Features / Film

BAFTA Film: The Sessions – insight from the Leading Actress and Actor nominees including Riz Ahmed, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Bukky Bakray, Mads Mikkelsen and more!

Earlier last week, with another one of wonderful BAFTA Film: The Sessions, the EE British Academy Film Award team spoke to both the nominees in the Leading Actor category, which included Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Adarsh Gourav (The White Tiger), Mads Mikkelsen (Another Round) and Tahar Rahim (The Mauritanian), and also the Leading Actress category, with nominees Bukky Bakray (Rocks), Radha Blank (The Forty-Year-Old-Version), Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman), Wunmi Mosaku (His House) and Alfre Woodard (Clemency).

Below, we’ve got a host of great quotes, ponderings and behind-the-scenes insights to share – don’t forget to check out our other The Sessions coverage, and The EE BAFTA Film Awards will take place over a weekend of celebration on April 10 and 11 on the BBC! First up is the Leading Actors:

Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Mads Mikkelsen (Another Round), Adarsh Gourav (The White Tiger) and Tahar Rahim (The Mauritanian) with host Mariayah Kaderbhai

Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal 

On the preparation involved to get ready for the role

“It was about seven months of every day drumming for a few hours, a drum teacher Guy Licata who was so patient, I was so badly coordinated, I still am, and in particular the kind of drumming we’re doing, double peddling and stuff; I’m left handed and sometimes when you’re left handed you do some things right handed, some left handed, so he kept switching round the drums going ‘Maybe it’ll be better if you play them right handed or play them left handed.’ No I’m still crap. It just kept going back and forth. Drumming every day for seven months and also the American Sign Language every day.

Then the training with my personal trainer who is also hard of hearing, so it was just a full schedule for a long time but that can be a real blessing as well, because hinting at the fact that they’re both languages— drumming and American Sign Language is both non-verbal communication really. I think when I speak in Urdu or I speak in English or in French, I feel that different sides of me come out in a weird way — you go back to who I was when I learned that language or the different context, and I think learning the drums and learning American Sign Language brought out different sides of me and opened me up as an actor in many ways.”

On the meaning of listening

“Something that I’ve really kind of been thinking about a lot during the film and since the film is what listening really is, because I feel like my mentors in the deaf community that I was immersed with, they’re the best listeners I’ve ever met. Listening isn’t just something you do with your ears; it’s something you do with your body and your attention. My sign instructor used to say there’s a saying in the deaf community, that us in the hearing community are emotionally repressed and the reason for that is because we hide behind words.

That’s a very well known saying in the deaf community, and it’s only when I started getting better at sign language, that I was talking about emotional things in my life or the character’s life, I found myself tearing up. Stuff I’d normally be able to just talk about I found myself crying, and I asked Jeremy [Lee Stone, ASL coach] what that was and he said, ‘When you’re communicating with your whole body you connect to it in a different way, you can’t hide behind your words, you find yourself getting more emotional.’ It was a real gift and I’m so grateful to all my teachers in the deaf community who didn’t just teach me their language they taught me so much more, they taught me what listening is and what communication is which as an actor is so fundamental.”

Adarsh Gourav – The White Tiger

On how he got into the mindset of the character

“I decided I should go live in a village for some time because that’s the origin of Balram, that’s where his feet were planted. I actually befriended this guy who used to stay next to my building and I convinced him to take me to his village. I told him not to disclose to anybody that I was an actor, not even to his family, so everybody in the village thought I was this friend, and he’s a writer, so everybody in the village thought I was a friend helping him write a story on the village. I stayed in the village for two weeks with this family who were so kind and graceful to host me.

Every day we would just head off on his bike and explore all these spots he had… I would meet his friends, I would go for birthday parties, I would go for some festival that was happening and the idea was just to basically have a very undiluted experience where people could confide in me and tell me about their personal stories, something that I could use for Balram and the way they thought about the world and the way they spoke about people from the city and everything.”

On working with director Ramin Bahrani  

“Something that I hadn’t experienced before that I experienced with Ramin was that despite coming from a place with so much knowledge and being so sure about the world and the characters, he still let all of us actors explore ourselves as actors and never told us how to do a scene. He really trusted us with knowing the people that we were playing and then just allowed us to flow with the scene.

It was this thing that Ramin never called action or cut on set. It suddenly changed the whole thing because the moment that started happening I realised I didn’t feel like the part anymore that I wasn’t trying to be somebody but I was just there. It felt so normal and ‘cut’ was when he would just walk in the frame. You’d be doing the scene and then he’d be on the scene walking on the scene.”

On habits from his character that stayed with him

“With Balram he has this thing where any time Ashok [character who plays his boss in the film] wants to sit in the car he runs and opens the back door for him to sit and Ashok would think it’s completely unnecessary because nobody does that in America but Balram wants to do it. I found myself doing that too, I would involuntarily open the back door for people and they would mistake it for chivalry and I’m not saying that I’m not chivalrous otherwise but it took me a few times after it happened I realised it happened because of Balram. I quite liked it, I embraced it.”

