Known primarily for her work on television in series like Reign and Sanditon, actress Rose Williams has stepped into her first leading role in The Power, the new horror film from BAFTA-nominated writer/director Corinna Faith.
Williams plays Val, a trainee nurse in 1970s London brought on for her first day working at a rundown East End hospital. With the country experiencing government mandated nightly blackouts, Val is forced to confront both the secrets of her own past and the horrors haunting this old building over the course of one long night.
Faith’s script requires Williams to go to some truly difficult places as an actor, something that she was more than game to do. As she describes in my interview with her, Williams showed up at her audition ready for anything, willing to prove that she was the right choice for this character.
Watching her tremendous performance in the film, it’s impossible to feel otherwise. The Power is a stirring debut from Faith as a filmmaker that will surely stick with you, and it’s just as much a calling card to announce Rose Williams as a force to be reckoned with. Everyone should be sure to check out the film when it becomes available exclusively on Shudder this Friday, April 8th, so they can experience for themselves this remarkable performance.
Read on for my conversation with Rose Williams:
Mitchell Beaupre: What was your relationship with horror like before signing on for the film? Was it a genre you had always been drawn to?
Rose Williams: I had a phase in my teenage years where I loved horror. I remember going to the cinema and seeing Paranormal Activity with a friend, and sleepovers when I was 14 or 15 where I was really disturbed by a movie like [REC]. Then I had a kind of phasing out, but when I got the part for this there was about a year between when I got it and when we started shooting, so Corinna sent me the most wonderful watchlist of movies. We went back and forth while I was watching them, and it introduced me to horror in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and Korean horror and Japanese horror, so I’ve become an even bigger fan now than when I was younger. Seeing horror and understanding that it can be used to address trauma, that it can be used as a tool to unlock emotions and look at the human condition, not just for fear factor jump scares, it made me really appreciate how the genre can create this emotional release.
MB: Were there any films on that watchlist that stood out as ones that really had a big impact on you?
RW: I’d say definitely 3 Women for the feel of it, and also A Tale of Two Sisters for the suspense and performances. There’s a sequence in that film where a character has this sort of physical fit and that was a major reference point for one of our scenes. I also really liked Dark Water, I found it so beautiful. Then there were some great classics like The Innocents as well. I’d say 3 Women and Tale of Two Sisters were the ones that stood out the most overall.
MB: On your Twitter recently you shared a quote from the film’s DP Laura Bellingham, where she said, “Sometimes when you’re making a film you have the strange sensation of living within that film”. Did you experience that while working on The Power?
RW: 100%. What played into that in a big way was the location, as we got to film inside an abandoned psychiatric hospital. Our production designer Fran[cesca Massariol] did an amazing job with the colors. Corinna was very specific with the color palette for capturing the ’70s. I was also in this very unusually shaped hat which is a little bit disturbing; in the right light it looks like something a nun would wear and that made me feel quite uneasy. My grandmother was a nurse at a children’s hospital in the ‘60s, and she died before I was born, so I felt this connection quite strongly with her and this time and place. We were shooting in the East End of London, which is where the film takes place, and it’s an area with so much deprivation, poverty, and disillusionment, and then the stress at the time with the power cuts. It was all very specific and all really came together.
MB: The film uses those blackouts to speak on how power is literally being taken away from those in this community, while also connecting it to the idea of a different kind of power being taken away from survivors of abuse. Could you talk about the weaving of those ideas within one another?
RW: I suppose it’s all about structural abuse, really. Some of the sequences in the hospital, like where we’re going up and down the stairs and we see the layers down to the basement where the emotions are all addressed, creates this portrait of the hospital itself as this representation of that power dynamic. The brilliance of Corinna’s mind is that she was able to weave her message into the power of this story in such a unique way that’s also speaking about today. The story takes place in the ‘70s, which like the 1950s there was just so much abuse in this area. I don’t know if you know about Jimmy Savile. He was this awful child abuser who had his own show at the BBC, and his crimes only came out after he died, and it just speaks to the culture of abuse and misogyny that was quite specific to the ’70s. I think all of those ideas are existing there and Corinna is weaving it all together in a really clever way.
MB: Your character Val has this whole backstory that we’re unaware of when we first meet her, and we’re slowly given more information about as the film goes on. What was your process like for portraying that emotional truth of the character in those scenes before the audience is aware of everything in her past?
RW: There was a lot of conversation that me and Corinna had about Val, about her nervousness and the way that she would move her body. We wanted Val to walk very differently from myself, and obviously to talk differently from me as well. I listened to a lot of clips from the ‘70s to figure out what that sound of voice was like, and I have this great aunt whose voice I tried to imitate a bit. I think Val really wanted to prove herself, and she suffers from severe anxiety which informs how she holds her body and fits in with the world. There were a few scenes that got cut that got into that a bit more, like this one where she’s sitting down with the other nurses and she tastes some sugar which that taste is a kind of trigger for her, so she has this panic attack and has to run to the bathroom. The scene in the movie picks up where she’s just splashed her face with some water. I think she’s a girl with severe anxiety, and she hasn’t addressed where that comes from yet, so I really wanted that to come across in the performance.
MB: Val begins the movie in this place where she’s not aware of her inner strength, and it’s through this camaraderie with other women, other survivors of abuse, where she’s able to find that inside of herself. Was there something impactful for you about the film’s theme of these women coming together to support each other?
RW: Oh my god, yeah! It was so emotional, and I was working with two gorgeous young actresses Clara Read and Shakira Rahman as well that are so talented, and they taught me so much. There were quite a lot of women on set. Our production designer, DP, costume designer, and makeup designer were all women, and then obviously Corinna at the helm, so there was a lot of that support on the set as well. Val is kind of a raw nerve, so unaware of her power within, and across the film she begins to tap into that rage that she didn’t know she had, and finds her voice. She comes to that with the support of other women, which I found very true to life.
