Clare Dunne (‘Herself’) on how it was ‘nail-biting and scary’ watching her film for the first time [Complete Interview Transcript]

Clare Dunne co-wrote and stars in the Amazon film “Herself,” which tells the story of a single mother in Dublin who decides to build her own house. Her performance in the film netted her a Best Actress nomination from the British Independent Film Awards.

Dunne recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about how her friend’s struggles inspired “Herself,” working with director Phyllida Lloyd and what it was like watching her film from start to finish for the first time. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the transcript below.

Gold Derby: Let’s just start with how you conceived of this idea. This is your first screenplay that has been produced. You star in the film. So what was it that inspired you to tell this story? 

Clare Dunne: At the time, I was just acting and living in New York briefly just to try out for pilot season. So I was actually reading scripts a lot every day and then one day, one of my best friends in the world called me from Dublin and she’s a single mother with three kids. She called me saying, “I don’t believe this. I feel like I’m in some weird other world,” because she was like, “I have to leave this property within a month. I’ve just given a month’s notice. But there’s nothing online. I can’t find anywhere to live.” So as it creeped near the end of the month, basically, she had nowhere to move to because there was a housing crisis in Dublin and I was just so fired up on her behalf and I was standing there in New York going, “I can’t believe that I’m here basically doing a million auditions, not getting anywhere as an actress and my best mate is basically homeless and has to declare herself homeless.” And I was just like, “It just should not be like this.” It was really a basic kind of urge in me.

And then I started Googling and fantasizing on her behalf about self-building. So I Googled “self-build Ireland” and then added the word “cheap,” and then I found that Dominic Stevens had designed this house for himself. He’s an architect and professor and he designed something for only 25,000 euro. And I was like, “What? This is incredible. This is like a whole house, like it’s a proper house.” So I got in touch with him somehow online and started asking questions about it and then a few hours later I was sitting there and this story kind of flashed before my eyes and I was like, “Why don’t I just tell the story of a woman who actually decides to do this, go on a quest to build a house for herself? And she transforms her whole life and she goes from such an old, dark place and whatever she was into this whole new world with a new tribe of people around her and transforms herself and her life.” So that’s kind of where it came from. 

GD: I feel like your character, Sandra, is very aware of herself and her situation and she sees how other people are reacting to her and all the judgments that they can make and it seems like she tries to really take charge and take control of her own narrative in a way, rather than letting the narrative control her. I’m curious just how you went about figuring out who Sandra really is when you were writing it. 

CD: Yeah, I know what you mean. I think you’re getting at exactly what I was determined to do, which was not portray a kind of victim. I feel like there is an archetype of the battered woman, essentially, and I met women who had been through hell and they were out the other side. I had met the key workers that work with those people. It’s not just women, it is men as well, I should say, and trans and all sorts of people go through this kind of thing. But essentially, the thing about meeting these incredible people, I realized a huge amount of resilience was in their story and bravery, not just to leave, but to stay and endure it for so long because there was no other choice. So there’s a kind of strange, quiet determination, a silent survivor that exists in these people. I read an amazing book about this where it aligns trauma and the things that you suffer during domestic violence right alongside what people in World War II camps suffered and what soldiers go through. There’s a huge scientific, academic book on it and it’s amazing what you do to just get through the day and get through something where somebody else has complete control of your universe and how you mind the tiny bit of universe that might be just yours. 

So for Sandra, her thing is about she is dying to have her own actual arena, her own little universe for her and her two girls, and I just always wanted to get that tone of determination, steeliness and grit, because every woman that I met along the way, especially the first woman that I ever talked to about my film, she was like, “Oh, my God, please, are you just going to show a story of one of us that actually comes out the other side? Because loads of us do and also, would you please not show us as such victims?” That’s all she said to me. That’s the only two things she said to me. And I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” So that’s where that comes from, is basically from the requests of the people themselves that have done it. 

GD: Well, since you’re starring in the film as well, did you find yourself discovering anything through the actual performance of Sandra that you hadn’t really planned on from the script? 

