Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan fight for survival in Neil Jordan’s mother-daughter vampire thriller Byzantium
Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are untypical movie vampires. For a start, they’re mother-daughter survivalists, condemned to live as female outlaws after upsetting the old-boy vampire order. Posing as sisters, they’re also a lethal partnership. But while melancholic Eleanor only feeds on souls seeking death’s release, her mother is a volatile, voluptous killer, doing her jugular-slicing best to avenge the indignities heaped upon her sex throughout the centuries. Call her the world’s first feminist blood-sucker in director Neil Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini’s bracing reinvention of the vampire myth.
“Neil loved me being bad,” declares Arterton when Film3Sixty sits down with her at the Glasgow Film Festival. “My character wasn’t that sexual on the page but I felt sexuality should be her weapon of choice. She’s celebrating her feminine wiles and screwing everybody over with them.” Whenever a scene called for Clara to kill in Byzantium, Jordan would rely on his actress to concoct her own murderous methodology. “There was one scene where I kill someone with a cheesewire while dressed in a stripper’s outfit and trainers,” Arterton recounts with glee. “I remember Neil getting very excited and going, ‘This is so iconic!’”
While Clara is gleefully ripping her way through humanity, Ronan’s 200-year-old child-woman despises their parasitic existence, pouring her forlorn introspection into a journal she can never show to anyone. “The whole concept of immortality is interesting,” says Ronan. “If you really were to live forever, what would you do? How would you feel to not get older, and not really be able to settle anywhere? I think it would make somebody quite sad, the way it does Eleanor.”
Ronan was intrigued by the prospect of playing a vampire in a film that didn’t adhere to traditional rules. “We have [retractable] talons rather than fangs and we don’t turn into crystal in the sunlight,” she laughs. “Neil didn’t want to make that kind of vampire film.”
The Irish actress turned down a role in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina in order to work with Jordan, who returns to a genre he’d explored previously in 1994’s Interview With The Vampire. More than a fervour to revisit the world of bloodsuckers, though, the filmmaker responded to Buffini’s script because it reminded him of folkloric elements in his own work. “There was an emphasis on storytelling within this dark framework,” he muses, “and the mother-daughter relationship is absolutely fascinating. Moira’s take was so fresh and interesting.”
Jordan did advocate ramping up Byzantium’s vampire-horror elements and also sought to give the narrative a novelistic sweep, cross-cutting between centuries as Clara and Eleanor’s violent 18th-century origins are counterpointed against their present-day survival. The mythological portions of Byzantium were shot in Ireland, while Hastings doubled as the sleepy seaside town Clara and Eleanor adopt as their latest sanctuary, taking up residence in a dilapidated boarding house.
Byzantium’s female leads, who are joined by Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller and Caleb Landry Jones as a sickly youth Eleanor befriends, got on like the proverbial house on fire, with Arterton – despite the slim eight-year age gap – feeling very maternal towards her co-star. “The chemistry between us was so natural; it felt like these parts had been written for the two of us to play,” says Arterton, who was dressed by costume designer Consolata Boyle mostly in outfits purchased in Soho sex shops. At times, the relationship between
Clara and Eleanor is a tender one; at others, the claws are well and truly out. “It gets very feisty between us,” agrees Ronan. “Fortunately Gemma and I have the same sense of humour so we had a real laugh.”
Both actresses praise Jordan’s instincts for pushing them to think deeply about their roles but then letting them get on with it during the shoot. As for Jordan, he relished his time back in the gory genre playing field, and puts the enduring popularity of vampire tales down to their ripe metaphorical possibilities.
“Twilight is a metaphor for a young girl’s sexuality; Buffy is a metaphor for high-school rivalry; Interview With A Vampire is a metaphor for subdued gay instincts; and Byzantium is a feminist parable,” he ruminates. “Clara is on a mission to curb the power of men and restore the balance in the world…”