As a writer-director, Lena Dunham‘s voice is stronger than ever in the 13th-century whipsmart coming-of-age dramedy Catherine Called Birdy. The film (reviewed here by Joey), an adaptation of the 1994 book, centers around 14-year-old Lady Catherine, aka Birdy (Bella Ramsey), who hatches up different ways to duck an arranged marriage. Throughout the film, Birdy’s father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), scrambles to find a wealthy suitor who would ultimately save the whole family from financial duress. On the opposite end of Lord Rollo’s pressure is Birdy, who, with the spirit of a 21st-century feminist, refuses to give into her destiny, making the film a refreshing and timely take on a medieval story.
Among the stand-out performances in Catherine Called Birdy is actor Andrew Scott. The Irish actor not-so-recently stole hearts in his BAFTA-winning performance as “hot priest” in the hit series Fleabag. It was a gutsy performance in a series that regularly broke storytelling conventions.
In Catherine Called Birdy, the actor rose to the occasion once again, taking on the complex role of Lord Rollo. One might argue in other hands; the role might have come off as a caricature. Of the depiction, Scott said, “Lena is a great humanist, and she wanted to write a complex man as well as a complex heroine.” He continued, “I was appreciative of that because I think there’s nuance in all characters. Vilifying any particular sex, whether it’s man or woman, is reductive, and it’s not the way the world is.”
Andrew Scott sat down with Awards Radar to discuss working with Lena Dunham, tackling a medieval father figure, and more.
Niki Cruz: You’ve done many projects throughout your career, including period pieces, action, and dark comedies. Is there a special ingredient that catches your attention while reading something? Or do you feel it?
Andrew Scott: I always look for the singularity of the writing. [It’s] a kind of individuality, or a voice, or kind of music to the writing that is distinctive, as I think that always makes the most singular film. Sometimes the worst thing is TV-speak scripts because I’ve worked in the theater where the writing is so at the center of things. It’s made me sort of obsessed with good writing.
NC: Lena [Dunham] said at TIFF you’re the hot medieval dad in this film. How does that feel?
AS: [Laughs] I don’t know how that feels. I absolutely adore Lena. Talk about a singularity of voice. I think she is the absolute epitome of that. She wrote a very spirited, fun, irreverent script, but then also [she] allows you to improvise to add stuff and delights in that. She’s got an enormous heart, and I think it’s all over this movie.
NC: I was so struck by the heart in this movie and the joy that existed in a story like this. I wasn’t expecting it.
AS: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. There’s a huge sense of joy and love. Every relationship in the movie is about love. Even the antagonistic father-daughter kind of relationship is, in my mind, steeped in love. In a lot of families, the people who are most similar to each other are the ones who clash the most. I think certainly from a father’s point of view, [with] suffering under the system he’s in, he’s trying to do his best. I don’t think any of us were interested in making a straight period drama. We wanted it to feel as rock and roll and messy as life is in 2022.
NC: Because you’re playing to this different sensibility, it makes for a unique feminist coming-of-age story.
AS: Exactly. I think it needs a cast with an enormous heart, an enormous sense of fun, an ability to understand that life is ridiculous, and a sense of comedy; it’s the tone of Lena’s movies. You can slip in through comedy some very strong messaging, which is not to subjugate women.
NC: You get to play with all the colors of a man whose circumstances are challenging. He’s not one note, which I’m sure can happen. It must be nice to have this character with layers you can build upon. He’s not fixed to that period.
AS: Yes. Humanity has always railed against the stories that we tell each other at any given moment in history. So, I think it’s really important when we’re doing period dramas that we don’t go, “Well, that’s exactly the way it was,” or those [gender] questions weren’t on people’s lips. Of course, they must have been, but they weren’t reported in the same way they are now. I find it fascinating the idea of gender politics in the medieval age.
NC: Lena also directs this. You always hear it’s a great experience to work with a director who’s also an actor because they get performance in a way directors who solely direct might not. How did you find her as a director?
AS: Simply wonderful. I wanted to make Lena laugh because she has a brilliant sense of humor. The set was a hugely diverse, brilliant, and joyful sort of place. That’s a hard thing to create when you’re shooting in the middle of a pandemic and freezing in Northern England. I find her as a person just wonderful, and as a director, just completely inspiring.
NC: Everyone has a different experience shooting in the middle of a pandemic. How was that experience for you in Northern England?
AS: I found it enormously difficult. When you play a part, you should have a playful atmosphere, and being two meters apart from someone wearing a mask and dealing with someone who might be coming in for one day, you want to make them feel welcome, and you can’t reach them in that way. You can only really talk to them for two seconds before the scene starts, and then you have to put your mask on. There’s an atmosphere of fear which is the opposite of the atmosphere of creativity.
NC: Switching gears, your co-star Bella (Ramsey) is a breath of fresh air. She drives this film with a certain lightness and spunk and still gets to the gravity of Birdy’s situation. How was it to develop that complicated father-daughter relationship with her?
AS: I was so impressed by her. She’s in practically every frame of the film. She is able to improvise in the most incredibly inventive and authentic way. I think it’s really about chemistry. You just have to listen to each other and enjoy acting. You don’t necessarily have chemistry with everybody. We wanted to show that they drive each other crazy but deep down love each other.
NC: Before I let you go, I was wondering, if you could go back and revisit a character from your career, who would it be?
AS: The character I believe is the best in the sense that you could keep on playing it is Hamlet. He’s the lover, the fighter, the prince, the son, and the murderer. He contains multitudes. It has, in some ways, influenced all of the characters in theater, and even the ones on screen because of the sheer stamina that you need to play that part. It sort of sets you up and makes every other part feel manageable.
Catherine Called Birdy is out in theaters now and is available on Prime Video on October 7th.
[This interview was edited for length and clarity]