CD: Yeah, I would say I only discovered in the playing of it how hard it must be when you’ve been through things like that with a person. It’s very hard to trust people and trust yourself and the journey of trust she went on, I was like, “Oh, my God.” It’s so hard for her to ask for help from people she’s never really spoken to too much or even just to dialog with people that she’s never really talked to before. And also, I realized that she almost feels ashamed of her story, and then in the end, I think she just accepts that this is just part of her life but it’s not all of her. It’s like she has to accept it as part of the story, but that it doesn’t define her, and I didn’t quite know that. I knew it maybe, but I really knew it then when I played her. 

GD: Yeah, and I don’t know if I would call this an overtly political film, but it feels like you are making somewhat of a statement here about the housing system and the problems that come up when someone like Sandra is in this really impossible situation. Was that kind of a subtle commentary something that you always had in mind when you were writing it? 

CD: Yeah, see, it’s a fiction based on fact and there’s a lot of research and there’s a lot of real figuring out that I had to do. I had to do endless research on building houses and how much things cost. But then I also had to figure out what Sandra lives on, what she earns, and how she gets by on the different things like rental allowance or one-parent family supplement or things like that that are in the Dublin system. I wouldn’t say I started out wanting to be political, but the more I researched, I was like, “OK, well, it’s quite obvious that they’re spending way too much money on the temporary accommodation bills, like paying hotels to house people when they could put that money towards actually building the houses.” They have to put money towards housing them while they build the houses but I just mean the sheer amount of money shocked me to pieces, so I was just kind of like, “I have to somehow got that in.”

I would say, though, my determination in the film politically, if there was any political or social comment to make, I was not wanting to be… I love Ken Loach and I love his films, but I didn’t want to do a Ken Loach film. I was sort of more obsessed with who we really are deep down as human beings because over my life, I realized I’ve been a bit obsessed with sociology. So I’d read a lot of books about how everything ties together. So I wouldn’t say I’m a politician or I can say I know exactly what should be done about this, that and the other, but I’d certainly love to have a bit more of a wide scope picture on those things and at least have some understanding. My thing is that I always come back to the same principle, which is most things could be solved a lot quicker if we all actually talked and actually listened, because that’s half the problem. It’s just communication of what needs to happen and then joining the threads. Anyway, I won’t get on a soapbox. Don’t worry (laughs).

GD: You’re good. Well, I know that you’ve worked with Phyllida Lloyd before on “Shakespeare Trilogy,” which is a miniseries. What does she give you as a director that makes her stand out compared to other directors that you’ve worked with? 

CD: I’d say the thing that stands out about Phyllida is that she’s the ultimate collaborator and cares about the story as much, maybe she even cares a bit more than me. When I was working with her, I realized I’d gotten used to her kindness and her wish for other people to give her opinions and she’d be asking the lighting assistant or the runner who’s not even getting paid, “What do you think about that? Do you think that’s good?” And they’d be like, “Yeah…” (Laughs.) And then they’d come over to me and go, “Phyllida asked me what I think of that but I don’t know why she asked me.” And I was like, “Oh, well, Phyllida just asks everybody questions about what they think of the story, are we getting something across clearly, because that’s her way. She’s all-inclusive and she’s all about clarity of storytelling and pulling on the heartstrings. And if she’s not doing it for every single person on that set, then she’ll worry that she’s not getting something right. I think that’s what marks her out. I also think she just probably brings you to a place of performance that you don’t even notice you’re getting to. She does it so surreptitiously. Also, this is a true statement, she never shouts or raises her voice. I mean, ever. I’ve never heard her raise her voice. It’s so weird. She just speaks very quietly and everybody comes closer and we all focus together on the thing and I think that’s beautiful. I think that’s one of the most distinctive qualities.

GD: That’s a very harmonious set, I can imagine. And Harriet Walter, she is playing a woman who your character cleans for and she’s a widow and she basically donates her land in a way to Sandra to build this house. What is it like working with her, someone of her stature who’s been in the business for decades now? 

