Movies & TV

No Catfight: Repressed Emotions Boil Beneath the Surface in Rebecca

A battle between an ingenue and a ghost in the Netflix retelling of the classic Rebecca.
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Rebecca, the classic novel by Daphne du Maurier, is not a love story.

While there is the thread of a whirlwind romance between the leading man Mr. Maxim de Winter (played by the all-too-handsome Armie Hammer) and the leading woman Mrs. de Winter (a naïve Lily James) that leads to marriage, the main plot of the story is that of a power struggle between two women, one of them, dead. Mrs. Danvers (frigidly portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas) serves as the late Mrs. De Winter’s living proxy in the battleground that is the sprawling Manderley estate.

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Esquire Philippines sat down separately with James and Scott Thomas to discuss their work in the Netflix adaptation of Rebecca, to be released on October 21.

On working with each other

Kristin Scott Thomas (KST): It was just extremely easy, fun, relaxed, organic. We were both going in the same direction. Lily’s a really lovely girl. She's just so nice. And it just felt very friendly and relaxed and normal and easy. This despite the fact that I was doing really horrible things to her most of the time, which actually isn't particularly enjoyable. It kind of gets to you after a while when you're being so negative and destructive and all these really unpleasant emotions that you have to conjure up and then harness and then direct at somebody is not actually particularly pleasant. The scene in Rebecca's bedroom, for example, all that was quite heavy going, but we were able to sort of joke about it and laugh about it, and we ended up sort of giggling a lot. So it was all right.

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Lily James (LJ): Definitely on the set she was terrifying. It was very traumatic. But Kristin, she’s an amazing woman. She's hilarious, she has such a sharp wit, and she's very kind of cheeky. And, she's a really supportive woman's kind of woman, and I just think she's wonderful.

On playing a smaller role and making it memorable

KST: When you have a role that is very short in screen time, you have to really concentrate on making it as compact and as potent as possible. So in this case, I had to kind of think of the backstory. Think of all the stuff that goes on inside that very strict suit and underneath that very coiffed hair. And behind the makeup, there is somebody who needs a lot of controlling. And that's what I tried to think about when I was being Mrs. Danvers. And some of that will escape and some of it won't escape, some of that will be visible and some of that won’t be visible. I was just thinking about being as truthful to my reading of Mrs. Danvers as possible.

On the rules for women and society in the 1930s being similar to the social media of today

LJ: Now we have more freedom, and our options in life aren’t limited to the men that we marry.

My character was timid and naïve, but I found that her anxiety and her insecurities and her fear of not being good enough, her constant comparison to Rebecca or to anyone, is a really modern sensation we know well. I think social media breeds that kind of energy and insecurity and anxiety. It’s something that we all relate to and it's a big modern cultural kind of conversation. Everyone is anxious. Acknowledging that and living in that headspace felt important and made the story relevant and modern.

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On having very high standards in every role

KST: I think the moment you give up being exacting and stop striving to be better, you might as well just go home. I want that challenge. I'm the sort of person who likes thinking ‘I'm not going to be able to do this’ and then being able to do it. Now that is what I like. 

On decompressing after filming

LJ: I think that after an emotional scene, music is really useful because as soon as you stick it in your ears, it shifts your emotional state. I listen to music or I have a glass of wine, or I get an early night and just tuck up and put myself in bed. Sometimes it's really easy to shake the feeling of a character and other times in Rebecca I found it much harder. I think it’s because it is so psychological and I had to bottle up a lot of my emotion so I felt like I got quite a lot of anxiety after this film. I found it hard to let go of. It was sort of a traumatic experience. 

On playing a subdued, repressed character  

KST: I think playing somebody who's wearing a mask, who is hiding things, is much more exciting than playing somebody who has everything on display. I think the hiding is the best bit really. As long as you get a moment when the façade cracks and you can see through to what’s going on underneath, that’s exciting. That’s one of the things I like most about my job.

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On waiting for a role where she doesn’t have to play the good girl

LJ: In period pieces often there's that conflict between social etiquette and norms and how you're feeling. As a woman you weren’t allowed to express yourself in certain ways, especially for the English, you bottled it up. Keep calm and carry on. Stiff upper lip. And so that's a useful dilemma when you're acting because it gives you something to fight against and it gives you a very strong internal energy and a state of being. But I am looking forward to roles where there's less restraint and more freedom. I would really love to just explore that further in a film.

On the relevance of the film being released during the pandemic.

KST: There's certainly a feeling of being trapped in a beautiful environment that you can't get out of. And I think we're all feeling slightly cooped up at the moment. We're all feeling very sad and frustrated about not being able to get out and do what we used to do normally. And I think that there's an element of that in this film. And I think that there's something about the ghost of the past, the ghost of Rebecca, who's haunting this house, and haunting this woman's life. It’s possibly something that a lot of people can relate to at the moment.

LJ: It's been so hard. I mean, you long for human connection and you long to be with your family and your friends, and to be separated, it's such a shock. That's why art is so important. To watch a movie, to escape, to listen to music, to read poetry, whatever it is, it was the way I got through the lockdown. I'm so glad that things are starting up again, that films are being made and hopefully theater will start to come back.

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On believing in ghosts.

KST: No, I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe that people leave a very strong impression on you. And that you can have the feeling of carrying somebody inside of your heart for a very long time. And I believe that you sometimes meet people in life, it’s happened many times, and you have this extraordinary feeling of having known them before, of having known them at another time. And that I believe in. 

LJ: I do. I used to live in a church, a really old church that was converted to flats. And there were definitely ghosts. They’re there. I do believe in ghosts.

Rebecca premieres on Netflix on October 21.

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