Interview: Bryn Higgins and the cast of psycho-drama Unconditional
One of the highlights of this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival was Unconditional, an unconventional love story from Bafta award-winning writer Joe Fisher (BBC's Soundproof). “One of the things Joe and I are really interested in is the fact that society, culture, whatever, tells us what's normal and pushes people who don't fit into that to the margins,” reflects the film's director, Bryn Higgins. “Drama should explore that the world is kind of chaotic and doesn't always make sense, whereas so much drama tells us, it's going to be fine, it'll all resolve, they'll be together, you know – that's not really its job."
Initially, Unconditional appears to be fairly straight-forward in its intent, as young twins Owen (Harry McEntire) and Kristen (newcomer Madeleine Clark) befriend a loan advisor, the confident, charismatic Liam (Christian Cooke). But despite Kristen showing a romantic interest in Liam, his affections lie elsewhere, and the fledgling relationship between him and her brother quickly develops into something unhealthy and potentially dangerous for them both. As the tagline states, it's a film about “love, on one condition.” Here, as it turns out, Liam's condition requires Owen to don a dress and become, for all intents and purposes, his own twin sister.
Higgins is full of praise for Fisher's script. “It's very rare you get to make a film like this nowadays, an original story with a really original take,” he asserts. McEntire and Cooke reiterate this, praising the bold approach to an unusual story, and relishing their chance to challenge themselves as actors. “It was a character I'd never played, and so far removed from myself,” says Cooke. McEntire agrees: “I think you hope for a script like this and in your imagined version of your career, when you see it panning out in front of you, you get jobs like this but obviously in reality it very rarely happens. When this came up I knew it was something I had to do."
It's a brave choice for both Cooke and McEntire, and one that presented both actors with their own set of challenges. As Liam, Cooke is unpredictable, conflicted, but ultimately sympathetic. As Higgins points out, “if he could accept who he really is, he wouldn't get so bent out of shape and so dangerous and he becomes so destructive, so self-destructive.” For his role, McEntire decided that the less preparation, the better. “It sounds very convenient but I genuinely did make the choice that I'd discover everything at the same time as the character,” he says. “Bryn wanted to shoot mostly in sequence so it plays out very much as you see it, so the first time that the characters kiss is the first time that we kissed and the first time that I am in, you know, full garb is the first time that we did it… Obviously the moment of seeing yourself is kind of strange and quite arresting – it's nothing I've ever done in my personal or professional life. But it does make you feel different, you carry yourself differently, mainly because the shoes hurt [laughs]. But no, you sit differently, you find you cross your legs more.” He makes for a very convincing woman, a fact proven by the wolf whistles he received from unsuspecting men when shooting in Newcastle. Cooke also took advantage of this. “I would send pictures of him to my brother and my friends," he reveals, "and be like, 'she's fit isn't she, what do you think of this one?' and they'd be like, 'yeah man, she's well hot...'"
One thing that is evident, both on and off screen, is that McEntire and Cooke work well together. As Liam and Owen, they display a maturity and intensity that consistently feels genuine, and Higgins also comments on how natural their interactions and reactions are. Off camera, despite the difficult roles they have performed together, they show no discomfort with each other's company. When asked whether they ever found it difficult to balance their new friendship with their characters' relationship, McEntire jokes, “I think Christian was afraid of me.” Cooke responds, more seriously, “I'm not gay so I don't think there was ever any danger of me falling deeply in love with Harry, but I guess there is an element of not wanting to be too friendly because you don't want to overtake where the characters are. You hear about certain actors that will never speak to or even be in the same room as others because they're enemies in the script or whatever. I don't really follow those sorts of guidelines... but there was an element of not wanting to become overly friendly or overly familiar.”
Unconditional is currently working its way around the festival circuit. Higgins and the two actors flew into Edinburgh from California the night before the interview, after attending a screening at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival where, despite its dry, dark, quintessentially British humour, the film was very well received. “It's an interesting film from that point of view [LGBT] because it has sexuality as one of its kind of core themes,” says Higgins. “It speaks to different people in different ways... It does have, I hope, quite universal appeal. Many of us have been in difficult situations or gotten into relationships that we think back on like, 'oh my god, what were we doing?' So it's really about the difficulties we have to have when we're looking for love.” With this simple message at its core, Unconditional emerges as a fascinating, intense, bittersweet coming-of-age drama, and a film that all involved should be proud of.