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MeToo and the big screen: 'People aren't saying to me anymore - oh, that's just what he's like'

We talk to the two stars of new Irish film Rose Plays Julie about how the film explores the theme of sexual violence.

Orla Brady in a scene from the film.
Orla Brady in a scene from the film.
Image: IMDB

SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND its aftermath play a huge role in the new Irish film Rose Plays Julie. 

Now in cinemas, the film – written and directed by Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, who are Irish and based in London since 1987 – asks questions about identity and also how Ireland deals with sexual violence.

It’s been a long road for the film to reach our screens. When The Journal caught up with its stars, Orla Brady and Ann Skelly, it was March 2020, just mere days before the country was shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The film itself took time to get on screen, starting in 2014 as an idea that was gradually teased out by the filmmakers. Lawlor and Molloy have a long history in film, starting with around 10 short films made on 35mm while they were students. Their first feature film, Helen, premiered in 2008. After that, they made the feature Mister John, and the documentary Further Beyond. 

Meanwhile, Brady and Skelly’s careers are both at different stages: Brady is an experienced actress who has starred in a wealth of films and TV shows, most recently Into the Badlands and Star Trek: Picard. One of Ireland’s top actors, Brady is a familiar face on stage and screen.

Ann Skelly, by contrast, is at the beginning of her career. Yet at just 24 she has shown her talent through an impressive CV, taking starring roles in Kissing Candice, The Nevers, and Death and Nightingales. Though they might differ in the stages of their careers, the two women are united in highlighting the issues experienced by female actors in the film industry, and clearly see Rose Plays Julie as playing an important part in this.

When The Journal spoke to Brady and Skelly, Harvey Weinstein had just been sentenced to 23 years in prison for a rape conviction, and it was this that was at the forefront of their minds as we spoke about the film. 

Emotion on screen

In Rose Plays Julie, Skelly stars as Rose, a veterinary science student who is searching for her birth mother.

When she finds her, she turns out to be an actor named Ellen (played by Brady). Ellen has not wanted contact with Rose, and when Rose discovers the reason why the pair are thrust into a difficult situation. The film deals with the slippery idea of identity, through Rose’s journey and the decisions she makes. 

Molloy and Lawlor’s style is restrained – they encouraged their actors to pull back emotionally. This heightens the strangeness and creepiness of what happens throughout the film. Aidan Gillen plays a pivotal role in the film; he has worked with Molloy and Lawlor before, starring in their feature Mister John. 

Brady felt that the script for Rose Plays Julie was “very true writing”, that Molloy and Lawlor “had genuinely considered these relationships and these characters.”

There’s a lot of heavy emotion in Rose Plays Julie, but only a few moments of catharsis. There’s no Marriage Story scene of breakdown, no chewing of the scenery.  There’s no, as Brady put it, “rather vain tendency” of an actor saying “you want a big breakdown, I’ll do it!”. That was something neither she nor Skelly aimed for here. 

“Somehow I have experienced that sometimes as a bit indulgent on the part of the actor – and I’ve done it, and I know I’ve been indulgent,” she said.

Molloy and Lawlor didn’t want that “give bang for your buck” idea. “So they very much encouraged us to sort of let that all go,” said Brady. So much so that she feared at one point she’d been too restrained. 

“I was in London and went over to their flat and they showed me a couple of scenes and I just thought [I went] too far,” she recalled. She wasn’t shown the film in full, or in context, but worried at the time: “I just thought I actually ruined the film. I remember leaving, walking away. I was completely impassive and I thought ‘oh shit, I’ve gone too far’.”

But when she saw the whole film together, and how her role fit into the world that the directors created, she understood. “That was the world they were establishing, and there was a balance to all of it.” Indeed, viewers will see her character’s restraint as having many conflicting emotions bubbling beneath her steely exterior. 

MeToo movement

That the film was first shown around the time of Harvey Weinstein’s imprisonment was meaningful to the actors. “It says a lot about Joe and Christine [that] they were, you know, meditating on this,” said Brady. “They needed to tell a story that was this story, before that became an overt thing. And obviously [sexual violence] has been there as a theme for many of us for a long time.”

She described where she was when she saw that Weinstein was being jailed, and how she thought, “slightly tearful and angry, that dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of women over many years, everyone knew what abuse [was happening] and they could only get two of the four convictions… you think, what chance does one woman have?” 

