In 2014’s Gone Girl, U.K. favorite Rosamund Pike mesmerized America and wowed the Academy with the depth of her dispassion. In the role of vengeful Amy Dunne, she maintained a stony straight face while she forcibly took control of her life through murders both simulated and all too real. But her newest high-profile gig, Scott Cooper’s ambitious Western epic Hostiles, demanded just the opposite; the film begins with Pike’s frontier woman Rosalee watching in stunned horror as Comanche renegades slaughter her husband and children. Though she scrapes by with her life, Pike makes damn well sure the audience understands just how much her character has lost, though they’ve only spent a minute with the newly deceased. She pulls out all the emotive stops, letting her grief pour forth with the unwieldy messiness that only a person with nothing left to lose can fully embrace. It takes an actress with a rare degree of control over herself to convincingly replicate a complete loss of control.
Pike’s quite composed when we sit down in New York’s Crosby Street Hotel, legs folded just so and every hair perfectly in place. She’s got a manner to match, too, carefully choosing each word for maximum specificity or poeticism. (Nothing makes an interviewer’s day quite like chatting with someone who can make the word assiduously sound as natural as hello.) But erudition and refinement are just the order of the day for this Oxford grad and former Bond girl. Whether rhapsodizing on the bodily dimension to acting or the liberating power of no longer giving a shit, she conducts herself with the utmost equanimity. Amazing Amy, indeed.
The gunshots in this movie really stand out. They sound a little louder in the audio mix and give a bigger kickback than in some other movies. I’ve never fired a gun, so how would you describe the experience to someone such as myself?
It’s a very strange feeling. It’s something that I resist with my whole being. A lot of the time, you’re shooting blanks, because you’re on a film set. But it’s vital to go to a range and fire real bullets from those firearms so that you can feel the recoil and reproduce that. I find gun ranges very strange places. There’s a tremendous energy that’s released into the atmosphere by a bullet landing in a solid target without going through it. That explosion of force puts a little change in the air that lingers. There’s a charged atmosphere at a gun range I find quite upsetting. It’s visceral, the displacement of air and conversion of energy.
[Co-star] Christian [Bale] and I went to a gun range to test the revolvers, we videoed each other in slow motion with our phones, and you can see the recoil rippling through your muscles. The skin rolls, like the sea, up your arm. You think, ‘My god, that’s what I’m taking on. There’s violence entering my body.’
Did you shoot the first scene first? It’s, uh, pretty intense.
Mmmhmm, we shot in sequence. It was very wrenching, but I also had to make sure I created the family life before you see it destroyed. I spent time with Scott Cooper’s daughters, who play my daughters in the film. I took them out, we got to know each other, I put up some pictures of them in my room. Same with the man who plays my husband in the film — he’s only there briefly, but it’s important to the performance that I know him and that we have a connection. Though it’s only a fragment of the movie, it’s important to build all that up, because that’s what I’ve got to carry for the rest of the movie. Then it’s just responding, living the terror, which is very real and very present. It’s easy to imagine when you’re there when the sets are so real, and the Comanche riders feel so real. The fear of my children being taken is something I can easily imagine, though I never use my own family in my head. I never take an experience from my personal life and put it into whatever I’m supposed to be feeling.
Is that a philosophical choice?
Yeah, it’s about truth for me. It would feel fraudulent for me to take something and paste it in.
In your performance, what was your thought process as you transition from heaving grief into the stunned numbness that follows?
You’re dealing with someone who’s been so deeply traumatized that she’s entered total denial. That’s the first stage of grief. Every part of your brain is trying to reject a single outcome. I tried to imitate her breathing, how she’d be blowing on the baby trying to keep him alive. That’s what she’d have been doing at that point, massaging the hands of her girls to stave off rigor mortis. It was torture to think through all this. Whether that can be picked up by an audience, who knows.
Really gets in your bones.
Literally, actually! Mothers who have lost children will talk about an ache in the bones of their forearms. This feeling is, the bones are aching from having carried the child and feeling the sudden absence. I thought, “Okay, every time Rosalee picks something up, it should have the feeling of a baby.” Whether it was a blanket or a saddle, she instinctively holds it in that way.
