Tina Brown: Elizabeth Alton's wide open face, blonde hair and blue-blooded elegance give her a lovely palette that she can either draw upon or play against. She makes a perfectly innocent beauty, but when she's cast as somebody devious, vicious, dirty or cruel, the freshness of her features has a built-in irony. She gives new meaning to the idea of the girl you love to hate. And Elizabeth has seemed to use her gifts more adroitly with every performance, climaxing in that absolute twisteroo, Gone Girl. Her new film, directed by the female director Amma Asante, is A United Kingdom, which opened the London Film Festival last night. It's based on the true story, set in the 1940s, in which Elizabeth plays the unshakable Ruth Williams, a British insurance clerk who caught the eye of Seretse Khama, the heir to Botswana's throne. She stayed at his side for the next thirty-two years as they defied the whole of the British Empire who tried to break them up. Where is Elizabeth Alton? (laughs) Is she here? Come on Elizabeth, wherever you are. (applause) Where is she? She's here! Great to see you, where were you lurking?
Elizabeth Alton: Oh just lurking in the back, watching Rula [Ghani]'s piece, what a lovely woman.
TB: Well, A United Kingdom, I saw it last week, uh... it's a terrific drama of this completely forgotten story, right? I mean, it's about Seretse Khama. Why did you want to be in this film, and what drew you to Ruth?
EA: Well, you haven't rolled a clip or anything, have you?
TB: No, no.
EA: Okay, so, Ruth Khama was in every sense your common lower-middle class London girl, she was born in Blackheath, and her sister was in the Missionary Society and kept at Ruth to come along with her, and one night she persuaded her to go to a dance, and there she met Seretse Khama, who was over from Bechuanaland, which we now know as Botswana... and these two just had an instant connection, over jazz music, jokes, you name it, and it... well, it really sort of surprised them both, because Seretse, unbeknownst to Ruth, was a king in waiting, he was in line to be chief of the largest tribe in Bechuanaland, and he was in... or, rather, sent over to London ostensibly to further his education but actually to learn to understand white people. He didn't like white people, he'd been educated in South Africa where he was subjected to quite a bit of racism and it left him very suspicious of white people, and as it turns out he not only got over his hatred of white people but ended up falling in love with one. And these two embarked on a romance that led to marriage... and in proposing to Ruth, and her accepting his proposal, Seretse unleashed an absolute deluge of opposition from both their families, and on a social level, and on a political level, because the union of a black chief with a white woman send shockwaves across the entirety of southern Africa.
TB: Of course Bechuanaland at the time was a British protectorate, and so although the leader could, you know, lead in theory actually it was all run from the United Kingdom, which unleashed the whole British government on this couple. Uh... what do you think gave Ruth her unshakable determination? I mean, it's all very well to have a kind of romance, you know, with a man saying "I'm a king in my own country," it's almost a cliché, but then to actually stay with him and go through with it and put up with that amazing level of pressure... uh, what did you draw on to play Ruth? Where do you think she got that strength?
EA: Well I think she's very much a woman of her time, who went through the Second World War, I think she was very much a woman who had seen new opportunities for women because of the male shoes her entire generation of women had to fill, she actually drove a crash ambulance at Friston Airfield, which is where all the stricken fighter jets came back to after they'd been shot down in battle...
TB: It's a bit as Rula Ghani was talking about, how the women are left in charge and then they develop all of these amazing qualities.
EA: And more than that, I think you see a potential for a life that's bigger. And after the war she started working for Lloyd's Insurance Company as a confidential clerk, and... and I certainly felt that she still had this yearning for a bigger life, I doubt she knew that it would play out as it did on a global stage, and she was not in the least bit equipped... you know, that's why I found it so interesting hearing Rula talk, because... well, it seems to be, I don't want to put words in her mouth, but there are some connections. Ruth was seen as this sort of figure of suspicion to the people of Bechuanaland, you know, how could this white girl understand their concerns, their livelihoods, when her background and upbringing were so different? The wife of the chief is the mother of the tribe, and they very rightly doubted that a white woman from London could fill those important shoes. And to be completely honest that was part of what drew me to her, and to the film, because not only is it a sensational love story but in playing Ruth I was able to explore this idea of the white person as the outsider who is just... who craves inclusion in this world that is not hers.