CD: Working with Harriet was like meeting one of my idols, to be honest, the first time I met her, because I worked with her in theater with Phyllida, so that’s why it was such an amazing collaboration, all three of us being involved in the film. But working with her on this was particularly special because Harriet gets exactly where I come from as an artist and a storyteller and an actress and it’s very similar to where she comes from and she really believes that stories can change and how we think about things or have an effect on people that see it, but not in an airy fairy way. I’m the one that’s not too political. She’s very political and socially aware and always doing a huge amount of charity work and work to improve human rights for people of all sorts. She’s an absolute legend.

So to have her behind the character of Peggy, who is a woman that is willing to let go of possession and let go of land in order to help the future, I think for Harriet to represent that woman was huge to me because I think Harriet is the same as me, where she’s quite concerned about the planet over the next 10 years and just is so into young people and what are we doing to turn this ship around? Like, what are we doing for climate change? What are we doing with this pandemic? That’s what she’s into and I think she enjoyed getting to be a person that had lived such a full life and had a lot of her own grief and pains but was still willing to give something to the future generations in such a generous way. And yet, it’s sort of effortless as well. She was saying to me that it’s not like Peggy’s a saint. She also gained something from all this as well but all she has to do is just let you onto the land. It was never going to be used anyway. She was saying to me, “I just hope a lot of landlords see that,” or people that are hanging on to properties that are just wasting away and they’ve just stood there to build value rather than be a home for people. So it was incredible having her play the role. I also got to stay in her house once for a couple of months when we were acting together and I wrote a couple of drafts of this in her attic. I just have a special homage to her home and her attic for being a place where I wrote the film for a while. 

GD: That’s kind of meta, in a way, with the film being what it is. I imagine there’s something kind of meta, actually, about this being such a special project for you and being part of it from that infancy stage and then here it is, it’s complete, just as we have Sandra going through this entire production of building her own house and seeing it through to the end. So what was it like for you to actually finally see the entire film from start to finish? 

CD: It was incredibly nail-biting and scary. I did see a few edits along the way, so that wasn’t that fun at the start (laughs). And then there was this day where they had finished the sound mix and Phyllida said, “I’d love to come into the studio in London, in Soho.” And I was like, “All right, yeah.” She was like, “I just want you to check something out.” And I came in and they had this lovely big screen and this lovely leather couch and it was like Warner Bros. or something at the studio, and they brought me my favorite coffee and some chocolates and they sat me down and they were like, “All right, now watch your movie,” and I was like, “OK.” She’s like, “You can make notes if you want, but I don’t think you’ll have any.” And I just sat there watching it and that was the first time I ever really saw it with its full production value and the credits and everything and it gave me shivers. I just was sitting there and I was like, “It’s already weird that I’m just sitting in this amazing studio in Soho, London, just being like, ‘Whoa, this is so fancy.’” And then I was watching my own movie completed and I felt like the luckiest person in the world. But then seeing it in Sundance with my parents there and the whole world seeing it… well, the world on some levels, seeing it for the first time, that was really, really special. That was something I’ll never forget, a milestone in my life, definitely.

GD: Seeing such a great critical response, too. People really responded to it. Speaking to that, let’s just talk about this. You received a nomination from the British Independent Film Awards for Best Actress. Congrats on that. How did that feel to get that recognition, especially for a real passion project of yours? 

CD: Yeah, it suddenly felt like it was very weighted, like something heavy and real has just been validated, like a stamp on top of this film just there by getting that nomination. It’s like, “Whoa, that makes it suddenly real. That’s a proper film with high-quality storytelling going on.” And I was like, “I’m very, very proud of that.” Also, things like “Variety” listing it as one of the films to see from 2020, things like that, it’s very hard to take it in. It’s a huge, huge, huge compliment. But also, I’m going to remember that and I’m going to have a copy of that forever and be like, “That was my first feature and I did OK.”

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