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View London: James D’Arcy Interview
James D’Arcy, one of the actors taking on many roles and characters in the complex and breathtaking centuries-spanning fantasy drama Cloud Atlas, chats to View about working with three visionary directors at once, the amazing co-stars he worked with on this spectacular film, and what a magnificent collection of tales are woven in this cinematic event.
What's the film about and who do you play?
James D’Arcy: Very difficult to describe in a sentence. The tagline on the poster is 'Everything is connected', and that's not a bad one-sentence description. There are six different stories told in six different times, with an enormous and extraordinary cast - Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon - it goes on and on and on and on. And everybody's playing multiple roles, and we have three directors - The Wachowskis, and Tom Tykwer. They've adapted a book that everybody said was unadaptable, and I hope, I feel, like they've created something that's a beautiful piece of art.
How did the project come about for you?
James D’Arcy: Actually, very very quickly. I heard a little something about it from my agent, it moved really fast, in less than a week actually they cast me in it. In fact it happened so fast that I didn't even read the full script before they had offered me the role. But I had, by chance, already read the book, so I did know what I was dealing with. But of course in the film, they've changed the structure from the way that it's structured in the book, that bit I didn't realise.
Did you know going in that you were going to play multiple parts? I assume they cast you as Sixsmith primarily?
James D’Arcy: No, no, and the Archivist. Sixsmith and the Archivist were all part of the deal. I then went and played a cameo male nurse in one of the stories which they added in later, but the other roles all came as one.
The book doesn't have the sense of those characters recurring, does it?
James D’Arcy: Well, the book has this idea of reincarnation, insofar as there's the comet birthmark that goes as a motif through the book. I don't know how they would have put forward the idea of other characters reincarnating in a novel format. So I suppose no, that is something of an invention of the filmmakers.
You mentioned you'd read the book beforehand...?
James D’Arcy: Yeah, I had. Not because I thought there was a film in it, but someone had said, 'You've got to read this book, it's crazy, it's wonderful'.
So was that part of you wanting to go for it in the first place, because you'd responded to the book already?
James D’Arcy: There was nothing not to want to audition for it for, I knew that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer were directing it simultaneously, and you're immediately intrigued because it's not like any project you've ever heard of, already. Having read the book, I thought, 'Well I want to read that script because I don't know how they could do it', you know. And then when I did, I thought it was maybe the most beautiful script I've ever read.
Since you mention the different directors - how did that work on set, what was that like? I'm assuming you worked with both?
James D’Arcy: I did. Tom [Tykwer] directed three stories, and Andy and Lana [Wachowski] directed three stories. I worked primarily with Tom, then the Archivist character was shot by Andy and Lana. And because it's also in one room you had to do it relatively quickly. But you always felt the influence of the other director, whichever set you were on. You never felt like you were just with Tom, or just with the Wachowskis. In fact, one of the days I was with the Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer finished early, so he came over to our set and the three of them continued to direct the scene.
I was going to ask you, how much crossover was there between the two?
James D’Arcy: There wasn't a lot of crossover because the two units were shooting simultaneously. But communication? They were so in tune with each other. They had to be because of the way the film is cut together. Tom would say, 'I'm going to finish on this lens, on this kind of sized shot', and then would explain what the shot would cut to. But he wouldn't shoot the shot he was talking about, Andy and Lana would shoot that. So they absolutely had to know what each other was doing.
So, heavily storyboarded then?
James D’Arcy: Except I never saw a storyboard. Obviously they must have, but I didn't ever see it.
Did you do any kind of other research on top of the script and the book, anything like that?
James D’Arcy: Not really, no I don't think I did [laughs]. No, it was all sort of there on the page, I didn't need to go and become a nuclear physicist in order to play one. I watched quite a lot of David Attenborough, which is no great hardship, but only because I liked the quality of his voice, and I thought that could be nice for Old Sixsmith. But beyond that no, it wasn't a heavily researched film.
So there's a hint of David Attenborough in Old Sixsmith?
James D’Arcy: Oh, there's more than a hint, yeah. He was very much at the forefront of my mind.
What was it like working with Ben Whishaw?
James D’Arcy: Lovely. But I didn't really work with him very much, that's the weird thing. In fact the way the story goes, we only had two scenes together. But it's interesting because I feel like that storyline seems to have chimed quite a lot with people, in terms of that love affair. But I don't think either Ben or I had really considered that might be the case when we were shooting it.
Had you met him before?
James D’Arcy: I had yes, we made a film together. We did a film called The Trench in about the mid nineties; he was about seventeen, he was still at school, he didn't know if he wanted to be an actor. He was young and uncertain about what he wanted to do with his life, so it was really lovely to be reunited with him.
And Halle Berry?
James D’Arcy: Lovely. Such a nice woman. Very sweet, and welcoming to me. I liked her hugely.
I thought she was great in that segment, the nuclear one.
James D’Arcy: Yes, she's terrific, she's really terrific. And she broke her foot about five or six days into shooting. She couldn't walk on it for three weeks, but then she was back and kind of amazing. She was running six weeks later, probably a little sooner than she would have liked, but she was doing it. She was so determined to stay with the film, she was terrified they were going to fire her… like they were going to fire her! But she felt like the train had left the station, and she wanted to remain involved. She, and Tom Hanks, and all of the big A-list film stars, everyone just showed up and chipped in, and it was a lovely experience.
Do you have a favourite scene in the film, either that you're in or not in?
James D’Arcy: I have lots of favourite scenes in the film if the truth be told. I like the sentence that the Yoona-939 character says, 'I will not be subjected to criminal abuse'. I enjoyed that. But also I love the bit where Doona Bae says, 'If I choose to imagine Heaven, it's one door closing and another door opening', and as she says it, the cut is to Adam Ewing arriving home. That really, you know, welled me up. I've seen the film three times, and every time it gets me.
Doona was great, I thought. Really brilliant.
James D’Arcy: When she arrived, she could barely speak a word of English. It's extraordinary what she did. She just willed herself to speak English.
Did they cut anything out that you were conscious of?
James D’Arcy: They topped and tailed a lot of things, that's pretty normal. They said they didn't cut out any scene in its entirety, or maybe they cut one, but very little. They did cut out a kind of Cloud Atlas-y moment when I was in the elevator with Halle. She's saying that her first job as a journalist was interviewing Alfred Hitchcock, and my character says, 'Oh, I just took my niece to see Psycho'. And I wrote to them all three or four months later saying it was a very odd Cloud Atlas moment, because I'd just been cast as Anthony Perkins in the film about the making of Psycho - I wondered why they didn't write back to that email! It was because they were thinking, 'Err...we're going to cut that out, actually...'
I really enjoyed your Anthony Perkins performance in Hitchcock. Is there any suggestion of reprising the part, maybe doing an Anthony Perkins biopic?
James D’Arcy: Thank you. No, not yet, but I'm waiting for that phone call to come in!
Fingers crossed, then. What's your next project?
James D’Arcy: I've finished a film called The Philosophers, which is going to come out hopefully this year, they're just selling it in Berlin. It is a much smaller, independent film, but has very big aspirations. It swings high for a small film. I shot a pilot called Those Who Kill for an American channel, which is a sort of, obviously, a Danish show that they've mined and translated and what have you. So we'll wait to see if we'll do more of that.