(Photo by Guy Coombes; Stylist: Paris Mitchell Temple; Hair and Make-Up: Kath Gould)
In mid-March 2020, at the front end of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, Welsh actress Morfydd Clark was a star on the rise. At the time, Clark was anticipating the imminent openings of two films that would go on to reap great acclaim: The Personal History of David Copperfield, based on the much-adapted Charles Dickens novel and in which she plays two pivotal supporting roles, and as the lead in psychological horror film Saint Maud. She had also garnered attention for piercing performances in films, as disaffected Frederica in the Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, for one, and as the young Jane in Craig Robert’s Eternal Beauty, for another. On TV, she’s appeared as emotionally-lobotomized Sister Clara in His Dark Materials, based on author Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and, in yet another literary adaptation, as Mina in Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s Dracula.
Director Armando Iannucci’s Dickens adaptation would finally find release in theaters in August and then on streaming in November, but A24’s Saint Maud, the debut film of writer-director Rose Glass, has experienced fits and starts in its journey toward its limited release this month. The film, which had been screened on the festival circuit and is Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, was simply waiting to dazzle a wider audience.
“In sight and sound, every second of this film is alive with art and agony, making Saint Maud a righteously haunting horror offering that deserves to be worshipped,” wrote IGN Movies critic Kristy Puchko.
Clark’s Maud is a newly converted religious fanatic who works as a live-in nurse to dying Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Maud also adopts the task of saving Amanda’s soul, but the young caregiver’s piety slips into delusional obsession — or does it? Filmmaker Glass leaves audiences guessing whether Maud is having a mental health crisis and hallucinating or viewers are simply too quick to pass judgement on her visceral faith.
Variety critic Guy Lodge observed: “Maud is like Carrie White and her mother Margaret rolled into one unholy holy terror; as played with brilliant, blood-freezing intensity by Morfydd Clark, she’s a genre anti-heroine to cherish, protect and recoil from, sometimes all at once.”
So 2020 should have been Clark’s breakout year, but 2021 may have to do. The actress also has a major role in Amazon’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings series, which is set in the Second Age of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth, before the events of Peter Jackson’s film adaptions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The setting during that period suggests a younger Lady Galadriel (the royal Elf played by Cate Blanchett in Jackson’s films), her husband Celeborn, the founding of Lothlórien, and the forging of Rings of Power will all be featured. Clark’s role in the series hasn’t been officially announced, but fans have their suspicions.
In a March phone call from New Zealand, where The Lord of the Rings is filming, Clark spoke to Rotten Tomatoes about Saint Maud, Copperfield, and her favorite films. Here’s what the BAFTA Rising Star nominee said:
Groundhog Day (1993)
I just love Bill Murray so much. Granted, I think he’s like perfect, because he’s Bill Murray. I just find it so funny, and there’s something about a film that’s all set on the one day, that happens again and again and again, for some reason you want to watch again and again and again — I kind of love the irony of that. I started watching it when I was really little with my dad, because he loves it, and it was one of those films that every time that I watched it, every year or so, and would get more and more of the jokes, and I still feel that every time I watch it there’s something else that I haven’t noticed. And it made me fall in love with Bill Murray, and that has lasted all my life.
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
So this is one that definitely “favorite” is the wrong word for it, because I find it so horrendous and I’ve only watched it three times and I don’t know if I could watch it again, but Pan’s Labyrinth. I think it was the first super-adult film I watched, and I remember watching it on my own, just being awfully devastated. I don’t know if you’d describe Pan’s Labyrinth as horror, but it was the first horror film … that I’d seen shine light on the horrifying things that people do, and kind of also [include] fantasy with that. There was lots in Pan’s Labyrinth that I thought was kind of childish until I saw Pan’s Labyrinth. It was the sort of things that I liked that kind of weren’t adult or grown-up, and Pan’s Labyrinth kind of opened that to me and just devastated me in a way that no film ever has.
Do you think Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie you should watch alone or would you recommend watching it with other people?
No, I shouldn’t have watched it alone, but I also hate crying in front of other people at films. I find I love going to the cinema, but there’s something about the intensity of feeling you’re having with all these strangers that sometimes I find totally overwhelming. I’m like, Ahh I’m so exposed, I’m feeling so much. But I definitely should have arranged to see someone straight after; it was the aftermath that was awful, just lying there, staring at the ceiling, just gutted.
Strictly Ballroom (1992)
The next one is Strictly Ballroom. It makes me so happy … I love all of Baz Lurhmann’s films — that Moulin Rouge has got the all of these grand sets, and Romeo & Juliet has the language of Shakespeare, and then Strictly Ballroom has the dancing. I love that. And that scene where he’s dancing on his own was very sexy to me as a 12 year old. I was like, Oh my gosh, what are these feelings I’m having for this man dancing in his little vest … Strictly Ballroom is something I’ll watch if I’m feeling — well, kind of any mood, but particularly if I’m feeling a little blue. It’s like injecting happiness into my veins. And I just love the colors. I can see the color palette so clearly in my mind and it brings me such joy — and also just the dancing is amazing.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
The next one is Sense and Sensibility, the Emma Thompson film. I have a sister and I feel the dynamic of them — it was a film that made me understand myself and my world. I struggled to pick an Austen that I like the most because I just love them all, but I think that film is so perfectly adapted, and they’re wonderfully acted and so gorgeously shot.
