“It’s a good word, isn’t it? Chaise Longues.” Rebecca Ferguson’s on top form when we meet her in a London hotel one March morning – upbeat, funny, and far from the terrified quarantine officer she plays in her latest film, the sci-fi thriller, Life.
Having stolen every scene in which she appeared from under Tom Cruise’s nose as MI6 agent Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Life sees her in another bruising role. Life may be more about suspense than full-on action – it sees an alien life form grow in a petri dish on the International Space Station – but it’s nevertheless full of wire work, used to simulate the zero-gravity environment aboard the craft.
As Life opens in the UK, Ferguson talks to us about the tricky task of acting while suspended in mid-air, some of the thought-provoking ideas lurking beneath all the terror, and tells us what her favourite sci-fi film is…
The characters in these kinds of films can be quite thin, but in this, they’re quite believable, I think.
That’s thanks to Daniel [Espinosa, director] – he made it happen. And I think that was one of the main reasons why I found this film so intriguing and interesting to make, because it could have been just another science fiction film. These have been made before by masters – like Daniel said, “I’m treading with tiny little feet in massive shoes”.
He said something to me: “If I take away the threat, I still want to tell an interesting story with a characteristic face”. Their actions generate reactions. What is your loneliness? What is my loneliness?
Because they’re believable characters, from that comes unpredictability. With real people, you don’t always know what they’re going to do next.
It’s true. Sometimes, Daniel would give directions to me and not to anyone else. So that when we were acting, I knew where I was going with my line and it might be a curveball for someone else. But he also had a reliance on brilliant actors, and actors who listen and respond to what is happening in the reality of the set and in that specific scene. It wasn’t just on paper, it was a combination of emotion, character and truth.
So what was the atmosphere like among the cast, since it’s such a small, intimate story in many ways.
I can’t describe how intimate it was. Sometimes the wire work doesn’t work. And for some reason they always put me in front of Jake [Gyllenhaal] when my wires weren’t working and his were. He’d just slam straight into me. You’ve got to know each other on a very personal level. But that aside, it was challenging.
One of the most challenging things for me on this film was the wire work combined with maintaining character, remembering your lines, knowing your area, being aware of the clue in this replica built ISS [International Space Station] by this incredible set designer, and making it be as fluid and real as possible. It’s hard, hard work.
In my head I’d be thinking, “I’m floating really well” and then I’d think, “Why are they all looking at me? Oh God, that’s my line! I’ve forgotten my line!” But I look good floating! [Laughs]
What’s Daniel’s style of directing like? He was saying yesterday that he didn’t use a second unit, so does that add to the intimacy if you have a relatively small crew?
It was small. But he also has the creme-de-la-creme of artists. He had the best of everything for this specific genre, or at least I felt so. There are probably gazillions out there, but it felt so familiar – it felt like I’d known everyone.
Seamus McGarvey, the director of photography – he’s phenomenal. Just seeing the way Daniel would go into the art department – he wouldn’t encroach on their talent, but he would create something. He’d talk about the camerawork – “I don’t want the rotation of one movement – I want the spiral to have an oval shape that then turns into a cylinder”, and the guy goes, “Oh, you mean like this.” And he’d build something with a hanger. And Seamus goes, “And I’ll drop the camera”, and boom – they’ve created something. Watching people build this puzzle is in some ways more fascinating to me than actually seeing the final product.
It’s difficult to tell what’s CGI and what’s practical when it comes to the creature effects. What were you interacting with on set?
When shooting, we had nothing to go on. We had no tennis balls – we had a specific eyeline that we would use, but that was fascinating. The way my character, Miranda North, would imagine her greatest fear might be different from what Jake saw, or what Ryan [Reynolds] saw. Sometimes, I loved the relationship between Ariyon Bakare’s character Hugh and Calvin [the creature] because it’s a very father and son relationship. He was nurturing it, he was making it grow. It was because of him that this thing got life, really. There are these beautiful moments where my character always shields herself behind firewalls and behind glass, which is how I saw my character as well – always a level behind the threat.
The word ‘firewall’ comes up a lot, doesn’t it. Trying to create a barrier between you and this creature.
Oh, firewall. These are the moments when I was just hovering and had no idea what to say. If I just yell, “Firewall!” we can get it in there! We will get it in. [Laughs]
Some of the best scenes in the film are the ones of suspense, where you’re looking through the glass.
What was hard to create, and I talked to Daniel a lot about it, because I didn’t want Miranda to only have this obsession with firewalls and safety. I wanted her to be a human being and a scientist, first of all. Which means scientist finds science quite beautiful. So there’s a foot in both buckets of both fascination and also the constant need to be on top of it. What happens throughout the film, we create what comes later. I guess she feels she blames herself; she couldn’t maintain the firewalls that were needed. But what happens to the character when you take away the safety net? Who is she really, when all the firewalls are gone? Who is she? What’s the pure identity of Miranda? That was fun.
