Children of Men
AN INTERVIEW WITH Clare-Hope Ashitey
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Children of Men
December 26, 2006
With so many newcomers making a presence in the film business like Keke Palmer, Shereeka Epps, and Jennifer Hudson, one can 19 year old British actress Clare-Hope Ashitey to the mix. Previously seen in the British film, “Shooting Dogs”, Ashitey makes her Hollywood debut playing opposite Clive Owen in Alfonso Cuaron’s film, “Children of Men”. In the mesmerizing thriller film, the world is on the verge of extinction because no children have been born for 18 years. Ashitey plays Kee, an eight months pregnant black woman, who is the miracle the whole planet has been waiting and hoping for, and who must be seen safely out of the country by Theo, played by Owen. In their race to sanctuary from both anarchists who will risk everything for a cause and those who would use her child for political gain, Kee and Theo become the unlikely champions of a future generation. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Ashitey talks about getting cast for the film as well as working with Clive Owen.
Did you find yourself drawing the lines between what’s happening today and Kee is going through and who Kee is? She’s roughly your age.
Clare-Hope Ashitey: Absolutely. I think there were so many parallels between what goes on in the film and what goes on in our world today and I think that’s the way Alfonso intended it, as a way of drawing attention or be in a slightly exaggerated form but drawing attention to the problems we have today and the things we are doing wrong and kinda highlighting them and putting them into a setting, which is really pessimistic and depressing.
But it didn’t get in the way putting together a road story.
CHA: Absolutely not. He did an amazing job of combining the two, adding some entertainment and some humor to the story.
What was your reaction when you first read the script?
CHA: I didn’t read the script until very late. I had gone to one audition. Then I had gone to a screen test months later and after that I got the script. At that point I hadn’t read that many scripts. I had read like four feature films and it was compelling and I think that’s very difficult to do with black and white on paper. It’s different with novels because they had there to build up a picture and a story whereas with a screenplay, they have to pair down the script and build on it. You are hit with all these images and these powerful things which I thought was incredible to do with words and a screenplay.
How physical was the shoot?
CHA: From me and Clive to the camera operators and hair and makeup, everyone was on the edge and running around and it does becomes mentally taxing because you are very aware that you are doing a huge long take and a huge setup, and it’s taken 18 people and three weeks to prepare for this and in the morning it took three hours to setup and if you mess up, it’s going to take another load of people and more hours to do it all over again. You do become very tense if you are just standing around waiting to do your scene and at the same time it does give you this immense feeling of relief and at the end of the day, you say, “We got it”.
Were some of the battle scenes at the end of the film one take?
CHA: Yes. There’s one scene where the blood splatters on the lens of the camera and that was on one take, which Alfonso can tell you much better than I can. It was one take and just having to get all those components and the timing right, I’m not sure if it looks hard on the scene as it was when we shot it.
Can you talk about the baby? Was it animatronic?
CHA: It was a mixture. The prosthetics team built a prosthetic baby that had a robotic mechanism so that it can smile and the eyes can move and it could the head and it was amazing. They just touch it up with some other magic stuff.
Was it creepy?
CHA: It was weird. It was really, really weird. The first time I saw it was when they first sculpted it so it was in clay and I walked in the prosthetics trailer and it was so realistic and it was really creepy because it doesn’t move obviously and you are looking at it and you are willing it to move because it looks so much like a real baby. At the end of the day when they have made it and they cut it up and they put back in the box, and you go, “You can’t do that. You can’t put the baby in a box” and it is creepy, but at the same time, it is quite cold and quite hard.
What’s it like to play this character? Can you describe her and how she might be different from you?
CHA: I found her to be a complex character, not just from reading it and being in a place from where we were shooting. At first you realize that she’s tough and she’s really street-wise and that no one will get past her. She has so many levels of innocence and naiveté and vulnerability and I feel that’s really hard to keep them both going at the same time; being icy and at the same time conveying actually that she’s really a scared little girl and that she doesn’t know where she is and what she’s doing. Then again, I had loads of help. Alfonso comes in and won’t play games with you and tells you this is who she is, which makes my job a bit easier.
Did you watch a lot of MTV shows to nail her?
