Wednesday, 27 April 2011
Sorry, a bit useless on the old blogging front. Just to say that I got an exclusive with the acclaimed and bestselling thriller writer, Jeffery Deaver, recently — Jeffrey D meets Jeffery D. An absolute gent and a great interviewee. Has authored the new James Bond book, Carte Blanche. I had to sign my life away, so can say no more in advance. Will appear in Sunday Times Culture very soon.
You may stumble over her name, but you’ll recognise Saoirse Ronan’s striking blue eyes. The star talks about her killer role in Hanna
Published Sunday Times: 24 April 2011
In the golden age of Hollywood, when Issur Danielovitch Demsky was transformed into Kirk Douglas and Virginia McMath was made over as Ginger Rogers, you could imagine some cigar-chomping agent putting his arm round Saoirse Ronan’s shoulders. “Look, kid, it’s not me, it’s the damn movie-theater owners. Ronan’s fine, we can live with that, but how about, I dunno, ‘Susie’ instead?”
With good grace for someone who probably gets asked this every single day, the actress politely enunciates to me: “You can pronounce it Ser-sha, which is how I usually pronounce it. Or Sair-sha, which I don’t really like. Or Sear-sha, which is quite nice. A lot of Irish people say that.” The lovely moniker — almost sung, in the gentle lilt of rural Co Carlow, where she grew up and still lives — means “freedom” in Gaelic. (Agent: “I got it, kid — Susie Freedom. Hey, we’re gonna stick ya in a western with Marion Morrison.”) There couldn’t be a more apt name for the actress — the ethereal star of the heavenly fantasy The Lovely Bones; Oscar-_nominated at only 13 for her near supernaturally chilling Briony Tallis in Atonement.
Lithe and pretty, Ronan has a mane of silky, honey-blonde hair and luminous blue eyes that the camera clearly adores. She is also engagingly chatty — so old pro, on the one hand, casually name-dropping her colleagues “Cate” or “Keira”; but equally prone, as befits someone of the provisional-licence generation, to tucking her legs under her on the armchair, nattering about her ageing border collie, Sassy (“We’ve grown up together”), or how Facebook is, like, so “last year”. She has the best part of a decade’s work behind her, so it’s easy to forget she turned 17 only this month. She was on Irish telly at eight, made her film debut aged 11 and was seasoned enough to handle being the sole female in Peter Weir’s gulag epic, The Way Back — one of a number of top-notch directors who have fallen over themselves to secure Ronan’s services.
“I still feel like a teenager,” she muses, twirling a golden tress around her index finger. “I have my friends from Ireland, and we do things that are completely separate from the work I do. But I’m mature, I suppose, because I’m around adults an awful lot, and I’ve seen more of the world than most kids my age.”
Hanna has never seen a person the same sex as herself, She’s fascinated by that. And boys and bikinis
For someone coming round the final bend of adolescence, her new film, Hanna, is incredibly timely. A radical departure, it marks a sort of putting-away of childish things, the cinematic equivalent of getting your bellybutton pierced. “The films that have been done well have all been dramas,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I liked the idea of trying something different.” It’s an unusual film, what you might call an art-house action flick — La Femme Nikita meets Run Lola Run meets Kill Bill. Ronan stars as the film’s titular assassin, the ultimate fighting machine — martial arts, weapons and all — released on a mission across Europe and North Africa to flail her fists of fury at the person who killed her mother.
Making it was no picnic. An intense physical routine had her training four hours a day for two months at the LA gym run by Dan Inosanto, a protégé of Bruce Lee. Most of the fighting/running/jumping on screen is her, including the whacks administered to her 6ft 3in co-star, Eric Bana. “Poor Eric, he didn’t want to hurt me,” she chuckles, “but I went full steam ahead, and I did get him a few times.”
If Hanna is a compelling film — and not to be confused with the current gymslip ninjette of Sucker Punch — then it’s also because it comes from the hand of the British director Joe Wright, who is no stranger to the costume romp (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice). Ronan got him the gig, bluffing the producers with an assurance that he would most certainly do the picture if they offered it to her, when, in fact, he was blissfully oblivious of the project. “Joe rang me up a few days later and said, ‘Right, get your arse in the gym.’_”
All flaxen hair, wolf furs and feral reflexes, Hanna has been brought up by her former CIA-man father (Bana) in a remote cabin in Arctic Finland. Contact with the outside world has been verboten, her tuition coming only in the form of fairy tales, learnt in a variety of languages. Hanna is not merely a teen terminator, but a latter-day Kaspar Hauser, an unworldly innocent who has lived in isolation from society. Her wide-eyed bewilderment is shown to best effect when she hooks up with an English family, who are camper-vanning back from Morocco, to avoid the gay neo-Nazi hit man on her tail (Tom Hollander). From their daughter, Sophie (Jessica Barden), Hanna gets a crash course in juvenility. “Hanna has never seen a person the same sex as herself,” says Ronan, who turned 16 during the making of the film. “She’s fascinated by that. Sophie shows her things she never even imagined: boys and parties and bikinis.”
