Imogen Poots on Vivarium: 'When a film like this comes along, you just jump at it because it's so 'other''
- Nikki Baughan
- 27 March 2020
We caught up with the actor about her role in Lorcan Finnegan's timely sci-fi thriller
Both surrealist and extremely relatable – perhaps even more so in the current coronavirus climate – Lorcan Finnegan's sci-fi thriller Vivarium sees an ambitious young couple become trapped in seemingly perfect domesticity. After going to view a house on a sprawling estate, Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) realise they cannot leave; food deliveries are left outside their new 'home', all escape attempts prove futile. When one day a baby is delivered, with the ominous message 'Raise the child and be released', the trap is complete.
For Poots, who has made a career playing women who challenge the norms in films like Green Room and Fright Night, Vivarium offered a unique opportunity to confront issues of on-screen femininity – traditional gender roles, the burden of motherhood – and be a part of a truly exciting piece of independent British filmmaking. She spoke to The List about the experience.
Vivarium is a striking film; did you have an immediate connection to the material and the character?
It came by way of a script and, it was such a unique piece. That something like this would even have finance in this day and age, with a relatively unknown filmmaker, was really interesting to me. So [Lorcan and I] met up for coffee and spoke about the script a little bit, but mainly about films we both love. I always think that's a great gateway into someone else's vision, what turns them on creatively. So we spoke about Shane Carruth's Upstream Colour, we spoke about the Japanese film Woman In The Dunes. And of course we spoke about what the film represented to us, and what questions it asked.
The narrative speaks to so many things; the housing crisis, gender roles, motherhood. Was there something in particular that resonated with you?
The ideas were right there from the beginning to explore. And as you're making the film, you're learning more about the character and the ideas unfold. What if you don't want children? What is this 'one size fits all' society? I really connected with that. Even though where Tom and Gemma are is hell, it could feasibly also be paradise because it's such a passive ennui, and that's what we seem to want. This luxury of your food being delivered and cable television and a child – the whole setup seems idyllic. When a film like this comes along, you just jump at it because it's so 'other'. It allows you to explore the politics of film; as an actor, what does your role represent? Can you be a part of something purely for the sake of entertainment? All that stuff is really potent.
You've made a career out of playing characters who challenge what women are supposed to be. Are they easy to find?
I know that if you don't get an opportunity to show someone what you can do, they might never ask. So I think Green Room, for me, was a huge window into a world where I can play great female characters who are unlikable, make mistakes or have accidents, and demonstrate all sorts of self-shame, guilt and dangerous feelings that femininity hasn't allowed for beforehand. But I think it's very difficult to go out and find these parts, so it's certainly a treat when something comes your way that's in line with what you're interested in.
Vivarium plays like a surrealist genre film, but it's grounded in truth. How did you ensure that Gemma stayed relatable, even as these bizarre things were happening around her?
I feel certainly that I've made errors in the past, where I tried to meet a tone or match the tone of a piece with a performance. And it doesn't work. You can't play horror. That's something that's found afterwards, or with the people around you, the energy created together. So I think it was really about staying truthful, to be totally present. There's a Terrence Malick-style direction the film could have gone in; more dreamlike, more leaning into the surreal. But Lorcan was pretty clear about wanting us to be naturalistic amidst the madness.
One of the film's great strengths is the production design, which represents an alien view of domestic bliss. Does that detail help you get in the mindset of the character?
It relaxes you because it's a great reminder that everything else is taken care of. So when you see a set that beautiful, right down to the colour of the house, the specific bile-toned green, and the casting of Senan Jennings [as the child] who was so good with his youthful, translucent skin. Everything was so perfect. And I really loved seeing a reflection of what these people had been brought up to believe they would want and should want. Then you get it, and that's it. You're ready to die. And it's just so grim, and funny. I loved that even the set design was ironic.
It's all a big domestic trap, and that's particularly true for Gemma when the child is foisted on her. But there are also small moments of bonding between them. Was that balance between motherhood as a curse and a gift important to get right?
Yes, and also the idea of motherhood as a choice, but a lot of women are not able to have children. There is so much there that is unspoken. And I know a number of women who had postnatal depression; they really wanted a child and they had the child and then then they had depression. What does that say about you as a person, as a woman? In some way it really does negate your femininity. I love the way that with Gemma there are these little pulls where there is great compassion and empathy that is touching on those maternal instincts. And then, of course, it's the sort of 'I did not choose this life. How dare you encroach on mine'. It's definitely complicated. I love talking to new mothers in a way about that, because it's the total selfishness and shame combined with the adoration and bliss. And it seems like a real trip!
Vivarium is available to watch now on iTunes and other digital platforms.