“Men,” Alex Garland’s latest film as a writer and director, is full of audacious stylistic gambits. But one of the riskiest—and the most rewarding—comes courtesy of Rory Kinnear. This isn’t the first time the English actor has played multiple roles in a single production: It’s a trick he also pulled off on the Showtime horror series “Penny Dreadful” and the British dark-comedy anthology “Inside No. 9” But “Men,” in which Kinnear plays five different variations on English masculine stereotypes, provided a unique challenge. It was important that audiences know that, as Kinnear puts it, “there’s something a bit off” from the moment his first character appears on screen. But it was also important that these characters remained credibly threatening. Tipping too far into comedy would undermine the entire film, requiring a grounded approach to sometimes outrageous material.
We spoke to Kinnear about his approach to creating the five “Men,” as well as the thoughts that pop into a man’s head as he’s naked and covered in banana juice, lowing like a farm animal at three o’ clock in the morning.
Note that this interview contains spoilers about the ending of “Men.”
Did you consider this a comedic performance in any way?
No. I try to play it straight most of the time. I knew how each character was being received by how the crew would respond to me. It was really instructive in some ways—every time I would come on set as a new person, their reactions were completely different. I wasn’t staying in character in between takes—I was just being Rory. But people would very much keep their distance if I was playing the vicar, and they’d be a bit blokey when I was playing the policeman.
It was party time when [landlord] Jeffrey was on set—everyone loved him! I guess he’s the most harmless, or at least seemingly harmless, of them, and the most eccentric. There’s something about his upper class nature that makes people feel comfortable as well.
But yeah, it was interesting and revealing to see people’s responses to my outward appearance and the clothes that I was wearing. It changed completely from character to character.
The reason I asked is because of the wigs and teeth and the different costumes. All that could easily read comedic.
We spent two weeks before filming started going through all the looks with hair and makeup, working out how they would all fit and what palettes they were going to use. They were trying to make the [looks] as different as possible, but still keep credible. So the question was always asked, “have we gone too far?” And I would always rely on Alex’s response.
The thing about Jeffrey particularly is that he’s the first character we meet. And if this were a straight film in which there was an actor playing Jeffrey, I don’t think I’d be cast as him. He’s a bit older than me. He’s a bit posher than me. He’s more bumbling than me. So there is something unusual about the fact that I’m playing him. Maybe now audiences are going to see the film already knowing the conceit, but we wanted them to go, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something a bit off here.” The teeth and wig help with that. So we were able to do a bit more with Jeffrey in terms of how unsettling he looked.
The first thing I said to Alex was that I wasn’t interested if this was going to be a film where people came up to me going, “gosh, wasn’t he good at playing all those different parts”—or “wasn’t he bad at it.” I particularly wasn’t interested in that. [laughs]
But I wanted to make sure that all these characters seemed to emerge from the countryside, that they were just as much part of the natural world, as the deer and the leaves and the foliage and the tunnels. I wanted them to feel firmly rooted within this community and this natural landscape. So that meant knowing each character just as well as the other, even if they were only going to be on camera for a little bit.
Before we started rehearsals, I came up with a potted biography of each one of the characters I knew I was going to play. I did that so I had a handle on their lived experiences, but also so that I could send them off to Alex and to Nicole and Lisa, the hair and makeup and costume designers. That way they had a starting point as well, rather than having them sort out their own ideas and realizing that our visions didn’t marry up.
It wasn’t like, “I think he looks like this,” or “He has this color hair.” It was, “This is where he grew up. This is his relationship with parents. This is where he went to school.” How he got into his profession—whatever. I let them use that as a jumping off point for their own creativity.
That was quite a long time before we even started rehearsals. And they would send through various mood boards and look boards, and we would continue that back and forth as we went along.
Interesting. So you were given free rein to develop all that?
Yeah, pretty much. Obviously we’re passing it all by Alex. The only character he was fastidious about the look for was the Green Man. That’s an image and a figure that he’s been obsessed with for a long time. And bringing that to life, he took great care with the way that it manifested itself, to the extent that the last 20 minutes of the makeup would basically be him doing the finishing touches. Because this really existed perfectly in his mind, and he wanted to make sure that I lived up to it.