Twin Town (1997)
My final one, I would say is Twin Town, which is a Welsh film, with Rhys Ifans and his brother Llyr set in Swansea with Dougray Scott as a very nasty guy. I watched it alone from home and what, was really wonderful about Twin Town is that — it’s kind of the great thing about being Welsh, is that it’s so small, you go on nights out and you see rugby players, and then I watched Twin Town and then realized that one of the actors in it walks his dog on the same old railway line as us, I was like, Oh my gosh, this guy is an actor. I’d say Twin Town is hilarious, it’s kind of grim, and it’s Welsh, and I love all those things — and Rhys Ifans.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: It’s interesting what you said about Pan’s Labyrinth gutting you and then Strictly Ballroom bringing you absolutely absolute joy, because it reminds me of Saint Maud and David Copperfield; they’re complete opposites, and Saint Maud very much gutted me, and then with David Copperfield, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.
Clark: Yay, that makes me so happy, [to hear] people talk about Copperfield like that because that’s what Armando wanted to do, he wanted give people a film that would just make them love everyone and everything and make them really happy and that kind of stuff. It seems to be what’s happening and it is just so lovely.
You played two roles in that.
Clark: I did. Which I only auditioned for one of them and then had lunch with Armando before he cast me just to kind of meet me, because he likes to meet people and see if you connect with them — not only just send a tape — and then he’s like, “So we want you to play Clara as well.” And then I had to go through this whole meeting kind of being like, I need to scream. Ahhhh! I can’t believe this has happened. But yeah, that was really lovely, and it was also meant that I acted with Jairaj [Varsani], he played young David Copperfield. He was just wonderful.
That was a beautiful beautiful relationship on screen. Did Armando make that choice to have you play both roles so that it gives Dev’s David Copperfield more reason to connect with Dora?
Clark: Yeah, in the book he says that Dora is a lot like his mother and kind of reminds him of his mother, but also it’s kind of the idea that he’s constantly trying to kind of find what he’s lost and what he once had, and so when he meets Dora it and there is like big similarities, he’s like, I must grab that because that’s something that was gone from me. And then you kind of obviously realize that doesn’t mean that it’s right. I think David’s constantly trying to get back what is now gone instead of trying to make a new world, and Dora represents that kind of stuff and is amplified by being played by me.
(Photo by A24)
I know you’ve done horror before, but can you tell me what drew you to Saint Maud?
Clark: I am really obsessed with the health service. I have lots of family who work in it, but also just kind of constantly was watching 24 Hours on A&E, 999: What’s Your Emergency, and One Born Every Minute. I find the idea that the people who want to care for people most are in a situation — because of money, stress, and work hours — are kind of being broken and that is so sad and just wrong. And so immediately when I started reading it and realized she was a nurse and she just kind of experienced burnout, I was like, I care about this, I care about her, and it shouldn’t have happened, but I want to protect her. So it kind of immediately made me care about her.
Did you read the script and think, Oh my God, I have to play this role?
Clark: I think it’s more that I read scripts am sometimes like, Oh my gosh, I have no idea what to do with this. I would be really bad at that. When I read Maud I was like, Oooo, I think I could do this actually. I think I’d know why she did these things. I think I’d understand her. There’s so many moments that you’re like, Oh my God, I can’t believe that has happened, but equally like, Of course that happened. So this is happened to Maud, then this and this and this, and this has happened to Amanda. And so I found the kind of amazing juxtaposition that Rose manages to get in terms of … kind of making the extreme mundane and ordinary and normal and make perfect sense is really kind of interesting to me.
And I also read it being like, Oh, there’re no scenes in this that I’ll be terrified to film. Because the ones I’m terrified to film are always ones that I just can’t quite make sense of or quite understand, and there was huge clarity of who the woman was and why this story happens. So I think that’s what it was: I kind of felt that I wouldn’t be terrible.
Is the horror supposed to be real or is it supposed to be in her mind?
Clark: Rose did a lot [of research] about how saints possibly had mental illnesses, like Joan of Arc. There’re those really interesting podcasts about it. There’s a particular type of thing that can happen in the brain that you get these very vivid hallucinations.
So my last question is: Are you as excited to be in The Lord of the Rings as fans are to see it?
Clark: Oh my gosh, I’m such a Lord of the Rings fan, I can’t tell you. I have this really clear image of telling everyone to leave me alone while I was reading The Hobbit at year six. And then I’ve watched those films so many times, and I think that it’s been very hard to reconcile this with the idea this is actually happening, because it’s just crazy to me that I am in it, because I’d have been so excited just to watch it.
I’m just thrilled for you. It’s a really exciting time with these films and your role in Lord of the Rings. It seems like a wonderful time in your career.
Clark: Thank you. I am starting to kind of allow myself be like, It’s all kind of working out. Enjoy it.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Keep healthy and safe.
Clark: I know. It was making me think of all these cool nurses and doctors working so hard. I just really want them all to be OK.
Saint Maud releases in U.S. theaters today and will be available on Epix starting February 12; The Personal History of David Copperfield is available to rent and buy through most major streaming video-on-demand services; The Lord of the Rings will stream on Amazon Prime Video.