Sundance: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie Discuss the Postapocalyptic Z for Zachariah

By
Photo: Sundance

I was in the first press audience to screen Z for Zachariah, and I walked out practically skipping, along with several of my fellow journalists, because we’d been so enthralled by this tense, quiet drama, set against stunning New Zealand scenery, in which Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine play the last people on Earth. Our reviewer Bilge Ebiri, who saw the movie the next day, felt otherwise. But we both agree that the performances were outstanding. An adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 postapocalyptic children’s book, Z for Zachariah is a step toward more mainstream filmmaking for director Craig Zobel, who made waves at Sundance two years ago with Compliance, based on the true story of a prank caller who manipulated fast-food managers into conducting harrowing interrogations of their employees. 

Pine’s character is a new addition to the story, and the age of Robbie’s character, Ann, has thankfully been increased from the book’s 16 to something more appropriate for a woman upon whose womb rests the fate of mankind. I spoke with Robbie and Ejiofor about their apocalypse-survival skills, on-set toga parties, and how not even the end of the world can stop racial and sexual tension. (If you’re curious about Pine’s idea of how he’d fare in the apocalypse, click here.)

Shooting the film, did you discover that you have skills that would be good for the apocalypse?
Robbie: Yeah!

Ejiofor: Please elaborate. When I got there, they were kind of like, “Okay, we need you to learn how to drive a tractor and hold a gun,” and I was like, “I actually know how to do all that farm stuff already.” I guess that would be helpful one day if there’s ever an apocalypse. I’ve kind of already grown up on property.

Robbie: I’m not very reliant on technology. I mean, everyone is, but not as much as some people because I just didn’t really grow up using it that much. I hate my phone and stuff, so it wouldn’t be as big a shock to the system. Having said that, I mean, the days when I forget my phone and I need Google Maps to get somewhere, I’m just like, Well, that’s it, I’m just obviously not going there! I hope I’d be okay.

The movie starts out with Margot’s character, Ann, by herself. Then Chiwetel’s character, Loomis, comes along, then Chris’s character, Caleb. Did you guys shoot the film the way it plays out? Like, Margot, were you by yourself for a long time, sad and alone?
Robbie: It was fairly chronological. I remember I did a lot of the scenes where I was on my own — Chiwetel was in the middle of awards season [for 12 Years a Slave]. He went to the BAFTAS at one point, and then we squeezed in a lot of the alone shots there, just because it made sense. It was a quick shoot. But everything else was fairly chronological. Do you remember when we made that video for you, when you won the BAFTA?

Ejiofor: Oh, yeah. 

Robbie: It was, like, the most exciting day on-set. We were all sitting there: What time is it in London?! And then it came over the radio: He won! Everyone just dropped what they were doing and was hugging. It was so fun! We were in such a little bubble that it was a big deal. And then we filmed a video where we were all cheering and stuff.

Ejiofor: It was lovely.

The locations where you shot looked pretty far from civilization. Was the entire community just the cast and crew? Did it feel like you were the last people on Earth?
Ejiofor: Yeah, it was just out in the South Island [of New Zealand]. It was very isolated, so it played into the the film as well, just a tiny community trying to figure it out. That was the lovely thing about it, and really helpful in terms of exploring this sort of thing.

Similarly to how things work in the movie, did you two bond separately and then have that disrupted by Chris’s arrival?
Robbie: We had a couple weeks where Chris wasn’t there, and [Chiwetel and I] found our step, and then Chris came. I remember the day before Chris arrived, Craig [Zobel] is like, “Okay, so tomorrow we’ll sit down with Chris,” and both Chiwetel and I were like, “Oh yeah, I forgot! There’s going to be a third one of us. This is really bizarre.”

Ejiofor: That’s the end of that!

Robbie: Yeah, that was that. You’ve got to kind of re-jiggle the dynamic a little bit. It was interesting. It was perfect.

What I thought was so interesting about the movie was the idea it presented of how not even the apocalypse can put an end to racial or sexual tension. 
Robbie: Any of those normal things, yeah.

