naked into Buckley’s windows, the latter totally unaware that she’s being watched by a creep with bloody leaves stitched to his forehead. What does it say about our relationship to sexual violence that our first inclination is to giggle? “I think it’s to do with our relationships to nudity in general,” Kinnear suggests. “But while everyone’s responses are valid, they do also reveal something about the people having them, too. I think different responses depend a lot on what people bring to the film, and how open they are to a film like this. You need to allow it to ruminate and sit with you.”

Understandably – between Men and the daily news – Buckley herself has been thinking a lot about male violence. “Where is it coming from? What is the source of that wound, and that pain? What are the things that we’re unable to contain in ourselves, that we then deflect onto other people?” Buckley gesticulates with every question, her nails painted vampire-movie black. She admits to not yet knowing the answers, but that asking those questions is an important first step – even if it’s difficult. “I feel like men and women just need to talk to each other. I love men, and I love women, and I don’t want to live divisively. So it saddens me that we’re in a culture where it’s easier to look away from the things that we find hard about ourselves.”

For Buckley, Men is another fraught, jagged star vehicle. Surprisingly for someone who’s only appeared in nine movies so far – including the mind-melting I’m Thinking of Ending Things and the country-music drama Wild Rose – Buckley has a clear type when it comes to characters: difficult, complex women, whose choices may leave observers baffled or appalled. I tell her I saw a bit of her Lost Daughter character Leda in Harper. Whereas Leda walked out on her two young children to chase work, passion and love affairs, Harper makes a drastic decision about her marriage shortly before her husband’s death. She’s later shamed for it just as Leda was. Did Buckley spot a connection between both of those films?

Rory Kinnear as one of the many men in ‘Men’, alongside Jessie Buckley (A24)
Rory Kinnear as one of the many men in ‘Men’, alongside Jessie Buckley (A24)

“No,” she says, firmly. “Apart from me being in them.” She laughs, but then rapidly changes her mind. “Actually, that’s not true.” Thinking about it, she says, her recent run of films – including Sarah Polley’s forthcoming Women Talking, about sexual violence in a religious colony – have been “in conversation with one another”.

“There are certain situations throughout life where women have to contort themselves and submit themselves, or become smaller than they actually are,” she says. “I’m really interested in pushing the parameters of what I’ve always understood about being a woman. I want to unlearn things. I think Leda and Harper are two women brave enough to do that, too. To choose life, and not just hold onto what they’ve been given.”

On one level, Buckley did the same when she moved to the countryside. “It’s honestly the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says, dismissing my worry that – post-Men – she may have made a terrible mistake. “I live in such an old house and I like being a part of something so ancient.” She’s already spotted marks of the Green Man on her property, too. “They’ve lived forever, and have probably watched us far more than we’ve watched them.”

Doesn’t sound creepy at all.

‘Men’ is in cinemas now