Interview: Empire of Light Star Tanya Moodie and Sam Mendes Shared a Similar Connection  

The actor also discussed working with Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward and films that had emotional resonance in her childhood.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” told Empire of Light star Tanya Moodie with a smile to The Hollywood Handle as the Zoom call begins. It may sound like an obligatory practice — and likely was in this case — but was much-needed after scrambling into the interview last second due to circumstances out of my control. Equally comforting was Moodie letting me know that she’s “very fond” of people named Andrew given the names of some significant people in her life. This type of warmth is fitting because it’s also displayed in Moodie’s character in Empire of Light, Delia.

Empire of Light tells the story of Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) and a love story that blossoms between her and a new employee at the coastal movie theater she works at, Stephen (Micheal Ward). The film is Sam Mendes’ follow-up to the Academy Award-winning one-shot war drama 1917 and is a powerful story about the power of cinema as an escape from our everyday troubles (a motif that’s been used ad nauseam in recent years). The film’s all-star ensemble also includes Colin Firth and Toby Jones.

A still from The Hollywood Handle’s interview with Tanya Moodie.

On the subject of landing this gig, it was actually quite simple. “Well, it was a standard jobbing actors’ way in that my agent emailed me to say, ‘You’ve gotta self-tape and it’s for a Sam Mendes project,” recalled Moodie. Naturally, Moodie chomped at the bit and knew she had to do her best on the self-tape in order to impress the seasoned director. 

To make matters a bit more difficult, there was a level of secrecy to Empire of Light that made the auditioning process harder. “They didn’t send a script,” recalled Moodie. She continued, “which happens a lot with very sensitive projects — they don’t want a lot of information out yet, or, you know, the script’s still being worked on, so you just get the scene [you’re auditioning with] — which is always difficult because you don’t really have context.” Bear in mind, the only information given to Moodie was that her character was a nurse, she’s a first-generation immigrant to the U.K. and that the film takes place in 1981. 

The challenge of self-taping is especially hard on an actor like Moodie who has a very unique way of getting into a scene. “If I was doing a scene in Delia’s flat, I would go in and have a tactile relationship with the objects that were in the flat. So glasses, pots [and pans], you know, it’s like Okay, where did like this come from? and Now I’m making dinner and I’m gonna do this and I think the glasses need to be here.”

This process helps Moodie feel more connected to the space and makes acting in it feel more organic. It naturally led to the question of what it was like doing the self-taped audition within the confines presented and whether or not that process was affected by circumstance. Moodie replied, “I mean, when you’re doing a self-tape, it is tricky to bring any sort of authenticity in terms of connection with objects and stuff. Obviously, you can make things up at home and get bits that can approximate, but it’ll never be as good as being in the room and having eye-to-eye contact with your scene partner.” But, like they say, work is work, and Moodie has learned to deal with it, “But you just get accustomed to it because that’s the nature of it. It also explains why directors like Sam — and there’s another director I met recently — that don’t actually like people to read because it’s too vague.” 

A still from Empire of Light. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

As unique as that technique sounds, Mendes also had a similar interest in the spaces he filmed. “He [Mendes] would come in and then he might arrange them in a way that aesthetically makes more sense to him. And it was that kind of communication we had, even down to the objects that I was working with, which I found really [helpful], said Moodie. She would continue, “I can’t think of any other director that I’ve had that would notice that kind of detail and that felt very connected as well with what Roger Deakins was doing because obviously Roger’s seeing it through that visual landscape, the sort of painterly aspect of it, and I really felt that they have a synergy that way. And then to me as the actor, I sort of joined that circuitry in a sense.”

Speaking of synergy, the absolute best part of Empire of Light is the relationship between Moodie and the actor who plays her on-screen son, Ward. When asked about whether the two spent any time off-camera building their rapport that’s so obvious in the finished product, the answer was a yes and it turns out that even old dogs can learn new tricks. “It’s funny because normally I would take responsibility [for] establishing that connection through my technique. So on the first day of work, I would show up and I would just do that technically, in a sense. But Micheal actually felt it was important for us to meet up beforehand and just have a heart-to-heart connection that had nothing to do with the script.”