Hanna has certainly never encountered a female as carpet-ingesting as her CIA nemesis, played by Cate Blanchett, an actress who has crossed paths with Ronan before. They were nominated against each other at the 2008 Academy Awards. Before that, Ronan’s actor father, Paul, had appeared with Blanchett in Veronica Guerin. At this point, it seems only right that Paul should be introduced, sprawled, as he is, on the sofa across the hotel room, there as Saoirse’s chaperone. His garrulous nature has made him unable to resist chipping in with a prompt, or an anecdote, where his daughter is lacking. (“She was very expressive and artistic as a child,” he enthuses, to the mortification of his offspring. “She used to do voices with her little dolls and make up stories.”)
Paul and his wife, Monica, had gone to live in New York during the late-1980s recession. Saoirse, their only child, was born there in 1994. A former Irish karate international, Paul worked in an East Side bar, where he was talent-spotted — “Dad always joked and was a bit of an entertainer” — and offered work on stage. The acting career took off. They moved back home when she was three. Though Saoirse was a presence on Paul’s sets from an early age — carried by Brad Pitt on The Devil’s Own, playing around with Colin Farrell on Ballykissangel — her own path into acting “wasn’t part of any master plan”, her father says. But when she demonstrated a knack for it, she was well placed to get an agent.
Her first film role, quite remarkably, was as Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter in the romcom I Could Never Be Your Woman, which went straight to DVD in Britain (where much of it was filmed), not aided by the timber thespianism of one Graham Norton, who pops up as a costume designer. “I know, so random, wasn’t it?” she squeals. There had been reservations about casting a non-American (although, technically, she is one), but her audition impressed. The film’s dialect coach was off to work on Atonement next and so brought Ronan to the attention of its director.
The part of manipulative young Briony was never a given. There were concerns again over nationality. But she and her father home-videoed an audition in their front _garden, lying on the grass, with Paul reading back Keira Knightley’s part. (“The green dress on you, dad. Come on.”) In the end, Ronan stole the show, nailing the cut-glass RP to a T, leaving producers across Britain to ponder how they’d come to overlook this young “English” actress.
I don’t have to constantly be working. That’s not why I do it. I want to have a normal life
Ronan may not have any formal training, but she has a gift for accents — assorted American ones (including City of Ember, a fantasy film shot in Belfast), Edinburgh Scottish (Death Defying Acts, with Catherine Zeta-Jones), Polish in The Way Back and a kind of Mitteleuropean in Hanna. Does she have a good ear? “I must do, I suppose,” she shrugs. “I’ve been lucky to work with great dialect coaches. I suppose, too, that spending the first three years of my life in New York helped — I watched a lot of American TV.”
Given her general lack of fazability, she didn’t find the Oscars that big a deal, she admits. Her father recounts a story where they came out of the lifts at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, and Saoirse was tapped on the shoulder by a man who gushed that he loved her “little film”.
“Who was that weirdo?” she asked afterwards. “Kevin Costner,” Paul replied. Her biggest pinch-yourself moment was when she had dinner at Danny DeVito’s house, she says, because dad was a big fan of Taxi. “I went to the bathroom. The toilet was really low,” she quips. “I had to crouch down.”
If Ronan has one regret, it’s that The Lovely Bones got a critical kicking — “Which I didn’t think was fair” — partly for sanitising some of the more brutal elements of Alice Sebold’s novel. “I personally think the film is great. To make a film that is centred on heaven, and there’s this 14-year-old girl who’s been raped and murdered — people have to make allowances.” She remains friends with the director, Peter Jackson, recently hospitalised with a stress-related illness, setting back shooting on his brace of Hobbit films, with which Ronan had been linked.
University may feature at some point. Currently home-schooled, Ronan thinks she’d enjoy it — “New York, or maybe Trinity College Dublin”. In the meantime comes Violet & Daisy, in which she stars — would you believe? — as an assassin, one half of a duo hunting down James Gandolfini (“Tony Soprano,” she trills. “And we’re sent to kill him, which is mad”). “It’s so different from Hanna — a black comedy that just happens to have a bit of shooting in it,” she clarifies. After that may come Effie, an Emma Thompson-penned film about the wife of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, for which she has been up against her perennial rival, Carey Mulligan.
