The Kindness of Strangers press conference with director Lone Scherfig and cast members Bill Nighy, Andrea Riseborough, Zoe Kazan, Tahar Rahim and Caleb Landry Jones
The Kindness of Strangers is a film especially pertinent to our time. During the feature’s press conference at the 69th Berlinale Festival, Lone Scherfig, Andrea Riseborough, Zoe Kazan, Tahar Rahim, Bill Nighy and Caleb Landry Jones spoke about the necessity to make films about compassion and focus our energy on celebrating what unifies us rather than what divides us. Scherfig addressed where she finds the energy to create movies about generosity despite the persistence of selfishness and her love for characters that aren’t very heroic.
So Lone, it’s your first script in a long time. Sometimes it reminds me of the structure of Italian for Beginners. Can you attest to that?
Lone Scherfig: This is an ensemble film, as you can see, and it is about strangers who turn out to be, little by little, part of the same story. That structure is the same in that you must begin that way. They are strangers. How can they have scenes together from the very top? So the structure is similar and maybe part of the emotional conflict of the film is slightly similar but thematically, this is a different film.
Every character is down and out in a different way and you feel that they have so little, but so much compassion. How did you structure that? Where did you get the ideas for these different characters?
LS: The characters do that for you because they are compassionate and kind. In that sense, they do drive the drama towards a happy ending. But it’s also research. I’ve seen it in the US and in Canada (because the film is also shot in Ontario) and it is impressive how many people – ordinary people – go out of their way for people in need who they don’t even know, year in and year out. Particularly now, it’s just cool. That is something I think is worth making a film about and worth the audience’s time.
I think it’s typical for your movies that, at the end of the day, there’s light. Where do you find the energy to keep putting a hopeful message at the end? Where does it come from?
LS: This whole situation definitely puts a lot of optimism in my life. But I think it’s almost the other way around that I do have a happy ending. I haven’t had it in all films, which gives me a certain license to go deeper and sadder throughout the film. There are films that I deeply admire that confirm that the world is a very tough place but with this one, I thought it would make sense. Every day when people are working, the world seems a tougher place to be in. So I wanted a film that had light and would reach the audience with a sense of hope and community.
How is a movie like this possible in our times?
Bill Nighy: I think any film currently that emphasises those things which unite us rather than what stands to divides us and express how human beings can treat each other with compassion, I mean, it’s not only desirable but essential. They say that prejudice doesn’t survive proximity. People get along. Famously – but it’s extremely now the case – politicians intend to separate us for self-advancement and for nothing else. It’s not even ideology. Therefore groups of people persuade us to take positions against one another. People, they get along fine. There’s a long history of people from different religions, different backgrounds, different classes and races who get along just fine until they are manipulated.
Why did you decide to set the film in a Russian restaurant called the Winter Palace? Is there symbolism in it?
LS: No. It’s a very kitsch version of Russia and I very deliberately wanted to set the film in an international arena; we had all sorts of nationalities within the cast. One of the reasons why New York is the location for the film is it’s truly international. I was hoping that it’s everybody’s capital. But I have a life-long love of Russia which has to do with a section of my family who really love Russia for what it was before the Soviet Union fell apart. It’s also a kind of romantic idea of old Russian culture and the sense of Russia as it was when I was a child. It has little to do with reality.
For Bill Nighy: Did you specifically learn to speak with a strong Russian accent? Did it come naturally?
BN: I did specifically consult a man who lives in London and I have some very funny tapes of him on my phone of him and I trying to do the Russian accent. Other than that, you just have to forgive me. It was not something that came naturally to me. I gave it some thought.
How was it to work with Lone Scherfig? What is special about her?
BN: At the risk of embarrassing her, which I am about to do, I think she is a sensational human being and an absolutely fabulous filmmaker. She is smarter than me – which is what you require from a director – and as a writer, I adored the script, and it is perfectly placed for this time, or for any time, but is resonant for our current situation. I think it’s a beautiful script. And what it’s like? It’s deeply pleasurable and it’s relaxed and easy and respectful. I think anyone would tell you the same thing. She may have had some bad days but I wasn’t there.
Zoe Kazan: I think with a writer-director the process of collaboration starts with the page. She’s such an amazing writer and I thought that there was a lot of information right there on the page. We didn’t have a long time to rehearse but we did meet a couple times to talk about the script which was helpful for me. I thought about it a little bit like I was preparing for a stage part: you want to feel like you’re very familiar with that person before you step on screen. You can’t find it on the day. I had done a lot of research beforehand on women who are coming from abusive households for a part I did a roughly five years ago. So I felt confident about my limited understanding. It was a terrible experience for my character but a happy experience for me collaborating with Lone.
LN: I needed Zoe a lot. First of all, because she is American but also much younger and close to Clara than I am. I do believe in finding the place where the character meets the actor and where the actors can move in and then take a lot of space. So the characters feel different and the acting gets better and I get synergy and expertise that I don’t get myself.
This year’s Berlinale theme is “everything private is political”. How do you feel about this theme and why your film fits into it?
LS: I always felt with this film that the characters themselves are not political and they never express any political opinions. It’s almost the other way around; they are not political creatures but the film is – with its backdrop and its juxtaposition of the luxurious New York with the soup kitchens. It was a way to address political issues in an intimate way. I myself admire films that manage to create huge intimate moments that are of great political value.
As New Yorkers it’s strange to open your lives to other people. What did it mean to make this film in New York?
Andrea Riseborough: It’s funny its set in New York because I think now more than ever is a time when you need an injection or a focus on the purity of the spirit. I always have the best feelings about people telling you, whether that’s naive or ridiculous, that so much of this world is very honourable in its own way. To re-contextualise what is really going on in the world and show there is so much kindness and so much purity and that there’s an infrastructure of people across the planet who are doing things that are helping people is really important at this time.
Tahar Rahim: What’s great in this movie is the fact that we talk about reaching out to people. So being a stranger, we’re all strangers to another person. I think that if there is a message to take, whatever you’ve been through, whatever anger you have in your heart, you’ve got to help people when you can. We need this today. It’s important to reach out to people. That’s what I felt when I read it and that’s what I felt when I played it.
Bill, could you talk about how you came to be involved in the project?
BN: I have worked with Lone before I was very pleased when I got the call. I read the script and admired it tremendously. I look for opportunities that will broadly or in some degree tip the balance in a good direction. This is absolutely the opportunity to do that. Everything about it was up my alley.
Photo: Thomas Niedermueller/ Getty Images
The Kindness of Strangers does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch two clips from The Kindness of Strangers here: