If there's one film guaranteed to make us cry in public this year, it's Me Before You, the big-screen adaptation of author Jojo Moyes's best-selling novel. Starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin, the drama follows the unlikely romance between a quirky, working-class girl and a despondent quadriplegic who believes his life isn't worth living.
For visionary theater director Thea Sharrock, Louisa Clark and Will Traynor's tragic tale of love and loss was the kind of story she wanted to tell in her first feature film -- complicated, human, and unabashedly English. MTV News chatted with Sharrock ahead of the weepy film's June 3 release about balancing tragedy and humor, working with the divine Joanna Lumley (darling), and why Clarke's quirky young protagonist is anything but "insufferable."
I went into this knowing nothing about the book. I only watched the trailer, which featured Emilia Clarke and Sam Clafflin and a song from Ed Sheeran, and I knew it was the kind of movie I needed in my life immediately. Needless to say, I wasn't expecting the debate over someone's right to die to be at the center of this film. How did you balance the tone?
Thea Sharrock: That's what attracted me to it. I loved the way Jojo [Moyes] had pitched those two things against each other. For me, it’s always been a love story. It's about two people who should never have met who are forced together and fall in love with each other. And then there’s the fact that they grapple with this very big, and timely, topic. It was incredibly brave of her to write it in the first place. But I don’t think of it in any way as dark and heavy and difficult, but what we’ve done -- or what we tried to do -- is put the topic on the table, so that it's there to be discussed. I didn’t in any way want the film to pass judgment because I think that until you’ve been in those shoes yourself, it’s a very easy topic to pass judgment on but not to really know until you’ve experienced it.
There’s no way this film could be dark and heavy with Emilia playing the personification of sunshine. I feel like 90 percent of this movie was just her smiling, which I was very much down for, but some of the reviews have called Lou "insufferable" and "clownish." Do you feel like she’s a divisive character?
Sharrock: This is actually the discussion that I think we should have. Among all of this gender discussion and the kind of endless questions I’m getting about, "How does it feel to be one of three women who has directed a movie coming out this summer?," how is it that the majority of critics, still, are male? It certainly feels that way. I feel like their gender is really playing in terms of how they're responding to the movie. I certainly don't find her insufferable at all.
It's funny because so much of Emilia, or at least what I’ve seen in interviews, is Lou. Their visceral reactions are really quite adorable.
Sharrock: It's totally her! Casting was hell until I met her. Well, it wasn’t hell, but it was very, very difficult. I was blessed to come across so many of the best talents out there. We saw up to about 300 actresses for the part, and I'm thrilled that so many girls were interested in it. But it wasn’t until Emilia walked through the door -- and she’s the last one that I could actually meet because she had been filming -- that I found Lou. I had met lots of girls who were brilliant and had some of Lou’s qualities, but I hadn’t met anybody who had had everything, until I met Emilia. She walked in, and I was like, "Oh my god. Louisa Clark does exist, and here she is." She's obviously a world away from her character on Game of Thrones.
There's this idea that in order to be a "strong female character" you have to kick ass. But Lou is very empathetic, and she's resilient. I loved that about her.
Sharrock: That's what I loved most about Lou, too. She's adorable, but she's not a child. She's an adult, and she works quite hard. She never wants to do something at anyone's expense, which could be really twee if you go too far, but she's just a really good person. There's so much strength in her that I find relatable for modern women.
We know the numbers for female directors in Hollywood are abysmal, and one thing I've heard from a lot of women in the industry is that it's all about being given the opportunity. When did your opportunity come?
Sharrock: The opportunity came from having done Henry V for Sam Mendes and the BBC. As a result of that, I got an American agent, and we started to read a lot of scripts together. I remember so clearly, it was December 2013, and she sent me this one and said, “I think this might be the one.” That was a brave sentiment! But I read it, and I loved it. I hadn’t read the book, and I responded to her immediately and said, "Yes." I interviewed for it, along with several other directors. I never really felt aware of my gender, being a woman, and whether that was in my favor or not. Because there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m also really grateful to my parents for having brought me up to feel that equality is just something you take for granted. I hope that our generation will really change that. I think there’s a long way to go. Those figures are astounding; I couldn’t believe it was as low as that. But I feel very strongly that when you have these moments and everybody collectively recognizes it, I know there's going to be a shift. In five years' time, we won't be having the discussion in the same way.
This film is uniquely British. It's literally set on a castle estate. Was that also one of the reasons you wanted this to be your first feature?
Sharrock: As soon as I read the script, I was like, "I love the Englishness of this!" It was interesting because, being a studio movie, there was talk of possibly setting it in another country. Should it be set in America, so we could hire American actors? But it was always clear to me that we couldn’t set it in America because the story is so English. So much of it is about the very deeply buried roots of our class system. I understood the class differences that are so important and still so strong in our country. And the humor. How we deal with difficult things in a humorous way is classically British.
This being your first film, what was the biggest takeaway from this experience?
Sharrock: Just trusting how magical the camera is and not being afraid of it. The camera kind of finds things that the naked eye can't even see. By moving in a certain way, you're already telling part of the story. So that was the biggest learning curve for me. The other big surprise is the kind of thing that people tell you all the time but until you actually do it, you don't appreciate it -- you really do make the movie three times. You make it in prep, you make it in filming, and you make it in post. And you need to be open at each step of the process because things change all the time.
How do you feel like your experience directing stage plays helped you prepare for Me Before You?
Sharrock: If you cast your supporting cast well, it should be seamless. You shouldn't even notice who's a big part and who's a small part. A good cast enriches everything.
Which is how you can have someone like Joanna Lumley pop in the middle of this film for four minutes.
Sharrock: That was a massive career high for me. That was a dream come true!
How did that come about? Was that character originally in the script? Because it felt like it was created for her.
Sharrock: Originally, it was a tiny, tiny moment in the script. And it wasn't quite right. Jojo and I worked quite hard on trying to accomplish a character who could just do what Joanna does, which is come in at a particular moment and tell us something about Lou and Will that we didn't know before. I knew that I needed an actress who had enough gravitas to be able to come in, deliver that, and go. And Joanna jumped at the opportunity. Of course it was only a day for her, but we shifted everything to make it work. She was a dream come true. It was a bit like the queen had visited that day. Everyone was so thrilled to be with her. She's funny. She's professional. She's extremely generous. Every time I went to give her note, she went, "Oh, darling. Thank you so much."
Speaking of your supporting cast, I also loved seeing Charles Dance and Emilia on screen together.
Sharrock: That was a dream come true for him! He's a massive Janet McTeer fan. I cast Janet first, and all knew was at 6-foot-1, I needed a massively tall husband for her -- and I got it.
Seeing Matthew Lewis in his first major role since Harry Potter was also delightful. It's truly inspired casting.
Sharrock: He's fantastic. Funny enough, that's one of the characters we really worked on. He's quite different in the book. But I wanted him to be like Matthew! There is a side of him that you can't help but love. I wanted it to feel like if Louisa stayed with this guy and was going to be with him for the rest of her life that it was going to be OK. It's just that something else came along.