Based on what you’re saying, there’s a more physical aspect to acting than one might realize.
I’m growing into my body as I get older, and I’m able to contact every part of me in terms of using it for conveyance. And with this character, I knew I had to start in a physical place, not a mental one.
In the scenes out on the plains, the camera uses wide shots to show how totally alone the characters are in nature. Was there a “set” at all?
We were outdoors all the time, not feeling confined by four walls. The normal set of filmmaking artifices wasn’t there; we just had vastness, everywhere in every direction. It’s completely different. I think we were inside maybe twice. It was amazing, one of the more stunning experiences I’ve ever had. Oh, and there were all these electrical storms in the air following us, forcing us to break because you can’t shoot when there’s lightning striking within five miles of the crew. And there’s one scene that’s supposed to be set in an electrical storm, and we couldn’t even shoot that, because it wouldn’t be legal!
Would you say this has been one of the more taxing jobs you’ve worked?
It was a really difficult shoot. While working, we didn’t have the comfort of being able to retreat to a trailer to collect yourself. Alone time became very precious. Out in the elements is a beautiful place to be, but it’s high-altitude, hot summer sun. We worked from July through September. It all blurs into one. There were times when we were all outside of Santa Fe and rented a couple houses. We had some really nice dinners together, but there are still times when you’ve got to let out some tension. We all cared very deeply about this movie.
The Western is the distinctly American genre — I’m curious as to what an actor from the U.K. sees the genre saying about our country.
It’s interesting that America keeps getting drawn back to the Western, it’s deeply rooted in the culture. It’s a way of continually understanding ourselves on a macro scale, I suppose in the same way we have Shakespeare. It’s a way of examining feelings of guilt and identity that comes from conflicted land. Things we’re still obsessing over now! It’s true, that the white guy isn’t always part of the cavalry. The more I watch it, the more I think Christian has made a timeless portrayal of soldiering, he gets deep into the mind of someone whose entire life has been fighting.
On that note, do you consider his character’s arc redemptive? I’m still puzzling over those last couple of scenes.
I don’t think he feels he even has redeemable qualities. He does not consider himself a good man, only a good soldier. That’s the one thing my character wants to communicate to him, that I think he’s a good man even if he doesn’t. That burned in me, as Rosalee. I wanted to just tell him, “You’re a fine man,” and to mean it. It’s not that easy, however.
The costumes in the film are pretty great, particularly your wide-brim hat. I hear period clothing is agonizingly uncomfortable, though?
My husband’s hat, that’s right. That’s the piece of him that she’s able to keep close to her. But no, it’s not so bad! You kind of embrace it, because getting dressed gives you so much as an actor. The men were really suffering in their full woolen suits, it was so hot out there.
Aside from Hostiles, I saw you’re in Brad Anderson’s new film Beirut, which will open at Sundance next month. I’ve liked his movies a lot — anything you can tell us about it?
Brad and I both love the film The Year of Living Dangerously. In our heads, we were hoping that we could make something that had that real sense of smell and taste and place, a tactile specificity. We’re telling a fictional story, but with a basis in the particular reality of Beirut in the ’80s.
Actors sometimes talk about an “Oscar bump.” Have you found that new career opportunities have opened themselves up to you since the Gone Girl nomination?
It’s nice that once you’re an Oscar nominee, you’ve got that for life. Nobody can take that from you. But … hm. I believe I’ve still got a tremendous naïveté about these things. It’s probably had more of an impact than I realize, but I consider myself the same person as before and after. I hope to take success in stride, just the same with failure. I never read reviews, you know. I’m too frightened, even if some nice quote about me is plucked out, I get worried I won’t be able to repeat whatever I’ve done right. I have a healthy distance from it all.
I’m definitely at an exciting time, with the ability to headline some films. The film I’m about to start working on, that’s really on my shoulders, and that’s a new feeling. The relief is that I think I’m ready for that now. I wouldn’t have been in my 20s.
What’s changed between then and now?
I’ve become free. I don’t give a shit. I’ve lost my vanity. I don’t care, really! I just don’t care. Once you’ve shed the pressure of being a young woman, you’re allowed to just be a woman. It’s freeing.