Mads Mikkelsen – Another Round

On how to approach playing a drunk character

“I think for most actors playing drunk you would approach it a little like you do in real life. You come home from the pub and don’t want your wife to know you’ve been having a couple of pints, that means you’re hiding it. The slightly drunk version is always hide it, hide it, and that obviously gives you away because you move a little more restrained, more precise, too precise actually. Those are the, should we say, the easy ways of playing drunk but then when you get up to the higher levels this is when the danger starts, this is what gives you away if you’re not nailing it it’s just so obvious.

What we did, we did a boot camp before we started shooting, and we tested out the exact levels, 0.5, 0.8, 0.1 and we tested out some of the scenes and we filmed the whole thing, we had a great time. We’re four guys, who know each other well, you’ve had a few shots before, it doesn’t seem that odd. It’s normal. When you see the video the next day it gives you away, all of a sudden your hands are doing stuff you didn’t tell them to do, and that little lisp you had forty years ago, it’s back! That was coming in really handy, and the completely hammered stuff we watched a lot of YouTube videos – for some reason it’s always Russian people who film themselves when they’re drinking a lot. We didn’t test that out, we watched and got inspired.”

On the universal revelance of the film and the positive aspects of alcohol

“The whole idea, the philosophy behind it, the paper that he wrote this Norwegian philosopher that we’re born at least two beers too little in our blood, makes sense. I mean we all know what it [alcohol] does to you, know that it lifts conversation, that it might be even more creative if you dare to pick up the phone and make that phone call, and how many people have met their spouses without alcohol… So there is that positive side of alcohol, we know what it is but we rarely talk about it because we also know what the danger is.

The danger we’ve made a lot of beautiful films about but Thomas’ mission was not to create another one of these. He wanted to celebrate it, to a degree. He also obviously wanted to touch on the darker side of it but he wanted it to be a celebration of alcohol and more so a celebration of life. It’s no secret that these characters, especially mine who’s standing on a platform when the train has left and he’s regretting his past and he’s enormously jealous of the future and he’s simply forgotten to live in the present and embrace life as it is, that’s what the film is about, with or without alcohol. We started out thinking it might have been too Danish but it turns out that every culture can relate to it. Alcohol has been around for 6,000, 7,000 years. I think also the theme, the kick-starter of the film is the experiment with the alcohol, the film itself is about life and I think that might be resonating a lot.”

Tahar Rahim – The Mauritanian

On portraying a real life person and the responsibility that comes with that

“The responsibility especially with Mohamedou was very important to me. We’re dealing with a real person who’s been held fourteen years in Guantanamo without a single charge against him. He’s an innocent man. To me it turned out to be even more important than cinema in itself. It was beyond that. So the first audience member I wanted to please was Mohamedou. When I first met him on Skype, you know I had read the book, I knew a lot about him but I couldn’t really understand and put myself in his body: How could he be so nice, good? How could he be, you know, have forgiven everybody? I was like now we’re just the two of us maybe he can tell me if he has some anger, and he was like no, no, not at all. He told me something very important that I took for me in my life, or I’m trying to. He said, ‘When you forgive people who did bad things to you, it’s a treat you give to yourself. So you can free your mind and eventually change people’s minds. ’He succeeded; he did it with his guards, with some of the people surrounding him, and some audience members.

I had some messages and especially one a guy had sent me texts or a DM or something and he said: I was part of these people who hated everything that was connected with 9/11. I was so stubborn that I even stopped a relationship with a very good friend of mine because he was Middle Eastern and when he watched the movie, he called him back to ask for forgiveness. You understand why I’m saying that sometimes movies are beyond cinema because sometimes it can help people with pre-conceived ideas to change their minds and maybe look at the world in another direction.”

On getting as close as possible to the conditions in Guantanamo whilst filming to convey authenticity

“Out of respect to Mohamedou and the people still living this and my director [Kevin Macdonald] and the audience I needed to get as close as possible to his actual conditions so I could convey authenticity. I didn’t, I couldn’t and didn’t want to sell something so I asked them to turn the cells as cold as possible, I wore real shackles, I got water boarded, but it was intense really. I had to lose a lot of weight in a short amount of time and I only had three weeks to match physically with Mohamedou. The last six days of shooting were very intense because it was all the interrogation scenes and the torture scenes. So you know, when you fast that hard and get so exhausted, it becomes more of an experience than a performance and your spirit flies to some emotional places that are unexpected. I don’t know, I couldn’t do it otherwise and at some point I really felt it, I felt it, but it has nothing to do with Mohamedou because I knew in the back of my mind I would go back to my hotel room when we wrapped.

