Mild spoilers for Catherine Called Birdy below.
In Lena Dunham’s new period piece Catherine Called Birdy, the titular 14-year-old is constantly devising elaborate schemes to sabotage any efforts to marry her off before she’s ready. Played with effervescent zeal by Game of Thrones breakout Bella Ramsey, the headstrong Lady Catherine can’t help but rebel against her so-called “responsibility” to her family to find a worthy (and wealthy) suitor — mainly because she’d rather continue being a child.
Birdy’s resistance to these 13th-century norms is perfectly relatable to our 21st-century sensibilities. And as the film glides by, guided by Birdy’s cheeky but increasingly frustrated narration, her father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), emerges as her chief adversary. Inattentive, always inebriated, and at times even physically abusive, Lord Rollo is the quintessential overbearing father figure. Even his desperate need to marry off his daughter stems from his own selfishness: much of the family’s money was wasted through his own over-indulgent spending on expensive silks and an imported tiger. (To make matters worse, the tiger did not even survive the grueling journey. The big cat was dead-on-arrival.)
The performance is a far-cry from Scott’s star-solidifying turn as The Priest in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Emmy-sweeping Fleabag (though not too distant from his villainous turn in Sherlock back in the 2010s). A veteran of the British and Irish stage whose consistently great performances have made him an equal hit in Hollywood, the actor relished the opportunity to portray Lord Rollo — not just because he wanted the challenge of softening the edges of such an easily detestable character, but also because he couldn’t resist working with Lena Dunham, whose work (on Girls and beyond) he had always admired. Similar to his experience filming Fleabag alongside Waller-Bridge, Scott loved helping to bring Dunham’s proudly feminist story to life.
Shortly after Catherine Called Birdy’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Andrew Scott hopped on a Zoom call to talk about changing his character from book to screen, how his wardrobe helped him after an unexpected on-set injury, why he loves working with feminist filmmakers, and what we can expect from Showtime’s highly-anticipated Ripley series.
To start, how did you get involved with this film?
Well, I had a conversation with Lena what must have been two years ago now, in the middle of the pandemic, and I just loved her immediately. I've always loved her work, but we just hit it off immediately. I just love her spirit and the way she talked about the film. We talked about this character, about how I saw it and about how she saw it, and, yeah, the rest is history.
Were you familiar with the book before?
No, I wasn't. It was a book that [Lena] adored, that she'd wanted to adapt since she was, I think, 12 years old or something. But no, [I hadn’t read it]. But in a way, sometimes, I think that's helpful, because it means that you're just looking at the script as a movie rather than having some sort of previous knowledge that you might mistakenly bring into it.
One of the main things we were talking about was how, if you're writing a film about feminism essentially, how, then, are men affected by [the patriarchy] in the same way that women are? It was more interesting to me to make the father character [someone who was] slightly in pain, in the sense that he's not a sort of “conventional” man. In the book, he's maybe a little bit more of the sword-wielding type, sort of a more tough, brutish kind of guy. But I love the idea of him being a little bit more louche and a little bit more delicate. It seemed [like a good idea] to make him somebody who wouldn't fit into society in the same way that his daughter doesn't.
One of the things I loved about your character is that, although he can be viewed as the villain of this story, especially in the eyes of Birdy, your performance makes it hard to totally write him off. Yes, he’s trying to marry his daughter off against her will, but as you mention, there’s also this clear sensitivity to him. How did you reckon with Rollo’s morality?
Well, that's it. I think we look at marriage now as [a union of love]. We engage with it almost entirely as that. But for centuries, marriage was a financial arrangement where you try to marry your family into the most financially secure other family as possible. Good parenting, so to speak, was to ensure that your family was going to survive, so the idea of arranged marriages wasn’t necessarily “evil.” It’s not as we might see it now, as this evil, morally dubious thing to do.
But the main thing was that I think they're a happy family. I think [Rollo and his wife, Lady Aislinn] are happily married. The film is seen from Birdy's perspective, but I think what was important was that we see what his genuine [motive] is, which is that he has to make sure his family survives. But that is not something that Birdy is interested in seeing. I do think some of the people that he arranges for her are a bit grotesque, but it all comes from a good place.