MB: Horror has always been a genre with a lot of focus on women, but historically it wasn’t often women being the ones getting to tell those stories. We’ve seen that change a lot lately, with films like this, Relic, and Saint Maud, just to name a few. Is it exciting for you to see the genre making more space for women to be the ones telling their stories now?
RW: I was actually speaking to Corinna this morning about this! Women have got a lot of horror to speak on. It’s not that women haven’t been interested in genre, or haven’t had stories to tell – women from the beginning have been wanting to make horror films, but they just haven’t been given the finance or the platform or the opportunity to do it. It’s not like a new thing where women are suddenly into it. They’re just finally getting the opportunity. The female perspective is so different, and it is really exciting to think how certain realms of horror can be touched upon again in a completely fresh way.
MB: Earlier you mentioned A Tale of Two Sisters having an influence on the physicality of your performance. Your character is charged with some seriously extreme body movements in certain scenes, as you contort your body in all sorts of twisted ways. What was the process like for you for creating those scenes?
RW: That was something that I was really excited about. I’ve always wanted to use my body in that kind of a way for a role, to explore my flexibility in a character. I’ve never been a professional dancer, but I’ve always loved to dance and I take dance classes for fun. Even in the audition I asked them if I could show off these physical movements I had been practicing at home for it, and I think Corinna really appreciated me doing that and showing that I was ready to take on those scenes. We worked with a movement coach for a couple of days to choreograph that big sequence, where we measured out how fast to go with it because it could have gone in a way that was really like this super crazy freaky contortion, which could have been cool, but we were more focused on finding the right balance. I really enjoyed it. I really threw myself into it, and I hurt myself a bit, but it was totally worth it.
MB: Is it a little intimidating to be the lead in a movie like this, where you’re really in every single scene? Or is having that weight on your shoulders exciting as an actor?
RW: I’d say it’s a bit of both. I was so grateful for this amazing cast, because there’s no way I could have really gotten into this character if it wasn’t for the other characters there. For example, Diveen Henry, who plays Matron, the opening sequence with her is all a collaboration, with her sternness and the poise of her character being such a part of what I was doing. Knowing the backstory of Matron, and her being this representation of all of these amazing nurses during the ‘60s who came over from the Caribbean and built our National Health Service, it just informs the film and my character so much. I was grateful to have the creative freedom that I had, but within that freedom I was being supported by the cast and it felt like such a collaboration lifting each other up.
MB: You’ve had series regular roles in a few television series before, but this is your first leading role in film. Does the process change for you when you’re doing a film, as opposed to television where you can have years to exist in a role?
RW: It was really different! This is a small indie film, so we were shooting for I think five and a half weeks, whereas I’m used to doing long stretches of five and a half months on a series. I think the biggest thing with the film was being able to know the beginning, the middle, and the end of the arc. It sounds kind of silly, but having that whole script and knowing where the character is going is so different than on television where you’ll maybe get the scripts for the first three episodes and then you’ll get them one episode at a time, or things can shift within the story from episode to episode. There was also slightly more freedom here in the sense of it being fully Corinna’s vision, where she’s not answering to a studio, and she’s clearly mapped out every single scene exactly how she wanted to show it. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, and I love my experience on TV, but doing this was enlightening and really, really enjoyable.
MB: Thinking about the ending of the film, something that Corinna’s script lands very well is this idea that the “villain” of the movie isn’t necessarily one single person or entity. It’s really about the systems and structures in place, so even though Val’s story reaches a resolution these things are going to continue to happen until something more fundamental changes. What do you hope people are thinking and feeling when they finish watching the movie?
RW: Corinna has two daughters, and working with Clara and Shakira so closely, I think that something Corinna and I are both passionate about is inviting a curiosity in younger women to explore maybe suppressed emotions, and inviting the notion of finding that fire, and that voice. One of the most important things in my life is creating a sense of sisterhood with women that I know, and women that I don’t know. In a broader sense, opening it up to everybody, I think I’d like to see people questioning that idea of power. Who are the people telling you what to do? Who are the people that you’re trusting? Who are the people that are giving all of this power? We’ve been very exposed to shortcomings within our government structures across the past couple of years, and I think it’s important to really be questioning that and remembering that power really does lie within all of us together.
MB: Your next project coming up is Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, which has a remarkable cast including Isabelle Huppert, Jason Isaacs, and Lesley Manville. What was your experience like shooting that film with those incredible actors?
RW: All of my scenes in that are with the wonderful Lesley Manville, and what a joy that was! It’s another historical piece, this time taking place in the 1950s, and I’m playing a girl who is interestingly from a similar background to Val but is a completely different character. She’s an aspiring actress who becomes a client of Lesley Manville’s character who is a cleaner, and it was so much fun to make. Wonderful costumes, and another dip into a different world. Still London, still period, but completely different.
MB: Do you find yourself drawn to doing period projects where you can dive into a totally different era like that?
RW: Yeah, it seems like I am. I really love doing the research and getting those details. At the moment I’m shooting a Western so there I’m in American history in the 1890s. For me, that is such a joy to read about a different time, and put yourself into the shoes of somebody who lived in a completely different world. What I’m really passionate about hopefully working towards one day is telling stories of particular women throughout the ages who have been overlooked because there are so many stories out there of important, amazing women who most people don’t know about.
MB: Are you interested in writing and directing your own projects at some point?
RW: I think at some point. Not yet, but I do have my little notebook of women throughout history that really interest me and haven’t been written about. That’s my passion for one day. At the moment I’m really enjoying the opportunity of playing characters that people have written on the page, and that I have the joy of bringing to life.
The Power will be available to stream exclusively on Shudder starting April 8th
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]