The key, she says, is not to get carried away. “People I’ve worked with have advised me not to move too quickly. You know, I don’t have to constantly be working. That’s not why I do it. I could do three films a year, but I’d just be absolutely wrecked at the end of it. I want to have a normal life, one that’s not just orbiting around acting. So it’s important to get home to Ireland to spend time with people who haven’t got anything to do with the film business. And that keeps you grounded. Definitely.”
Hanna opens on May 6
Published Sunday Times: 17 April 2011
According to President Reagan, the actions of Vladimir Vetrov constituted “the greatest spy story of the 20th century”. Some claim Vetrov’s work as a KGB mole was as crucial to the implosion of the Soviet bloc as the Polish Solidarity movement or Russia’s “Vietnam” in Afghanistan.
From spring 1981 to early 1982, Vetrov — codenamed Farewell by his French security handlers — dispatched about 4,000 classified documents across the Iron Curtain. The information led to the decapitation of the Soviet Union’s rapacious industrial-espionage operation in the West, the Kremlin’s last gasp in the cold war.
Quite why Vetrov should have been denied a starring role in history is a complex business. That it is a Gallic tale rather than an Anglo-Saxon one? Certainly, there has been little appetite to dwell on the dark days of a divided Europe. “In 25 years, everything has changed so much,” offers the French director Christian Carion, whose film about Vetrov, Farewell, is released in Britain this month. “The USSR doesn’t exist; Moscow is much like Berlin or Vienna. To young people, the cold war doesn’t mean anything.”
I wanted to make a movie based on a true story, but, very quickly, I understood that I would never know the whole truth
But, in large part, Vetrov’s airbrushing is the result of his controversial standing: was he the Soviet von Stauffenberg, or just a downright traitor whose name is still mud in his homeland? “It’s not just my Russian point of view — I was very hostile to the communist regime,” says Sergei Kostin, whose 1997 book, Bonjour Farewell, forms the basis of Carion’s film, “but there’s hardly a difference between the interests of the communist regime and everlasting Russia. If I put myself in the place of Vetrov, I could never do the same things, because each time, I would think, this is against not only the Soviet Union’s defence, but Russia’s defence.” For the sake of Vetrov’s family, Kostin published his book abroad. Such is the taboo that in Carion’s French-produced picture, Vetrov cannot even be named; he is called Grigoriev instead.
“I did it to show that this is not a documentary — that’s impossible,” Carion says. “In the beginning, I wanted to make a movie based on a true story, like Merry Christmas [his Oscar-nominated film about the unofficial truce in the trenches during the first world war], but, very quickly, I understood that I would never know the whole truth. There are many different truths — the Russian truth, the French truth and the American truth.”
Vetrov’s was a maverick, solo, freelance mission. He declared no intention to defect and refused payment. There exist no recordings of him, few photographs. That the end of the old world order could have been authored by a virtually faceless, middle-aged technocrat toiling in the Orwellian bureaucracy of Directorate T, the technological intelligence wing of the KGB, is an intriguing proposition.
“It’s not a James Bond movie — there is no girl, there is no gun,” Carion cautions. On screen, played by Emir Kusturica, the radical Bosnian director-turned-actor, Vetrov is 007’s opposite: a shambolic bear of a man, albeit with the requisite indestructible liver (and penchant for a basement quickie with the secretary). In fact, as secret agents go, he seems a lousy one, flouting every rule in the handbook, brazenly filching papers from his boss’s desk; bumbling around Moscow with a cardboard folder, spewing as many state secrets onto the pavement as he does upon his bewildered, untrained French liaison: Pierre, in the film (played by Guillaume Canet), is an amalgam of at least two actual contacts.
It was Vetrov’s brass neck that kept him off the radar; that and his choice of the French Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire as his bureau (Vetrov spoke fluent French), an intelligence outfit of significantly lower surveillance status to the KGB than the CIA or MI6.
In exchange for his eventual confession, the KGB rewarded Vetrov with an executioner’s bullet, delivered in January 1985 and announced in a brief, terse letter to his wife and teenage son. Nobody saw the body. The whereabouts of his grave are unknown.
While arguments still rage about Vetrov’s motives — ideologue, adventurer or plain old loose cannon? — what is certain is that, 30 years ago, when the 48-year-old colonel began slipping a few documents under the counter to an engineer from the French company Thomson-CSF, neither could have foreseen where it might lead. But, within a few months (by which time Vetrov was warned to cool things off), the damage had been done. With the Reagan administration mistrustful of the incoming President Mitterrand and his appointment of communist ministers, France passed the Farewell dossier to the United States as a demonstration of loyalty. What Vetrov revealed made devastating reading. Such was the decrepitude of the USSR’s technology that a state that had gone from peasantry to space flight in only 40 years had been reduced to wholesale plunder of western know-how to maintain the illusion of being in the arms race. So thorough was its infiltration of the American military-industrial complex that every innovation was simply ripped off by a widespread network of insiders — 250 agents operating under diplomatic cover. As the film has it, the Soviets knew every detail of Nato defences, right down to missile launch codes.
