You wouldn’t think that much could rattle Ellie Kendrick: at age 18 and without formal training she played Juliet at the Globe Theatre; she then stared down critics to portray Anne Frank in a 2009 BBC mini-series; she has battled White Walkers on Game Of Thrones, for heaven’s sake.
But there’s one thing that gave her pause when accepting the lead role in Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature The Levelling: “cows,” says the 26-year-old. “I actually had a phobia of cows before making the film, I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.”
Tough luck, since the entire film takes place on a dairy farm in Somerset, an area of England devastated by severe flooding in 2013-2014. Kendrick plays Clover, a trainee veterinarian who returns home after the sudden death of her brother Harry, only to fall into old patterns with her father Aubrey (David Troughton) as they spar over maintenance of the crumbling farm, old familial wounds, and whether or not Harry’s death was a suicide. The film was part of the Discovery program at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“She’s a really interesting character, conflicted and full of contradictions in a way that feels very human to me,” says Kendrick, “you don’t often see that, especially in female roles onscreen.”
“As soon I read it I was filled with this buzzing energy – and I just thought ‘I have to play this part, if I don’t I’ll be heartbroken’ and that feeling’s really rare.”
Clover employs a clinical approach in trying to make sense of what happened to her brother, looking for clues and assigning blame to the father who drove her away at age 18.
It’s left to Clover to wipe up the blood and mess when the police tape comes down. But all this practicality “is a coping mechanism for this huge well of emotional complexity and guilt that’s been trapped in a closet for her whole life,” says Kendrick.
“So for me, not only was this a really scary script that pushed me to very vulnerable places, but there were also cows,” she laughs.
The script was so rich in detail and scrupulously researched that Kendrick assumed that it was writer-director Leach’s own story. “The film has a real heft of fact behind it,” she says. Fields were covered by six feet of water in some places: farmers’ lives were destroyed, livestock was depleted, crops were ruined. Leach went to affected areas and spoke to activist groups that got the largely ignored plight of the farmers on the nightly news. “Hope went to that area, collaborated with the community and made sure that we were telling a story that was authentic and felt real,” says Kendrick, adding that the farm where they filmed (“run by two farmers called Robert and George”) was one of many changed forever by the flood.
The Levelling crew was composed of a surprising percentage of women, she notes. In addition to Leach was an all-female camera crew, a largely female production team, costume designer, hair and makeup, among others. “That was ace!” she says. “It was an accident, but it felt fitting that we were telling this story of this exciting, young, complicated woman and there were all these fiercely dedicated women behind the camera.”
Cast and crew “were all living in this weird holiday village, in bungalows that were all connected.” The production base was the local pub (back when the flooding was bad, says
Kendrick, the locals would canoe to the same pub to have their meetings); they went for walks together on the weekend. Kendrick says that her preferred method of relaxation is cooking, the more elaborate the better: she once found herself making a three-course meal for 26 cast and crew members.
So, cooking, milking cows, and thanks to her role as Meera Reed, Bran’s protector on Game of Thrones, she can also shoot a bow and arrow, wield an axe and skin a rabbit. Oh, she can Scottish dance, too. “You always end up picking up strange skills as an actor.”
Kendrick especially enjoys the action scenes required for her Game of Thrones character. In season four, she says, “I had a big fight with the Whites… and I had to learn a 26-move fight. I got taught how to do it by the guy who played Leonardo in the original TMNT film, and I thought ‘wow, I never thought I’d be here’!”
Julianne Moore, Maxine Peake – “women who choose roles that never allow them to be pigeon-holed” – are artists Kendrick admires, though she most often gleans inspiration from music: Bjork, Christine and The Queens, and “crazy harpist” Joanna Newsome are her current favourites. Miranda July is the one filmmaker she’d really love to work with.
Kendrick had one day off after The Levelling shoot to go back to Game of Thrones. “It’s fun to move between these two completely different worlds.” The actor has done radio, wouldn’t rule out directing of some kind, and loves doing stage work because of the “electric atmosphere” created between a performer and her audience.
It doesn’t matter what medium Kendrick is working in, as long as she is challenged by it: “I have this strange compulsion: the roles I’m drawn to are the ones I’m most terrified by,” she says. “It’s much more rewarding that way.”