When you’re talking to Andrew Scott he leans in. As a listener and conversationalist you feel like you might be the only two people in the world at that moment but he also speaks with a hushed whisper like no one else should hear it should prying ears be nearby.
It’s fitting as we talk about his new film, All of Us Strangers, his first ever lead in a major motion picture, with a quiet reverence matched with a happy enthusiasm that reads crystal clear in his face, which is mere inches from mine. Steeped in intimacy, the premise of All of Us Strangers is a bold one that asks its audience to lose themselves in the mystery and love. One night in his near-empty tower block in contemporary London, Adam (Scott) has a chance encounter with a mysterious neighbor Harry (Academy Award nominee Paul Mescal), which punctures the rhythm of his everyday life. As a relationship develops between them, Adam is preoccupied with memories of the past and finds himself drawn back to the suburban town where he grew up, and the childhood home where his parents (Emmy Award winner Claire Foy and BAFTA winner Jamie Bell), appear to be living, just as they were on the day they died, 30 years before. A metaphorical and metaphysical ghost story and romance, one of self discovery and forgiveness, All of Us Strangers has moved audiences to tears from Telluride to New York to London, myself included dear reader. Shocking, I know.
Whether your entry point to Scott’s career is his devilish Moriarty on Sherlock (which won him a BAFTA), ‘Hot Priest’ on Fleabag (for which he won a Critics’ Choice Award and was nominated for a SAG and Golden Globe), his Emmy-nominated turn in Black Mirror or his storied and award-winning theatre work (he just won his second Evening Standard Award recently, for Vanya), his singular work in in All of Us Strangers, for which he is Gotham and BIFA-nominated, fans new and old will see Scott in a new light, the spotlight, front and center.
Erik Anderson: I’m really thrilled to finally be able to talk to you, Andrew, because this is my favorite film of the year.
AS: Oh, wow. Thank you.
EA: I have to admit right now that I’ve seen it three times.
AS: Have you really?
EA: And I’m still alive to tell the tale. And I’m sure Andrew [Haigh] is really happy too because he’s got you guys to be able to shoulder some of the weight of talking about it now.
AS: (laughs) Yeah, absolutely, he’s been talking a lot. So has it been a different experience each time you’ve watched it?
EA: A little bit, yes. Because the different parts of the country, different audiences, different demographics.
AS: Of course. Yes, yes.
EA: And the first time was hard, at Telluride, because I was crying so much. I was not paying any attention to anyone else, but I’m sure somebody else will have a story of ‘I was watching this movie and this guy would not stop crying.’
AS: (laughs) Yeah, it sort of does that, doesn’t it?
EA: It really does.
AS: I saw it for the first time with an audience three nights ago.
EA: Oh, gosh. How was that?
AS: It was a really extraordinary experience. Paul and I had seen it together in this wee screening room in London, and we were affected by it. But there’s something about doing that as a communal experience that really hits home.
EA: It very much does. And people certainly respond to different sections and maybe have triggers that they didn’t realize.
EA: I want to read you something really quick from a conversation I had with Andrew about you if that’s ok.
AS: Okay. [his eyes open wider]
EA: “Why has he not had a leading role in a movie? It makes no sense. He’s so brilliant, subtle, intuitive, emotional. I sat down with him, had a conversation with him. I think he felt like you’ve written a script for me about me, and he really understood it.” And I was like, “Yes, you are the right person.” I’d love to hear your thoughts about reading the script initially and how close or how far is Adam from Andrew?
AS: Well, yeah, he’d written this sort of extraordinary, what’s the word? Indescribable kind of script. Even now, I find it hard to describe the film. It sort of had so many different types of cinematic conventions within it, but ultimately that it was just so truthful. I think I just wanted to say those words, and I wanted to not just say the words, but to sort of be that person.
And then I spoke to him and he’s an incredibly kind person, and he wears his… I thought that Andrew was going to be a much more serious person than he is. He was very kind and he really listened to me, and I knew that he was going to shoot it in his family home, which we did, and he just wore that so lightly. It was such an act of generosity to do that. To think that he would’ve cried in that bedroom that all the crew were all in, and lost his tooth and put under a pillow in there, and then here we are in this thing.
It’s such a generous thing to do. And so I’ve never met his parents and he’s never met mine, but I really strongly felt that the character had to be some sort of weird marriage between Andrew and me. And so I didn’t want to act in any way. I know that sounds kind of ridiculous, but I just wanted to take that. It’s something that he says and the character says in the script, which is, “It doesn’t take much to bring you back there.”