CHA: No. I think it was real bewilderment on my part and confusion because I got the job two days before we started shooting. I had been doing other stuff and then I got the job and then we had stopped and then I had to work with this actor who had previously been another factor of the film and I think a lot of it was real confusion that I was feeling, which is great that it worked, otherwise it would have been different for me.
How did you get the role?
CHA: I had a long process of auditions and screen tests. I had another meeting with Alfonso and the casting director and then a month later I had a screen test and then I didn’t hear anything for ages and then I kept hearing, “He’s still thinking and still seeing people” and I just thought that it had been so long and that I’m not going to get it and then they said they will tell me by a certain date and the day came and went and then suddenly I had the job. My agent was like, “You got the job and that you will be going in sometime this week”. I didn’t hear anything that evening and then in the morning, by 8ish or so, I get a phone call saying that a car is waiting to get me. I went in and had a camera test and the next day I started shooting and it was really, really quite strange and quite confusing to somewhat jump into this production.
Was the role initially for a black woman?
CHA: I think it was most important for Alfonso that she, the character, wasn’t from the western world and her character was a symbol of hope and the salvation kind, not from the Hollywood style and polish personality you tend to see. You would have to ask him for details on this, but I think he was looking around for Black and for Asian and for mixed, anyone not specifically from Great Britain or America I think.
Can you talk about working with Clive (Owen) and making the relationship between your characters work?
CHA: He was great. He’s a good. He’s a good actor. He’s really into what he does and I think that’s what important to him. He likes to act and he likes to be there. It’s great to be around someone for that reason. I think the relationship between Key and Theo developed really organically. It somewhat came about through trial and error and I think we just hit upon the right mixture of intimacy and also of constant awkwardness between the characters, which I though was great because it would have been so easy to have them have this love and be real close and have this father-daughter relationship or any one of those, but I thought it was great that there was this distance between them. “I don’t really know you, but I have to trust you because you are the only person that’s there.” I thought that just came about through trying things and working out and turning on the camera and seeing what happens.
How did you develop the accent? Is it a specific one from a geographical region?
CHA: It is and it isn’t. With all the auditions that I have gone to, they always told me to use a London accent so that’s what I would do. One time we tried an American accent and he hadn’t said anything more about it and so I thought he just preferred the London accent and then the day before, he said that I can’t be from London and that she has to have this African accent, which threw me for quite a bit. After preparing with a London accent, I have to switch it all of a sudden. I have never had to do something like this before. My parents are from Ghana and West Africa and that’s where I drew it from. I guess it’s much easier for me than it would for someone who is not from that background because when you grow up around your family, the accent is somewhat innate within you. It’s not entirely from there. It’s really strange because the dialogue isn’t conducive to what I feel is African accent. It’s got other things in there and I really don’t know what there are. We just worked through it and I had a voice coach and we worked what we thought sounded right.
I see that you will be playing Moses’ wife in your next film, “Exodus”. Do you see the role as a change for black women?
CHA: That’s a British film and it’s a British role and I’m not entirely familiar with American industry, but what I find, and what I see, and what I get from talking to people is that as much as people would like it to be and as much as people say that it is, it’s not a colorblind industry. I don’t think it will be for a long time. It’s just finding roles that you can get. I think it’s different in Britain. The film industry is different and the whole race issue on certain standards isn’t pronounced over there as it is over in America and what I find is that in a lot of programs and films in Britain, it’s not an issue having a mixed race. I think it’s changing. I think people are growing. I think audiences are changing and I hope the studios are adapting that.
What are your expectations to be successful as an actress in America?
CHA: Honestly, I have no idea. I don’t know the industry in America that well. I don’t know the studios over here. I’m just going to wait and see what happens. It would be easy to say that I’ve done a commercial film with big names, but the fact is that it’s not like that for a lot of people. Some people do a big job or two and then they disappear from plain view because the way the industry is so fickle, so I just have to wait and see. It’s not so important to me where I work. A lot of good writers, and directors, and actors come out of Hollywood, so obviously it would be great to work there, but there’s some great stuff coming out of Britain, so I’m going to see what comes from all angles.
CHILDREN OF MEN opens on December 25, 2006
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