Benedict Andrews: the man the stars bare all for

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter

  • Published
Benedict AndrewsImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Benedict Andrews has directed theatre, opera - and now film

Acclaimed Australian director Benedict Andrew talks to the BBC about his current play, his debut film and the "brave" actors in both.

As Alfred Hitchcock proved in Psycho, the humble bathroom shower can be used to generate spine-tingling tension and blood-curdling horror.

Yet it also has a metaphorical resonance - a place where sins can be purged, scars can be healed and mistakes of the past can be symbolically expunged.

On the basis of two of his current artistic projects, the Australian director Benedict Andrews would appear to be of much the same mind.

Image source, Johan Persson
Image caption,
Jack O'Connell and Sienna Miller play Brick and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

In his West End production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the character of Brick - played by Jack O'Connell - is introduced slumped in a shower, his right foot encased in a plaster cast.

O'Connell's co-star Sienna Miller is also called upon to bare all during a staging of Tennessee Williams' classic that is certainly no place for the prim or the prudish.

In Andrews' first film Una, meanwhile, the title character - played by Rooney Mara - is also seen under the shower, determinedly scrubbing away the painful memory of a loveless sexual encounter.

Both works, needless to say, require the actors in question to abandon all modesty in scenes that leave little or nothing to the audience's imagination.

Yet just as apparent in both endeavours is an emotional rawness that is, in its own way, no less exposing.

"It's a truly special, unguarded, very brave performance," says Andrews of Mara's work in Una. "I admire Rooney because her performances are always extremely raw and very honest."

Image source, Charlie Gray
Image caption,
O'Connell was initially unaware of what the production would involve

He is equally complimentary towards his Tin Roof duo, saying he is "blessed" to work with actors "who aren't in the theatre all the time and are really hungry for great material."

Derby-born O'Connell admits he was surprised to learn what his role as Brick - a former football hero turned alcoholic sports announcer - would entail.

"There wasn't a discussion had; I wasn't at that production meeting," he remarks drily. "Had I been, I reckon I might have been a bit more influential.

"Having read the script you were led to believe the shower was off stage, so it was a revelation to realise I'd be starkers. My Nana is going to come see this."

Miller, though, thinks the scene is "a brilliant way to start a West End show. It's just so courageous and jarring and startling.

"It tells you instantly what play you're watching and I think that's the genius of Benedict," says the actress, who plays Maggie 'The Cat', Brick's frustrated and fiery wife, in Williams' tale of buried family secrets and steamy Southern passions.

Image source, Thunderbird Releasing
Image caption,
Rooney Mara plays the title role in Andrews' debut film

Born in Adelaide yet now based in Reykjavik, Andrews is no stranger to Williams' work, having previously directed A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson in London and New York.

And he is no stranger to Una either, having directed the play upon which it is based - David Harrower's Blackbird - at Berlin's Schaubuhne Theatre.

Set in the modern day, the play and film tell of a young woman who seeks out Ray, the older man with whom she had a forbidden relationship 15 years previously.

A one-room two-hander on stage, the play is opened out on screen to incorporate new characters and locations while retaining the original's airless intensity.

"I was curious in approaching my first film to enter again into that very claustrophobic relationship and the knot of those two characters," says Andrews.

"At the same time, the film doesn't aim to be a perfectly faithful, shot-for-shot rendition of the play. It stands alone as its own thing."

Fellow Australian Ben Mendelsohn plays Ray in the film, having earlier played Mark Antony in Andrews' 2005 production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Image source, Thunderbird Releasing
Image caption,
Ben Mendelsohn (right) is known for his roles in Rogue One and TV's Bloodline

"Like Rooney, he's such a brave actor," says the director. "He's got one of the greatest faces in modern cinema and he is unafraid to take audiences to dark and damaged places of the human soul."

Dealing as it does with an illicit taboo, Una will inevitably prove controversial. Yet the director feels it does so in a sensitive and responsible way.

"In no way does the film allow any condoning of what happened between the two of them," he insists.

"The film doesn't aim to give any easy answers, which was always the strength and part of the attraction of David's play."

Between Cat On a Hot Tin Roof's on-stage nudity and the paedophilia at the heart of Una, it is evident Andrews has no qualms with both difficult material and divisive interpretations.

The future, he says, will see him continue with his stage work but will not preclude further forays away from it.

Image source, JOHAN PERSSON
Image caption,
Gillian Anderson starred in Andrews' 2014 staging of A Streetcar Named Desire

"The theatre will always be my home and the gymnasium I want to return to," he tells BBC News.

"But now I've started making films, it's definitely where I want to spend a lot of my energy and focus."

Do not be surprised, though, if he returns to the work of Tennessee Williams, a playwright he dubs "a great poet of human desire".

"The writing is fierce and muscular and full of transcendent humanity," he says enthusiastically.

"The great plays are just as good as they get, and Cat and Streetcar are certainly two of those."

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs at London's Apollo Theatre until 7 October. Una opens in UK cinemas on 1 September.

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