These are young people trying to discover how to best express their inner selves in dire circumstances and that’s inherently a fascinating thing to explore.
So, Sid, tell us a little bit about Siegfried Sassoon and his role in the film.
S: Sassoon, by the time we meet him is already a fairly well established poet, and has a reputation both as a writer and a soldier. He represents someone that Wilfred Owen looks up to and wants to engage
with, but he has a different set of beliefs on the nature of war and specifically the war that they are engaged in. A lot of the story we’re telling is how those ideals come to influence Owen’s view on war and other young men's roles in it.
Is there anything in particular that enticed you about the film and compelled you to take part?
S: A few things actually. I think that it’s tragic that we look at the nationalism that gave rise to both the world wars, and after which we had about a century of thinking we had overcome it. Now see that on the rise again.
I remember speaking to one of my other European friends because I’m in London and work in London because I’m an EU National. The morning after Brexit, I spoke to another EU National, another actor and we sat there and he just turned to me and said, “We couldn’t even make it a hundred years.” And I… I don’t necessarily agree with that completely. I don’t think another World War One is about to happen but I think that it’s worth re-examining what happened a hundred years ago and looking at what the people who lived through it had to say about it. And really going over that again and seeing if there’s more to be gleaned. Whether we take what they intended us to take from it or whether it’s been bastardised or lost in translation, and exploring those elements again.
The reason that these specific characters and people are so important in doing that is because they are all exceptionally eloquent masters of language. As someone who adores language itself and thinks very verbally and very linguistically –in case you couldn’t tell!– I felt immediately drawn to that and the script for the film is adept at showing people who love language and are trying to find a way to express their feelings on a subject, and imbuing them with humanity and the reality.
These people are well spoken but they don’t just turn to each other and speak with prepared diatribes. There’s sense that these are young people trying to discover how to best express their inner selves in dire circumstances and that’s inherently a fascinating thing to explore, and an important story to tell; completely separate from the political ramifications of what the story itself might mean, that’s human beings under extreme stress told with empathy and honesty and that’s to my mind, what my job should be – is doing whatever I can to tell those stories.
Is there a challenge in portraying someone who’s so eloquent with language and so anti-war, but who has also fought and killed so many people?
S: I think… I mean, yes there’s a challenge there because, I think any time that you’re becoming… that you’re trying to see another human being's experience, there’s a challenge inherent in that but I don’t think it’s any more or less than anyone else. Every person’s way of thinking and being is as removed from me as every other’s.
I think that his life experience was particularly challenging, in that this was not someone who was in any way raised to go to war. This is someone who came from a huge amount or privilege, generations of privilege, was an intellectual, and abhorred unnecessary violence. And at the same time, to be in a situation that you can’t really escape from does have a sort of quasi-animalistic strength, and depending on your point of view, viciousness in attempting to survive. Unless you take to point of view that he was actually trying to die, which was also possible! I don’t think anyone, least of all him, could answer which of those two it was.
There is that element to him. The temptation when telling stories about people who clearly have a lot of emotion underneath the surface but didn’t necessarily show it, the immediate instinct is to go ‘look at everything that was going on underneath’. And I don’t think that’s true to them and in a way, I think that’s almost a disservice to their memory. My job is to know what was going on underneath but it isn’t to show that, it’s to allow the story to show that. It's to allow the audience to see that or not.
I think that because Sassoon is such a larger than life character, both as an individual and in terms of the, what he represents culturally, along with [Wilfred] Owen and the others is, it’s difficult not to go ‘This is who I thought Siegfried Sassoon was’ and I think a big part of my responsibility is to not do that, and to just be the man named Siegfried Sassoon, rather than to put forward a theory on who I think Sassoon was. To create something that allows people to form their own opinions of who Sassoon was rather than tell them who I think he was.
Just one last question. Why do you think this film should be made? Or do you think this film should be made?!
S: Umm, I do! Clearly I do!
I think it does come back to the questions of… we are members of a generation who have never lived through the threat of war. We’ve never lived through it. Unless we choose to sign up for an army, and even in that situation, it’s entirely possible that we would never see combat. The threat and possibility of war simply do not exist for us. We have different threats, we have different fears, we have different problems, but the idea of being at war isn’t present and I think that that the fact that war doesn’t feel like it’s a possibility, the fact that our being on a battle ground doesn’t feel like a possibility has lead to, in no small part, what is often mistakenly described as apathy amongst our generation.
I don’t think it is apathy... people care but the sense of urgency isn’t necessarily there. But I think that looking at people who were our age at a time that war was just a constant possibility and reality, and exploring those same conversations we have now, under those circumstances, is incredibly important, because in my estimation, misguided nationalism and the mistaken belief that geographical coincidence is the same thing as cultural identity are the main drivers that lead to war.
So when I see a indisputable rise in those ways of thinking on the global political stage, I can’t help but feel that all story-tellers, and all artists have a responsibility to ask as many questions of that as possible, because it’s all we do at this point.
It’s all we really have. Stories.