Sarah Snook is winning raves for her intense performance in the time-travel thriller Predestination. And if you've read the Heinlein story it's based on, "All You Zombies," you'll know how tough her role is. We talked to Snook about dealing with paradoxes — and relationships — that would make your head explode.
We were lucky enough to get some time on the phone with Snook yesterday, and she told us about taking on the role of The Unmarried Mother in Predestination, which is a fairly close copy of Heinlein's famous closed-loop story.
Warning: There are pretty major spoilers below. If you're not familiar with the premise of "All You Zombies," stop reading now.
As most time-travel fans will know, "All You Zombies" is Robert A. Heinlein's weird tale of someone who is their own mother and father, thanks to a lot of time-travel and a somewhat random gender switch. Snook plays this character, both in the female and male versions, and has to portray a love story with herself/himself. Here's what she told us about handling such a challenging role.
How do you go about approaching the role of somebody who goes through so many changes in the course of a film like that. Did you start with the male persona and work your way back to the female persona? Or how did you get inside the two versions of this character?
I did start with the male persona, just because I felt that was the biggest challenge. I thought, "Well hey, I'm female, I can probably do that easier." But, in the end, I actually found that the hardest [part] because of not knowing quite where to pitch Jane. She needed to be feminine enough to be a woman, and then masculine enough to be able to become a man — and believe that that transformation could have happened, or that she had that inside her anyway.
The Heinlein short story doesn't really go into a lot of that stuff. It kinda skates over how she is changing as a person. It's kinda just like, "Oh she gets surgery and then she's a man." But in the movie, it seems like part of what I got from your performance is that even when she's a woman and living as a woman, she has this sort of… she's fighting, she has this anger inside her, she doesn't fit in with the other women, there's this sort of macho side to her almost, which is frustrated with her circumstances.
Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, that just kind of exacerbates her feeling like she's an outcast and not knowing why. She doesn't want to get along with the other people because she doesn't want to be rejected by the other people. But the truth is that of course she wants to get along with other people but doesn't know why she can't. The sad tragedy of that is that she finds out why in such a horrible circumstance.
She's got a lot to be angry about. Like that whole weird space program, where she becomes a kind of flight attendant who's also a sex worker. She deals with a lot of really weird sexism as a woman that is almost an exaggerated version of real-life sexism. It's kind of bizarre, even for the 60s or 70s when that part of the movie is set. Do you think the anger is an intrinsic part of her, or do you think it's a response to her circumstances? Or both?
I think it's both, in a way. I mean, so much of how we deal with each other as human beings is just implicitly understanding sexual dynamics straight away, where we can categorize male or female and how we would react or relate to that person. It's interesting when you kind of remove all of that and then you have to relate or react to a person on a very instinctual 'you' way. And what is 'you' without your gender?
And a lot of people… I mean, there's that spectrum that, you know, you are either at one end or you are on the spectrum at some point. And some people don't actually identify themselves as a gender, or with gender, and some people definitely do. You have a term like 'girly girl' or 'tomboy' that's its own gender identification — I guess in a female section, and then males are different as well. So it plays into human relationships all the time.
But the thing where she's allowed to go into space, but only as a kind of escort for the male astronauts... isn't that a big part of what makes her so angry?
Yeah, and she is just as intelligent or more intelligent than the people around her — male or female — and so coming up against that restriction, it's just... You know, she'd be asking why. Especially as a young woman, an outspoken or wanting to be a bit more outspoken person.
There's a sort of a subtext to all of it of feeling trapped — which is something that comes out a lot in your performance. Is that something you thought about while you were creating the character?
Yeah, I guess, in my research I was looking at people who are on the fringe of society, whether they're homeless or whether they have a sexuality that people don't necessarily accept or gender identity that people don't accept. And I think those people are the most trapped, in a way. They are kind of isolated by their circumstances, and what that does to a person and how that changes a person, particularly in the time that it's set, in the 70s or the 60s, when she's a woman. And, later on, what does that isolation do to a person?
Part of what happens to Jane is that she doesn't have any choice about her gender being changed. It's done to her. She's actually surgically altered without her consent by this doctor and I was really curious whether you thought about what that would do to somebody. Did you think of that as a further violation, or just her becoming who she was supposed to be?
