Charlie Says: An interview with Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon and Marianne Rendón
Charlie Says is the latest feature from American Psycho director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner. The film tells the story of the Manson Family murders from the point of view of the young women who carried out the killings in the 1960s and follows graduate student Karlene Faith as she meets three of the women – Leslie (Hannah Murray), Patricia (Sosie Bacon) and Susan (Marianne Rendón) – who have now been sentenced to life imprisonment.
We spoke to Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon and Marianne Rendón at Venice Film Festival about looking back at this period of history, learning to empathise with the women they were to portray on screen and working with director Mary Harron and Matt Smith, who stars as Manson.
Was this a fairly traditional casting process for you all?
Hannah Murray: I Skyped with Mary [Harron] initially because I was in the UK. I was at my parents’ house and I had to do a scene where I had to yell a lot, and my parents didn’t really realise what I was doing. They were like, “What happened, were these people being mean to you?”. Then Mary came to London and I met her there.
Sosie Bacon: I had an audition and then six months later I got the job – five days before we started shooting.
Marianne Rendón: I auditioned for Leslie initially.
SB: We all did!
MR: And Mary had found Hannah. It took four or five months of cycles, of meeting her finally.
Were you sure you would accept these roles?
HM: I was very confident in Mary and Guinevere and their version of this story that they were going to tell. I could have been doubtful about whether I wanted to work on a “Manson Movie”, but then I read the script and saw that is was from the perspective of the women, which hasn’t ever been told before, and I just think Mary and Guinevere’s track record particularly when they work together is so stunning. So for me it felt like a no-brainer.
MR: I wouldn’t have worked on it if it was just a biopic of Charles Manson.
SB: I really liked the fact that it was told from the women’s perspective. I wouldn’t have done it if we had been hippy girls that murdered people and there were no specifics. It was a great script.
There have been other Manson films in the past. Did you check any of them out?
SB: There are so many.
Some of them might be called exploitation movies, but this isn’t.
SB: Exactly, this is the opposite. Which is why we were all so on board.
How do you feel about the fact that the upcoming movie from Tarantino will probably be about this story?
HM: From what I’ve heard, the Manson murders are going to be the background to the story they’re telling. It’s going to be a very different movie from a very different filmmaker, so I’m not really concerned about that.
SB: I think it’s more about the late 60s and Hollywood.
Do you think that because this happened 50 years ago people are looking back on this era?
HM: I think that tends to happen often with historical pieces or biopics. They seem to come in little flurries, with several films about the same topic, because a certain passage of time happens and then people say: “Oh, let’s look back”, and then you get a bunch of movies about a similar time period.
Did you find this story fascinating – in particular the role of Charles Manson and the attraction he had for these young girls?
MR: I was interested in exploring the relationship between mind control and these people wanting different forms of abuse, and how they were able to overcome a lot of that brainwashing and abuse with the work that they did with Karlene Faith, which they most likely would not have done if they had not had that experience with her. I was really interested in that kind of social work that Karlene was after and the perspectives of these women’s individual lives and histories that we don’t know about, because pictures and stories of them are sensationalised in the media from the 60s.
It’s an unbelievably tragic story. But, as you say, if it was a brainwashing and that happened 50 years ago, and those who are left alive are still paying for that – there’s no happy ending to this story.
SB: It’s so sad.
Can you relate to these girls – can you understand them?
MR: Absolutely. They all have this immense desire to be loved and to be accepted and have a family. They deal with insecurities as young women, as I have and do. They have a desire to be free and think outside the normal social expectations.
HM: I think they have this kind of spiritual seeking to all of them, that I think a lot of people can relate to, of wanting to find something meaningful and bigger than themselves. I don’t want to sound flippant saying it, but I think they looked for it in the wrong place – they found it in the wrong place.
SB: Certainly with Patricia I can, she was incredibly insecure about her body and her looks. She had an overgrowth of hair on her body. She was really bullied, she was forced to lose wait by her mum and dad – she was put on diet pills – she didn’t feel loved and she didn’t feel beautiful, and Charlie made her feel that way. So find me a woman who can’t relate to that, I mean, it’s impossible.
Why did they do it – is there an answer?
