The Keeping Room, a meditative sort of anti-Western from British director Daniel Barber and screenwriter Julia Hart, opens with a quote from Union general William Tecumseh Sherman: “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” But the sentiment I had in mind while watching is one attributed to Francois Truffaut: “Every film about war ends up being pro-war,” because I’ve seen very few movies as fiercely antiwar as this.
Starring Hailee Steinfeld and Brit Marling as two sisters who, along with their family’s slave, Mad, must defend themselves from a pair of marauding Union soldiers, The Keeping Room shows how bleakness extends away from the battlefield, then asks the question of whether anything can survive in its wake. Vulture caught up with Marling and Steinfeld to talk about what their movie says about race in America today, the process of adopting antebellum southern accents, and how Steinfeld’s burgeoning musical career is affecting her work as an actor.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this movie a feminist Western. Did that have anything to do with your attraction to it?
Steinfeld: I don’t think that’s too far off. Having now made the movie, it’s easier to look at it that way, but I don’t know that I thought that when I read it and that’s why I wanted to make it. There was so much to this story, and the idea of three women taking on the roles that they do in this world that they’re living in was really what stood out to me.
Marling: That’s so well said, because it’s funny: When the film comes out and everyone watches it, you want to apply all these concepts to it. But when you’re in it and you’re making it, we’re just sisters who are trying to survive and make it to the next day. From an emotional space, that’s how you see it, until it becomes a final film and enters the world and people can talk about what it is. As actors, you don’t really think of it that way.
You brought up an interesting idea: that survival is so intense in the movie — it spans the whole thing. Your performances are very heightened, very intense — especially yours, Hailee. What did it take for you to enter that sort of mind-set day after day?
Steinfeld: This role is so much different than anything I had played up until that point. Just emotionally, period. I was talking to Brit earlier about how one of the biggest challenges in the beginning was the fact that I’m used to playing characters who have a lot of dialogue, and in this movie my character has very little. It’s harder to not have your words to communicate with people, and instead to rely on actions and body language and eyes. Emotionally, she goes through quite a lot, and it was very difficult coming to work every day. I’m not saying I just wanted to get through the shoot, but there were a lot of those days where, by the end of it, you were just like, Wow, that felt like an accomplishment, because so much had happened.
The bond between the three women is very interesting — there’s a deep intensity there, but also one of them is a slave and the other two are slaveholders. This movie flips the script of what you see in most Civil War movies. What do you think your characters thought about this other woman who is their slave but, by the end of the movie, also seems to be their sister?
Marling: You said that so beautifully. This country is in a really intense place right now with regard to race. The mass incarceration of black men, that situation alone makes it interesting to look at the Civil War and examine what is in the history and the bone marrow of this country — how horrifying that time was, and how it’s still underneath racism that pervades our culture.
Muna Otaru gives a heart-shattering performance [as Mad], and she’s such a stunning actress, and in some ways the movie is really about her. There’s this moment where she’s telling the story about how she’s survived, and what she says is at the heart of the movie and how the sisters make it through another night. You’re right to say that in the end, race falls away and these three girls become a family, and you feel that no matter what happens next, you feel like it’s going to be the three of them together, and that’s certainly not how it began.
The southern accents …
Marling: [Laughs.] Follow up!
No, they’re good! Was that hard? It sounds like an antebellum accent — it doesn’t sound like an accent Southerners have now.
Steinfeld: We worked with this dialect coach before we started filming. It’s funny — when I made my first movie, True Grit, I watched the original film and was able to sort of pick up the dialect just by listening to it. I thought I had it down. Then for this I got [to work] with a dialect coach, and we went through what 1865 South Carolina accents were. The specifics of each word, each syllable, are insane.
Marling: It was a conscious choice, because at first when she was like, “This is what it would’ve sounded like in 1865,’ we said, “This is really strange!” Are people going to watch this and be like, “That’s not a southern accent”? You get used to the [puts on a southern accent] certain twang of what the South is, and that’s not how we’re speaking. It’s actually a lot more British-influenced, there’s a lot of hwhat and hwhere and hwhy. And you’re like, “That’s the South?” But it was the South then.
Brit, you and Zal [Batmanglij, with whom she collaborated on 2011’s Sound of My Voice and 2013’s The East] are teaming up again for a Netflix show, The OA. Do you feel like there’s a difference between the work that you do with Mike [Cahill] and Zal, versus acting in something that’s somebody else’s work?
Marling: The thing I still find the most intoxicating is acting in something someone else has written. That feels like going to a foreign landscape. If I help or conceive of a character, it’s sort of so intimate that it’s familiar, but reading Julia Hart’s script for The Keeping Room and being slapped in the face with it, like, whoa! Shocking! Three young women banding together, surviving together: I’d never read anything like it, and each girl’s voice felt so distinct and original. It’s so delicious to then lose yourself in trying to honor that woman’s words, and your fellow performers, who are giving so much and stepping up to that task.
Hailee, you’re doing a million things right now — acting, modeling, music. Have you found that filmmakers are welcoming these other pursuits, or is there pushback, like, You should focus on acting?
Steinfeld: It hasn’t really been a problem, though I have sort of battled the question of, which one is it? Which one do you prefer, which one do you see yourself doing? For a second I had a hard time answering before I realized it was so easy to say both. This is so normal and expected, but each side, the movie side and the music side, they both require 110 percent of you at all times, and I know there are people who are actors who have made music, and I know that it can be done. I love them both so much — they’re two completely different creative spaces I’ve been able to live in. I can’t pick one over the other.