TB: Which is... which is a flip script in a sense.
EA: It is. And she was deeply mistrusted, and incredibly isolated, she'd left her country and her family and a safe environment for Bechuanaland, where she was in many ways... she was marooned, actually, because what happened was that the British government tried every which way, much of it very duplicitous, to keep this couple apart in hopes that they'd ultimately break up. So they lied, they lied to the British public, they staged an inquiry to see that Seretse Khama was approved of by his people in Bechuanaland and whether he was acceptable to them with this white queen, and the report proved that he was, which... which was obviously not the result they wanted, so they buried that inquiry, called The Harrigan Report, and it was only in the '50s when Tony Benn actually took up Seretse's cause that he uncovered that and was able to hand that report back to Seretse Khama so that he was able to cement his case to be allowed to rule his people.
TB: Interesting. Well, she also obviously had this amazing confidence, uh... and so do you, right? Because you're an Oxford graduate, and you've made an astonishing thirty-two films to date, not including television and stage work... which really is an amazing number, I don't think anybody quite realizes how experienced you are as an actress, but then just last year you said, "I feel ready to present an audience with people who aren't all that likable, but hopefully in my hands are lovable. People say, 'She's hit 30 and she's done a lot of hard work... maybe she doesn't care if she isn't liked." What was that about?
EA: (laughing) Well maybe that does sound like confidence, as you said, and... I think it's this strange thing for actors where it's sort of expected that you want to be liked, but actually you're sort of weirdly dysfunctional and much more comfortable being other people than being yourself, so it's sort of odd to think about wanting people to like me for me, like me for the choices I make in my profession, which is as an entertainer. But I think, especially for women in this industry, there's incredible pressure to be an amplified version of yourself, even more so than with men, though they get it too, but premieres are all about the picture of the woman in the couture dress, and even if you enjoy that game, which I do, there's a lot of inherent "please like me, please approve of me" to that.
TB: Well, I mean, you were also a Bond Girl, the ultimate sort of... experiment of...
EA: You know, I was just saying to my dad last night that it's been ten years, it'll be ten years next month, and this is the first press tour I've done for a film that nobody's asked... (audience laughs)
TB: Well, I'm sorry, but we've got to mention it... we've got to bring it up, because you're talking about, you know, girls having to be pleasing and so forth, a Bond Girl is the ultimate. But you've sailed through the Bond Girl, you've got through with that, but I think you've said it was actually quite a positive experience for you making that film?
EA: Contrary to my own expectations, yes, it was, because I think I, like many people, had this very particular vision of what a Bond Girl is, as you mentioned, and I was... I was fresh out of university and I was sort of overeager and a bit in my own head and thought, well, gosh, let's not beat around the bush, I can't possibly agree to something where I'll get all this recognition but not the respect. I can't quite believe I had that self-confidence and awareness at twenty-four, but there you are, it wasn't a feeling I wanted. But as it turns out it was incredibly fun, and I think I got very lucky in that my character was... she wasn't exactly like many of the Bond Girls I'd grown up watching, she brought something different.
TB: Well actually, you also did the West End play Hitchcock Blonde in 2003 and you did a ten minute scene wearing nothing but a pair of high heels, right? And you've said that the play is about "the male gaze, male expectations, and female power and the lack thereof." So it sounds sort of interesting to me, talk to us a little about playing that role, and your feelings doing it.