HM: I don’t know if there is an answer, a simple answer. I think what this film is about is asking that question. We’re looking at humanising these women and the reasons we might identify with these women does not justify or explain their behaviour, because all kinds of people feel those things and don’t kill people. And that’s exactly what Karlene says when Leslie’s talking about the 60s – yes, I completely agree with you that the 60s were this amazing time when the world felt like it was going to change, but no one else did what you did. But, for me, I think it’s important to test the limits of my empathy and that’s why I was drawn to this project because I felt like I could empathise with and get into the mindset of a woman who had done what Leslie had done.
I also think that she makes this terrible, terrible choice. We see her make the decision to go to the house and I kind of feel that she regrets it almost immediately – even before she commits the crimes she is regretting it. I think there’s a chaos to those events, there’s a clumsiness to the violence that I don’t think this was something that was thought out or coherent or made any sense. And Charlie’s theories about Helter Skelter don’t make any sense, and I think that’s what’s so horrifying about the murders is the true senselessness of them. I think that’s why people are still so obsessed with this case, because they can’t understand it, we can’t understand how human beings can go to such a dark place.
Do you think there was a switch flicked in Manson’s mind? He gets rejected for his music and earlier in the film it’s communal and seemingly happy. But something happened at a certain point and an aggression comes out.
MR: We don’t know why.
HM: It feels too easy to say he didn’t get a record deal and so he killed, he sent his followers out to kill people. I remember Matt [Smith] saying what if Charlie had got a record deal would the murders not have taken place but I think he was always on that trajectory. Definitely there seems to be this transition through the times with the family when it just gets gradually darker. It’s subtle, it’s step by step and you can see why these people stayed in this situation because it wasn’t all at once. Leslie doesn’t join the family and get immediately told you’re going to be sent out to kill this couple tonight. It’s very incremental and that’s what brainwashing was.
SB: If you look into the past of any serial killers – and I’m not talking about the women, I’m talking more about Manson even though he didn’t physically kill the people that died – they have a lot of trauma. He was in and out of prison, most of them experience abuse, sexual, physical abuse. That’s almost across the board for murderers and sociopaths and Manson is right in keeping with that world. He had a ton of trauma. I’m not saying that excuses it, but it’s interesting to look at his past as well.
Hannah, you are familiar with Matt’s work. What did you think when you heard he was playing Manson.
HM: I was excited because I had worked with him so many times before. We did a play together where he played my older brother, so I think of him as an older brother figure. So I was glad I was going to be with someone who I would feel safe with. I also think it’s brilliant casting and he’s such a transformative actor that I immediately had faith that he would be able to do this.
MR: I’ve just done a movie with Matt – Maplethorpe. We’ve been playing lovers in very specific circumstances.
Did you try to live as a community on site while filming?
MR: We were all in the hotel and we spent a lot of time together. There was an amazing sense of camaraderie and playfulness. There were also a lot of actresses who were quite young – 18, 19 – so it was a blast.
HM: It’s such a great ensemble – the cast that play the family. It was such a collaborative experience, everyone was really committed and gung ho, and really brave and into diving into it. No one held back.
Would have you liked to live in the 60s?
HM: When I was a teenager, I was really obsessed with music from the 60s and movies and fashion from the 60s and I definitely thought I would want to live in that time period. But realistically I feel like we’ve come so far in so many different ways that I wouldn’t want to go back to a time that wasn’t so great for women, that was definitely terrible for people of colour.
SB: Certainly not!
MR: I agree wholeheartedly about going back in time, about progress and rights. I do only listen to primarily music from the 60s and 70s.
Did you listen to the white album?
SB: Yeah. And I was like, Manson can’t ruin the Beatles for me!
Was it easy to forget the characters after filming?
MR: It’s very intense energy to have in your body and mind for that period of time and I had my own rituals of clearing out the energy every day. Like the Alexander technique, so an energetic releasing of a person from your body, because when you embody a person you actually live as them, they’re inside your body and your physicality.
HM: When you play a real person – this is the third time I’ve done that – there’s something very spiritual about it and you have to open yourself up to let things come through you because you know you’re letting in something that really happened. And we were so immersed in the research of learning about these women that I do feel like I’ll always feel very connected to Leslie.
