Complex, promiscuous and hard drinking: Daphne star hails ‘realistic’ female role
Emily Beecham tells Vanessa Thorpe why her new film role, already acclaimed by critics, is provoking strong reactions
Any film fan who spots Emily Beecham out and about this autumn might well be wary. After watching the actress star in
Daphne, the eagerly awaited British film out in cinemas later this month, it would take a steady nerve to approach her for an autograph.
“I’ve had strong reactions to the part. Some people have said to me, ‘Why is she someone who deserves to have her story told?’” Beecham told the Observer.
Variety , the entertainment industry journal, went further: “It couldn’t have been easy for Beecham to live with this character, and to her credit she doesn’t try to make her likable; the real mystery is why anyone wants so much as a coffee with this character.”
Beecham’s convincing performance as a sharp-tongued, wayward and unhappy young woman living alone in London is, however, earning her high praise from critics. The signs are that this could be her breakthrough moment.
“It’s a cracking little showcase for rising British actress Emily Beecham, who’s seldom off screen for long as the tale’s lively, complex, intriguing quasi-heroine,” judged the Hollywood
Reporter , making favourable comparisons with Lena Dunham’s American television hit, Girls.
Beecham, 33, was last seen on the big screen playing opposite Ralph Fiennes and Channing Tatum in a much-admired comic vignette from the Coen Brothers’ 2016 release Hail Caesar! The film, which starred George Clooney, was an affectionate study of 1950s Hollywood and Beecham appeared briefly as an ice-cool, glossy-haired studio starlet. It was quite some distance then from her role in Daphne as the eponymous drink-addled, promiscuous kitchen worker and university dropout.
“Emily’s lovely. Nothing like Daphne. She is very friendly,” said Peter Mackie Burns, the film’s director. “And she is nothing like she was in the famous ‘would that it were’ scene from Hail Caesar! either.”
Burns and Beecham developed the character of Daphne over several years, together with the screenwriter Nico Mensinga. For Beecham, the part answered a big need for complex and less saccharine female screen roles. “There is a real thirst for it,” she said. “And they are very sought-after jobs when they do come along. Audiences may see these characters as unlikable, but from the actor’s point of view it is great to find a real character to relate to.”
The problem, Beecham suspects, is that filmgoers have been fed a diet of idealised leading ladies and as a result more realistic portrayals seem mean. “The girlfriend roles that we are usually offered are nearly always just kind and supportive. So it is refreshing for women and for men to see something different,” she said.
Burns agreed that cinema has been slow to catch up with its representations of women. “Film is still problematic,” he said. “It is a very conservative form in many ways. Television responds to things much more quickly.”
Complex female characters appeared in literature, yet rarely made it to the big screen, Burns added, citing notable exceptions such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969, starring Maggie Smith, director John Cassavetes’ 1970s films with Gena Rowlands, and Ken Loach’s Poor Cow in 1967. Critics have also compared Daphne with the 1977 American film of the bestselling book, Looking for Mr Goodbar.
For the future, Burns said, he would like to ban the phrase “strong woman” from film-making. “What does it mean? You should make any character three dimensional, that is all: someone you can recognise from your own experience. In Daphne we are really asking what happens when you become the person you were pretending to be. When you have put up a carapace and then realise you are living in a way you probably should not be.”
The Scottish director and Beecham, who grew up in Cheshire and Hertfordshire, have already made a short film, Happy Birthday to Me, based on a similar character. Burns then wrote a detailed description of Daphne, including what she reads (Slavoj Žižek) and what music she listens to.
“I would give the pages to Emily and set her to work,” said Burns. “Once we got on set I didn’t ever discuss how she would play a scene. We were very collaborative and we tried not to rehearse much or have too many takes.”
Beecham found it hard to leave Daphne behind when filming finished. “We all got attached to her as a character. We only had four weeks on the shoot and it was sad it came to an end,” she said. “I absolutely would revisit her. It is a rite of passage film, in a way, and I recognise myself and my friends in some of it.”
Beecham is a friend of Phoebe WallerBridge, creator and star of the acclaimed television series Fleabag, and the two share views about creating better roles for women.
“We’ve known each other for about 10 years now and I relate to her feelings about what she went through. When you leave drama school you get a bit of a shock when you find you are stuck in your own casting bracket. And it is all about your looks. Now people are starting to write their own roles in response to that.”
Before the British release, Burns offers his star the ultimate bouquet. “She is like Gena Rowlands and there is no higher accolade from me. I think you forget that she is acting.”
‘We all got attached to Daphne. It’s a rite of passage film and I see myself and my friends in some of it’ Emily Beecham
Emily Beecham, left, helped develop the character of Daphne, above, with the film’s director, Peter Mackie Burns. The role has elicited strong reactions from viewers.