Tell us about your character in Nightmare Alley.
I play a psychiatrist called Lilith Ritter who is very interested in the life of the mind and who gets involved with a powerfully hollow man who is a carny and a mind-reader, played by Bradley Cooper. They have a fateful encounter where she tries to expose himself to himself.
Would it have been unusual for women to be psychologists in the 1940s?
Actually, there were a lot of women involved in psycho-analysis at that point, they just weren’t recognised.
What attracted you to this role?
Getting to work with the fantastic Bradley Cooper and, of course, Guillermo del Toro. The character is secondary to that.
Did the experience of working with him live up to your expectations?
Absolutely. I had long wanted to work with Guillermo. I admire him so much, not only as a filmmaker but as a human being. He’s so generous and while some of the worlds he creates are grotesque, nightmarish and dark, as the title Nightmare Alley suggests, he really holds the hand of actors and the audience. He is such a great person to go through the horror tunnel with. This was once-in-a-lifetime experience.
How was it reuniting with Carol co-star Rooney Mara?
It’s so lovely. In theatre you often get to work with directors and actors again but it doesn’t always happen in film. Carol was an important film to certain people. You have got a brunette and a blonde, so they are bound to sleep together, right? (laughs) Guillermo understands that history. It’s fascinating to watch and work with a filmmaker who really gets that sense of the collective while focussing on a really singular vision.
What was it like to work with Bradley Cooper?
It was fantastic. He’s a great actor and, as one of the producers on this, he was really invested in everything. It was a really difficult part for him to play a character so devoid of any moral compass because he is such a warm and charismatic person. Bradley is all about truth and kindness so I think it was a big stretch for him.
How did you go about getting into character?
Much of the work was done for me by having the good fortune to work with such an amazing director, incredible production designers, costume designers and art department. I walked onto that set for the first time and I went, ‘Oh, it’s a Rorschach test.’ It was like the character physically manifested in the environment I was in. You just needed to show up and play your role because so much of the atmosphere and the internal life of the character was given to you. It was fascinating.
Did you try any psychoanalysis yourself?
I did a little bit. I wasn’t very good at it. I was actually in the room and I thought, ‘I can’t get on the couch because once I do, it’s going to get really messy!’ When the moment came for Bradley to lay on the couch, it was like suddenly the temperature dropped. All I had to do was hold his head and let it all come out of him. I didn’t do anything.
Did you do anything to lighten the mood between such heavy scenes?
Fortunately, it was pre-pandemic so we actually did regular things like go out to dinner with one another, rehearse and not wear masks (laughs). When the pandemic hit, all of my stuff had been filmed in the old-fashioned way where you could actually look into the cinematographer’s and the camera operator’s eyes, and see their noses! But then they had to stop and I think things became quite different then. But yeah, we had dinner together which is something I really miss doing.
How do you know when a film is going to be successful?
To this day no one knows what is going to work and what is not. You embark on projects that don’t work in the same way that you embark on projects that find an audience. For me, it’s always a conversation that you have with a filmmaker, other actors, the crew, the designers. The unusual is always intoxicating to me and this is unusual.
What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
First of all, I hope people get to see it in the cinema because this film is pure cinema. There is a lot to take away from the film about the world in which we have found ourselves and the importance of being honest about who you are with the people that you purport to serve. The film got all the joys and thrills of a noir but it’s really contemporary and so beautiful.