Downhill is a British film that has been winning over audiences and sees Jeremy Swift star alongside Ned Dennehy, Richard Lumsden and Karl Theobald.
We caught up with Swift to chat about the film, his love of improvisation work, as well as his summer blockbuster Jupiter Ascending.
- You are back on the big screen at the end of May with new film Downhill, so can you tell me a bit about it?
Downhill is a film about four guys who walk across Britain, doing a well-known walk called the Wainright’s Walk that’s 192 miles. They are old school friends and they bicker and fall out along the way.
We shot it two years ago, and it rained a lot (laughs) during the three weeks that we were away. It was a micro-budget film, we did long days, and we shot it pretty much in chronicle order: the locations dictated that we had to do that. So we went from West to East, started at St Bees on the West coast, we went through the Lake District through to Robin Hood’s Bay.
- You take on the role of Steve in the film, so what was it about this character and script that drew you to the project?
The character fitted me like a glove (laughs), unfortunately: there are some downsides to him. The project was very exciting because it had a great script, but we were allowed to tinker with it and do versions of scenes: that is how I would ideally like to work all of the time. It was really exciting for that reason. It meant that we did do a lot of takes.
In addition, it is shot in a documentary format, so when you are improvising we had to aim for accuracy, because all four of us were usually in shot, and we just had to get it as naturalistic as possible for that documentary style.
We had a lot of targets to hit, as we had to make sure that the scene wasn’t too long; we had to be in the right positions, so there were lot of challenges about it.
- I was actually going to ask you about how collaborative a process it was between yourself and the director. James Rouse is in the director’s chair, so was he not so precious about the script and his vision?
He did have a vision for it, but that incorporated other people’s visions, and that was great. It is his first film, but he has done a lot of commercials - I also did many commercials in my twenties and thirties, and you really do a lot of takes.
You have a lot of coverage, just so you have as many options as possible: you really do use the time to the max. That was part of his process. Sometimes, he would be very specific and sometimes he would give us a long leash. One of the big challenges was that we had many scenes in pubs or hotels, and they weren’t locked off sets.
One of the characters is quite an unpleasant and poisonous alcoholic, and so there was always an edginess to those scenes because there were real people around us. We would just have a camera at a table and we would say ‘excuse me; we are just making a film here’.
Other times people didn’t know: we would be in a pub and there would just be too many people to cover. If they went for a take, then one of the runners would have to grab someone who walked past camera, get them to sign something that said they were in a film, and weren’t going to get any money for it (laughs).
- You have mentioned that James Rouse is making his directorial debut with Downhill, so how did you find working with him as a first time filmmaker?
It was quite taxing because he did many takes, but he did give just terrific notes. I have worked with some big directors such as Roman Polanski and Robert Altman, and James has got all of the makings of somebody.
Considering that he had not really had a career in theatre - which some directors who are very hands on with actors have - he has really got a gift for working with actors and shaping something in a really good way.
I think it is a great British film, and it is starting to get some nice feedback towards it. When I saw it, I thought ’this really works,’ I think it is a really great film and it has humanity and recognisable people.
- As you have said, Downhill was a very collaborative process where actors had a huge input into many of the scenes and moments. What is it about this way of working that you seem to enjoy so much as an actor?
It just allows you to use your imagination, and to expand the script and find things in there that you can nurture and bring out. A lot of American - mainly in comedy - will get the chance to do that, but we don’t do it very often over here: the script is usually sacrosanct.
I have been on sets with a-list Americans, and they will go off piste a bit. I think it is called the Meisner technique, where somebody will suggest something, you expand on it, then you expand on that, while keeping the feel of the script: you are not going into new territory. I love that, and I very jealous that we don’t get to do more of it over here.
- Friendship is key to this film, so how did you find working with Ned Dennehy, Richard Lumsden and Karl Theobald?
It was great (laughs). There is no costume on this film, no script supervisor, no make-up, no trailers so we had to get on with it and with each other. I had met Richard before. I just immediately liked all of them.
We did have rehearsals in London, and it was there that we really shaped it, worked on some of the improvisations, and formed some links between the characters that perhaps weren’t in the script.
During this period, we really got the chance to have fun and get to know each other. We were just always talking about the stuff that we loved, which was film and music really.
We were just travelling all the time to places and we started doing this free-form music thing (laughs), and one went on for about twenty minutes: it was like a mad DJ mix of mouth sounds. I think it was a sign of the fact that we knew each other, that no one said ‘oh that was great’ we just stopped and looked out of the window. I really liked them all, they really were great.
- We are also going to be seeing you back on the big screen this summer with Jupiter Ascending, so can you tell me a bit about that, as it looks like it is going to be awesome?
I made that last year. It was one of those things that was very short notice: I went in for it but didn’t think that I had got it. I then got a recall and met the Wachowski’s, and I just really loved them because they are really great people. They are just funny, full of art, and are real people. I just really enjoyed doing it.
I am playing Mila Kunis’ Russian uncle in the film. Basically, I have two or three good scenes in the film, and they let me do little bit of improv in that sometimes. Some things were very technical - I can’t really talk about it because I would go to Warner Bros prison.
I have never been on sets so massive - I kind of did with Fred Claus - but there were just so many of them and there were technical things that would happen that was just incredible.
People don’t yet know just how incredible the film is going to be: it is another groundbreaking Wachowski film. It is going to be very exciting. I have got the option to do two more if this one is successful.
- Jupiter Ascending is one of the biggest movies of your career, how did you find stepping into the big budget blockbuster set? It couldn’t be further away from Downhill.
Oh god yes, they are polar opposite films. Oliver Twist was fairly big; as it had many sets as a series of London streets were built. It was really exciting.
Rather than just sitting in my trailer, when I wasn’t filming I would just sneak around the studios and look at what was going on. It was like a city of film, it was just incredible. It was an amazing place, it was just so exciting.
- We have seen you moving between TV & film recently with the likes of Foyle's War, The Crimson Field and Downton Abbey all under your belt, so how do you find moving between the two mediums?
I suppose I have done enough of both. Every job has its… it is about people at the end of the day and it is about the personalities that are involved and not just about the logistics. With Downton, I am quite often just in the same set: my character has hardly ever been outside.
Foyle’s War does change - I have down two series: we have just done a series in Liverpool and the pervious one was in Dublin. Where you are can affect you. It is all good fun. I got to do quite a big film-like scene in Foyle’s War.
Many of these television shows are filmed liked movies. The Crimson Field set is massive: it really is a field in which loads of stuff has built, which allows camera crews to do all sort of stuff.
DOP’s shoot for huge high definition televisions these days - which are like small cinemas - so there are more similarities between the two worlds than there ever was.
- Finally, what's next for you?
I am just doing some more Downton at the moment. There is an option for more Crimson Field: they haven’t picked up the second series yet, but I am guessing that they probably will.
I am just waiting to see about all of the other stuff and if it comes around and they want to use me again. I am mostly excited about Downhill, because it is just such a great film.
Downhill is out now.