In the dystopian parable High Rise, residents of a luxury apartment complex live on floors that correspond to their social status—the working class on the bottom, the wealthy elite on top. When Tom Hiddleston's Dr. Robert Laing moves in, he is quickly introduced to the building's gonzo tenants, that include Charlotte, played by Sienna Miller, and Wilder, played by Luke Evans. The two of them share an ambiguous relationship and a complicated past that spills over in perhaps the most harrowing scene in a movie filled with them. Adapted from J.G. Ballard's sci-fi classic, High Rise was brought to life by visionary director Ben Wheatley and does not make for an easy watch. The narrative is disjointed and the movie crescendos into an orgy of chaos and violence after the lower levels rebel against the building's gatekeepers. We recently spoke to Miller and Evans about boarding such a unique project, the challenges of shooting that scene, and experiencing extreme wealth in real life
When you guys come into a project like this, do you have to come in with an open mind?
Luke Evans: I think you’ve just got to be open to where you’re going to go. It’s like nothing I’d ever read, and I knew I’d be doing stuff I’ve never done before, which is part of the reason why I did it. I think with this, especially, we had to come in expecting nothing and gaining a lot.
Sienna Miller: To some degree, it’s the same with everything. I’d never want to arrive with a really set idea of what it should be, and always I’m someone who really defers to the director. Of course, I have opinions, but it really is their thing. You have to jump in and commit. Otherwise, it can be a really tempestuous experience because if you’ve agreed to work with somebody, it’s their vision that you adapt to.
What is it like working with a visionary director like Ben Wheatley?
LE: Well, you sort of expect it to be quite dictatorial with somebody who has such a clear vision. But it’s the opposite. He’s very flexible, and he’s open to ideas and allowing the actor to find their own way, as long as we’re in the realm of where he wants to go. He let me find my own path and sometimes pushed me further, which is interesting for somebody who has such a clear vision in what he does. I felt very liberated and had my own license which was a refreshing thing to have.
SM: What’s really interesting about Ben is he doesn’t ask for attention, he doesn’t command that kind of energy. He’s very collaborative and very open and very unassuming and has zero ego, which is so rare.
Is it hard to make sense of that vision when you first see it on the page?
LE: No, I felt like I knew where I was. I mean it is quite a complicated film to follow, and there’s a lot going on, but it didn’t feel too confusing. There was a calmness on set, which you wouldn’t expect in a movie like this.
When the movie does sort of devolve into that anarchic ending, is that the vibe on set too? Or is actually tightly controlled?
SM: It was chaotic. It was controlled chaos. Also, it was a shoestring budget. We were all just there to make something.
LE: But in a way it worked because of that. There was no, “Okay, so this is how we’re going to do it.” It was like, "This is the room, this is where we’re going to set it, let’s go for it.” That’s how it happened. That’s a very fluid way of filmmaking, and Ben works like that, rightly so. Because, as an editor, he knows what he wants to see and how he’s going to cut it as he’s filming it. It’s not a director allowing an editor to do that, he’s doing it himself, which makes the process very fast and really organic and fluid.
Did the world he created feel immersive while you were shooting the movie?
SM: The sets were beautiful and polished. The design is so flawless in this. It’s real; it’s its own character in the film. So the world was built, and we stepped in, and it really was a fully formed environment somehow, which, on that budget, I was not expecting.
LE: No, neither was I, the real detail.
SM: You could open a drawer and there’d be a ‘70s-era lighter. Everything, everywhere you looked.
LE: That kitchen machinery, it was from the ‘70s. It was really well done. I think immersive really only happens in period films, for me, because you slip into a world that doesn’t exist anymore, a period of time that’s long gone. Our costumes are really well thought out, we really had a lot of voice when it came to how we looked. Even the building in which we were shooting—an old, 1970s sports center in Northern Ireland. You felt like you were stepping into a time machine every time you stepped on set.
Is there an inherent Britishness in this film? I don’t think an American filmmaker could have made this movie, and I think American audiences will interpret it differently than Brits.
LE: No, I think they’ll get it. I think they’ll get it quite clearly. But I think there is a definite, quintessential Britishness about the story. Because it’s about the people in the high rise and about how British people in the ‘70s looked at each other in their class and what level they were and how they existed. It was a very interesting time, just before [Margaret] Thatcher came into power. There was a lot of stuff going on in Britain that influenced Ballard to write the story in the first place in 1975. I think it is very British.
You two share a particularly disturbing scene together involving a sexual assault. When you’re shooting something like that, do you have to get into a certain headspace to do it, and is it something you can easily snap in and out of?
