June 3, 2011
Jim Loach invested unprecedented time in his supporting actors in Oranges and Sunshine.
IT IS a given that no movie drama can work without a strong supporting cast. In the case of Oranges and Sunshine, however, the importance of secondary characters is unusually high, as the emotional load of the film’s highly charged, factually based story is mostly on their under-appreciated shoulders.
Set in the 1980s, the film tells of Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), who travels to Australia to help victims of the British government scheme that sent poor children to the far reaches of the empire. Promised a better life, the children were often greeted with forced labour, abuse and lies about their parents being dead.
About 130,000 children were sent to New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Australia. The film dramatises Margaret’s efforts to have their plight recognised and to reunite them with parents they didn’t know they had.
Beneath excellent lead performances by Watson and David Wenham, the film features an exceptionally strong roster of supporting players, including Geoff Morrell, Tara Morice, Greg Stone, Lorraine Ashbourne, Hugo Weaving and British actor Richard Dillane, who plays Margaret’s supportive husband.
”We wanted Margaret to meet lots of people who had dealt with things differently – we wanted a mosaic of faces,” the film’s director, Jim Loach (son of veteran social realist director Ken Loach), says. ”A particular challenge on this project were the smaller characters because, in some ways, they carry the big emotional hits, which was quite unusual because they had such important story material to deal with.”
To maximise the impact of their few minutes on screen, Loach spent longer than is typical when shooting scenes with his supporting players.
”With the smaller parts, you try and have much more time to shoot it, so that there’s more time for the actor to feel comfortable in the space and especially comfortable with the person they’re acting opposite,” he says. ”What that gave us, I hope, were longer takes than you would otherwise have and that gave [the actor] longer in the scene to get to where [they] needed to be emotionally. That was something I was really aware of.”
”Having played leads in other media, it’s legitimate to be a bit selfish,” Dillane, of The Dark Knight and The Jacket, says. ”Whereas in a support role you place your absolute trust in the lead and hope there’s some chemistry and trust there.
”In the case of myself and Emily, it was extremely easy. I linked all of my feelings like pearls on a necklace and talked them through with Jim [Loach]. There wasn’t any direction required – she was nailing her performance off the mark and I followed her lead and stayed in her shadow.
”I put my faith in the fact that whatever Jim required [from me] was done in the casting. I don’t remember any acting notes at all. He would have conversations with Emily. As I recall, the scenes just flowed very naturally. I wasn’t there to grab any attention but to support Emily. I hope I was effective.”
For Weaving, supporting roles require the same degree of preparation as a lead. For the character of Jack, a man who learns of his missing family mid-life, Weaving interviewed the real person on whom he was based to fully understand the palette of emotions involved. Doing so, however, doesn’t then oblige you to cram everything in, Weaving says.
”If there are only a couple of scenes and you want to reveal certain things about that person, then you have less time to do it. Having said that, all you can do is what Bill Hunter told me all those years ago [on the set of Priscilla], which is to do what’s in front of you and to talk directly to the person you’re in the scene with,” he says.
”If that whole person’s life doesn’t read in that brief space of time, well, that’s all right because it doesn’t for any of us in any of our lives. We’re all complex beings but we can’t be totally complex every moment of the day and we can’t reveal ourselves fully every moment. So there’s a lot that’s unsaid. The more work you’ve done on a character, the more probability that aspects that might contradict the obvious could come into the frame.”
Weaving credits Loach with creating an ambience designed to draw the best from the supporting cast.
”The set was unbelievably calm, it just breathed in a completely undramatic way … I remember saying to Emily during our scene, ‘Was that a take?’ And she’d say, ‘I’m not sure’. There was [no] divide between character and actor, so you could quietly do the scene and let it happen. That makes it a lot easier for actors to trust each other and themselves.”
Oranges and Sunshine opens on Thursday.