You don’t forget a movie like Ammonite. Whether you’re a viewer watching it play out on screen, or an actor starring in its key moments. At least, that’s the impression I gleaned from Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, who recently spoke with Nerdist about their work on the profound love story. It’s a seminal film for both actresses. A return to the soul-searing period work that made Winslet a star and a cosmic shift for Ronan, who is used to playing more free-spirited heroines. In Ammonite, it’s Ronan who is the laced up, societal woman and Winslet who gets dirty.
The film tells the story of Mary Anning (Winslet), the real-life paleontologist and fossil collector. In this fictional account, Anning falls in love with her friend and work companion Charlotte Murchison (Ronan). Charlotte suffers from crippling melancholia. Anning spends her day foraging for fossils, making discoveries that will shift the way we think about the Earth’s creation. But she is otherwise closed off from the world, sheathing her sparkling interiority behind layers of cotton and wool. Charlotte’s arrival in her life creates a blossoming effect for both women. They find not only intimacy and love in one another, but incredible power.
It’s a power both Winslet and Ronan found in making Ammonite, as well. A power we discussed at length, along with the joys of working together, how the film’s costuming helped them find their characters, and what it was like to choreograph their own love scenes.
Nerdist: Kate, I imagine you can do just about anything at this stage in your career. What was it about Ammonite that made you choose this as your next project?
Kate Winslet: I’m really interested in telling stories with sincerity and truth and integrity. When I started reading the script, I just couldn’t put it down. I couldn’t walk away. I couldn’t even go for a pee. I was so gripped by how powerful and truthful and grounded in a possible reality that it felt. I feel I should have known more about Mary Anning. But I didn’t. And why didn’t I? For the same reason that none of us know very much about Mary Anning. Her great successes and her historically scientific finds were taken from her by rich, powerful men who weren’t as clever as she was. She lived in a patriarchal society that was steeped in a level of systematic repression that sadly exists still, I think, in some parts of the world today.
So to me, this was a beautiful way of celebrating not just a woman’s life and her achievements, but her inner workings, her private world. Her compassionate side and her remarkable stoicism. Mary was a woman who didn’t complain. [And she was] remarkably accepting of how hard her life was. To give her back her finds, give her back her power, feels like a very important thing to do.
Something I noticed in the film is that the costumes really represent what these individual characters are going through. Mary is buried under all of these layers and Charlotte is constricted by tight corsets. How did the costuming in Ammonite help you access your characters?
Saoirse Ronan: I think the costumes really gave us an insight into the type of life and lifestyle these women have at the start of the film. For me, this was actually my first experience—regardless of it being a period film and having done other period films where I was the one in the corset. That’s very new territory for me. I’m usually playing the girl that defies society and breaks the rules in terms of what she wears and how she behaves. And so I did find it very frustrating. Especially being on the beautiful beach in Lyme Regis and watching Kate—who was able to sort of move around and do whatever she wanted to do—and thinking, “that’s usually me!” That really does have an effect on you as a person and your energy levels and how you communicate.
Kate Winslet: That’s a really interesting question and I’m really grateful to you for asking and for noticing those things, because the costuming of these characters was really important and quite difficult. The costuming of Mary was quite painstaking because we could have just had her wear trousers, you know? But I didn’t want to do that because I feel I’ve seen that done before. And just because this is a woman who has a relationship with another woman doesn’t mean she can’t wear skirts. I wanted to be appropriate and [historically] accurate, as well. But we had to be practical, so she does wear fisherman’s trousers underneath her skirts which would have been to keep her legs warm and also to protect her knees from climbing on those cliffs.
And the layering of clothes was something that was very important, because of course when those clothes come off, when they peel away, you see the person a little more. For me, the costuming of Mary was very significant because it didn’t just add all of those emotional layers to her, but it added to [her] heftiness. She needed to feel quite heavy emotionally, quite guarded, quite stoic—like a pack horse. And subsequently, when the layers come off, you feel like there’s a woman in there. Someone who has the ability to be intimate and to love and to touch and to want to be touched and to be vulnerable. Specifically, I had to be very mindful to my physical actual strength. When I was naked in the film, I really wanted to look not only my age, but I wanted to look strong. Because that’s what she would have been like. I had to pay attention to that and to change things to make sure I maintained that. And so the costumes went hand in hand with all of those things.