Mercifully. I feel very comfortable with myself now, and I have for a long time, but there was a time when I felt less like that. And so the challenge was how do you go back into that space where you feel like, “Am I going to be accepted in that way?” Even before the adolescent years, when you’re 9 or 10, you can’t quite work out what it is that there’s something about you that you inherently feel that you might need to conceal, and how do you bring that childish feeling into this character without do it in a subtle way?
And so that’s what I… And then there’s a dual challenge because you’re talking about familial love, and then you’re also talking about romantic love. So it felt really personal. But I know that it was so personal with him. So I feel like we have to do it together. And you kind of want to do it for not just him and me, but for lots of people that I feel are my comrades in this experience.
EA: Yeah, very much so.
AS: Yeah, yeah.
EA: I know Andrew doesn’t like to do a whole lot of rehearsals so that things can have some spontaneity. Your relationship in the film with Paul Mescal requires a lot of intimacy and trust. What did you guys do in the moment to do that? Because it obviously comes across on screen.
AS: I think we both love the idea of playing love. It’s a very beautiful thing to play, particularly if you’re two lonely characters who are. So if you’re thinking about that, which you inevitably have to do separately as actors, where is this person coming from? And I filmed quite a lot of stuff just on my own. So then the actual pleasure of playing somebody who’s falling in love and connecting with somebody, it just becomes really easy, particularly if the other person loves doing that as well.
So we didn’t really overdo it. There’s no need to. And also it’s that sort of freestyle that you want to capture as you get to know somebody. And we knew each other from before, Paul and I, not as well as we know each other now. And I’m glad of that actually, because you can see it in the film. And actually, I think the sex we have in the movie, I think the thing that I was really struck by, actually, we were both saying it the other day, having seen the film together, the tenderness between the two of us is enormous.
And it’s kind of exposing and wonderful. But I think that’s the stuff, that’s what I really believe is radical, is the tenderness between two men. Because people understand, certain factions of the community can understand, sex and sexual compulsion. But I think what’s more radical is seeing tenderness between two men, and genuine love. And I love that the people have responded to that.
EA: And the sex scenes in the film are obviously very specifically gay.
EA: There’s hairy thighs, and stubble, the intimacy is very physical, but it’s emotional first before anything else.
AS: Absolutely, yeah. And those scenes where you just look at each other, and you’re pre or post sex, I think, and the affection, there’s a whole montage of whether they’re just hanging out with each other. Yeah, we just love doing that, sleeping together. There’s a beautiful scene in it, actually, that I love. It’s just in a montage where they’re both asleep, but they’re not necessarily… they’ve both got their backs to each other. And that’s what I love, that sort of sentimentality of they’re not sleeping curled up together naked. They sleep like normal people sleep, sometimes you’re not facing each other. You cuddle for a little and you turn over. But that’s real love.
EA: It’s so funny in the movies when people are like this [makes spooning gesture] when they go to bed and then they’re like-
AS: (laughs) And they’re in exactly the same position in the morning.
EA: (laughs) Spooning is not an all night event!
AS: It’s not a constant through the nighttime.
EA: Yes. Music is a really huge part of this film. How’s that for a transition? (laughs)
EA: I mean, whether it’s “The Power of Love,” or-
AS: Pet Shop Boys.
EA: Pet Shop Boys, oh my God. And I know for Andrew, they’re very personal. What were you listening to in 1987?
AS: I promise you this is the truth. I was obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys. So Pet Shop Boys’ Actually, that album, I mean, “Always on My Mind” was, I remember when it was a Christmas number one. I knew every song on that album. I was a huge fan. So genuinely, Pet Shop Boys.
It was so lovely to be able to talk to Andrew about that. I was like, “What would they be watching on TV?” And I’d be naming all the stuff. And even going into the childhood bedroom, I was taking pictures on my phone and sending them to my siblings. Because the production design was so wonderful that you’re like, “We had this toy. We literally had them.” The chipped wallpaper that you remember so clearly from your childhood bedroom, with a duvet, or the smell of your father’s sweater, or your mom’s perfume, or the smell of their bedroom.
I became really fascinated with the idea of… Yeah, the film was really tactile, I think. There’s loads of touching, touching of the parents. And I became really interested in the idea of how he would be physically, the more he got to know his parents, with getting into their bed, and just being lower than them. And if you wanted for the dad to stop speaking to you – the way my God-kids do – they just stop the person speaking. It is just like how are those things that you can convey childishness without being a bit OTT with it?
