With superheroes, wizards, and aliens taking over the multiplexes, sometimes more grounded films feel few and far between. Beirut is one of this season’s strongest alternatives, offering viewers a tight political thriller that doesn’t shy away from depicting moral complexity. Directed by Brad Anderson and written by Tony Gilroy, Beirut stars Jon Hamm as a former CIA negotiator who is pulled back into the field to handle a hostage situation going south against the backdrop of civil war.
Playing a CIA agent helping to diffuse the powder keg situation, Rosamund Pike exudes a quiet confidence and clear-headed approach necessary for a high-pressure situation. Following her Oscar nomination for Gone Girl, Pike has appeared in a number of wide-ranging projects, not content to be tied down to one type of role. Pike spoke to us ahead of Beirut‘s release to discuss the timeliness of the project, the role of women in film, and how she plans to keep working until she’s 80.
What struck me about Beirut was that it feels like a movie from a different era. It’s been a while since we’ve seen one of these dialogue-driven political thrillers.
Yes. But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s the way that Brad Anderson so brilliantly captured the smell and atmosphere of the period and the city. When he first spoke to me he said one of his big references was The Year of Living Dangerously. If you think about using that film with Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver — it’s one of my favorites because of that — it’s got this uncanny, sexy feeling that characters are holding their cards close to their chest. You’re not quite sure who everybody is, and yet you’ve got this intensity of atmosphere and smell and sweat. Energy and rain and sound. I really kind of got that grimy and grittiness to this and I think it’s really exciting. I think that’s what people are responding to preliminarily, as well as their brains are curious about this smart, intelligent thriller that kind of makes us think and makes us keep up. It excites your imagination, but I think it’s also the world, as well as the story and the sense of place.
I read that Tony Gilroy wrote the script almost three decades ago. Why do you think now is the right time to make this movie?
I know. Well, I think it was more not that now is the right time, I think it was more that then nobody would touch it. It was too politically sensitive to make it. Too volatile of a situation and people were worried. And now, as always with distance and hindsight, you can be just as provocative, but people are a bit more willing to accept it. I think it was a very interesting experience for him editing his younger self, you know? And actually realizing that his younger self had come up with something really pretty brilliant.
What’s it like diving into that part of history — and on a smaller scale the plot for this movie — where no one’s hands are really clean? That’s got to be a lot of interesting nuances to wrestle with.
Yes. So much nuance. The one thing you know for sure is that any of those areas of the Middle East, anyone who says they know all about it or they’re an expert… I mean, there are some experts. You know, people who’ve lived there for 20 years or who were born there. But for someone like us to go in and try to understand it, you’ve just got to keep an open mind. You know, to admit what you don’t know and listen and absorb. And you know, I hadn’t been to Lebanon before I made the film. I have now become so interested in it.
I went with MAG, a landmine charity, to see their work in October of last year, and I had an amazing visit and just talked and talked and talked. The long car journeys to the south, the north, just listening to people’s tales of Civil War and their experience of being under Israeli bombardment and just all the textures and allegiances and divergences. It’s a truly fascinating place with extraordinary people in it.
I imagine it was a pretty rigorous shoot in Morocco. What was that like as a process?
Well, it was really fun actually. Brad is a very brilliant, experienced director. He has a very calm vibe. We had a really great time actually. You know, I think it was true of any sort of foreign correspondents, the diplomats, the American Secret Service who were there, I think people worked really hard and I think they lived hard too. And I think we kind of mimicked that. You know, we put all our heart and soul into the movie, but we also had a really good time. I rented a house in Tangier. I had a great house, I had lots of parties. I had everyone around to dinner two, three times a week. We really had fun. So it wasn’t all hard work, I can tell you.
I can imagine having an experience like that really helps build a camaraderie really helps build a cast and crew.
Yeah, yeah it really does. It really does. It was a really close-knit group. And Tangier is a very exciting city. It was a mixture between its very strict Muslim culture — probably more strict than Marrakech — but it’s also got this underbelly, underworld that’s been healthy and alive since the ’70s since the Beat generation went in in the ’60s and ’70s. And it’s just a very, very interesting melting pot. A bit like Beirut. Different, but still a melting pot. We were very lucky. It was a privilege to see it and also have it made to look so much like Beirut. The production designer did a superb job. We couldn’t have filmed there because modern day Beirut just doesn’t look anything like 1980s Beirut. I realized from the little pockets that I saw that are still preserved from the ’80s, how good a job Arad [Sawat] did.
One thing I liked about your character was that she was kind of constantly subverting the expectations of the men around her. Especially Jon Hamm’s character Mason. How do you kind of get into that mindset, a 1980’s women in a man’s world, so to speak?
