“I’ve been thinking about Maud a lot during this time and wondering how she’d cope with everything that’s going on – she probably wouldn’t.” Rising star Morfydd Clark is wondering how the fractured character she plays in psychological horror Saint Maud might fare against 2020 – and the outcome isn’t good.
Released this week, Rose Glass’s directorial debut earned glowing festival reviews before Covid-19 threw everything into disarray. Set in a damp seaside town, it follows a pious and desperately lonely palliative care nurse (Clark) who believes God is communicating with her through a series of electric encounters that take a deadly turn. As lockdown uncertainty lingered, Glass’s quiet commentary on the perils of loneliness and unchecked mental health gained unexpected layers of resonance, adding further clout to a powerful breakthrough performance from its emerging leading lady. And yet it almost went by unnoticed.
“It’s exciting when you read something and don’t care if you’re cast or not – you just want to see it.”
Originally due in March, Saint Maud nearly skipped cinemas altogether due to the ongoing pandemic, foregoing our chance to experience this thriving star’s largest role to date on the big screen. Born in Sweden and raised in Wales, Clark – who speaks fluent Welsh – began acting in plays at Cardiff’s Kings Monkton School before leaving at 16 following struggles with dyslexia and ADHD. In 2009, she joined the National Youth Theatre of Wales and found her forté on stage, with her quietly unassuming style securing her roles at Liverpool’s Royal Court, Sheffield’s Crucible and London’s Old Vic. A jump to the screen followed in 2014, delivering small yet memorable turns in films like Whit Stillman’s period comedy Love and Friendship and Armando Iannucci’s whimsical drama The Personal History of David Copperfield. But it’s her deeply unsettling turn as the tortured Maud in her first leading role that really gives this Welsh talent free rein to set the screen alight.
No stranger to the silent struggles of mental health, she’s aware of the the heightened circumstances of Saint Maud’s delayed release.
“If ever there was a film where the subject matter meant it needed to not come out until it was safe, this is it,” she says, commenting on how Maud’s isolation mirrors our own lockdown experience. It was Clark’s own inner battles with mental wellbeing that led her to leave school and pursue a career in the creative arts – and with her mother working as a paediatrician and a cousin in palliative care, the film’s medical subject matter was close to home.
“My fascination was very much based on the health service aspect. I feel like my life is the way it is just by the grace of God and the people around me who loved me, protected me or forgave me at times where I’ve been an idiot – and it so easily could’ve not been like that. It’s really exciting when you read something and don’t care if you’re cast in it or not – you just want to see it.”
During Maud’s story we see how those suffering in silence can sometimes find dangerous solutions to internal problems, and the terrifying impact that can have on those around them. It’s a role that sits in contrast to Clark’s colourful earlier work which, more often than not, included smiles and period costumes. Instead, Saint Maud fits comfortably next to her chilling recent appearance as the easily tempted Mina in Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat’s bloody and gothic Dracula, which aired late last year.
“The role description for Maud said ‘incredibly tall’ and I was like, agh, another audition I’m so wrong for,” laughs the auburn-haired star who, at just over five foot, is the perfect example of how versatile an unassuming, innocent look can be.
“I think Maud’s desperately trying to do the right thing and that’s what any of us are trying to do. Unfortunately Maud deviates massively and gets it terribly wrong, whilst trying harder and harder to be good. That’s the tragedy of it.”
Maud’s one sliver of hope comes through Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), her terminally-ill patient whose liberal last hurrah rubs our troubled heroine up in all the wrong ways.
“I think Maud sees Amanda as someone she can save,” Clark tells us, “but I also think Maud is compassionate that this is a woman who’s dying, and that’s an awful lot for someone in her state to cope with.” It’s another of the film’s real-life links that Clark has seen first hand within her own family.
“One of my cousins is an ICU nurse and it’s very hard to be the person there when someone is ending their life. You want to be their best friend – and you’re not. You’re just a nurse trying to do your job,” she explains. “My mum said something that really stayed with me about it – she said what’s so horrible about being in a stretched NHS is that no matter how hard you try, you end up being part of people’s humiliation – and for lots of people that’s too much to bear. I think it’s Maud’s compassion that leads her to madness – it’s just too much.”
Clark explores mental health further in Eternal Beauty, film maker Craig Roberts’ vibrant portrait of depression and all its complexity as seen through the eyes of the troubled Jane, played by Sally Hawkins. In it she portrays a younger version of Hawkins’ character and another lost soul. Given her family’s links to the medical world, does she feel mainstream cinema is handling these issues in a more sensitive way?
“I think it’s being explored in a more nuanced and respectful manner because we’re getting much more diverse storytellers. Eternal Beauty is a perspective that I really haven’t seen before but what I think sticks out in Rose and Craig as people is that they’re both incredible empaths. Both of these films are very empathetic towards their protagonists, despite being very different.”
Having already appeared on Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow list in 2016, both Saint Maud and Eternal Beauty will no doubt land Clark on the radars of more high profile directors in the future. But what does she look for in a cinematic collaborator?
“I find it quite hard to relax and feel comfortable around people in general. That’s just one of my little crosses to bear,” admits Clark. But it’s something she didn’t experience with Glass, whose loose directorial style helped her turn in her most critically praised performance to date. “Occasionally you’re like: ‘Aah, you’re the same as me!’ I really felt that with Rose. It’s why I don’t feel there were a huge amount of questions between us about Maud. She allowed me to be flexible because she trusted what I was doing with it. We understood each other.”
Saint Maud’s arrival couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. With many cinemas forced to close due to a lack of big budget releases in the wake of Covid-19, this independent British movie is leading the way towards a new normal for safe movie-going. As an avid fan of the cinema experience and its importance for new directors, it’s something Clark is particularly pleased with.
“I love seeing films in the theatre, particularly horror films. The first thing I saw at the cinema that actually terrified me was The Ring and I was way too young to be in the cinema to see it. I was weeping with fear. I’m really excited that Saint Maud’s still getting a theatrical release. I love that cool feeling of everyone acting like one giant lung, taking an intake of breath together.”
Although cinema’s future remains uncertain, Clark’s continued success is a safe bet. Having spent lockdown in New Zealand on a production hiatus from her latest project, Amazon Prime’s top-secret TV adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, she’s about to get back to work.
“It’s all so surreal,” she grins, still in shock at this latest opportunity whilst wary not to give away too much about how she fits into this new vision of Middle Earth. “My 12-year-old self is freaking out constantly.”
In the meantime, she’s hopeful the quiet power of her work will continue to leave an unexpected lasting impression on viewers. “Saint Maud and Eternal Beauty both made me take more care in how I affect the world around me,” she says candidly. “I hope people come away from Saint Maud thinking ‘I will not be like that to someone like Maud’ – or to anyone.”
Saint Maud is in cinemas now
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