At the outset of Stuart Murdoch’s new film, God Help The Girl, Emily Browning’s character Eve—a depressed singer—breaks out of the hospital, where she is being treated for anorexia, to attend an overcrowded garage rock concert. There, she finds James, a sweet, vulnerable musician who guides her on the path to recovery and musical self-discovery one Glasgow summer. The film itself is filled with equal parts quirky, fun-loving episodes and all-too-real anecdotes of unrequited young love, worthy of a viewing on its own. But the real reason God Help The Girl succeeds in its intention—to provide a pragmatic escape from the Millennial reality—is because of the personalities Browning and her two co-stars, Olly Alexander and Hannah Murray, bring to life.
We caught up with Browning one morning in New York City to get the low-down on her new role, the film itself, and what it was like to bring that Glasgow summer to life.
Were you a big fan of the God Help The Girl album before you signed on?
Well, I was a huge Belle and Sebastian fan. I hadn’t listened to it that much before I heard about the film. But then once I heard about the film, I listened to it a lot. I guess it kind of slipped under. I mean, they’ve made so much music, so many albums. It wasn’t one that I really knew of. But then I listened to it a bunch when I heard about the film and then once I got the part, I had to stop listening to it because it was like, “I didn’t want to compare myself to the girl singing on the album too much because it’s never going to be the same thing.” It’s always going to be different and they’re all professional singers and I’m really not. And so I had to kind of put it out of my head and just imagine that we’re creating new songs and that there wasn’t this other thing hanging over my head, like you have to sing as good as Catherine sounded on the album. But it’s so different, the album, compared to the soundtrack, which I think is really cool.
Yeah, totally. Do you remember the first time you listened to Belle and Sebastian?
I do, actually. I was—I don’t know how personal to get with this story. I am pretty sure my dad picked me up from a new boyfriend’s house. Like one of my first, I was like 14. And I think it was just this weird moment where like I think we had been making out and I had to get in the car with my dad and I was like, “Oh god, my dad’s gonna know...this is so weird.” And my dad played Belle and Sebastian which is like, my dad is pretty young and quite cool. And I think the first song was “Step Into My Office,” which was the first one that I heard. And I was like, “Dad, this is nice. I’m impressed. This is really good music.” And then my dad and I would listen to it; it was the only thing we could agree on so we would listen to it in the car all the time. But I do really specifically—I don’t think I have even told Stewart [Murdoch] that.
I specifically remember that moment of coming out of my new boyfriend’s house and having been making out on the couch and being like, “Oh my dad is gonna…agh! I’m so nervous to sit in the car with my dad for half an hour now.” And then the music kind of, I don’t know, got rid of that tense weird feeling because we were both able to bond over this music.
It diffused the tension. That’s awesome. Would you consider God Help the Girl to be a musical?
Yeah. Stewart explained this really well just a minute ago and I wasn’t listening because I’m a moron and too tired. It’s like not a traditional musical, I guess. But he was saying that he always knew that he wanted the first thing you see to be singing so that people were automatically in that world and feel comfortable with the music the whole way through. It was so important to Stewart that the first minute is Eve dropping out of the window, looking straight to camera and singing a song. Because I feel like if you bring music in half-way through, it can be a bit jarring. People may be like “Oh, what? We’re in a musical now? This is weird.” So I think it was super important that that musical element was there all the way through. It’s more kind of like a ’60s [musical], it reminds me of A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles film, or a French New Wave musical opposed to the traditional Les Mis that kind of thing. But, yeah I guess it is a musical. It’s weird to say to people. Like “Oh, what film is coming out that you’ve just done?” “Oh, it’s a musical.” Like you sort of want to explain, “But it’s different.” Like, it’s not, yeah I don’t know. It’s hard to categorize, I think.
And was it weird or strange for you to just look straight into camera and sing?
Yeah, it was. I mean, it was really fun though. It was really a satisfying feeling because at first, Stewart was like, “Overact more, you need to overact more!” [I was] like, “No, no, no that’s not, overacting is a bad thing.” But then he said, “When you are singing, you have to be like a cartoon character.” Eve is sad a lot of the time, but when she sings, that’s her world and she becomes like a Disney princess or something. And at first I was so uncomfortable with that because my automatic instinct is to underplay everything. But then, after a while, I got into it and it was really enjoyable, like winking at the camera and really playing it up. It felt like being a little kid. I was so one of those kids that was like, “Film me, dad! Film me, mom! Look at me! Look at me!” And it was kind of nice to go back to that a little bit.
And what was it like on set?
