What happens when the ideals that you’ve held for your entire life are put to the test when the real world comes knocking at your door? Do you cling to them, or do you adapt? This is the question that the Schlegel sisters face at the heart of Howards End. Based upon the classic novel by E.M. Forster, Starz’s new adaptation chronicles the increasing interconnectedness of the Schlegels and Wilcoxes, two families who could not have more different views on the world and how to treat others.
Helen Schlegel, the youngest sister, full of compassion but not a lot of experience, bucks against the rigid traditions that govern English society at the turn of the 20th century. While her attempts at helping others may often go astray, Helen is determined to see the best in people and not be beaten down by a culture controlled by market values and using others to climb the socioeconomic ladder. Played by newcomer Philippa Coulthard, Helen is the beating heart of the Schlegel family.
Coulthard was kind enough to talk with UPROXX about the new miniseries, why people should give costume dramas a try, and reaching outside of our comfortable spheres.
It’s so refreshing to me to see such complex women on the screen. Tell me a little bit about Helen.
She’s the youngest Schlegel sister, and she comes from a really intellectually open, almost bohemian background. She really wears her heart on her sleeve and has a real strong sense of injustice and a sense of restlessness in Edwardian England as a woman. But I think she’s, as you said, they are such fully-formed complex characters, and she’s flawed as well as being so wonderfully empathetic.
She really strikes me as someone desperately trying to do good, but she can’t really get out of her own way sometimes.
Yeah, and I think she is so stifled by the time in a lot of ways because I think she has so much energy and has such a desire to do good and such curiosity and interest in the world. She’s such an anthropologist. Instead of meeting people who have completely opposing ideas to her on every level, instead of shying away from that, she finds that fascinating. And she wants to dig in and find out more about that. Certainly, that’s the case with Leonard Bast [Joseph Quinn] when she meets him and does have really good intentions to help him, but I think in some ways her idealism, it can sort of lead her astray and it could be somewhat misguided, I think. But ultimately it does come from such a beautiful place of wanting to make meaning of life, especially when you are so limited as a woman in that time.
Yeah, definitely. The novel was set around a century ago, but the themes of love and gender feel rather universal, especially with regards to the role of women in society, like you said. How do you think Howards End fits into the modern conversation surrounding the roles of women?
I mean there’s so much about it that is just hugely relevant, and it’s interesting that question, because a lot of — oh gosh, I was about to say a spoiler, which I probably shouldn’t — but I think it’s that idea of making connections and having relationships with people and opening yourself to people outside of your immediate ideological and social sphere, but not losing yourself in that. I think so many people could relate to that, the idea of when you are with someone it can be easy to lose yourself in that. I think with both Helen and Margaret [Hayley Atwell], it sort of really does show these very strong-minded women, and that when men come into their lives, how it changes things for them, and how it pulls the sisters apart. But eventually how they find each other again towards the end of the story. I think all of that is very part and parcel of why it’s a classic, is because all of those themes are universal and relevant regardless of the setting.
Plus, I feel like the when Margaret talks about “only connect” seems particularly poignant right now.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, especially today when it’s so easy to surround yourself with people that think the same as you, and so many people talk about the social media echo chamber, of only having people that sort of agree with you. You have a newsfeed that is tailored to you and your ideas, but more than anything it seems we need to be reaching outside of our immediate social spheres, and trying to understand people as opposed to being truly defensive or divisive. That’s what’s so remarkable about the Schlegel sisters is that they really do want to understand why people speak differently than them, and they sort of have a self-awareness that other people’s lived experiences are far different to their own. Especially comparing them to the Wilcox family, who are so blinded in a way by their privilege and are sort of unable to put themselves in the shoes of anyone else. So I do think that’s so important to be interested in the world and to want to understand where other people are coming from, now more than ever.
Yeah, definitely. So when you have these intense, emotional scenes — I won’t name any, so we don’t spoil anything — but what’s the mood like on set when you have to get in this frame of mind?