A still from Empire of Light. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

In my experiences speaking with actors, I’ve heard a variety of ways that actors connected off-screen. For example, the kids on Summering told me that they all went to an escape room while other actors have told me that they didn’t spend any time with their co-stars when the cameras weren’t rolling. For Moodie and Ward, however, the solution was quite simple: seafood (which is fitting considering that most of Empire of Light occurs near the shore and surrounding beaches). “He invited me out [to] dinner, which is really lovely. I didn’t realize that that’s why he was inviting me out,” said Moodie with a laugh. “It was very sweet. And we were in Margate, and there’s amazing seafood in Margate, so we just went to the restaurant next to the hotel, had a lovely dinner together and it does make a difference. He’s such a lovely, lovely young man,” concluded Moodie. 

Hearing this raised the question of how Moodie’s experience with Ward contrasted with one of cinema’s greatest working actors, Colman. The pair share a couple of poignant scenes after tragic events occur involving her on-screen son and one specific scene in the hospital features the best acting in the whole film. But it appears that Moodie and Olivia, two seasoned actors, didn’t have to share a seafood meal to get that chemistry down. “I think Olivia and I are sort of generationally on-par. We’ve sort of been around for the same amount of time in a sense. So, like me, she’ll get there on the day, meet your scene partner and you sort of get on with it,” she continued, “We have some mutual friends in common in the U.K., so there wasn’t a sort of vast chasm between us anyway, so we just kind of, again, just got in the scene, spoke to each other, looked at each other’s eyes, knew what we wanted and just went, you know?”

2022 has felt like the year of “directors’ love letters to cinema” films, but that’s primarily because of Steven Spielberg’s The Fablemans and that one shot in a movie theater in last year’s Belfast. Mednes’ Empire of Light takes a different approach to a similar motif. It speaks about the way that the escape from reality that movies provide. Much of Empire of Light’s story occurs within the confines of the beautiful old theater, so it was fitting when the cast and crew were asked about their own personal formative film-going experiences at the film’s press conference a day prior. Moodie had talked about A Clockwork Orange when asked about films with emotional resonance and her saying that she was too young when she saw it for the first time.

A behind-the-scenes still from Empire of Light. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

When asked about going deeper into her answer from the previous day, Moodie said, “There were several [but] that answer [A Clockwork Orange] came up at the time because I remember seeing that and being slightly too young to see it and being really disturbed by the violence,” said Moodie. But those who have seen A Clockwork Orange know what violence she’s talking about, and Moodie would elaborate, “it wasn’t just violence for violence’s sake, it was the context of the story and those men and just everything about it — the writing, the mood, everything — and I think back then, obviously, as young people, we weren’t inured to that type of violence and conflict and tension that I think younger people now have a certain sort of barrier to because we’re constantly being bombarded with all those things. And back then all I did was read Nancy Drew books [laughs], you know what I mean? I had a sort of innocence, you know, sort of like artistic innocence.” 

Another film that Moodie named that had an emotional punch was A Dry White Season. She said, “I remember when I was about 18, I saw A Dry White Season directed by Euzhan Palcy, and again, that really disturbed me. That was about apartheid in South Africa. [There were] some pretty violent scenes in that and I remember having like completely breaking down, having a panic attack, hyperventilating, having to leave the room.”

But despite landing this amazing role in a film that’s sure to gain award nominations galore, Moodie still retains a genuine humbleness. “You know, as an actor, you can’t attach the outcome at all. You just have to give your best and walk away,” and with a wide smile she continued, “and mercifully, I get to be here with you today, Andrew, chatting.” After what was a gleeful, but fast 10 minutes, my time was up. I was alerted that I was Moodie’s first interview of the day, but I hope that I was her favorite journalist named Andrew whom she encountered that day. 

Empire of Light will open in theaters on December 9. 

Andrew Korpan

Andrew Korpan

Film "critic" and entertainment journalist whose work has been featured in Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, /Film and Coastal House Media.
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