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Hanna’s Esme Creed-Miles Knows How to Throw a Punch and Win a (Fake) Fight

Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Joe Wright’s frenetic action-thriller Hanna told the story of a genetically engineered girl who’d been trained as a killing machine by her adoptive father to shut down the nefarious government operation that created her. Amazon’s announcement that they’d be adapting the 2011 film for a series brought up a few questions, notably: Who could they find to possibly step into the title role that Saoirse Ronan had originated eight years earlier? The answer is Esme Creed-Miles.

Creed-Miles began her adventures in acting as little Shirley Temple in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely in 2007, though acting wouldn’t be her career trajectory until a decade later when she was cast in Clio Barnard’s Dark River. Since then, she’s starred in Undercliffe and Pond Life in Britain, but she may be best known still for being the daughter of actors Samantha Morton and Charlie Creed-Miles. Expect that to change soon: Amazon’s eight-part series adaptation of Hanna, which premieres today, features her kicking and punching her way into a legacy all her own. Ahead of the show’s debut, Creed-Miles called us to talk about those kicks and punches, as well as her rigorous training schedule, the stunt that went so wrong, and why you shouldn’t tick her off.

This role is incredibly physically demanding, and you’re a small woman. How do you even prepare for this?
I was lucky in that I had paid for personal trainers. [Laughs.] Without that, I would have never gotten into it. I actually did a lot of yoga because I found it helped with my core strength and flexibility, which are two things you absolutely need when you’re doing martial arts. I did a lot of boxing and running and weight lifting and martial arts, though.

Were you a physical kind of person before this?
No, not at all. It was very intimidating. It’s weird how your body just adapts, though. We only had two months of training, and I remember some of the trainers looking at me and being, like, This isn’t enough time. When I started, I couldn’t punch. My punch looked shit. I didn’t have that kind of physicality to make it believable. It wasn’t part of my bones yet. Luckily, my dad has been doing martial arts for like 25 years, so I had support, but I had to put in the extra hours.

I imagine there must have been a little panic when they realized you couldn’t punch. This character is punching in nearly every scene in some episodes.
A lot of the time, people just end up relying on their stunt doubles to do this. But for me and especially Sarah Adina Smith, the director, we just didn’t want that to happen. The physical aspects of the show are so inherent in who she is as a character, so if you’re not bringing that level of expertise in, it doesn’t work. The physical stuff and character stuff are holistically connected. So maybe I’m not nailing this martial arts move precisely, but I’m going to deliver it with as much enthusiasm and aggression as possible to sell it. I did end up getting better and better as we went on, and I think you can see that.

So you’re getting more confident at the same time your character is growing more confident and into herself.
Yes, when we were shooting the last two episodes, everything became so much easier. My brain got better at learning and remembering the moves and the choreography. If we do another [season], I think I’ll be ready for it. But I also expected to work this hard. The producers didn’t want to burn me out, and they were intending to be more reliant on movie magic. But as an actor, I want to do a well-rounded performance. I want these extra hours, and I want to be more than what’s asked.

Did you learn that kind of dedication to craft from your parents?
I don’t think so. When they work, I’m not with them. I never wanted to be an actress. Acting wasn’t in my mind. It wasn’t in my calculations. And the way they work is very instinctual, anyway. It’s not something I could learn from them. Perhaps that mentality of instinct is good for me, in trying not to control things, which lends itself to naturalism. That’s my preferred taste.

What protocols did they have to keep you safe on set? Even for someone experienced, this is a lot of stunt work in often remote locations. How do they keep you from getting a black eye and bloody nose?
It’s important to remember the nature of the fights: I was the one winning. It was more the stunt people I was working with who had to worry.

There was a scene in a train station and we were making it up as we went along, because the geography of the set had changed last minute. They were like, Why don’t you just pick up this suitcase and fling it? At this guy who’s 105 years old! I was like, Don’t we have something foam? And he was like, No, that’s his job, he has to get out of the way. So I flung this suitcase as hard as I could, and I hit him right in the face. All stuntmen want to seem like they’re tough all the time, so this old stuntmen was like, I’m fine, I’m fine — actually, he didn’t even speak English, so he was just waving it off and saying something in Hungarian. Then, in the next scene, he smiled at me and I was like, Where’d your teeth go? I went up to the stunt coordinator and I was like, Where are his teeth? And they were like, It’s okay, we’ll take care of it. But I completely wiped out his dentures. No teeth. I think they have less strict rules in Hungary. We’re lucky I’m still alive … That’s a joke, obviously.

That’s harrowing! But that wasn’t the stunt you were proudest of, I’m guessing.
I think that was climbing the trees. A lot of that tree climbing stuff, it was clever — they shot it a few feet off the ground and edited it to make it look higher off the ground. But I did still have to climb the tree quite high. They were pulling me as I climbed with this pulley system, but I had to mimic that I was actually lifting myself up. Coordinating fake effort with real effort was actually quite taxing. It was the first thing we shot, and there was this feeling of not wanting to fail.

That’s a lot of pressure. Did you have anxiety about stepping into Saoirse Ronan’s shoes?
Maybe a bit. Saoirse is brilliant. But all art is constantly being reinterpreted. It happens in theater all the time and we never question it. I think because the series explores different themes — more coming of age and fitting in — that my Hanna is a little different.

How do you prepare for your roles as an actor? Do you create a mythology for your character?
To be honest? I learn the lines and do them on the day.

That’s like Jodie Foster’s advice for acting: “Just pretend really well, and then think about what that pretending looks like.”
I do listen to a lot of music that helped me get into character. A lot of PJ Harvey and Tori Amos and Fiona Apple and the Cocteau Twins and Patti Smith. [The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s] “Sacrilege” was great for this character.

That’s a lot of women artists. You’ve got a woman directing this show, too. What was your experience of working with Sara Adina Smith?
I really don’t think I could have done it without her. I always felt like she had a good answer to every question I had. Sometimes she would be just be screaming at me from behind the camera, just cheering, Go, go, go! She had so much enthusiasm and energy. Every moment felt like it was important.

Because David [Farr] wrote it, it was important to have another female collaborator to provide a female lens. Not that his writing isn’t feminist, but he’s writing from the male perspective, so we provided an empathetic lens rather than objectifying lens. It’s a difference between narrating her own experience, and someone else narrating her story. It was really brilliant to feel like I wasn’t constantly being objectified. Young action heroines feel in service of male gaze, rather than being the full complexity of a human being.

Also, to be very clear, Sara wasn’t put there because she was a woman. She was creative and intelligent and the right fit.

I believe it. Her film Buster’s Mal Heart is a favorite of mine. You spent six months as Hanna, living and breathing her. What would you say was your perfect Hanna day?
I really loved everything in Slovakia in the snow. Even though it was the start of the shoot, it was when everything felt like it was falling into place. And I loved shooting the action scene where I took Joel [Kinnaman] out. He was really ticking me off that day.

Hanna’s Esme Creed-Miles Knows How to Win a (Fake) Fight