Well, that ended up being the key for me into the character. I spoke to a friend of mine who recently went through the transition of female to male and talked about the psychology of that. And also most helpful to me was the physiology of that, and what happens to your body physically that changes. But I found that the difference between my character and a situation like that was that, as you say, this person didn't choose to become different. She is made to become different. And if you have grown up identifying yourself as female and you are suddenly told and involuntarily reassigned to being male, that's a really big thing to [deal with.] That's such a violation of your self, mentally and physically, absolutely. And a huge emotional impact at that.
Yeah, and it happens at exactly the same time that she loses her baby.
Yeah, and which grief is the greater – losing yourself, or losing the only thing that you could care for?
The actual scene where the male and female versions of yourself meet is really powerful. Was that just as scripted, or did you kind of work that out a little bit more in rehearsal? It felt very spontaneous in a way.
A lot of it is scripted. I mean, it had to be. Once we went to shooting, it had to be exactly scripted because I was, you know, shooting the two sides and being the male and female version in the scene. But I found that the people I was acting opposite – the stand-ins and the doubles – were really great. So in conversation with them, I just said, "Look, be the character however you think the character should be, within the parameters of what we've done on set already. But if you do your own version, then that's interesting for me to watch." And that gives it a liveliness so that you're acting with a person, and not just in your head being with yourself which can become an exercise in narcissism [laughing] which, ironically, is like the whole film, in a way.
It's one of the biggest challenges for an actor, I guess, acting opposite yourself, like Sam Rockwell in Moon. Were there any tricks you picked up from other actors on how to act opposite yourself and make it feel real and in the moment?
Just remembering what you did, and trying to give the editor a few versions that could be put together so that he has a reasonable conversation to be able to edit together. And I looked at a lot of films where women are transformed into men like Orlando with Tilda Swinton, or Albert Nobbs. And Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There, looking at those kinds of transformations as well as whoever had acted opposite themselves in a film. It's really helpful.
Do you feel like your character gets some closure from getting to close that loop and be on the other side of that interaction or do you think it's just another form of torture?
I think my character does — but I don't think Ethan [Hawke]'s character does. But it's the same character, so it's just a constant evolution. And, you know, as a human being you might be happy about a situation, [but] then ten years down the track, it's actually affected you in a different way or in a way that you didn't expect, and now you need closure in a way that you didn't before. And I like that. We're always changing and always evolving our opinions on things.
Did you think of it literally as your character learning to love him/herself?
Not as literally as that. But, I mean, you can't escape that in the character development or developing the scene, particularly that scene in the university cloisters. It's not in the self-help way — but in the way of just not being able to resist finding chemistry in that one person that gets you.
I mean, it's like when you're a teenager or when you're looking for love — when you're first starting to have those feelings in your early twenties or teens. It would be so great if there was someone who just understood you already, so you didn't have to go through all that vulnerability stuff and relationship stuff. Like, if somebody just got you immediately. And then he finds that, and that's so hard to resist. I mean, she doesn't realize that that's what's going on, but she just thinks she's found that person, the one who just got her instantly.
I don't think that happens necessarily in real life because you've got to develop a relationship, but what if you could just meet yourself? You know yourself the best. Better than anyone else.
The other thing I wanted to ask about is when you have to leave yourself and you have to repeat the betrayal that hurt you in the past. What do you think it is about what Ethan says that convinces you that it's OK to leave yourself behind and abandon yourself?
That was a tricky one. The Unmarried Mother has got to understand in that moment that all of this had to have happened in order for the love to have occurred in the first place, and to realize who the barkeep is in that moment. It's almost like when you're in a car crash situation or some kind of major life event, you don't really understand all that has happened in that moment. You get the immediate shock moment and then the rest falls into place in the next hour, day, week later.
I think it's that kind of thing where he's thought for so long about how he's going to stay with Jane and he's going to change the past but in that moment realizes that actually none of it would have ever happened if he hadn't gone to the bar and become the man in the first place. You've got to give up what you love in order to show that you love it, in a way. Set it free.
Interview transcribed by Abhimanyu Das.