Interview: Hannah Murray discusses her new film God Help The Girl
Games of Thrones actress on her co-stars, Belle and Sebastian and why she loves Glasgow
Stuart Murdoch’s pet musical project God Help the Girl gets its film release this month. Hannah McGill chatted to one of its stars, Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray, about working with the Belle and Sebastian frontman
You wouldn’t necessarily expect auditioning for a modestly budgeted British indie film to be an intimidating prospect for an actress who has chalked up roles in huge British and American drama series, as well as performing on the West End stage. But God Help the Girl was no ordinary project for Skins and Game of Thrones star Hannah Murray. Writer-director Stuart Murdoch and his band Belle and Sebastian already had particular significance in her life. ‘Especially when I was around 14, 15, they were very important to me,’ she says. ‘If you’re a weird, lonely adolescent, they help you out! So it was a very, very exciting thing to be sent this – and even meeting Stuart at the audition was quite overwhelming.’ Murray wasn’t alone in having a history with Murdoch’s writing; her co-stars, Emily Browning and Olly Alexander possessed ‘the same level of geeky fandom – although we all tried to be really cool.’
Murray plays Cass, a breezily eccentric private schoolgirl whose confidence provides the trigger for her two friends, fragile Eve and nervy, nerdy James, to turn their vague dreams of musical self-expression into an actual band. The film’s gentle story of friendships forming, emotions wavering and inspiration flickering in and out of focus is framed around Murdoch’s songs, sometimes with dance routines attached – another prospect that excited and alarmed Murray. ‘I’ve always loved musical films; I find them really thrilling and exciting; it was part of what made me want to be an actress, that feeling of being really transported. But it always seemed like a fantasy, because I’m not a trained singer or dancer.’ Nerves struck before filming – ‘I definitely felt like the weakest link’ – but Murdoch encouraged Murray to keep her own fears out of the process. ‘Stuart was really helpful in reminding me to just think about the character, who is so confident, so loving it – it might even be a bit rubbish, but she doesn’t care!’ It’s the same freedom that Cass offers to the other characters in the story: her bullishness helps them to transcend their issues and get up onstage. ‘She’s not at the same level of ability as Eve,’ Murray explains, ‘but without Cass, Eve would never be able to do it. It’s no good being a tortured genius, if no one ever hears what you write.’
God Help the Girl existed as a musical project and album prior to the making of the film, and contains a thinly veiled autobiographical element; Murdoch, like Eve, battled extended health problems (chronic fatigue syndrome in his case; anorexia and depression in hers) before finding an outlet by forming a band. ‘It’s a story with a huge amount of heart in it – it’s very personal and very close to him,’ says Murray.
This sincerity of purpose created a unique on-set ambience. ‘I’ve never been on a set where there was such goodwill from the crew – everyone just really, really wanted it to happen, and it was just such a warm, exciting atmosphere.’ Even Murdoch’s inexperience as a director had a positive impact. ‘Because Stuart didn’t really know the rules,’ Murray laughs, ‘he was really open to ideas. Sometimes we would just suggest something as a joke, and he would be like, “LET’S DO IT”. He had a lot of respect for our input.’ Meanwhile, a true friendship was forged between the cast members, resulting in a shooting experience that was clearly definitive for Murray. ‘It was just … the best thing ever,’ she sighs. ‘I was in Glasgow for seven weeks and just had the time of my life: living in Glasgow, discovering Glasgow, and all getting on so well.’
The film’s release provides an opportunity for these kindred spirits to see one another again – and Murray finds herself less nervous than she might have expected to be about critical and audience reception. ‘The experience was so wonderful in and of itself; and I just love the film so much that I think if people don’t like it … they’re wrong! So I can sort of relax … except that I want Stuart to get the recognition that he deserves for it.’
And has the experience left her with the yearning to keep up her musical endeavours? ‘It did, it does … but I think it’s a bit silly when actors do that. Unless you can write your own material, which I never, ever could, it’s a bit of a dream. To have had a tiny taste of it through this film is a great way of trying it. It’s what’s amazing about acting as a job: it takes you outside of your comfort zone, you have to be a bit brave.’ Playing the pop star hasn’t even been Murray’s most demanding gig. ‘I once had to learn to knit for a role,’ she reveals. ‘That was terrifying.’
God Help the Girl is on general release from Fri 22 Aug.