Anne Hathaway & Thomasin McKenzie Enjoy Eileen’s Unlikeable Characters
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Anne Hathaway & Thomasin McKenzie Enjoy Eileen’s Unlikeable Characters

In Eileen, Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie set an icy winter’s night ablaze.

Finally, an Ottessa Moshfegh novel has finally made it to the big screen. Eileen was not only Moshfegh’s first novel, it is the first film realization of her macabre mind: a rapturous, psychological neo-noir told in a Massachusetts drawl on a freezing day, so cold you can see your own breath.

Directed by William Oldroyd (Lady MacBeth) and written by Moshfegh and her husband Luke Goebel, Eileen follows Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) a young woman living in a small Massachusetts town in the ‘60s, who spends her time fantasizing about security guards at the boys’ prison where she works, surviving abuse by her alcoholic father (Shea Whigham), and eating disgusting amounts of candy. She finds a lifeline in Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), an older psychologist who comes to work at the prison. The two begin an unlikely friendship, fueled by loneliness, martinis, as well as by Eileen’s covert queer longings – that is, until a shocking climax changes everything.

While Eileen in the book was frequently criticized for being disgustinga claim Moshfegh has recently pushed back against — McKenzie’s Eileen is precocious as she is intensely lonely, while Hathaway is as glamorous as ever, channeling movie star gravitas as Rebecca, a role in which she donned a Hitchcock-bleach blonde wig and pack of cigarettes, à la Monica Vitti. Having Rebecca go blonde was an idea both Hathway and Oldroyd had while reading the script.

“I got very excited because so much of the language of noir was defined by Hitchcock, and so many of the Hitchcock women were blonde,” Hathaway says. “It wasn't about reclaiming it, but it was about showing that that was the world Rebecca would've crafted herself in. That was the language that she would've had available to her, and that was the representation that she would've seen, and that's what she would've associated with power.”

Combining femme fatale-level power with Moshfegh’s brain, along with the star power Hathaway already possesses, Eileen is like seeing a comet come to life. Ahead, Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie discuss the relatability of Moshfegh’s work, Hitchcock blondes, and more.

Eileen is out Dec. 1 in select theaters.

Eileen was highly anticipated and Ottessa is one of the most compelling contemporary authors today. I'm curious about what you two think about Ottessa’s work and why young people relate to her books so much.

Thomasin McKenzie: Truthfully, I think Ottessa’s books may help us to realize that human beings have faults. All human beings have faults. We don't need to be so ashamed of ourselves because people are weird.

Anne Hathaway: I think that it's really refreshing to read about ugliness described in such an effulgence. To have certain scary things like rage and disgust and self-loathing, to have all of these very human instincts that are so outsized in particular when you're young, before you learn how to groove with yourself to have them so brilliantly captured, it really makes you feel seen, safe, less alone, thrilled. I really felt very released when I read Eileen. I just felt like my younger self that was so confused and had a harshness to her felt very, very represented. Maybe not all of Eileen. [Laughs] But some of it.

Much of Ottessa’s work captures the grotesqueness of the body. She's not afraid to go to extremes, especially when it comes to writing about sadness or writing about the dark parts of ourselves. How did you decide how far to take the characters? Were you concerned with that line of being too unlikable?

AH: I've never cared. Likability, that's a different path. I've always said this: I actually think that sometimes unlikable characters are way more lovable, and I think that audiences care if they love a character. I actually think it'd be kind of fun to dislike some, at least onscreen, for an hour and a half.

TM: It keeps things interesting. Also, you're allowed to b*tch about a character, not necessarily a real person. It is a good release.

AH: I think that sometimes films benefit from a little bit of obnoxiousness.

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What is the most difficult part of playing each of these roles? They're both so complex.

AH: There's a line in Breakfast at Tiffany's where Holly Golightly is described as being a real phony. And I kept thinking about that with Rebecca: The idea that somebody was so self-created that I wanted you to be able to believe that at some point she was a real person, but that was many dye jobs ago, the idea that she's so artificial as to have kind of transcended it. It was a very, very, very delicate balance because done wrong, and with a different director, it could have gone into, I don't know, cartoony or something I didn't want. I think you had to believe that this very artificially made up person had a real heart inside of her.

TM: For me, I think one of the biggest challenges was the accent and wanting to get that right, because Ottessa herself is from Massachusetts, that's where her family lives. She knows what that accent sounds like, and I don't think she'd be afraid to say if I was getting it wrong. I was like, “Okay, I've really got to be on the ball with that.” Also, and this is also true for a few films I've done that have come out over the past couple of years, the biggest difficulty for me was the fact that we're all filming during COVID and filming during COVID is very isolating because the production protocols are really strict. You can do very little socializing and very little reentry into the real world. So that was tricky, trying to do a good job at work, but also stay sane.

I want to go back to the hair for a second. I keep thinking about your wig, Anne. I would love to hear a little more about how the wig helped transform the character.

AH: That was an idea that [director William Oldroyd] and I both had. We thought blonde could be really fun. He told me early on in the process that he wanted to channel the essence of Monica Vitti. I got very excited because, of course, so much of the language of noir was defined by Hitchcock, and so many of the Hitchcock women were blonde. It wasn't about reclaiming it, but it was about showing that that was the world Rebecca would've crafted herself in. That was the language that she would've had available to her, and that was the representation that she would've seen, and that's what she would've associated with power. To take that really deeply baked-in cinematic relationship that we have with blondes and noir on screen, and then combine it with the sensuality of Monica Vitti, but then put it all through the lens of Ottessa and Luke [Goebel, Moshfegh’s husband and Eileen co-writer], of course guided by [Oldroyd] — I was so excited to be there.


Are any other books that you would like to see adapted or would like to star in?

TM: I think My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I think it was in talks to be adapted into a film, but I'd be really keen to see that. Any of Ottessa's work really.

AH: This is really weird and it would be a very, very strange movie, but there is this book called Epic English Words, and it's just a collection of the most beautiful words that have to deal with creativity and wonder. I would love to see the adaptation of that. It's more of an art project. Oh, and you know what? I just read Acts of Service [by Lillian Fishman]. So good. I'll be very curious as to what an adaptation of that and who could adapt that and get inside of it.

TM: I don't know if you guys have read the CHERUB series [by Robert Muchamore]. It's a young teen book series about kid spies or teen spies. I was obsessed with it when I was younger, and I'm so surprised they haven't made that into a Harry Potter-type franchise because it would be really good. I'd like to see that. I've wanted to be able to play one of the teens, but we've passed that point now.

AH: Not if you cast me as another teen!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.