It's just that he's sort of in pain as well. He's a little bit of a child. He's ashamed of the fact that he's not providing for his family. But like a lot of families, the ones who are actually a little bit more similar to each other are the ones who clash the most, rather than the opposite.
Well, Lord Rollo does get a huge redemption moment in the end, in the form of this exciting duel sequence. First off, was it fun to shoot a big fight scene like that?
It was! Well, actually, you know what? It should have been fun to shoot it. But we shot that scene in a full 100% thunderstorm. It was horrendous. So muddy. We were shooting it on a hill that felt like a mountain, so we couldn't have had worse weather for that. But we survived it.
But it is a very redemptive moment. It gives the father his sort of heroic moment, which is the last thing we expect from a character like that. So, yeah, it was gorgeous. And Lena was so generous and facilitating about any ideas that I might have had. One of the things that I was talking about was that, actually, [in that moment], his life really is in danger. For duels in those times, you really are fighting for your life, and he was fighting for his daughter, so that was pretty cool.
I’d like to talk a little more about working with Lena. You have a huge background in Shakespeare, so you came to this project already familiar with material from older time periods. But what I love about this film is that, despite its semi-dark subject matter, Lena finds this way to make everything feel light, without ever downplaying the severity of what’s actually happening on screen. How did it feel to revisit this older period, but in a way I’d imagine has a completely different tonal approach than what you’re used to?
Yeah, well, that’s one of the challenges of it: there's no point in making a film that doesn't resonate with audiences now, particularly about this subject matter, which is about subjugating women. But I think you can get a very strong message out through comedy. That's what Lena is the queen of. She’s absolutely able to get her point across, but she does it with such a lightness of touch, and the same can be said about [her approach to] this setting. We wanted it to feel very contemporary. We were very encouraged to improvise as much as we could. The costumes had a very modern feel. There’s a soundtrack full of amazing mostly female pop and rock music. And we wanted to make the family dynamic as convincing as possible, with, like, both the little small cruelties and the big heart that families have.
So I didn't really think about it very much at all. We had extraordinary production design, and that takes care of a lot. From then on, you just have to understand that the darker things we see, like the arranged marriages or the physical punishment, are not out of barbarism, but were just the conventions of the time.
You just mentioned the modernness of the film’s costumes, which is also something that stood out to me. I was actually envious of your character’s wardrobe. All those silk sets and robes looked so luxurious and so comfortable.
It was so comfortable, oh my god! So incredibly comfortable. I actually was very unlucky. During filming, I fell down the stairs and broke my foot, so I was very lucky to be wearing those silk pajama-type clothes because it meant that I wasn't trussed up in tight jeans or anything like that.
But yeah, [the costumes] were so beautiful. Really easy to wear. Julian Day, our costume designer, really wanted to make them feel modern, and that's the way I wanted it, too. I wanted the father to have a sort of louche feel about him, to even have a slightly androgynous vibe. That’s why he wore a lot of jewelry and a lot of silk, rather than in the book, where, again, he's a much more brutal, beer-swilling, armor-wearing guy. I wanted to break out of what could potentially, on film, just look like a gender stereotype, and make him a little bit more nuanced.
So you consulted on your own wardrobe?
Oh, yeah. That was a big part of [my role] that I loved.
What about working with Bella Ramsey? She is so young, but she’s terrific.
She is just extraordinary. I adore her. It's an enormous task for someone of her age to take on this thing. But, you know, she, more than anybody, was a spearhead in relation to all the improvisation that's in the movie. She made things up. She made songs up. All her dialogue was just full of the spirit of the character, and full of her own spirit as well.
You talk a lot about “chemistry” in movies, and a lot of the time, we attribute [that] to a romantic chemistry. But we needed to have a very strong chemistry ourselves [as father and daughter], and it was so easy to have it with her. She's wonderful. I think we’re all just there to support her, really. She's done an amazing job. I think audiences are going to really love her in it.
A lot of this film was shot with strict COVID protocols in place. What was the hardest part of that aspect and how did you manage to still have fun in spite of that?
It's difficult to film in COVID. Particularly with comedy, you have to have a playful atmosphere [on set], and that's hard when you're wearing a mask and you're asked to be two meters away from each other. It's more debilitating on a movie set than you might imagine. It can destroy an atmosphere, which sometimes you really need to create that authenticity on a movie set.