EA: Well as the name suggests Hitchcock Blonde was about Alfred Hitchcock, who was known to have a very sort of peculiar and troubling way of treating women in his films, which... I mean, if you've seen his films, you get the idea, but there are so many stories about it, there's even footage that I can't believe they've allowed to be shown of Tippi Hedren's screen test for The Birds, where she's sort of told to seduce the producer, and it just gets more outrageous from there, it's so uncomfortable but it's also so interesting. And Hitchcock had this very strange relationship with women and his sexual attitude to women, there were reports that he'd ask an actress to be naked but then film only her feet, like this way of not allowing himself to fully see her but know she was naked. And that's the scene we reenacted, or... or I suppose created, since there's no formal record of it, so we got a camera going and it's trained on my feet and being projected on screens in the theater, and this girl is being completely taken advantage of but she has the realization that what's actually happening is that he's terrified of her, and so she walks over to him and takes his hand and forces him to touch her breast... and he just crumbles. Or at least he does in our play, we sort of explore something that might have happened, of this moment of abject humiliation that's turned into power.
TB: Well, there's been a tremendous amount of uproar recently, obviously at the time of the Oscars, about, you know, gender inclusion and diversity and about how women are not getting the roles, and actually we've had several Facebook questions as well asking whether you have experienced that yourself, I know you've spoken a little about it. Do you... have you yourself gone through a lot of tribulations in regard to this? I mean, when I go to Hollywood women seem to be very angry all the time, they're very very angry, they seem to feel it's really got old and they want to see it change.
EA: Um... well, I certainly couldn't live in Hollywood proper, I think it sort of takes a piece of your soul, and... and I see all of these beautiful young women, who are beautiful and talented and smart and yet have this incredible insecurity just all over them, this paranoia about all of this incredible youth and beauty and intelligence never being enough. I couldn't live there, it's bad enough just being in an industry that trades in looks and subjective assessments of talent, let alone to also live in a vortex of it.
TB: And is that about structural attitudes... I mean, what do you ascribe it to?
EA: Well at this point it's just ingrained and needs to change, it's this idea that actresses... frankly women in all walks of life compete on looks and youth while men, very openly, compete on power and success, usually financial, but not always. And it's always been expected that men be ambitious, but it's been a dirty word for women, ambition in women is seen as sort of unpalatable and accordingly so are women who own those qualities. And I'd love for it to change, I'm not sure it will and perhaps not quickly enough but as a woman who is I think very tenacious and ambitious I would certainly like to see it change, but it means all of us agreeing to make an effort, to not see it as a bad thing, and to not make beauty and youth prerequisites.
TB:Well, Geena Davis has done a lot of work on all of this and she's been pushing out a lot of stats about... you know, women have literally got less speaking roles, however many movies they make have far less time speaking on the screen, I would say that's hardly news for any woman who's ever been to a dinner party...
TB: But they... it's remarkable how it really is... they are just far less on the screen. Even cartoons... I mean, even cartoon women speak less on the screen than men do. There's only one female fish in the entire ocean in that last Disney film about the fish... (audience laughs) What was it... Dory, whatever her name was.
EA: But at least she's got her own film, hasn't she? That's more than most of us can say, I think she's getting her due.
TB: I'm so happy that Dory's got her moment. (audience laughs) Um... Gone Girl was a huge turning point for you, uh... it was an absolutely... you were fantastic in it, um... complicated and evil and wonderful. What did David Fincher... I mean at that point you'd made a lot of films, but you'd never had a huge juicy role like that, that you had in Gone Girl. So what do you think drew David Fincher to you, and what was it like working with him?
EA: Well, I don't know how many people saw it or how many people paid very particular attention to the trailers and things, but he was very adamant that... well, that besides the millions of people who'd read the book, there were hopefully millions more who hadn't but who would see the film, so we had to appeal to a whole audience who didn't know the story and didn't know its twists, and so you have to believe that Amy Dunne is missing and presumed dead, and he felt that if he'd cast Reese Witherspoon nobody would believe that she'd sign up to play the dead girl, they'd be suspicious... but Elizabeth Alton would sign up to be the dead girl. (audience laughs) And I was completely alright with him taking advantage of that, which was clever and really did work in our favor, and it was an opportunity for me to be every aspect of being a woman, of being sweet and vulnerable but devious and calculating and warm and cold. And he's so good at dissecting and capturing narcissism in a sort of scarily accurate way, that's really his strength and that helped.