The summer that is depicted in the film was kind of like the summer that we had. It was the three of us—myself, Hannah [Murray], Olly [Alexander]—living in the same apartment building, hanging out almost every night after work, going to get brunch like every weekend. It was not like a normal film at all. There was no downtime. There was no waiting around. It was like, “Quick, we’ve got to run over here and get this shot over here before the sun goes down.” And Stewart would come with new pages that we hadn’t seen before and would be like, “Learn this quickly, we have to film this now.” And it was so much fun. It felt like summer camp or something. I was super bummed out when it was over; it was really depressing. There were a lot of tears when we had to say goodbye to each other because it was really a beautiful experience and one that I doubt I would be able to replicate with anything else, you know. I think it was a one off.
Kind of back tracking a little here, but the casting for this film was a little unorthodox. What was your experience with that?
Well, I think I didn’t find out until I was cast, but I think Stewart saw something like 1500 girls for Eve, which is just mental—I mean, it’s insane. But I heard that he was making a film and like I said I was such a big fan of the music and I sort of wanted to be a part of it automatically before even reading the script, which is rare for me because it’s usually all based on the script. But I was like, “Belle and Sebastian are making a movie. I have to be a part of it.” And so I put an audition on tape, sang a song, and didn’t hear back for like a year. And was just like, “They hate me. This is so awful.” And every time someone else would bring it up or someone was just like, “I have to put this down on tape for that Belle and Sebastian film” and I remember just being livid. I was like, “No! Nobody else can do this movie. I need to do it.” But I don’t know, I guess my tape got lost in the pile or maybe Stewart saw it and his eyes were glazed over from seeing so many people, but the first attempt was ignored. And then like a year later I got a call saying, “Actually, we looked at your tape again and maybe it’s okay.” I had to do a Skype audition with Olly, which was so odd but great. It worked! And then two days later I was on a train to Glasgow with Hannah and Olly. So it was nothing for a year and then bang bang bang super quick and then we were there. It was crazy.
And Stewart gave you guys a list of references for shooting, right?
He did, yeah. He tells the story quite well, but he left a pile of DVDs at our apartment building and then like two weeks later we were like, “Did you send us those? We haven’t watched any of them.” But we did. We watched Dazed and Confused together, Harold and Maude was a big one for me, which is one of my favorite films anyways, but even though it’s not a musical, the way that the Cat Stevens music kind of plays into the story of that film is so important, I think. What else did we watch? Blow Up, I think. There was a bunch of things he told us to watch that we didn’t watch because we were having too much fun, but I think we were watching a bunch of movies at the time. The funny thing, this is definitely not on Stewart’s list, but the movie that I remember watching the most was actually one weekend I think Hannah and I were quite hungover and we were on my fold-out couch and we were watching Spice World. That’s kind of the most memorable movie watching experience from when we were in Scotland. It was so much fun. I guess that’s kind of, not really, a musical. Kind of?
There’s enough music in it.
I don’t know if that really informed my performance at all, but perhaps it did. I don’t know.
That’s amazing. And what drew you to your role particularly?
You know, I didn’t actually read the script until I got the part, which is crazy. I did a Skype audition with Stewart. I mean I read the sites, I had read little bios of Eve and kind of felt like I got her.
I totally understand being in that place of not feeling settled unless you are creating something. You know, just being a little uncomfortable in your own skin. But when you feel like you are able to be creative and have creative freedom, that’s when you feel at peace, I suppose.
I got that, I understand the kind of anxious feeling of “Ahh, I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know what I want to do.” I totally get that. But I auditioned with Stewart and Olly over Skype and then got the script and this weird email from Stewart that was like, “Here’s the full script. Let us know if you would be interested in working with us.” I was like, “Do I have the part? What does this even mean?!” And then I read it and was in tears. I just loved it so much automatically. I think I was the last person to be cast, actually. And so I was just looking at Eve and like, “Yes, absolutely. 100% I have to do it.” And I remember there were links to the songs on the script so that every time a song came in, you could play it while you were reading it. And I remember finishing the script and there was a credits song and I pressed the link and it was a song called “Dress Up In You,” which is my favorite Belle and Sebastian song of all time. And when that song started playing, I just burst into tears and called my agent and was like, “Yes, yes, yes, of course I’ll do it!” So I felt an emotional connection to Eve pretty quickly. I felt like I kind of got her.
So, for the last question, we’ll make it a fun one. If you could star in anyone’s biopic, who’s would it be?
Oh my god! That’s really hard! This is so silly and this is not actually the answer, but my boyfriend and I always joke about him playing Michael Hutchence and me playing Kylie Minogue, which is the silly answer. There was someone the other day that I was thinking—someone way more interesting and intelligent than me. Just pretending to be a really really intelligent person would be great. Like Joan Didion or Sylvia Plath would be pretty amazing, I think. But I don’t know who I look like.
Nowadays it doesn’t seem like it even matters.
Yeah, that’s true. As soon as you leave, I’m going to be like, “Wait, this person!” But yeah, I’m not totally sure.
God Help The Girl hits theaters this Friday. Stay tuned for our interviews with Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, and Stuart Murdoch.