Agyness Deyn may be a model-turned-actor, but she already has cred. In “Sunset Song,” she acts for the acclaimed and austere Terence Davies (“The Long Day Closes,” “The Deep Blue Sea”), playing a resilient young woman in rural Scotland circa WWI. Her subtle turn nabbed her a British Independent Film Awards nomination. When we speak long gone is the short, blonde pixie 'do that was her trademark. She's serious about acting and about movies, even recommending an obscure Polish film (1989's "The Interrogation") as we talk shop. Sometimes quitting your day job works out.
You’ve long been a cinephile. When did you first realize you loved movies?
In my teens at school. I had a boyfriend who was really into French films and great music. I was like, “Oh, I’m into that, too.” [Laughs] My favorite film was “Breathless.” From there it changes, because there’s so much out there. That led to Wong Kar-wai and “In the Mood for Love.” Then you open Pandora’s box. I keep realizing I don’t know anything about cinema and that there’s so much more.
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You’ve said Terence Davies’ 1988 film “Distant Voices, Still Lives” was a formative viewing.
I saw that in my 20s. He’s from Liverpool, I’m from Manchester, so we’re right next door to each other. I thought it was amazing the way he told stories with such intensity, without actually showing certain things. The scene where [the camera] stays on the stairs and there’s abuse going on [in another room] — you can hear it and you know it’s there, but it’s so much more intense not actually seeing it.
His films have such visual confidence that I wonder what it’s like for the actors. Do you feel like you’re posing in frame or does he still give you a degree of freedom?
Terence doesn’t really like rehearsing, so you come to the table with a strong point of view. He allows you to have that. He’ll say he needs certain things but it’s in a way that you feel you’ve come to it by yourself. He will always say, “Do it, but only if you feel it.” Because it’s all about truth. He goes on the journey with you. He’ll be sitting behind the monitor during an intense scene, going through exactly what you’re going through.
You’ve also said you like films where there’s a lot of silences and you can stare at actors communicating with their faces and their bodies. There’s a lot of that in “Sunset Song.”
There’s so much in the silence. There’s so much you can project onto it. If it has that space you can have that space yourself while you’re watching it.
Davies’ films are so intensely about the past. How is that as an actor, doing a deep dive into history?
It felt very modern to me — not just visually, but the feeling that people are the same, if you strip back all of the noise going on. It’s the same issues. This woman is ahead of her time. She’s this strong woman who’s jumping over these hurdles and dealing with all these horrible things in her life, but still learning and growing. They make her flourish even more. I think a woman’s strength is never masculine. We don’t need to be men. Strength is often misconstrued with physical strength. Even though women are physically strong, it’s a very genteel strength. It makes you remember how strong we actually are.
You quit modeling with the intention of becoming an actor. Have you encountered much stigma attached to your former profession?
I never noticed the stigma till people asked me about it. Then I said, “Yeah, there is one.” I just never thought about it. I just knew this was something I absolutely loved to do and it made my heart sing. I just wanted to do everything I could and work hard and prepare, to prove to myself, not just because I was a model but because I was an actor. Other actors go on auditions and want to prove themselves. I wanted to learn and grow and bring to the table what I could.
And people have been very generous and helpful, inspiring. I did a play on the West End [in London] and Ed Stoppard, who’s a wonderful actor — I was just following him around as he did warm-ups. He was like, “Agyness, do you want to just do it with me?” There have been times where I’ve thought, “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” [Laughs] But people have said, “Come over here and I’ll show you what I know.” Terence [Davies] doesn’t really know much about pop culture, so when he said, “I would like Agyness to play Chris,” and people were like, “You know she was a model?” he said, “That doesn’t matter, this is who I want.” I’m truly grateful for people who take me as what they experience from me.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge