“Can we just start the interview by saying how amazing it is that astronomers have just captured the first image of a black hole ever, and it’s also the [American] release of High Life in the same week?” exclaims Mia Goth when we speak to her in early April. “I like to think that’s the universe applauding Claire Denis and how magnificent she is.” The day before we talk to the star of Suspiria and A Cure For Wellness, Katie Bouman’s historic image was released and brought a sense of wonder to our otherwise perpetually grim news cycle. It’s a reminder of how much we have left to explore and how small we really are in this universe of ours.
In High Life, that sense of scale is profoundly apparent, as a group of death row inmates have been sent at the speed of light to see if they can harvest energy from a black hole. Accompanying them is disgraced physician Dr Dibs (played with ferocious witchy energy by Juliette Binoche), who is performing fertility experiments on her prisoners/patients to see if a baby can successfully be conceived and delivered in such a hostile environment. There are notes of classic soul-searching SF in the Tarkovsky mould (and even a little Silent Running) but it’s unmistakably a film from the remarkable filmmaker behind the likes of White Material, Trouble Every Day and Beau Travail.
The script was a long time in development; how was it described to you when you first heard about it?
When I first heard about the project, it came through in an email and there was a look-book, the script hadn’t been fully completed at that point. And in the email my agent said “It’s Claire Denis, Robert Pattinson’s attached and it’s her English language debut, have a look and see what you think.” I was really intrigued and I thought what she was trying to do was so interesting and so fascinating and then they sent over the script and I read it, and then I met Claire in Paris a couple of times, and then she offered me the job.
I was so excited because this kind of project with a director like Claire, it’s everything I’ve ever been working towards and it’s exactly the kind of thing that I’ve always longed to be a part of in every sense of the word. That kind of director and the material and the role and the sort of preparation that’s required for something like this, it was just all immensely exciting to me.
Boyse is one of the inmates but she’s not exactly a character who gives a lot about her past away, there’s no “here’s how I ended up here” speech. What preparation did you do to get into character?
Well, I did a lot of research into juveniles and young people that had got sentenced to prison and watched a lot of documentaries and read up on it. I even tried to get in contact with people in prison but I never actually was able to connect with them. But that was sort of my in, and then trying to create sympathy and empathy for these people and trying to understand what made them do what they do and trying to not immediately, because they’re not bad people, people get caught up in situations like this, it’s just poor circumstances and that was really how I really first started to create a backstory for Boyse and this role that she was in, just finding how to empathise with her in a way that was sincere that I could understand and relate to.
Do you enjoy really digging into where your characters come from?
Yeah, I loved that. The preparation for this film is one of my favourite parts of my job. With Suspiria I had three months of dance training and for High Life we got there and we were filming in Cologne in Germany and there was the European Space Agency and so we would go there and we did all our rehearsals there essentially and talked to astronomers and physicists. That was just fascinating and helped immensely. When you talk about understanding my character and building her, that really was a major moment too for me.
High Life definitely feels like the work of someone with a very clear vision. Is Claire Denis strict about what she wants on set or is it a collaborative process?
She knows exactly where she wants to go and she knows the kind of film she wants to make but she’s incredibly trusting of her actors and this is one of the things that I love about her and made the experience so enjoyable, is that she doesn’t like to rehearse in the typical sense of the word. You might read the script aloud together but she will never run scenes over and do it three, four, five times, she wants to keep that aspect of the performance precious. So you’ll do it when you get to set and we’ll try it a few ways, and sometimes we’re after something and it doesn’t work and you have to try something else and you try another aspect, and even when you fail you feel so safe in her universe that she’s created that you know that whatever you’re doing ultimately it’s going to be for the best and that was really freeing.
I think in previous situations I’ve been quite scared of things because I think in many ways film is a director’s medium more than it is an actor’s, and so to have someone who is such a master like Claire directing the ship, you feel completely safe with her and it was incredibly liberating.
I guess you can look at her body of work and feel pretty confident it will all work out!
Yeah, I mean she’s been making just such moving and tender and brutal and poetic films for years and years and she’s really completely unparalleled in what she does. And not only is she a great director, she’s also a very sweet and loving person. And she has a deeply maternal side to her. You kind of have to meet Claire to really understand, I can’t speak highly enough of her, I love her, she’s incredible.
There’s an amazing ensemble cast, too. How did you find the experience of working with that group?
Yeah, which was completely surreal to me, because with Juliette I’ve been watching her my entire life and then to be in a film with her and then be in with a scene with her and watching her perform opposite me is just a surreal experience and I was really quite terrified at the beginning. I didn’t want to do anything wrong, and we had these three weeks together and we all got very comfortable with each other.
We went to the European Space Agency and all of that time that we had together, which is quite rare to have all that time just bonding and getting to know one another really helped. And I think Claire really wanted to develop that within us, because the film opens and we’ve been travelling for the last seven years so she really wanted to convey that sense of comfort that we would have around each other.
This is a visceral, intense film and an intense character you’re playing. Is it tough keeping that energy up and staying in that headspace for an entire shoot?
It was intense at times but that’s partly why I wanted to do it. I was really interested in… I guess you’d call it the emotional aspect of something like this and what that brings out in you and in your character, and you would kind of lose track of time. You would go in in the morning and you would be filming all day in this studio and you just completely disconnect from the world around you so it really helped in creating that sense of claustrophobia and suffocation, and I kind of just fed into it.
It wasn’t always easy but ultimately the situation that these people are in is not an easy one, they’re dealing with really quite tragic circumstances and they’re desperately lonely. And to have an environment that actually supports that theme was a huge benefit.
What was it like when you finally saw the finished film?
It blew my mind. And that’s what I mean when I say that film is very much a director’s medium, I had an idea of what we were filming but nothing could have prepared me for what the finished product was. Everything came together so beautifully from the music and editing to the set design, I just thought it was a beautiful piece of work that Claire put together. I saw it for the first time in Toronto last year and it was in this huge theatre and it just made everything feel all the more epic because of it.
You’ve worked on some incredible films that frequently have very dark subject matter, like A Cure For Wellness and Suspiria, going back to Nymphomaniac. What are you looking for in your projects, is it characters or filmmakers or a combination?
Well, it’s a combination and it varies from film to film really and why it is that I do it, but I love cinema, I love movies, and I’m quite a film buff. I spend a lot of time watching movies and discovering them and so I have a real appreciation for directors and what they do. My dream is to work with these kinds of directors so when I have the chance to, that’s what I strive to do.
And in terms of my characters, I find it very therapeutic actually to work with these more complex characters. Through working through and understanding them vicariously through working through yourself and understanding yourself more, so it’s kind of a two-fold situation that’s happening at the same time. And also they’re just really fun and complex and I enjoy people and I think that in the characters that I play you really get to study human nature and that’s really interesting to me.
As a final question, it feels like High Life is a film that people will react to very differently, and and interpret differently. Have you enjoyed seeing the different responses and interpretations?
Yeah, and I think that’s a great thing because whilst it’s a deeply personal film and it’s extremely poetic, it can be read on many different levels. I’ve seen the film a few times and each time that I’ve come to watch it I’ve been in a different state of mind myself and I think it’s just as much as what the audience brings to it as what the film actually represents. And when you have those two meshings of ideas, I think that’s really beautiful because that creates cinema that people can connect to most.
And when you go to the movies, that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to not feel so alone anymore and when you find something and it connects to you it can be really powerful.
High Life is in cinemas now. Read our review here.