Mary Harron is most famous for doing American Psycho, which is about a fictional serial killer. Did you talk to Mary about that kind of mythology that clearly interests her?
SB: American Psycho is a satire and it’s making a comment on toxic masculinity through a ridiculous, larger than life character, whereas this is a very realistic account of what happened, in my opinion. Every line is coming from someone’s account of what actually happened, so it’s not sensationalised. That’s where I think the huge difference lies. Mary has a fascination with dark things but not in a sadistic way, in a way that she has extreme empathy and I find her to be so sweet.
MR: I don’t think she likes directing violence.
SB: She tells the psychology of it.
She could have shown the Sharon Tate sequence in a more graphic way.
SB: It was better that it largely occurred off camera.
What did you take away from this experience and from embodying your characters?
MR: Wonderful friendships. I hadn’t experienced a production that was predominantly women. So having the screenwriter and director and most of the producers be women was very rewarding for me, and to work in an environment where I felt very free and safe. Like when I was doing a horrific fight scene with Matt and I knew there was a room of women who really cared for me watching the whole time.
HM: One thing I’ve really taken away from it is my thoughts about prison, because that’s one of the really important questions that the film asks: what is prison for, what should it be for? This idea of locking people up and throwing away the key or genuinely trying to rehabilitate people. It really woke me up to think more deeply about those people.
SB: Part of the reason I wanted to do the movie was because it talked about them in prison and because I work with incarcerated and formally incarcerated youth in LA, which is the largest prison system in the world. Obviously it falls more heavily upon black and brown men and women in America. The idea of looking at people in prison, and women specifically, who had experienced abuse and getting into the pathology of what it would be like to be locked up like that for the rest of your life really made me more empathetic to people who were locked up all over the world. We did this scene when we had just done the murders and we were hitchhiking and the next day we were all going to the prisons, and it really felt like this was their last moment of freedom. I could cry just thinking about it because even having nothing to do with the actual victims is such a horribly sad thought – and [these women] have been locked up ever since.
How did you get involved with the prison?
SB: I taught theatre in a juvenile hall in LA, with a programme called The Unusual Suspects. Some of the teachers split of and created a new programme called Acts Two, which is for formally incarcerated youths so it’s like when they leave prison instead of going back on the streets they come hopefully to us and we teach them theatre. They wrote a play and we just filmed their play, so hopefully it’ll be edited soon and people can see it, and we got a grant from Fox. I went straight from working with those kids to doing this movie and it means something, it’s profound. It gives you a deeper understanding.
What are you doing next?
MR: I’m doing a play at Lincoln Center in New York City called Plot Points in Our Sexual Development, it’s a two-hander by Miranda Rose Hall. It’s about queer identity.
HM: I feel like I’ve set the bar really high for myself lately, because the last two directors I worked with were Kathryn Bigelow and now Mary Harron. I want to find something equally exciting and challenging and I want to keep pushing myself so it takes a while to find the right thing. But I just finished filming the final season of Game of Thrones, which is coming out next year.
SB: I’ve done two movies since we finished, but I don’t know when they’re coming out. I don’t have anything else planned.
Your parents made a wonderful film called The Woodsman. Did you take inspiration from them?
SB: I’ll just skip that one! It didn’t actually come up in the discussion about [Charlie Says] but I can see the parallel. I think as an actor we’re serving the work that’s written and we have to find a way to connect with and empathise with the character or else what’s it all for, the performance won’t be deep. So, in that way I see the comparison.
There’s a message in this film, in one scene with Leslie, that you can actually make the right decision and change the course of things – so everyone has that option.
HM: Choices and free will are such important things in this movie. I feel those moments with Leslie deciding something, both when she decides not to go with Steve, the motorbike guy, and then the really big decision when she decides to go to the lovely anchor house, those were some of my favourite moments to play because there’s so much in that tension of having this path and that you can completely change your life by going down one way or another. And when she arrives at the ranch she doesn’t know what that decision is going to lead her to.
Photo: Filippo L’Astorina
Charlie Says does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Venice Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Venice Film Festival website here.