TB : Now it has its kind of incredible reviews, and... you know, brought to you all different range of projects, I mean are you now... do you have your pick of the best stuff?
EA: I think for me it was just proof of what I was willing to do, that I'd go to these extremes that I always knew I'd be willing to reach but that not everybody else could see, and I think it's the extremeness of Amy that I think struck a nerve, and the roles that have come since allowed me to push in more extreme directions, really full-bodied things, including even... I mean, I started my own production banner, which has been a dream of mine for some time, and I think it took having a role like that on my résumé to prove that if I could push like that for myself that I could have a similar drive in creating work for others.
TB: Now, if you could just pick any film you'd like to make now, any kind of material, blank check, you know, someone's got the money to just make the movie you want to make, what would it be?
EA: You know, I'm sure I had another answer to this, and I don't know if anybody here has seen it yet but I just watched Westworld from HBO and it's sort of made me want to do a Western, that and the last series of Penny Dreadful have just got this itch in me to do the gunslinging and riding and learn a bit more about Native American culture as well.
TB: Well I mean you've spoken a bit about the difficulties, in a sense, the challenges of Hollywood. There's another challenge, which is what happens after you're thirty-five in Hollywood, right, because you'll be thirty-five in a few months...
EA: (laughing) So I've heard, yeah.
TB: What's the strategy for you? What's your strategy, because you see these actresses becoming... in a total sort of panic when they turn sort of thirty, and um... you know, Tina Fey pointed out, "Sally Field was Tom Hanks' love interest in Punchline and then twenty minutes later she was the mum in Forrest Gump." (audience laughs)
EA: (laughs) Yeah, I know. It is weird, isn't it? I don't think I've had anything quite so stark as that, if anything I was being cast in more mature roles when I was younger and now they've sort of caught up with me, I'm even being asked to play women in their twenties now.
TB: It's a bit Benjamin Button, it's all going backwards.
EA: (laughs) You might be right.
TB: Alright, well listen, this new film you're working with David Oyelowo, he plays the king, right?
TB: And you've made movies with a lot of very alpha guys, you've made movies with Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell, and um... you've just had this incredible lineup working with you. Which of those actors did you feel the most interesting sort of chemistry when you're working with them?
EA: Well David and I had worked together on a play years and years ago, but I was not at all prepared for the sort of connection we were going to have on screen, you can never quite know how that's going to play because you can think someone's great and know he's a great actor but not be sure how you in character and the other person in character will get on. And with David, thankfully, it was just magnetic from the beginning, we were both so moved by our individual characters and by them together, and I know I personally felt very proud to put a really grand love story on screen between a black man and a white woman, because we haven't really seen that since a very, very different film that's one of the greats of the last century, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.
TB: That's incredible.
EA: And that was in '68, I think. And even when I was young and looking for representations of love, this particular one was not one that was on the screen as more than something like Othello, which oddly enough I've also done.
TB: And it's directed by Amma Asante, that's the director who found the story, right?
EA: David found the story, actually, and sort of... begged Amma to do it, he knew he wanted it shown through a woman's gaze, and you know Amma being black, of African descent, being a woman from London, herself being in an interracial relationship, which David is as well... she really pulled all of the pieces together of what this film is talking about and what it means.
TB: Well, I do urge everybody to see it, it's a... it's a really compelling love story as you say, but also a great great picture of what it was like to love in the time of apartheid in a sense, right? It's wonderful. Thank you very much for your time, Elizabeth, thank you very much for joining us.
EA: Thank you!