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Interview: Kate Dickie – ‘You can’t just close characters off or box them in’

The Game of Thrones and The Witch star chats about her latest intense role

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Interview: Kate Dickie – ‘You can’t just close characters off or box them in’

Since Kate Dickie found fame as a closed-circuit camera operator in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road in 2006, the East Kilbride actress has played key roles in an Irvine Welsh adaptation, Filth, and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. 2016 looks like being Dickie’s highest profile year yet with gripping horror film The Witch drumming up over $20m at the US box office, and an equally demanding role opposite Paul Higgins in writer / director Tom Geens’ Couple in a Hole.

‘To be honest, I was absolutely filled with glee when I read the script for Couple in a Hole as exploring characters pushed into extreme circumstances is my bag,’ said Dickie during her February visit to Glasgow Film Festival to promote the film. ‘John and Karen are middle-class people who end up living like feral animals in the French countryside. It’s a film about how people cope with grief, and while it’s dark, there’s a beautiful love story in there.’

Couple in a Hole has thematic similarities to Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, focusing on characters who are physically free from trauma, but who struggle to let go of their difficulties. Although not based on a specific true story, it’s the kind of role which carries considerable responsibility. ‘Because of the low budget, we didn’t have the luxury of a long rehearsal period so there were a number of big discussions with Tom about how I should play the role. I had to physically lose weight, which meant that I was hungry all the time, and that helped me understand Karen. I did look into cases of modern-day hermits, people who had dropped out of society. Karen is a real lost soul, someone unable to come to terms with being alive. My job as an actress is to make sure that Karen’s voice is heard in a real way.’

Couple in a Hole was originally intended to be shot around a massive forest location in Eastern Europe, but ended up not far from a small French village, a change which accentuates the small but significant emotional distance that John and Karen have created between them and the modern world. ‘Karen is blinded by her own emotions, she just doesn’t see how bad the place they are in really is; she doesn’t see the flies buzzing around and thinks she’s keeping everything clean. Her husband John begins to see that, and as part of caring for her, tries to get her to leave the hole. He’s just as grief-stricken as her.’

But when John goes to a local man for help, it has considerable implications for all of them. ‘As John, Paul really breaks hearts in this film, he’s amazing and gives such a nuanced performance. I found myself listening to the music of Portishead a lot: the sound of her voice helped me get into the sadness of Karen’s character. So when I found out that Geoff Barrow from Portishead was involved in the film’s soundtrack through his band Beak>, that was a great connection for me.’

Couple in a Hole marked Dickie’s return to Glasgow Film Festival, where her film The Witch also screened in February as part of Glasgow Youth Film Festival. In an equally demanding role set in the 1630s, Dickie plays Katherine, the Puritan wife of William (Ralph Ineson), religious parents who are horrified when they suspect their children may be possessed by the devil. In her filmed introduction to the movie at GYF, Dickie revealed that the cast prepared themselves not for a horror film but for a kitchen sink drama.

‘Katherine is such a complex character,’ says Dickie. ‘She’s a woman who thinks of her husband as a direct link to god. She’s a mother, a wife, and when she’s challenged, wants only to be a better Puritan. Her family have already been banished, and are struggling to survive in New England. To get under her skin, I immersed myself in the writing from that period, taking lines from a Puritan prayer book and using them on-screen. Even when the film finally screened at Sundance in 2015, Ralph said he could hear me praying on the hotel balcony, still in character.’

Taking on such demanding roles has to leave a scar of some kind and Dickie does admit that taking on arduous roles such as Karen and Katherine leaves its mark. ‘Those characters never really leave you,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to sound like a complete tosser, but it’s as if you develop twice as many nerve endings to get to the truth of the moment. You can’t just close these characters off or box them in; they stay with you long after filming is done. And that’s the kind of role I want to play.’

Couple in a Hole is on selected released from Fri 8 Apr.

Couple in a Hole

  • 4 stars
  • 2015
  • UK/Belgium/France
  • 105 min
  • Directed by: Tom Geens
  • Cast: Paul Higgins, Kate Dickie, Jérôme Kircher
  • UK release: 8 April 2016

Scottish couple John (Higgins) and Karen (Dickie) literally live in a hole in a French forest, after she has been driven near-mad by a tragic event. A wonderfully wonky look at marriage and trauma, with superb performances from Higgins and the ever-excellent Dickie; surprising, sincere and unforgettably peculiar.

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