Ejiofor: I like that that theme is sort of set with the idea of the cherry cola. [Ed: In the film, Loomis raids the local grocery story and finds it still fully stocked with cherry cola, which Ann hates and refuses to drink.] It doesn’t matter if it’s the apocalypse, Ann still doesn’t like cherry cola. Obviously none of these things matter; the dynamics of racial, sexual tension, gender dynamics, racial dynamics — none of that matters. Because it’s the apocalypse, the end of the world, all those things are completely irrelevant. Religion, and how to organize or build societies, none of it matters in a way — it’s all up for grabs. But people are carrying these reflexes. And that becomes something, and that can become something of a choice. I thought it was a very truthful part of telling the story.

You mean the fact that at some point, when Loomis sees that Ann and Caleb seem to have chemistry, he’s like, “Go ahead and be white people together.”
Ejiofor: Yeah, there’s an insecurity about that. Of course there would be. If Ann were black, Caleb would have the same feelings about those two. It doesn’t really say anything about racial dynamics. What it says is something about the way people are, and what they consider to be norms, and their own traits and their own insecurities. And what plays on that and what doesn’t. You know what I mean? That felt very honest to me.

As a woman, I felt for Ann. The burden of creating new humans to repopulate Earth rests on her, and she has to pick between these two dudes.
Robbie: The moment where Ann first realized that was when she and Loomis were discussing taking down the chapel, and Loomis makes a comment about “providing for maybe more than just us.” She has this moment where she’s like, “What? More people are coming?” And then it’s like, Oh my God! For me, I was playing it that there was a massive shift, like, I just realized that’s my duty. I guess I’m meant to repopulate now. It’s a big thing to get your head around. So she starts trying to cook him nice dinners and wear a dress, and she tries putting on makeup, and it’s incredibly awkward. Because he’s like, “What are you doing?” Because she’s young, and she’s going about it the way she thinks she should. Craig and I discussed how, I guess, the people she would model a relationship after are her mom and dad, because she doesn’t really know any other couples, so it’s not a normal way for a teenager to develop a relationship. She’s getting a bit ahead of herself.

Then there’s the added layer of her only having one other person to relate to, and she keeps finding out that he had to do a lot of terrible things before he found her.
Ejiofor: Yeah, the assumption is that if we were all to be in this dynamic for longer, that Ann would get to know that both Loomis and Caleb, in order to have survived for that year, must have done incredibly bad things.

Robbie: I think she knew a lot of those things, too, and just refused to acknowledge it. It was just all too hard. I played it that she just brushed a lot of things under the rug because it’s like, I can’t deal with it, I’m going to pretend I don’t realize this is happening.

What was most appealing to you about signing onto this project? 
Ejiofor: I was very drawn to the script, I was very drawn to Craig and his work. I loved the idea of doing a three-hander and trying to intricately work out the dynamics of these relationships. I thought there was something genuinely fascinating about that. I can’t remember the last three-hander that I saw, but I felt like, that there is something that is kind of a page-turner about how people are developing and what subtle shifts in their relationships happen, which I just felt was pretty unique.

Robbie: I always wanted this role. I read this script a year and a half before I even became involved with the project, and then it went away, and then it went to someone else [Ed. note: Amanda Seyfreid]. Then the opportunity came up at the last minute, when I was literally just coming off Wolf [of Wall Street], and I realized that I was going to be typecast really quickly, and I was like, “I don’t want to keep playing the same role that I was playing in Wolf.” So when this came up again, I was like, “I’d kill to do that.” And what a better time to do the complete opposite of what I’ve just been doing?

Last thing: I heard that the cast and crew cemented their bond by starting off the shoot with a toga party. Do tell.
Robbie: That was our first weekend. 

Ejiofor: That was a great party.

Robbie: And we continued to have a dress-up party every single weekend for the entire shoot.

The entire shoot?
Robbie: The entire shoot. That kicked it off. Everyone was like, “Oh, we’re a family now!” Because we’ve known each other all for like, five days, and we’re in togas.

Ejiofor: Togas, bedsheets. It was great.