There were a lot of scenes that were quite heavy or meaty in terms of the emotional stakes, but generally on set I feel like Hayley and Matthew [MacFadyen] really set the tone for it being so comfortable. Hayley would describe it as, “Not taking yourself too seriously, but taking the work seriously.” It was always so lovely to just be able to joke around. I think it was a good mix of being very professional, but also being quick to laugh in an easy, comfortable environment on set, so that you did feel safe really letting go in some of those more intense, emotional scenes.
One thing I really loved about it is the costuming. It’s just absolutely stunning, so I have to ask … corsets. Absolutely terrible or not too bad?
I mean I was a little bit worried at first! I was like, “Oh gosh, am I going to be unable to breath?” And that in between scenes, they’ll have to be letting me out of the corset. But we would put it on in the morning and keep it on all day long. Like, even through lunch we wouldn’t really take if off. Because you do sort of get used to it essentially. It’s only really at the end of the day when they unlace you from the corset that you realize like, “Oh my God. That feels amazing.” Yeah, you do learn to sort of handle them. But certainly I’m very grateful to not have to wear them in daily life.
But yeah, we really wanted the costumes to feel like clothes rather than costumes. Essentially, the sisters had to be able to move and not seems stiff and stuffy, and I think there is a tendency that people can all of a sudden become so, I guess, restrained when wearing clothes like that. It was really important for Meg and Helen to be comfortable in what they were wearing. Yeah, so you get used to it pretty quickly.
I’ll really loved all the neckties that you guys wore. I thought that was like really elegant. I feel like we should bring that one back!
There’s a few things from the Edwardian era that I think were quite nice, then some things that are just hugely impractical. All of the beautiful like high-neck lacy sort of blouses and things, I feel like those are always sort of sneaking back in.
So not only is Howards End this classic novel, but you’ve also got the Merchant Ivory film as well. How did it feel to sort of step into Helena Bonham Carter’s shoes?
I hadn’t seen the film, so I purposely decided that I wouldn’t see the film until we’d finished filming. Yeah, I mean it feels so humbling, especially as the character alone is just such an incredible one. The Merchant Ivory film is brilliant. I can see why people are so protective of it and have such a strong love for it. It has endured because it’s wonderful, and they’re both such brilliant actresses. I think when I did watch it after filming, I guess it was a relief in a way because it’s so different. I feel like these are two very different takes on this story.
Her Helen felt very different from my own. But definitely felt a bit daunting, and I’m glad I didn’t watch it because, yeah, she’s marvelous. It would just be so tempting to try and do a poor emulation of whatever she did. I’m glad that I got to sort of keep it my own with fresh eyes and just have a go at what I thought Helen was.
I feel like there’s this unfortunate misconception that costume dramas are kind of stuffy and overly serious, which really isn’t the case. How do you think Howards End subverts that stereotype?
I mean, Kenneth Lonergan is such a masterful writer who is so good at subtlety and nuance and I feel like he complemented Forster’s writing so beautifully. I think that ultimately it’s a story about people and relationships and, yes, they are wearing these funny clothes, and it’s a very sort of romanticized cinematic time to transport yourself to, but ultimately it’s about the stories, about the relationships. So that was very much the focus of both Hettie [Macdonald] and Kenny, and we were constantly reminded to not fall into that trap of period drama acting, which can so easily happen when you are laced into a corset and you’re in a tearoom holding the tea and talking about things in these very haughty sort of accents.
So it was remembering that these are people and that the Schlegels, they behaved quite differently. I mean the way that Hayley and I were encouraged to move throughout the series: not to be too dainty. Everything felt real. It felt like Helen and Margaret could have done their own hair, that the clothes felt lived in, that we were really comfortable in the sets, that we felt like it was our home. So I think a combination of those things, hopefully people see that it’s more than just a genre or a setting.
Howards End airs Sundays at 8:00 p.m. EST on Starz.