From director Lenny Abrahamson (Room, Frank) and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon, and adapted from the book of the same name by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger tells the story of what happens when Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called by the Ayres family to Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked, to attend to a patient. The house and grounds of the vast estate have suffered and are now dilapidated from neglect, which adds to the creep factor, as he begins to wonder if mother (Charlotte Rampling), son (Will Poulter) and daughter (Ruth Wilson) are being haunted by something more supernatural in nature.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Ruth Wilson (who plays the very complex Ayres daughter, Caroline) talked about the reaction she had to the script for The Little Stranger, what most excited and most scared her about playing this character, what she enjoyed about collaborating with filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, her favorite moment with co-star Charlotte Rampling (who plays the Ayres matriarch), working in such an imposing estate, and the ambiguity of the storytelling. She also talked about what it’s been like to play Alice on the BBC TV series Luther, for which her character is expected to return for the upcoming fifth season, in some form, and playing her own grandmother in the mini-series Mrs. Wilson (airing in the U.S. on PBS’ Masterpiece).
Collider: This movie creeped me out, in the best way possible. I love stories with this kind of eerie vibe that feels unsettling and lingers. It’s much more fun than being in your face.
RUTH WILSON: Sure, I agree.
How did you come to this? Was it just a script that came your way?
WILSON: Yeah, just the usual, where a script comes your way, you read it, and you get enticed by it. It got under my skin, and I couldn’t work it out. It unnerved me. It’s always a great sign, if you have a reaction to a script. That’s usually an indication that you’re interested. And so, I went back and read it again, and didn’t quite understand it, but decided to do the job. I felt the same way as you did. I read the book, as well, and that had exactly the same effect, too. There’s something unnerving and deeply dark about it.
Was that vibe always there, on paper, from the beginning?
WILSON: Yeah, I think so. You don’t know what’s happening. You don’t know if it’s supernatural. You don’t know if it’s something to do with the doctor. You don’t know anything. There are so many questions, and there are no answers, so your imagination goes wild with what it could be, watching the characters react, in those situations, and what their history is and their vulnerability. When I first read it, you think the family are weirdos. You think they’re these oddballs and they’re all slowly being chipped away by something that they have no control over. That’s really scary. That’s scary, for any of us. To try to escape from that hold is really hard, certainly if it’s something that’s entrenched in the way you live and where you live. To move on is very brave and very hard to do, so it’s about being suffocated.
What was it that most excited you about playing this character, and what made you most nervous or scared about playing her?
WILSON: Probably the same thing, really. The physicality of this character, and that I didn’t quite understand her. That is always enticing and scary, in equal measure. I think I liked her because there was something about her striving to free herself from this environment. She doesn’t even know it for awhile. She doesn’t understand that she needs to free herself, or even that she’s being suppressed. It’s through the course of the journey of the film that she understands that, and then escapes it, but not without loss of her whole family. There was something interesting about that. The physicality was also really interesting. That’s a character that I haven’t played before. It was shining a light on aristocracy, in a completely different way. It wasn’t romanticizing them or treating them with nostalgia, as a lot of dramas do. It was these real oddballs. It reminded me of Gray Gardens, but it was also like The Others and Brideshead Revisited. There was something unusual about it. All of those things were challenges because they were outside of my comfort zone, but they were what enticed me.
The director on this, Lenny Abrahamson, was clearly passionate about telling the story because he stuck with this and worked on it for a few years, before going into production on it. What did you enjoy about working and collaborating with him?
WILSON: Lenny is really collaborative and he’s very organic, on the day, as well. He was discovering it, as we filmed it, and he was open and accepting of that. He didn’t pretend that he knew exactly what was going on, all the time. On the day, we’d try lots of different versions of the same thing, and then it gave him loads of options, in the edit, to shape it how he wanted it, which was a really interesting way of doing it. It meant that nothing was stuck, and he didn’t have definite ideas about it. He chose, in some things, to push the supernatural more, or to push the psychological more. It was really fun for us to do that because you get to play a bit more and discover, and in that discovery, you let go of that strong idea you might have of a character and you just play.
What was it like to work on this with Charlotte Rampling and have her play your mother? Do you have a favorite moment or scene that you got to do with her?
WILSON: It was amazing. I love her work. I am always deeply impressed by her and her career, and her, as a person, so it was amazing to act opposite her. We had this lovely scene in the bed, when she is bed bound. She’s just hurt herself on the glass windows, and I say, “I’m sorry, mother.” At that point, I think Caroline was starting to realize that she had invited something into the house that was infecting the house, in some way, and she felt it was her responsibility. I thought that was a really moving moment. And then, Charlotte says, “What have you got to be sorry for?” I really loved that scene with her. That’s when the two characters connect. This film is so detailed in its relationships, and the mother-daughter relationship between those two is really fraught. Caroline has always thought she was slightly disappointing her mother. She’s not the glamorous daughter her mother would have hoped for, and her mother puts her down and dismisses her, and has much more love and remembrance for the child that died. Caroline has always thought she was way down the list and neglected. So, that was a moment that they connected to each other, and they forgave each other for the antagonism between themselves.
It seems as though nothing good ever comes from people living in isolation in an old, crumbling manor. How imposing was it to walk into and work in an estate like that?
WILSON: It was amazing because you have everything there, and it gives you so much that you don’t have to act. The history of it is already there. It was built in 17-something, so it’s full of history and energy already, so you just have to stand in it. You feel slightly oppressed and awkward, but there’s also a bit of grandeur. What was great about the story is what that house would have been. It was falling apart, but in its heyday, it would have been the center of glamour and warmth and parties. That’s exactly what you want to get across – that this used to be where everything happened, when people were living at the best of their times and with all the money and wealth, and then suddenly, it was empty. It felt haunted, for that reason. I love working locations because it gives you so much for free.
The storytelling in this is very ambiguous, as far as blurring that line between reality and the supernatural, so what do you hope audiences take from it? Do you hope it leaves them wondering, or do you hope they draw their own conclusions about it?
WILSON: I think it’s a combination of both. The combination of the deep psychological oppression, what that can do to you, and what energy that can create, and if you live with those demons or that denial, and how it can manifest and have violent means if you suppress stuff long enough or don’t deal with your problems. I hope that people come out going, “Is it a ghost story, or is it really about something deeper than that?” I think that it’s a drama, essentially. It’s a psychological drama about people and about how they deal with the situations that they’re in, so I hope that people come out caring about these characters and thinking of how they could have lived their life, or what other choices they could have made, and not just about the supernatural.