And poor Saoirse. She had to be so manicured. And actually, that’s one of the wonderful things about the evolution of Charlotte through the film. You see her become a little more unraveled. Her hair is a little bit less pulled together and her clothing looks a little bit more relaxed. You feel the shift in her based on how she’s costumed.
Saoirse, I’m curious what it was like working with Kate. Were you intimidated in any way?
Saoirse Ronan: No, I wasn’t intimated by Kate because she never makes you feel like you need to be. She’s lovely. I’ve met her numerous times over the years and she’s always been someone that’s incredibly open and approachable and normal. Kate’s always been very supportive of me [from afar] and I really appreciated that. So I think by the time we got to work together, we sort of vaguely knew each other already, and we really appreciated the fact that we had the same mindset in terms of work and being on a film set. We behaved in a similar way and stuff. It was only fun, really. I don’t think she would ever want anyone to feel intimated by her.
But it was funny, because I was still doing Little Women [when I read] the script, and Kate called me to see what I thought. And I was on set and I went to check my phone afterwards, and Timothée [Chalamet] and I had just done a scene where we were ice skating and we sort of swing each other around. We literally did the Titanic shot where they swing each other around in the ballroom. And then I saw that Kate called and I thought, “I just recreated this moment that you did like 20 years before!”
I read that the two of you choreographed your own love scenes for the film. Can you talk about how that came to be and maybe some of the power that you found in being able to take control in that sort of intimate way?
Saoirse Ronan: It was great. It was sort of a natural step for all of us to take, I think, because it was the three of us [ including director Francis Lee] in a rehearsal room. We had a gay man who was helping us choreograph a sex scene between two women. And Kate and I went, “Well, we know more about that than you do.” He was very good at taking a step back and allowing us to take the reins with those scenes in particular. It was fun! We literally did a step-by-step from one sex scene to the next. Every single movement was choreographed. There’s nothing worse than if something gets out of hand or it goes in a direction you didn’t expect it to because you haven’t talked through it enough. So we spent quite a lot of time deciding exactly what each move would be.
The progression of the relationship is incredibly delicate, so we really needed to map that out, what made sense for these characters. What we found was that Charlotte was so desperate for human interaction, not even necessarily sex, but just somebody’s touch. We see her start to take control quite a bit in those scenes, and that was something that we didn’t expect to come out of that. And Mary, you see this vulnerability come out in her. So they almost switch roles when it comes to these very intimate scenes ,and that was a real eye-opener for the two of us. And yeah, that was a new experience for me to go, “OK, this is something that myself and the other actor are going to decide between the two of us.”
Kate Winslet: The important part of the love scene [is] the powerful physical emotion behind what’s happening to these two women. The big love scene between the two of them is at a point in the story when you know they’re going to part. You know something is coming that is going to pull them away from one another. It’s a very emotional moment, and so the physical connection between the two of them, it’s really primal and quite visceral because they don’t want to leave one another.
It made me so reflective about the part that I have played in love scenes of a similar nature in the past, and whether I have really been OK with all the beats of each one of those scenes. And I look back and I realize I probably haven’t, because Ammonite was so eye-opening for me. It made me question a lot about how I have used my voice in the past. Have I used it wisely, have I spoken for myself enough? I’m not sure I honestly have.
For Saoirse and I, what we constructed together was absolutely because we were two women who felt safe and able to communicate in a really sincere way. Not to push boundaries, but to push one another to be open and to be sharing. It was like a breath of fresh air. It was so joyful and wonderful. I’m just so grateful to have had this experience. It’s really taught me a lot, it’s made me question a lot, it’s made me feel that I need to do my bit in having proper integrity moving forward, because I don’t want to ever leave this moment now without having spoken my own truth. And, subsequently, playing a character with as much integrity as I can because these are stories that go into the world and hopefully inspire other women, younger women.
And I just don’t want to ever not speak from a place of integrity ever again. Ammonite really changed that for me. It fundamentally shifted something in me. And hopefully in a positive way.
Ammonite arrives in select theaters on November 13, followed by VOD release on December 4.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Featured Image: NEON