One of the things I like about science fiction…
Oh, you like science fiction?
I love it.
I’ve been asked so many times which is my favourite one. I think, for the fun of it, Jake said his favourite is Space Balls, which I’ve never seen.
Oh, that’s great.
Apparently. Mine is more contained and boring I think, compared to that, but I love Moon.
Moon is such a good film. I love Moon.
That’s one of my favourite ones. But I’m thinking I’m missing out on so many good answers here. What would yours be?
Mine keeps changing, but I do love Solaris.
The great thing about sci-fi, and horror too, is that they give such great roles to women. Solaris is one example.
Do you know why I think that is? Because we’re on the ISS, there’s no hierarchy. Gender equality is basically there – it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. You’re there because you’re the best person for that job. Without one of them, the mission can’t work. It can’t work without Olga [Dihovichnaya], but not without Ariyan, or Ryan or Jake or me. It has to be all of us together. Then there’s the cultural mix. The ISS represents what I wish the world was today: without borders, without limits, with curiosity and welcoming of everyone’s thoughts and ideas. I think it’s a breath of fresh air, funnily enough.
There’s the suggestion that the ISS is a kind of refuge for some of these characters.
Jake’s character doesn’t want to come back to Earth, and what we’re doing to each other down here – quote, Jake. I think that’s true. When you read the news today, sometimes you want to get up in that space ship and leave it all behind. At the same time, you think you should stand on the barricades and shout and speak your mind. But all in good time. All in good time.
It’s interesting that the creature isn’t necessarily the villain in all of this.
I kind of see that the villain is the human in all of this. I might be wrong, I don’t know – that’s my own take on it. That’s why the film so interesting, because there’s so much philosophy in it. Whatever you want to take with you, you can take it with you.
People say, “This creature’s horrendous”. But who took it from its natural habitat? Who prodded it? Who manipulated it? Who teased it? Who wouldn’t want to survive? What if I took you from Earth and put you on a space ship and flew you away? Locked you up and started prodding you with electricity? I think you’d want to survive.
The lab rat’s quite significant, I think.
Ah, the rat! It’s so beautiful. I love rats. I had rats when I was younger. I did. I loved them. That’s the worst bit of science, isn’t it?
It says something about the way we treat other species. And it’s interesting too how the scientific attitude to the creature ebbs as the pressure builds. You get that line, “I hate that fucking thing” or something like that.
It’s a good one, isn’t it. It’s not scientific at all. “I just hate that fucking thing.” It’s so pure. I also love what she says, because Ariyan’s character, Hugh, asks her – because they have an incredible relationship. I think Hugh’s the one she’s closest to, and she understands him. I think she sees him as a father figure, a cocooning support for her in this space ship.
She’s not been there long – she’s the last on board, so she’s a little bit of an outcast, somehow. She puts herself out there as well. But Hugh says, “What would you do?” And she says, “It’s not my job.” She could probably give 10,000 different alternatives, because she’s curious. All she can say is, “I can think of the worst thing that can happen, and the worst of that, and the worst of that.” It’s very restricting, isn’t it?
Was there a biography for your character, then? Was that something you came up with?
I think Daniel and I, we made it together, separate from other people. That’s something I liked. We all had our own little secrets which I think represents life as well, because I don’t know – with astronauts, they train, they go up at different times, people come, people leave. I guess they don’t know all the details about each other. I find the mental preparation going out more interesting than the physical aspect of it. We had stories and trauma and background and death and loneliness.
Some of it was revealed, like Hiro’s [Hiroyuki Sanada’s] beautiful birth – that was a beautiful sequence. But we all carry our own luggage. There’s a reason why Jake’s character doesn’t want to come back. And I think there’s a reason why Miranda looks at him and has a connection to it; I think she probably lost a lot of people around her, working in the area that she worked. She’s seen horror, which is a beautiful connecting point as well.
That does come across. I also really liked your performance in the last Mission: Impossible film…
Really? I’ll have to see if I can live up to it on the next one. I’m prepping it right now. I loved her. Gosh she’s a good character.
Will your role be larger in the next one, do you know?
I have no idea! I am just prepping. I’m training. I’m doing my martial arts. I’m in heels right now, and lipstick, but usually you’ll see me in London in warm socks, ponytail, gym gear and bruises all over – which I love!
These are really annoying! [motions to large bracelets around her wrists, which clang together.]
They’re very jangly! Calvin would hear you coming a mile off. Rebecca Ferguson thank you very much.
Life is out in UK cinemas on the 24th March.