But there was one moment very strange because of course I happened to have some tools to portray Mohamedou, culturally wise. He lost his mum while he was there, I did too and when we had to play that scene it was the last day of shooting when he hallucinates and he sees his mum in his cell. I almost saw my own mum, it was so strange. I said to Kevin I can only do it once, just one take. I collapsed. Yeah, I needed it, I couldn’t do it otherwise. Some actors are gifted enough to live it inside of their head, I just couldn’t.”

Now the turn of the Leading Actresses, with host Akua Gyamfi, best of luck to everyone!

Alfre Woodard (Clemency), Wunmi Mosaku (His House), Bukky Bakray (Rocks), Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman) & Radha Blank (The 40-Year-Old Version) with host Akua Gyamfi

Bukky Bakray – Rocks

On what her character taught her about herself

“It made me appreciate humanity a lot more because when I live life, I wake up every day, try to do my thing. I don’t really think about life or humanity or my experience, but I think I said before jumping into someone else’s body made me realise the nuances of my own and that made me realise maybe there’s some things I should do differently. It made me be much more mindful.

Just to land on this I used to like to take the bus, I used to take the bus a lot because I could just stare at people from the window and I remember looking at people’s faces and some people looked really sad and some people looked really happy. Some people just had different looks on their faces and I remember thinking they’re going to go home to something and what they’re going to go home to might be good, might be bad and it made me really upset knowing that everyone’s going to go home to this whole big narrative that has so many collisions just as Rocks’ one has and it just made me think about the human condition as a tragedy because it’s upsetting, but it made me start to be more mindful about the people around me and realise people are experiencing life just like I am.”

Radha Blank – The-Forty-Year-Old-Version

On the reaction to her film:

“Someone on Twitter the other day, someone who actually looks like me said they didn’t buy it, that a woman my age and my size would have this young man pursuing her and I picked up my phone and I said ‘really, you want me to go through my contacts right now girl’. So I did have something to prove, it’s that a woman who looks like me and is my age is still desirable… So that became another engine, speaking for that woman.”

On the acting and directing and what it taught her about herself:

“I actually feel like I’ve learned that I can trust. That’s something I struggled with for most of my life, trusting people and if I’m being completely honest losing my mother when I did, we were best friends, had the same birthday, that took me back to a place of just not trusting and not knowing if things are going to be OK. What I found with this particular group of actors, first of all I was really blessed to work with them, I feel like I’m a better human being because I worked with them, but it wasn’t going to work if I didn’t completely trust them. There is just no way I can be in with them and direct at the same time, there is no way.”

Vanessa Kirby – Pieces of a Woman

On the future of female cinema:

“Alfre you just said maybe there is a world in which all five us of can do something together and I thought do you know what maybe the day is dawning where they might actually finance five women leading a film, you know? And I think that’s honestly what I felt when I first read Pieces of a Woman, I couldn’t believe that a quarter of the screen time was just a woman giving birth…As women I believe there is a real runway to start taking those stories and putting them on screen and having this amazing responsibility to show all the different ways it is to be female that haven’t been explored enough.”

On her knowledge of childbirth in connection to the film:

“Firstly, I knew nothing about labour at all, about motherhood, birth, pregnancy. I was pretty clueless really and in having to research it because I was so scared to get a second of it wrong just because I knew that it was going to be like an uncut tape, maybe up to forty-five minutes depending on what happened. I thought if I get a second of it where it’s a bit dodgy or my acting’s a bit rubbish or I don’t know what I’m doing then half the population can call me out straight away!”

Wunmi Mosaku – His House

On the topic of refugees in connection to His House:

“When we are talking about refugees, when we talk about asylum-seekers, in the UK we talk about migrants. I’m like these people are fleeing from something, no one just wants to leave home just for leaving home’s sake. These guys are fleeing for safety, for the chance to live their lives as fully as wholly as they deserve…. I thought I was open and cared and was looking with an open loving heart to the plight of a refugee but I hadn’t actually humanised the story myself.”

On the plot of His House:

“It made me really question what was good, and bad, who was right and wrong because these people, when I read the script, I couldn’t get to the end. When I got to that bit, when I got to that realisation I had to go right back to the beginning because I had made all these assumptions and I cared for them and I loved them, I actually loved them, and I realised when I got back to that moment in the script I still loved them and still wanted them to win, I wanted them to live and thrive.”

Alfre Woodard – Clemency

On the research process behind the film:

“I’ve never thought, and this is why Chinonye [Chukwu, director of Clemency] came to this story, about the people that we charge with ritualised murder. And so she took me on a prison tour to prisons around Ohio and I met probably five women who were wardens. A diirector of corrections, all these people who do this and they had a higher PTSD rate than people that do multiple tours of battles in Kabul or around the world. We don’t know their story.”

BAFTA Film: The Sessions took place online between Monday 22 March and Thursday 1 April

Recordings of BAFTA Film: The Sessions 2021 are available on BAFTA Guru, BAFTA’s online learning channel www.bafta.org/guru and www.youtube.com/baftaguru

Credit/Quotes: BAFTA

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