The Insider: Hannah Murray
on geeking out, ‘game of thrones,’ britney spears + ‘god help the girl.’
Until quite recently, the mere mention of actress Hannah Murray brought up unresolved Skins questions, hopes, and dreams. Cassie and Sid...Cassie and Sid!? But given her recent roles in the incestuous sci-fi film Womb, sinister thriller Chatroom, and Game of Thrones, it's becoming explicitly clear that Murray is much more than the face and voice of an enchanting teenage manic pixie dream girl. Even though her latest role in God Help The Girl is more upbeat than the aforementioned flicks (and her character's name is also Cassie), don't expect Murray to be pigeonholed once again.
We caught up with the actress and chatted about God Help The Girl, Game of Thrones, and her dream role.
Were you a huge Belle and Sebastian fan before you signed onto the film?
Yes. Huge. I felt like doing this job was such a treat for my 14-year-old self. If someone had told me then that I would be able to meet with Stewart and work with Stewart and sing songs that he had written, I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s amazing, really. Obviously everyone wants to work with talented people. But to get to work with someone who you are genuinely are a fan of is really special. It feels like a real privilege.
Yeah, definitely. Do you remember the first time you listened to them? Or do you have any specific memories that go along with Belle and Sebastian?
Yeah, I used to listen to “Expectations” over and over again. That was my favorite song for ages and it just really kind of spoke to me as a 14-year-old girl who was feeling a bit weird and a bit lonely. That song was very very important to me.
And I always worry that I’m going get drunk and say to Stewart, “You wrote this song that saved my life.”
But yeah, that one in particular. And just listening to Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister a lot. Those two albums particularly were very big for me for a while. And then it’s exciting because they have so many albums and I wasn’t familiar with the whole back catalog and so discovering more of that we were doing and the movie was great. I really got into The Life Pursuit, which I had never heard before. So that’s been nice to discover.
Were you a fan of the God Help the Girl album before?
I had never heard of it. That’s the thing—I am never very up to date with music. I kind of have stuff that I love and listen to over and over again and I was a Belle and Sebastian fan, but not someone who would follow their progress constantly so I didn’t know about the album until I got sent the script of the film. And I think in some ways that was good because it might have been too intimidating. If I had heard that album, I would have become a fan of it and then to try and sing those songs knowing them that well, it would have been too intimidating.
So what was the casting process like for you? I know that it’s been pretty unorthodox and everyone has a different story with it.
Well, it was long. I had a really odd moment when I first auditioned for it, so it didn’t set the tone well, actually it should have gone downhill from that. I turned up a week early for the audition. I was still at university, I was doing my final exams and I had said to my agent, “Don’t send me anything unless it’s really really special because I’m revising and studying.” And then they sent me this. So I took a day out from my revision to go down to London and to meet Stewart and then he wasn’t there because I had gotten the date wrong. It was actually after my exams were over so it could’ve been all fine but I had this trip to London and turned up and was like, “I’m here to audition for God Help the Girl” and they’re like, “That’s not happening today. What are you doing here?”
And so then a week later, I did meet Stewart and sang for him, which was very nerve wracking. And then went back a month later with a couple of other actors and sort of did this workshop type thing. I felt like that went quite well. Didn’t hear anything for ages and then I thought it was all not going to happen and then they got me to tape again. And then I was told, “No it’s not going to happen.” So I think I had to grieve for not getting the part about three times before I did end up being cast. It came about really nicely because there was something else that I had wanted to do that I got really close to; I was the last two for a role. I think I was much better off doing this, but I thought I wanted to do [the other role] and I didn’t get it and I was devastated and I was saying to my agent, “I’m never going to work again. It’s so hard. I just need to give up acting!” And he knew that I was going to be offered God Help the Girl but he couldn’t tell me because it wasn’t finalized and he was like, “No, I can promise you, you will work again. It’s going to be fine.” Then he called me up later in the day and said, “I know you’ve been feeling really down, do you think playing Cassie in God Help the Girl might help?” And it did. It cheered me right up. So that was really nice. It was an important lesson that even if you think you’re kind of below, there might be something around the corner and you almost have to get to that place to get the good thing. And it felt so much more special for that reason.
So do you think God Help the Girl saved your film career?
I hope so. It genuinely felt like that at the time. I know I was being ridiculously overdramatic about never going to work again and I didn’t know why I had said that. I had Game of Thrones anyways, so I was being really silly. I think I just wanted something that I felt so excited to work and really immerse myself in that point in time and this was exactly that and I felt that I was able to give so much to it because I was just so excited to do something big.
How do you connect with your character Cassie?
I think I almost connect with her in the ways that she was different from me—and that was what made her exciting to play. I feel like I learned a lot from her, if that doesn’t sound too ridiculous. Because I played a lot of people in the past who are very unhappy or tortured or damaged and this was the first character that I played that was just so fine and so happy and so together and there was no kind of darkness anywhere within her anywhere. And I also think that’s the way that she approaches her creativity. It’s not from a place of, "Oh I have to exercise my demons, or I’m a tortured soul." But it’s like, "I love music and I love singing and I want to do that because it’s fun and it’s a pleasure." And so I learned in playing her that you don’t have to be miserable to feel creative. I had such a wonderful time playing her and I feel like I was able to do much better work because I was so happy.
I think in the past I was like, If you want to be an artist you have to be serious and make yourself unhappy. It’s quite an adolescent thing, but I think a lot of people buy into that myth and I don’t think that it’s true.