SM: The moment before was really, really intimidating. Luke was sitting on his own and Ben had asked him to say “My name is Richard Wilder” again and again into this tape recorder. And I was watching that. Luke fully immersed himself into this part; it was such an animalistic performance, it was staggering to watch it, actually. But I watched him do this “My name is Richard Wilder” over and over, and it got more and more intense, and we pretty much immediately went into the scene. It was dark and it was heavy and there’s no way of sugarcoating what that moment is. It is what it is, and it’s horrible because he has to be a violator and I have to be violated and, if you’re going to succeed, you have to get into that headspace, which is dark. We trust each other, which helped, but it’s not fun.
LE: And also the interesting thing about just that part of the story and how those two characters relate to each other, they know each other extremely well. They live in the same block of flats, and he’s been trying to get into her panties for a very long time. She’s been playing hard to get, they have a friendly banter, so there’s a history between them, which made it even more difficult and even complex to do. Also to watch must be very hard because you’re watching two people who have not just met on the street. This is a very different energy and dynamic between two people, but incredibly powerful and a real moment of transition downwards for Wilder’s character.
Sienna, you get to tear into a steak at one point like an animal. Was it tasty?
SM: It was well cooked. That was my first scene that I shot, and they’d been shooting for 10 days, and I turned up to the trailer and had a black eye and blood put on, and just had to stare at Tom Hiddleston and stuff a steak in my face, which is surreal, to say the least. But yeah, it was a good steak.
Tom Hiddleston has a special brand of fandom that’s developed around him. What is it about him that you think attracts that?
LE: There are a lot of things about Tom! His charm, his charisma, he’s a really lovely man. He’s very fun. On the film set, he works incredibly hard. He’s very committed to the work that he does, and it’s enjoyable to work with somebody like that.
SM: He’s also iconic to super fans because of the roles he’s played. The fans for those Marvel films are just another level, another creed. He has a sort of intelligence and wit and looks and charm to back it up.
This movie depicts some of the absurdities that come with great wealth and extravagance. Given the industry you’re in, you must have seen some pretty absurd things when it comes to wealth.
LE: Yes! Certain experiences I’ve had in this industry—actually, mainly in this country—you see extravagance to a massive extreme. And not just our industry, but lots of them. Success and money is a powerful thing, and people flaunt it quite freely, often in the public eye.
SM: Yeah. There are some upsides. [Laughs.] No, I think there are, without sounding too professionally English, very wealthy people in our country that, you know, people are embarrassed talking about it. But getting to dip your toe into these fantastic environments of massive opulence, it’s not how you or I live at all. We’ve experienced crazy stuff. Beautiful big boats and parties. I was at Cannes last year, and just stepping onto these super yachts is an experience. I’m also happy to not have it every single day.
Is it something that you get used to?
SM: It’s another level. We’re English so we’re like, "oh god."
LE: It’s an experience, and, I always think, it’s an experience to see it and to experience it just for a moment. That’s enough for me to be able to go home and tell my friends and family what I’ve done and what I’ve seen and what I’ve stolen from the super yacht.
SM: Right, like napkin rings.
This movie is also about having modern conveniences all in one place. What are some of the conveniences that you two can’t live without?
LE: Spotify. I can’t live without it.
SM: Shazam is an app that I like. That’d be my favorite app. I have no social media presence at all, but I did discover Shazam. It’s pretty life-changing. What a great idea! I could live without those things, but the one area that I can say I’m pretty spoiled in is traveling. It sounds awful, but we’re on a flight every other week. I was just on EasyJet the other day, and I was miserable. I can be a bit of a snob there.
LE: Sometimes it’s good to dip your toe into the EasyJet life, just to appreciate the moments we have when we do get to turn left on a flight and sit in business class. I don’t know about you, but I rarely turn left on my own buck. It’s usually because of work. If I’m going on my own, I’d rather keep my money in my pocket and spend it when I get to the location rather than pay for the flight. I’ll sleep when I get there.
Do you feel like there’s a lack of great material out there in terms of scripts?
LE: No! It’s about finding the great material, that’s the problem. It’s all there. The material is there. It’s just swimming around a lot of rubbish. And that sounds awful to say, but there are a lot of things we both read, I’m sure, when we go, “It could be so much better.” But then you come across a gem like this one, and you’re just like, “Holy shit. Thank god.” You just want to make sure that you get it so that you can chew on something really meaty.
Earlier today the trailer for Luke’s movie Girl on the Train made a big splash online. Do you guys pay attention to any of that?
SM: We got into a car this morning and I watched it. Yeah.
LE: Also, it’s been quite a while since that film was wrapped. You talk about it, but it disappears into the hands of the director and editor, and you don’t really think about it. Then the first thing you get usually is the first trailer. So it’s a nice, exciting moment because you watch it with anticipation and trepidation thinking, "Have they done a good job? What are they picking up on in the trailer?" But I’m super happy with what I saw.