It was then that she thought “I’m really happy I’m coming to publicise this film… it’s come together into a moment, which [the directors] didn’t intend.”

The outpouring of stories after the first allegations about Weinstein emerged, and the subsequent MeToo campaign, showed how sexual violence and harassment was – and is – very much a live issue in the acting industry.

As Skelly explained, it’s something even she at just 24 has experience of.

“I’ve heard stories about like, [a Hollywood actor] or whatever, even when I was 17. So people knew, you know, in the back arse of Ireland. But that all felt far away. I’ve had my own run-ins… [and those run-ins] were handled. When MeToo started, you would think you were safe, you know? But sometimes they hide behind that as well. So it’s still very much that creeps are definitely in our midst.”

She points to the Apple TV+ show The Morning Show as an example of showing how some predators behave. “They have a really interesting character there about the kinds of characters that are in our midst. Aidan plays it as well [in Rose Plays Julie], like this kind of person who can just get on with their life, even though they’ve done this… and there’s this malevolence there and I don’t know if it’s an objectification of women, or if it’s an infantilisation of women, or is it a mixture of the both?”

“It’s all very confusing to me still, because everyone’s saying it’s changed. And I’ve experienced it myself. So I don’t really know. There’s not a lot of satisfaction for me.”

Added Brady: “But I think we’ve had a system for thousands of years so it’s not going to change overnight.”

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“I feel a bit safer. I do,” continued Skelly. “And I feel like I’m allowed to say things now and have an open discussion about it. And people aren’t saying to me anymore ‘oh, that’s just what he’s like’. But I have seen the impact on other women who have gone through all of this already and they’ve managed to be successful, in acting or whatever. And it makes me sad sometimes that they can they go ‘oh, but that’s just how he is’, you know, ‘just try not to stay… just make sure it’s not just you and him in a room’.

You know, there’s all this advice that’s given to you only when you kind of go, ‘it’s a weird that he does… touches me here or there’, you know, you kind of have to fish a bit. Sometimes I feel like I would like more of an open discussion. I feel like there’s still a bit of timidness around it but this film, I think does address it in a very brutal, intense way. And I think there’s a great, there’s great payoff in it for all the tension that you’re given.

As the longer-term actress, Brady has seen her fair share of this kind of thing. “What I’m pleased to hear you saying is that you feel absolutely entitled to question and to talk about this,” she reassured Skelly.

“I don’t think it’s gone away. But the difference is when things happen to you, [like] when you were up for a role and someone made it, I mean, abominably clear that you know, ‘what are we going to do here?’ kind of thing and you think, ‘great we’re down to the two of us’.

“It’s kind of like ‘what are we doing here’ and you think even though you weren’t… you’ve to walk away from it. And you leave and even though you think ‘well, nothing has happened, so it’s not like I’ve been violated’ – which must be I mean, unimaginable – but you think, ‘oh, that was my value’.

You feel valueless, you feel like a little piece of dirt because you think: I wasn’t there because anyone thinks I can maybe tell the story with you in this play. I was there because somebody clearly… and you thought it was your fault, you thought did I do [something]? Did I? You were just going for an audition, is all you were doing.

Added Skelly: “I’ve justified things for so long. It’s only like, a year later, I go: Oh, shit. No.”

That the pair can be so open around such a tough subject, sharing anecdotes and encouraging other, shows how well they must have worked together while filming. 

Indeed, Brady described it as “just like having a chat, like now. It felt very real.” Skelly agreed: “Like, sometimes it just kind of felt like it was just you and me. Like, we’re just interviewing you and me. And it’s so weird that other people then saw the film.”

“I have this impression that it’s like a sort of dream, like you’re sitting in darkness, having a chat with somebody, and I don’t remember the crew,” said Brady. “Whereas normally you’re really conscious of all the [action around you]“. 

It’s interesting to hear how intimate the process felt for them, given what a highly charged story they had to tell. And yet, their descriptions make perfect sense given the dreamy, otherworldly feel the film has. Together, they’re able to tell the story of two women searching for each other, and for a way of being with each other. 

That feeling was summed up Skelly as she talked about the initial reactions to the film, of hearing from those first audience members that others could feel that connection too.

“When you’re looking at when I was looking at Orla, when we were doing some of the more bare, exposing tense scenes, I just was really glad that that connection came across,” she said.

“That other people could feel what I felt when I was working with her.”

Rose Plays Julie is in cinemas now.

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