EA: Well, and that’s one of the interesting things, is that we get that visual view in the-
AS: In the pajamas.
EA: Yep, the pajamas, which is funny, but it’s also the very powerful pull of nostalgia. Because we can see that and understand exactly what it means, the way that we understand that when you’re sick, you drink ginger ale.
EA: Right? It doesn’t do anything but you think that it does.
AS: Exactly, exactly. And the idea of that feeling of when you feel sick, and the coldness of the steps going down, or knocking on your parents’ bedroom door. That feeling, it’s so primal.
EA: That definitely brings me to the coming out scenes in the film, which are really among the best I have ever seen, because they each represent maybe even a slightly idealized version and one disappointing version, and then one where they kind of meet in the middle. But each time I’ve been able to anticipate the conversation you have with Jamie, and I was like, “Okay-“
AS: “I know what’s happening…” (laughs)
EA: (laughs) “… I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” And I’m absolutely not. I think I actually pre-cried because I know what’s going to happen.
AS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
EA: I’d love to hear your work with each of them on those, because those are really special moments.
AS: They are special. I think what I think is really… I think the reason that those scenes are so affecting, because I found them so affecting doing them, but now that people are responding to them, I think it’s because they are lacking in an extremism. And I think that’s so much of the queer experience a little bit in coming out. But it’s not necessarily outright rejection, or it’s not necessarily full-hearted embracing. A lot of the time for a lot of us, it’s somewhere in between. That you can know that you’re still loved, but your parents still say something that’s accidentally cruel, or they ask you clumsy questions, or they make you feel unseen, and they make you feel angry. But you also are trying to, in a very vulnerable way, make them still love you, and make them try and convince them that everything is okay, that you’re still the same kind of person.
So the kind of delicacy that those scenes embrace is what makes them so special, I think. That’s why it’s moving. Because you go, “I know why he’s saying that, but don’t say it that way.” Or, “Why is she being so brutal?” But also, there’s something that I really strongly feel, and something that I remember saying to my parents years ago, that they have to forgive themselves or whatever attitude that they may have had. Because in the media at the time, all it did was inspire doubt and prejudice in its readers.
And when we were researching Pride, I looked at some of the media in the late 1980s, and it was absolutely extraordinary what they were allowed to say about people. So no wonder parents, if their child told them they were gay, might feel, as Claire says, “That’s not something you would ever want for your children,” because of course what they were fed constantly. So it still happens in the media sometimes about the way we talk about the fear mongering that exists.
So if you’re fed that…[Scott takes a long pause] your children are fed that…[pause] now that a film like this is being made, it feels totally miraculous to me that there’s a film like that exists. And the fact that I would get to have the responsibility, and the privilege, genuinely, of playing a character like that is the kind of reason that I didn’t want to ‘act.’ Because I didn’t feel like why would I need to do anything extraneous?
EA: Absolutely. And the film exists in two very different spaces with Adam and Harry also being generationally in different places. What do you hope that different generations that see this, our generation, and before, and above, can all take from it?
AS: Well, I always find that really interesting, because newer people say, “It’s 2023, you got to get with the program,” as if in 2073 they’re going to think, “Look at those cavemen.” It has nothing to do with modernity. Since the dawn of humanity, there’s been different types of sexuality, and that will continue until the end of humanity.
So there isn’t actually any… I don’t know, the generational thing is, in one way, one of my questions was, I wondered ‘will a younger audience relate to this?’ And my God, they do. Because it’s not extremist. And I always think that coming out has nothing to do with sexuality. I don’t think when you’re coming out to your parents, you’re thinking, “Oh, I feel so frisky.”
You’re not thinking about sex, you’re thinking about your identity. You’re thinking about a part of you that you hope is accepted. It’s not actually about sex, so to speak, because nobody wants to think about members of their family having sex, any of them. Do you know what I’m saying?
AS: So it’s just about… So, it’s really interesting, in a way, sort of how different we are from previous generations or future generations. I don’t think we’re really that different, but the way we talk about it, I think, can change. I do think we’ve, as they say, the war is never over, but my God, we’ve come a long way.
EA: I think so.
AS: Yeah, yeah.
EA: Andrew, thank you so much. I have to say that your performance means so much to me.
AS: Thank you so much, that means so much to me. Lots of love, Erik. Absolutely gorgeous talking to you.
All of Us Strangers will be released in theaters from Searchlight Pictures on December 22.
This interview has been edited and condensed for content and clarity.
Photo by Chris Harris. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.