In a follow-up to our interview with In Fabric director Peter Strickland, one of the film’s stars, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, tells Jezebel what it was like to enter the bizarre world of killer dresses and cultlike department stores in the strangest movie she’s ever filmed.
Baptiste is, in many ways, a pioneer. After her breakout role in Mike Leigh’s 1996 movie Secrets & Lies (for which she received an Oscar nomination), she wasn’t included in a group of British actors sent to the Cannes Film Festival by the British Screen organization for an anniversary celebration in 1997. (This despite Secrets & Lies’s tremendous success at Cannes where it won three awards, including the Palm d’Or.) “The old men running the industry just have not got a clue,” Jean-Baptiste told The Guardian at the time. “They’ve got to come to terms with the fact that Britain is no longer a totally white place where people ride horses, wear long frocks and drink tea. The national dish is no longer fish and chips, it’s curry.” Thus, years before OscarsSoWhite led the charge for a national, mainstream conversation about diversity in film, Baptiste did so in public, unflinchingly. The conversation, though, has followed Baptiste since then, perhaps climaxing in an exasperated 2015 interview, again with The Guardian.
“I’m really tired of it because I can read an interview with any number of white actors and actresses and they speak about process and about the script and about their castmates and about the journey, but every time you read an interview with a black actor it’s the same stuff they get asked over and over again,” Jean-Baptiste said then. I revisited this conversation with her briefly, though, in our phone chat, the transcript of which appears below in edited and condensed form.
JEZEBEL: Is it fair to say that In Fabric is the strangest movie you’ve ever appeared in?
MARIANNE JEAN-BAPTISTE: Probably! But I hope that changes and I get to do something stranger.
What were your first impressions of the script?
I was sent the script and I thought, Man, this could go two ways. It could be really good, or it could be really like… oy! I thought, That’s good, though. I liked the character, someone I’ve never had an opportunity to play before. I loved the unsettling nature of it. I was very intrigued about how [Strickland] would do it. I’d seen Berberian Sound Studio, so I was already on his side. It was really about just playing, exploring, going for something that wasn’t result-based.
Are you into fringe-y, cult cinema? Did you have any relationship to the movies that are invoked in Strickland’s past work, of the gialli or Eurosleaze varieties?
I kind of looked at some of that stuff back in the day, but I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan or overly familiar with it. I was aware of it. I’ve more likened this to something like Don’t Look Now. I love that kind of chiller type movie. It’s not quite horror, but you’re just unsettled by it. But [Strickland] weaves quite a bit of comedy into this piece as well, which kind of makes you not know where t place it. It’s kind of like, “…What is this?” He just creates a world.
I don’t know if you even categorize like this, but is there a difference between working with an auteur like Strickland or a Mike Leigh versus working with a director who’s more meat-and-potatoes, like someone who’s doing TV work?
Well, yes, of course there is. One is challenging in a good way. One is challenging in not such a good way, you know? With somebody like Peter, for example, he’s got a very clear vision about what he wants. In a lot of instances, you just have to trust him and go, “Okay, we’ll see. I’m not feeling this, but all right let’s go.” You just let go and enter into Stricklandland, I called it. Peter’s world. Mike’s process is very collaborative and requires that you be really on point with improvisation, etcetera. He really knows what he’s looking for as well and will guide and usher you and squeeze you into realizing his vision. Doing something that is sort of scripted for television has to be set up in the first place with a general look. Most shows, the look is already established and the world of the characters is fairly established. So directors coming in, very often it’s about trying out some interesting shots and recording what’s already been established as part of the show. It’s night and day, really.
Can you think of an example of something in In Fabric that made you surrender your trust to Strickland because you weren’t really feeling it?
There was a moment when she’s driving in the car. First of all, we’re in a sound studio in front of a green screen. I’m driving and I’m doing my, “I’m really driving and because I’m in England I’m going to change gears now.” Do all that stuff, and he’s like, “No I don’t want you to do that. I want you to look up slightly. Don’t even look at the road and just move the wheel from left to right.” I said, “It won’t look like she’s driving.” He said, “I don’t want it to. The background is going to be repeating itself behind you like those old films.” I thought, “Oh for crying out loud. It’s going to look weird.” But okay Peter, let’s do it. Then you see it and it looks great.
This role requires you to be the emotional center of a completely insane movie. Was that difficult?
I was so excited about doing it that no, it wasn’t. This is a relief. I’m not talking about blood splatter or a bomb that’s going to be detonated or any of that kind of stuff that I’ve done. It was just nice to play a character that had an emotional center and wasn’t just about facts, procedural sort of stuff. Sometimes it felt as if, my god, the world is against this woman, but I kind of relished it.
Did you have any opinions about the critique or satire of capitalism that is within this movie?
Oh yeah, we talked about it a lot. I found it very interesting. I was trying to explain to Peter the Black Friday phenomenon here in the United States, how people sleep outside of shops the night before in order to get televisions for probably the price that they should be sold at. This obsession with, “I’m getting something for less,” is to me quite bizarre. It’s the same all over the world with the sales. When I was living back in London, years ago, people would go, “We’re going into the West End for the sales.” There would be an exodus, a pilgrimage almost, and then people would compare: “I got this, it’s cashmere. And I got it for 20 percent off, it usually costs this much.” And then you look at it and you go, “How much can shops really be making if they are cutting prices so aggressively?”
As someone who spoke out very publicly about racism in the movie industry over 20 years ago, do you feel vindicated by the way the conversation about diversity has become mainstream?
My thing has always been about action. You can talk as much as you want. What is important is for writers and actors to be getting opportunities that they were not and that that continues. That should be the focus.
Do you feel like things are getting better?
Yes, but they could be better. They could be much better.
In Fabric is now playing.