But having said that, the reason we ended up having a really good time was because of Lena. Lena is incredibly gifted and visionary as an artist, but what I think people don't know about her is how much of a wonderful person she is. She's very generous and supportive and sensitive. The reason we had such a good time and the reason the movie is so full of heart is because her spirit is all over it. I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to work with her. I really am.
It’s so clear how much respect you harbor for Lena, which I think is probably also true of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who wrote your infamous role as The Priest on Fleabag. Do you have any idea why these creators — two hilarious, talented visionary women filmmakers — gravitate toward you when casting the men for their distinctly feminist stories?
One of the things that I think is really true of Lena and Phoebe is that, when you talk about feminist writing, I think you could be mistaken in thinking that [the writers] are therefore only really interested in the female characters. But both Lena and Phoebe [go to great] pains to make the male characters as interesting and as complex as the female ones. They obviously want to see [these men] through the female perspective, but it's not like, Okay, well all women are complex and alluring, and all men are the epitome of everything that's bad in the world. That's not in any way what they want to represent because they're interested in representing humanity. Any great feminist is a great humanist, so [there’s an] idea of, if you're going to talk about feminism, you have to talk about how that affects men as well. If you have a system that praises, almost to a fanatical degree, the importance of machismo and brutality and a complete disregard for vulnerability, then men are, of course, going to suffer as well.
That’s what I think, in a very light way, we wanted to show with this father character, that he's suffering in some way, that his pride is at stake, and that he doesn't really fit in. If he went down to the tavern, I don't think he would fit in with all the other guys down there. Lena was very excited about all that kind of stuff. It’s just a hint of it, because obviously, for the most part, we’re representing lightness. But that doesn't mean that you can't inject a little bit of a message. In fact, sometimes, with comedy, I think you can get more of a message across through laughter.
You also have another project coming up: Showtime’s Tom Ripley series, Ripley, where you play the title character. Is there anything you can tell me about that?
I think it'll be out in the first part of next year. It was a tough job. [The show] is a wonderful, incredibly written version of Patricia Smith’s Tom Ripley novels. I'm very excited to see what people think.
Up until this point, your most famous characters (like Fleabag’s Priest) have mostly been straight. As a gay actor, how does it feel to now be stepping into the shoes of a character who is as iconically queer — or at the very least, queer-coded — as Tom Ripley?
It's a really interesting one. I think that's a really good description of the character. I think he’s very hard to pinpoint. I certainly would describe him as a queer character in the sense that you can't quite place him, which to my mind, is exactly the beauty of what queerness means to me — it’s like, well, I don't know [what he is] and I don't have to say exactly where he is.
But that's been one of the challenges of it, too, is to sort of keep that question alive and not to reduce [his character] too much by labeling it. I think [labeling like that] can sometimes be kind of reductive, certainly with iconic characters like that. But it’s certainly something I’ve thought about, and so it'll be very interesting to see how people respond to what we've done.
Is it exciting to have your leading-man moment?
Yeah, of course. It's never really mattered to me if I’m the main character or a supporting character if the writing is good. But there's certainly something to be said for [playing a character who’s the central focus]. We spend a lot of time with Tom Ripley on his own and also with other characters, so it's a big responsibility. The challenge is simply the sheer amount of time that you spend on set. You're just there all the time, so you have to be able to map out the journey rather than just come in. It's just an enormous amount of work, so I hope that I haven't fucked it up.
As we prepare Catherine Called Birdy’s release, what do you most hope audiences get?
I think you're just going to have a really good time. It's a joyful film. The thing that has surprised people [the most] is how moving it is. People are like, "Oh my god, I was balling and crying." Because, of course, it's about families, and families always have this special place in our hearts because everybody comes from a family, whether they're functional or dysfunctional.
I think it's just a riot of a film and there's a lovely message in it. I think there's an extraordinary central performance with our lovely Bella and I'm very excited for people to see that. I'm also really thrilled for people to be able to see the film and look at Lena in the way that she is, which is somebody who's so full of heart and generosity, and who is so wonderful.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Catherine Called Birdy is out in select theaters today. It premieres on Prime Video on October 7.