And so weirdly it felt like a challenge to play someone who was so mentally sorted and someone that was so happy. I realized in the experience of doing that—maybe it’s not the true for everyone—but I think I personally do much better work when I’m happy and having fun. I think there’s really not much point doing this job if you don’t enjoy it so why not have a good time. So now I feel like I do actually have a similar kind of attitude that she does to my work. But that was something that I had to learn by playing her, I guess.
So you, Olly, and Emily were living in the same apartment building. How was that?
It was really fun. It was great. We lived in these hotel apartments in the West end of Glasgow, which is kind of where the film is set and we just had the best time, really. We had a similar experience to the characters in the movie of discovering the city and making friends with each other and working on this creative project together. I think making the movie was as special of an experience as you see these characters going through in the movie. So yeah, we just got on very very well and we still do and it’s lovely to all be here in New York at the moment and we just get on like a house on fire.
Stewart gave you guys all a bunch of references before filming. Which ones really stuck with you?
I am kind of very geeky; if you give me a list of references, I will watch them. I think Stewart was a surprised, actually. I did this Amazon shop where I bought thirty DVDs because I was like, “I have to watch every single one.” It took me a while I think to understand the performance style that Stewart wanted because I sort of thought it’s going to be really naturalistic, a low-budget indie-movie and that sort of thing. And then he said to me early on, “I want you to be like a cartoon.” And for a while, I couldn’t square those two things in my head. I was like, “But it has to be naturalistic surely, so how can I be a cartoon?” Trust was one of the films that he had said. And I had never seen any Hal Hartley films before and I loved Trust so much—I think it’s just an amazing film. And I was thinking about the performance style in that where I felt I was like, “Oh these people are kind of like caricatures. They all are kind of like almost cartoonish.” But it’s also very naturalistic as well and so you kind of believe it. And so there was something about that movie in particular that was really helpful for me to kind of understanding what I thought Stewart wanted. And The Railway Children was another reference which I thought was really nice in terms of really understanding this gang of kids having this summer together.
What was your favorite scene to shoot?
I mean the whole thing was great, but all of the musical numbers were kind of the most special days, definitely, and the most fun. And the last thing that I shot was just when they switch my solo song and it felt kind of like the culmination of the project for me to be able to do that on the last day. And I had been working on that song for such a long time by that point that I knew it so well and felt like I was able to be very very free and exactly what I wanted with it. And it was one of the first times where I had really really felt in control of myself on the set. I felt like I had a goal of what I wanted to achieve and I can do it. In the past, I had always felt on set like I was grasping at something that I could never quite reach, whereas that day I just really felt confident and really calm and I knew what I wanted to do and I could do it.
That’s amazing. And what music do you listen to? I know you said that you’re not up to date, but what are the albums and artists you find yourself going back to?
There’s a whole bunch of people, but at the moment, I keep listening to Rumors by Fleetwood Mac like over and over again—that’s always like if I’m ever not sure what I want to listen to, it’s almost always that. And The Beatles are my go-to. Nirvana. Yeah, all kinds of stuff. But yeah, I find it so hard to list. I can list by the year, but I don’t think that’ll make sense. But yeah, those are a few.
You can't comment on what’s going to happen on Game of Thrones, but what has been your favorite experience on the Game of Thrones set? What has your favorite scene been?
I think I actually really enjoyed giving birth...which maybe I shouldn’t have. That was something that I was so scared about doing. I remember when I was up at school in drama class, if you wanted to be really mean to someone and you’re playing a game that you had to give them a task in, giving birth was the most embarrassing thing and no one wanted to do it. And so it felt like a real challenge because obviously it’s something that lots of people have gone through and lots of people who are going to watch it have gone through and I haven’t. So I did a lot of research and then it felt amazing to portray something so essential and basic in humans. And it was also nice in terms of David [Benioff] was directing that episode so I felt very supported by him.
Another really amazing experience was last year for the opening of [Season 4] Episode 8, which Alex Graves directed. He has done loads of Aaron Sorkin’s and directed loads of The West Wing, which I am a big fan of. And so he decided to do like a West Wing-style shot—he put three scenes together and shot them all together in one take. And I had never been involved in something like that. The scale of it was amazing. And there were so many actors involved and it was such an amazing thing to watch how this kind of gigantic crew, this huge machine can come together to create something amazing and every single person has to be doing their job at their best at exactly the same time. I think Alex is the most amazing director and whenever I get to work with him, I feel so lucky. And to get to watch him work and do that for like a sort of master's class in directing and I feel like he’s a genius. And I’ve always been too nervous to ask him about The West Wing, but then he started talking about it so that was very exciting.
That's awesome. And what’s your favorite decade?
Oh, it’s hard! I’m torn between the ‘20s and ‘60s, but I think I’m going to go with ‘20s. I guess it’s because it feels like it’s the start of modern life—suddenly all these things happened and you could watch movies from then and you would see people who wouldn’t look out of place now. It just seems like that time in-between the wars and everyone coming out wanting to party because they almost died. And it just seems like such a good party! And I loved the androgynous look of it. These girls with short hair and I just like think that’s cool.
If you could star in anyone’s biopic, who would it be?
I really want to play Britney Spears. That’s been like my dream role for a while. I don’t know if it’ll happen. I was talking to Olly and Emily about it the other week and I think really, I just want it to be like me doing all the music videos, but with me in them for like two hours and I’m sure, definitely, we can get money to do that. But yeah, that’s what I want to do.
That’s amazing. Would you shave your head for the role?
Yeah, I would be fully committed. It was when that phase was going on that I thought it would be amazing. It’s weird to comment on someone that’s a real person and still here. I thought that when that period was going on in the media; I felt like it was someone who had been so young…it was a very interesting story about the cost of fame and how that could mess someone up a little bit.