Last summer, I did a film with Joel Kinnaman [Three Seconds] in which I played an FBI agent. A contemporary film. And what was so interesting about meeting the women at the FBI now is that they can really use their femininity. They can really enjoy being feminine. They’re not kind of some pseudo-man. And I think that is the privilege of now. Even though there’s still plenty of sexism, in the ’80s for sure there were many fewer women in those positions. They had to be every bit as tough as a man and show it and live it. Whereas the women of now, they just know that they’re as tough as a man and they don’t have to display it all the time. But I think the sexism was so prevalent in the ’80s that Sandy looks feminine and I was very keen that she did look feminine, but with her actions and her sort of no-nonsense and just her directness is… You know, she’s just sort of sexless. And I think it’s interesting that even though there’s an affair, as obviously part of the story, Sandy’s romantic life is certainly not front and center of her concerns or ours watching the movie. It’s sort of nothing really do with who she is, I think.
I appreciated that.
But that subverting of expectations, I think the fact that she ultimately has to make her own decisions, and she realizes she’s on her own and she had to call upon herself, I think that’s a very empowering, nice, detail. That we see someone make decisions under pressure completely by herself and ends up telling Jon Hamm’s character what they’re gonna do. And I think it’s also a nice and normal relationship. It’s nice to have a relationship where this sort of gorgeous man comes in — you know, Jon Hamm — and one might expect that the female lead is going to be forgiving to him and in fact, she’s very impatient with the fact that she’s got this drunk on her hands that she has to babysit. I think it sort of subverts the expectation that she’s gonna swoon at the first sight of someone as attractive as Jon Hamm. It’s actually kind of nice subversion of the stereotype. She actually finds him a bit of a pain in the ass.
Well, she has to clean up after him a lot. You can understand why that would get frustrating. Sort of building off the idea of a woman in a man’s world, there’s been such a huge cultural shift happening in Hollywood and beyond right now, in favor of women with Me Too and the publicity around inclusion riders and all of this stuff that’s going on. What are some changes that you’ve started to see already, just being in the industry?
I’m very aware of all the discussion. I’m part of a group in London who — I haven’t been able to attend the meetings but I get all the minutes from the meetings of women in the film industry — just coming together on a monthly basis or more frequently to discuss principles of conduct and what we hope will change. You know, recently there was a new guideline put across for the filming of nudity and sex scenes in films, which is really interesting. How to make people feel comfortable.
I’m very conscious, now being the lead of films, of the younger women on set. Just making sure that they’re okay. That they’re feeling comfortable, that they’re feeling confident. That they’re feeling appreciated and valued and they’ve got what they need and they know how to ask for it. I would have liked to have an older, more experienced women to look out for me a bit because you usually are in a minority on set.
And I think it’s interesting in terms of actors. I’ve said it a bit before. The film I’m making now and the one I just did, they’re very, very strong stories with female leads. And to get these stories made, you need the male stars to agree to play supporting roles to a lead woman. And historically, male actors have been very happy to play supporting role to another man, but less happy to play a supporting role to a woman and that’s got to change.
One of the most interesting casting debates that I’ve seen lately is whether or not James Bond should be a woman after Daniel Craig is done with the role. As a former Bond Girl, do you think that’s the right choice?
I’d just say write a new story. I mean James Bond is a character that Ian Fleming created. I mean, you know of course the brand has become bigger and whatever, but take one of the Bond Girls and give her her own story. I think the character of James Bond is a man. He is really. But I mean, to have such a character in a completely independent series, why should a woman get sort of sloppy seconds? Why should she have once been a man and now it has to be played by a woman? Why not make a kick-ass female agent in her own right?
I agree. I want to see more strong, leading roles for women, but I’d rather have new ones written instead of retconning a male character. That doesn’t seem as interesting to me.
Yeah, you can’t always just flip it and just say, “Oh, she’s a woman now.” I mean, that’s to underestimate a woman entirely I think. There’s nothing really about the James Bond character as written by Ian Fleming that resembles a woman.
It’s a very masculine character.
It’s a very masculine creation. So sure, make an unexpected, unapologetic, kick-ass, amazing female agent and yes, I’ll play her.
Make that movie! I want to see that movie.
And I’m sure many other women will too.
Following Gone Girl, I feel like it would have been really easy for you to get typecast as Ice Queens. But you managed to carve out a number of very different roles with The United Kingdom and Hostiles and now Beirut. How did you avoid falling into that typecasting?
I’d love to say that I go with what interests me. And I don’t have any really big, overarching agenda. I did a little music video for Massive Attack, I did a short film for a friend of mine last year, I want to do some comedy. I do what speaks to me at that time and I just try and live my own truth. You know you can’t try and control the temperature of this business. All I think is that I want to be working when I’m in my 80s. The only way is to live your truth and to be truthful. Not what you think is gonna be successful or what you think is gonna make you a star. It’s just kind of go with your gut. Hopefully, if you do that, I want to believe that you’ll make authentic work and people will come and watch it. That’s what I hope.
It’s kind of all you can do, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. Yeah and things you care about. You can’t talk about stuff unless you’ve got passion and you know, people see through it. If you haven’t got passion, people see through it.
Beirut hits theaters April 11.