Initial shock was tempered with the comprehension that the Soviet economy was near bankrupt in its bid to keep up. With a conveyor belt of dead premiers to boot, the politically spent USSR was a cow just waiting to be tipped. In the finessed American version of the final act, the “evil empire” is nobbled by Reagan’s “bluff of the century”, the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka star wars, a development so fantastical/expensive that the Soviet Union cannot possibly compete. After technological defeat comes ideological capitulation, Gorbachev and glasnost — and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“I sincerely think Vetrov contributed very much to the plan to destroy the Soviet Union,” Kostin says, “but to think of him as the prophet of perestroika? No. He never thought about it.”
Farewell sits proudly with the new wave of true-life political thrillers, notably The Lives of Others
The wounds still fester. Carion was denied permission to shoot in Russia, faking Moscow with Kiev, Kharkov and Helsinki. Then, when his lead actor, Nikita Mikhalkov, pulled out, his replacement, another top-notch Russian thesp, who remains nameless, had the screws put on him while returning from pre-production in Paris. “He went to Charles de Gaulle airport and, in the taxi, had a cellphone call from the Russian ambassador,” says Carion, “who said to him, ‘You are a great actor, a star, but you can’t do this movie. You can’t defend a traitor. Russia will never understand why you decided to do it. Think about it.’ On arriving in Moscow, he called me and said, ‘Forget my name. Forget my number. Forget everything. I will not do your movie.’”
One significant liberty has been taken in the film. Whereas the screen Vetrov comes over as a lovable rogue, snaffling smuggled cognac or a Queen cassette for his teenage son, the real version was a convicted murderer. Job done, Vetrov had been cut adrift by the West.
It hastened a spell of paranoia and heavy drinking, during which he attempted to stab his increasingly troublesome mistress. Their night-time struggle in Vetrov’s parked car was spotted by a passer-by, who intervened but ended up being knifed himself. He turned out to be another KGB officer, quite possibly tailing Vetrov. Vetrov was sent down for 12 years. It was during a stint in the Siberian gulag that his loose tongue corroborated the double-dealing the Soviet authorities were now coming to suspect.
Naturally, Kostin does not approve of this omission from the film. “It makes a figure more idealistic, I would even say romantic. So for me, who investigated and got to know the real character, it is a disappointment.”
Carion shot the murder sequence, but left it out because it overcomplicated things, he insists. “It was difficult for the audience to understand,” he says. “That’s why, in the end, I decided only to keep the story of Farewell.”
Its absence does not diminish the film, which sits proudly with the new wave of true-life political thrillers, notably The Lives of Others. For Kostin, the research material unearthed by Eric Raynaud, the film’s writer/producer, has enabled publication of a fuller version of his book, “with new information”.
So why, exactly, did Vetrov do what he did? Where Carion toes the western line — that he was a martyr, motivated to destroy the Soviet Union after conversion to the capitalist way (he had tasted the good life in France and Canada in the 1960s) — Kostin finds a disgruntled soul who simply wanted to get one over on his employers, the KGB. “For me, the mystery was to understand why a guy in Soviet life who has everything — a good family, a car, a dacha, a very comfortable salary — decided on betrayal,” Kostin says. “You know, I never found a trace of his ideological adversity against the regime. Never. Never. I asked several witnesses. Everybody told me it was for revenge, and I think that’s what his motivation was. ‘You think I’m nothing. I’m close to retirement. I made nothing of my life. I’m a failure, a complete loser, I will show you who I am. I will destroy.’”
In making the film, Carion gained the trust of Jacques Attali, the former Mitterrand advisor. In 1996, it emerged that Mitterrand later had doubts about Vetrov’s authenticity, believing him to have been a CIA “plant”, there to test France’s trustworthiness — all part of the technological Great Game in which the CIA turned Directorate T into a weapon against itself. There is even a suggestion that the 1982 trans-Siberian pipeline explosion — thwarting a Soviet attempt to flog oil to Europe — was the result of US counterintelligence.
While making the film, Carion received a phone call from an anonymous source claiming to have inside knowledge of the Farewell case. They met for coffee. “He said, ‘Okay, so Farewell is dead?’ I said, ‘Yes, we have the paper from the KGB to the family.’ He said, ‘Okay, if the KGB told them he is dead, he must be dead.’ I said, ‘Are you are telling me he is not dead? He is living in South America making pizzas somewhere?’ And he said, ‘That’s the problem with spy stories. Everything is possible.’ And then he left me alone.”
Farewell is released on April 29. Farewell, by Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud, is published by Amazon Crossing on August 2