Interview: Philomena Lee and Actress, Sophie Kennedy Clark of ‘Philomena’
The last time celebrated English director, Steven Frears teamed up with the one and only Dame Judi Dench, she received one of her many Academy Award Nominations (she has 6 in total including a Best Supporting Actress win for 1999’s Shakespeare in Love) for playing intrepid widow, Mrs. Henderson, in the 2005 charmer, Mrs. Henderson Presents.
In their latest collaboration, the crowd-pleasing tearjerker, Philomena, Dench is once again the title character – a disarmingly down-to-Earth grandmother hiding an unthinkable trauma in her past. And once again, her performance is already garnering Oscar talk.
Detailed in the book, The Lost Child of Philomena, by BBC reporter, Martin Sixsmith (played in the film by Steve Coogan, who also adapted the script along with Sixsmith and Jeff Pope) Philomena Lee’ s story is one of secrets, injustice, and ultimately forgiveness. It’s quite a compelling tale made even more so by an aces Dench, who perfectly captures not only the grit and grace, but also the humor of this singular survivor. Credit the enviable instincts of a master at her craft, as well as the real Philomena Lee, 80-years-old and happy to discuss her remarkable life…
“Well, as you know, I kept my secret for 50 odd years, but then my brother said, For goodness sake! Will you go home and tell your daughter and son! So I did.”
That’s the engaging, soft-spoken London nurse – originally from Ireland – explaining how she came to be at the center of one of the biggest human-interest stories in UK history. At the time, even she had not yet discovered the facts that would make her story – involving the convent where she was sent as a young un-wed mother to deliver a sweet little boy whom she named Anthony – so fascinating and infuriating.
Facts that were no doubt, stranger than fiction, and as Jane, Philomena’s daughter (played in the film by Anna Maxwell Martin) points out, ones that were portrayed onscreen accurately: “The trip that Philomena and Martin take to America (in the film) – that didn’t happen, and the sequence of events didn’t necessarily occur in that order, but probably 75% (of the film) is faithful to what really happened.”
One expects a bit of dramatic license in movies, but when you have a filmmaker like Steven Frears, you can be sure that the truth of the situation is paramount in every scene; something a grateful Philomena discovered while collaborating with the Oscar-Nominated director: “The book is more Anthony’s story, but Steven wanted (the film) to be more my story, and he kept everything (my family) told him on board and allowed us on set often.”
Jane marvels, “He paid so much attention to detail that he would even phone me in the middle of shooting because he wanted to get something right.”
What else would you expect from the Oscar Nominated director of 1990’s The Grifters, and 2006’s The Queen? – a man who has helped steer 6 actresses to Academy Award Nominations, and two to wins, all the while building up a reputation as a talented pied piper of great performances.
Sophie Kennedy Clark, the gifted young Scottish actress who plays a teenage Philomena in the film, wasn’t surprised by her director’s fastidiousness, especially considering the subject matter they were all dealing with: “I’ve read lots of scripts and gone on lots of auditions, but never had I felt so strongly about a part because the person was real and in front of me.” She vividly remembers one of her first conversations with Lee.
“Before I started (filming), I went to go and meet her, and I was telling her about the scenes that I ‘d be doing. I’m not a mother, and I don’t think anyone – until they are a parent – can truly appreciate that bond, so I was feeling extremely unqualified. Philomena told me, Don’t worry, I’ll put in a good one for you with the Man upstairs. I was shocked and said, You’re still speaking to him? And she (responded), Well yeah, he owes me one!”
That cheeky sense of humor not only endears the homespun hero to all whom she meets, but it also hints at the strength of this woman who, despite everything she’s been through, has never allowed herself to identify as a victim, or worse, become bitter. “I have forgiven a long time ago. In nursing you come up against so many sad things, especially in Psychiatry and that’s why I began helping other people and feeling less sorry for myself.”
So much so, she even worried that telling her story might hurt a hardly innocent but certainly beleaguered Catholic Church, “I thought, I hope they don’t flay them too much because there is a lot of good, and there were a lot of good nuns. In fact, thanks to one, I was able to get a little album of Anthony before he (was adopted).”
Lee is referring to the only link she had for 50 years to her first-born, a small detail powerfully dramatized in a film that includes some particularly heart-wrenching scenes. And none more so than its most dramatic sequence, one a terrified Ms. Kennedy Clark was given the daunting task of bringing to life: “When you have an 80-year-old woman watching you and crying because I’m sure this is a moment that she has gone over in her head time and time again, to then watch some little actress reenacting the most heart-wrenching moment of her entire life, there’s pressure…”
Pressure not only to get it right for Philomena, but also the many faceless women who suffered like she did…
“These girls were completely stripped of their identity. They went into these convents with no money, no family, and their names were changed. The one thing they did have, which was the title of being a mother, was then taken away from them as well. Where do you go from that?”
It’s unimaginable, and for an actress whose only other film credit at the time was a bit part in Tim Burton’s 2012 flick Dark Shadows (she’s since starred in Lars von Trier’s upcoming F – You to the censors, Nymphomaniac, about which she’ll say that her parents “aren’t looking forward to that one”), quite the artistic burden to bear. But Kennedy Clark considered herself blessed to have shared it with one of her idols. “I met Judi and she exceeds all expectations because she’s even more fabulous than the mind can boggle. She’s so lovely and warm with a cheeky sense of humor and a real twinkle in her eye, so it made me feel really at ease.”
The real Philomena was equally starstruck: “To be actually told Judi Dench is playing you, I couldn’t believe it! Nobody could! They still didn’t until the film came out!”
Now, it’s not only out but receiving universal acclaim and increasing the profile of Ms. Philomena Lee even more than she could have ever imagined, and once again, Sophie Kennedy Clark isn’t surprised: “The reason that (this film) has resonated with so many different audiences is the fact that if one (person) can find forgiveness in (their) life for things that are hugely distressing, that means that (it’s possible) for us all to (do the same). You can win against these situations. It doesn’t mean that you forget, but you can continue your life without feeling burdened by these things or like a victim. The real Philomena is by no means the kind of person who would consider herself a victim and that’s evidently clear the minute you meet her.”
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