Emily Beecham on Her Cannes Win, Paranoia and Understanding ‘Little Joe’

Emily Beecham had already returned to Britain from the Cannes Film Festival when she was suddenly summoned back to the Cote D’Azur – where she promptly picked up the fest’s best actress prize for her turn in Jessica Hausner’s competition title, “Little Joe.” Beecham, who starred in “Daphne” and “Into the Badlands,” plays Alice, a scientist and mother who begins to suspect that the plant she has genetically modified may have adverse side effects.

Variety hailed the film as an “artfully unnerving horror movie” and an “‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ for the age of antidepressants,” but it divided critics at the festival. Beecham talks to Variety about the reaction to the film, working with Hausner, and her character’s paranoia.

Congratulations on the best actress award. It seems from your travel plans you weren’t expecting to win?

I was woken up that morning and told to get back on a plane and back to Cannes. I’d actually come back [to the U.K.] and then I was told to get to the airport as soon as I could and I was motorbiked from Nice to Cannes, which was an experience in itself.

Jessica Hausner has a distinctive way of working with actors. How did you find it?

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It was different to how I have been used to working. Her style is very controlled. She knows exactly what she wants, and everything from the timing, the camera and every tiny line, intention and second of eye contact. She knows how it all works out. We did about 20 takes each time until all of that timing was perfect.

I enjoyed it, but it was challenging, especially to try and keep the spontaneity and also remember every single note.

The film has a deliberately artificial and choreographed look. How did you think people would react to your performance? 

It was quite discombobulating to see for the first time and to work that way. You know it’s a massive risk you might come across as completely unbelievable, and that is the opposite of how you are guided usually when making a film. But it is so obvious that this film is stylized, everything from the costume to the set.

Jessica is so skilled and all of her films are well-acted so I thought: Trust that. Because a lot of the film does look artificial, almost cartoon-like, I felt there was a a touch of Wes Anderson, a tiny bit, in parts.

What attracted you to the role in the first place?

I saw “Lourdes” and thought it was wonderful, so beautifully shot and well-acted, and subtle with a little bit of a sick, dark humor. Everything about this project sounded really interesting – the whole subject of genetic engineering and the aesthetic of it.

How did your early discussions with Jessica go?

I met her, and she showed me the flower and ideas of her design to try and help me get into her mind so I could see what she was envisaging. Ben [Whishaw] was attached by then, and I’d also worked with [producers] The Bureau before, who I think have really good instincts and have so much respect for filmmakers and actors.

What genre is the film?

I can’t personally put a finger on it. Jessica has a genre of her own. She makes people think it’s going to be a thriller or a sci-fi [movie] and then turns it around. She likes pulling people out of believing in it and into being aware they are watching something and questioning it.

The critical reaction ran the gamut. Why was that?

It’s a very unusual film. I think you finish watching it and you are not quite sure of what you have seen. It’s a think-y kind of film and really open to interpretation. Some people are really strongly seeing one message and others something else.

What did you want to bring to your performance?

What I was focusing on when I shot it was the paranoia element. Alice is experiencing that and is down this rabbit hole and constantly questioning herself and not wanting to trust her instincts. All the lines are blurring. I thought that was a fun thing to explore as an actress.

It seems making the film also provoked questions about what it is and what it was about.

It was like a theme within a theme. Life was reflecting the experience of filming it because the script is deliberately confusing, and every day we were trying to interpret it. That’s exactly what Alice is going through, and also what the audience is going through.

Was making the film altogether different to making “Into the Badlands”?

It’s very different. A show like “Badlands” has to get the numbers. It’s fun and accessible. This is more provocative.

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