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June 18, 2008

The Escapist - Interview with Dominic Cooper (Lacey) and Steven Mackintosh (Tony)

TheescapistDominic Cooper and Steven Mackintosh took time out to talk to myfilms about their gripping new thriller, The Escapist. You can read our review of the film by clicking on The Escapist Review.

myfilms
Your last film The History Boys (about a class of talented teenage pupils) and The Escapist are both ensemble pieces, but they’re also very different films. Was your experience of working on each film different too?

Dominic Cooper
Very different, and I hadn’t actually thought a great deal about that until you just mentioned it. One of the biggest differences is the fact that The History Boys was extremely wordy. Wonderful writing by an amazing man but a huge amount of dialogue, which is something that actors – or I, certainly – hide behind to get the point across of what you’re trying to say.

But what struck me about The Escapist when I first read the script was how sparse the dialogue was. We therefore had to have a lot of faith in the director that he was going to be able to get across [what wasn't being said]. I certainly think we achieved it, but while filming it was quite scary because we thought: “Are we getting what we need?” and “Is what we want to say being said?” But I think it’s a lesson learnt because the film has achieved that really effectively, and sometimes you get a lot more by saying less.

In terms of being an ensemble piece, The Escapist is also very important although very different to The History Boys. In The Escapist you have a bunch of guys who wouldn’t necessarily collaborate, don’t necessarily like each other and come from very different backgrounds. But they have to find unity to get them out of the circumstances in which they’re in.

myfilms
In your last film, Sugarhouse, your character initially appears quite hardened and intent on committing murder. But as the film progresses, we realise that things aren’t quite what they seem. In The Escapist, Tony – who’s protected by his brother Rizza (played by Damian Lewis), the prison kingpin – appears to be an out-and-out psycho. Do you think this is a fair assessment of his character?

Steven Mackintosh
I think you see him as an out-and-out psycho because there are lots of elements to his character that you’re not seeing. It’s fair to say that this is a tough guy, who’s obviously severely damaged, and we don’t really get to know what the reasons are for that. But we see him as this psychotic, manipulating character, and that’s the purpose that he serves within the story. But I’m sure there are redeeming features there somewhere, although you might have to dig around to find them. And I would imagine that Rizza and Tony have a very troubled past and they’ve both responded to it in their own ways.

myfilms
The Escapist was written around the character of Frank, with whom you share a cell. What was it like playing opposite Brian Cox and did you learn anything from him?

Dominic Cooper
Yeah, it’s always wonderful working with someone who’s had that amount of experience when you haven’t had nearly as much yourself. I wasn’t ever daunted by it, though, because I met him early on and he was a lovely, generous man – as he is a very generous actor. You’re learning all the time. You’re filming in very difficult circumstances and with very little time. We had to assess a scene really quickly and try and work out how we were going to demonstrate what we wanted to get across, in the best possible way. It’s always great working with any actor who gives something back, whether they have dialogue or no dialogue, and Brian was brilliant. He was also enthusiastic towards the piece. At times, when we didn’t necessarily know what was going on and were thinking that a shot, which we only had one chance of doing, couldn’t possibly work, we had a leader around us and that was really important.

myfilms
Tony and Rizza dominate the prison and will do whatever it takes to get what they want. Were you aware of what prison life was really like before you got the part?

Steven Mackintosh
In all honesty, my only experience of prison is through watching fiction based on prison life. Obviously, in certain prison dramas there are stock characters that you see: the bullies, the bullied and the controllers, and I’m sure that’s based on reality. I think what’s important is that this film is not strictly about realism; it’s in a kind of heightened world. We’re in the here and now, and in London, but in many senses you’re being asked to believe in a film world, and I think that’s really important. The Escapist is quite ‘non-specific’ about its locality and its time. It doesn’t get too bogged down in why the characters are there. It’s more enigmatic than that, and more far reaching.

myfilms
You both have a particular scene in the film that’s very unpleasant (a rape scene). But the suggestion of the act and your subsequent reactions make it really effective. Was your approach to that scene different to any of the others, and did you find it difficult?

Dominic Cooper
As you say, it’s to do with the suggestion of what’s happening. We had to try in some way to understand what that situation could possibly be like. We then had long chats with Rupert (Rupert Wyatt - the co-writer and director) about how it was going to be suggested; about the fear of the situation beforehand; about the effect that it had afterwards; and about the reaction of my character, who turns to violence and risks his own life.

Steven Mackintosh
I think that at some stage there were discussions about whether we should catch a glimpse of something in this scene. And I didn’t doubt it for one second when we pulled back from that because you really don’t need to see anything graphic. It’s as clear as day, and Lacey’s response tells you everything you really need to know about how awful that is.

Dominic Cooper
Later on, the director did feel that we needed a tiny addition, so a shot of a knife being pulled in the shower was added in. Perhaps because of our physicality, it needed another element to show it was even more threatening than we imagined.

Steven Mackintosh
Oh yes. Well remembered. Suddenly there was an insert of a hand on a knife, which gives the scene an extra something. But the predatory nature of the suggested act is enough. The scene that leads up to it, the circling and closing in and the pursuit up the corridor, all turn Tony into a pressure cooker ready to blow.

myfilms
Prison films are quite a popular genre. What do you think makes The Escapist different to many of the other films we’ve seen?

Steven Mackintosh
The puzzle quality that it has is something that I’ve certainly never seen before. Messing with time is not a new thing in film, but using it in this context was really brave and unusual. The danger with doing time jumps is that it can leave you rather unsatisfied – unless you have a fantastic payoff. But fortunately, The Escapist pays off beautifully. Brian’s story is very sad and that’s what stays with you. You’re not just left thinking it’s a ‘tricksy’ film where time jumps around, it actually has real meaning.

Dominic Cooper
The film comes from a very heartfelt place and has been edited incredibly. The sound engineering is fantastic. You’re always aware of the outside threat but you never actually see it. You never see the guards with the dogs, you never see the chase, you just get glimpses of them and you hear them, and that’s very effective.

[Interviewed and posted by HC]

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