The Edge were able to sit down (virtually) with actor Harry Melling and discuss his new comedy, Say Your Prayers. In the film, Melling portrays Tim, the innocent narrator for a hired murder gone wrong. In this interview, we discuss Say Your Prayers, both on and off screen, as well as some uncertain advice for those looking to get into a career in acting.
What was it like filming on location? For example, the start of the film starts in the British hills and then moves on to the village.
It was wonderful. The first time we tried to shoot on the hills, at the beginning moment where we throw the body over the cliff, it was torrential rain. It was biblical! It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and of course when you’re on the rock and it’s all slippery and whatnot, we actually had to stop filming. We had to come back another day because it was that treacherous. *Laugh* So that was my first experience, my first attempt at filming these scenes was through this biblical storm, which actually probably was quite fitting. Then we went back, and it was of course beautiful sunshine, and that’s the sequence you get in the film. But it was lovely – it’s always good when you first get the script, and you read the story, but actually being on location and feeling the community of people that were in this community in Yorkshire – it’s just so useful to be in that environment because it informs the film in so many ways. Just meeting the people, going to the cafés, going to the pubs – it really does help your decisions as an actor, and certainly being in Tim’s position where he’s coming into this village and experiencing everything for the first time, there was a parallel between me coming into the village and understanding how it works and so forth. I think we were shooting for just over a month, maybe a month? It was a wonderful thing to do.
One of the best parts for the viewer was that lots of the dramatic music was performed by the male choir. What was it like filming with them, and what was your opinion on using them as music?
I remember reading that bit and thinking, ‘What a fantastic idea’, to have this Greek Chorus follow the narrative. I was intrigued by the interplay between the characters in the film and the chorus of men and seeing how that would work – and that was one of the most intriguing things about Harry’s (Michell) brilliant script. And then actually getting to work with them? They were just glorious, they really were. They were an all-gentleman’s choir, a local choir that Harry used, and like you would imagine, they were full of wonderful, eccentric characters – I don’t think they’d mind me saying this, but I don’t think they’d been on any film sets before and so what was quite lovely was the reminder of how weird and wonderful filming is! *Laugh* The novelty of filming was always apparent with this wonderful group of gentlemen, on set giving it their all, singing along to the words, and they just brought a lovely atmosphere to the whole shooting of it – which again, I think hopefully you can sense in the film – this sense of fun. They were quite cheeky, it was wonderful that they were involved.
Tim, in the film, is faced with lots of decisions, but – without spoilers – he is still a good person. Do you think that the concept of morality and being a ‘good person’ is something that people are born with or is it something influenced by experience?
I don’t know to be honest. I guess what I loved about Tim was that he could be no other way. There’s such a wonderful innocence and naivety to how Tim sees the world, so I guess maybe that’s something that you’re born into. But also I think experience can definitely impact the way you see the world and Tim has had a very rocky upbringing, being orphaned and then being in the custody or guardianship of Father Enoch. All this has happened and yet still he has managed to be this good, honest person. I kind of fell in love with that concept, how we see the world through Tim’s eyes because I remember being on set and always finding myself leaning into this confused computing of what was happening around the world of Tim. And I thought to myself, ‘I guess this is what it must feel like.’ You know, when the world is ahead of you all the time and you’re trying to catch up with it, you are trying to compute things and put things together and trying to work out why you’re being told to do certain things because ‘actually that doesn’t feel quite right.’ And alongside that, you get the opportunity to play that, for want of a better word, that archetypal naïve clown which is a comedy trope that has been done forever. That certain someone who’s always misunderstanding things, but because innately they’re good and that was a fun concept to play with. So I had a lot of fun with Tim and certainly it was different to the kind of roles that I was doing and was going to do, so it felt like a nice balancing act. I always find myself the happiest when I am doing varied things, that’s when I really get a kick out of acting.
Following on from that, there are obviously lots of things that go wrong throughout the film, but which character would you say is most at fault for the downfall of the plot?
Obviously, Father Enoch’s behaviour has been disgusting and wrong. He’s bullied these kids into doing this thing, he’s used religion as a means to excuse wrongdoings, not only for himself but for Tim and Vic who he’s taken under his wing. So obviously, he’s suspect number one, so to speak. On the flipside, you have Huxley, who again is deeply questionable as a character, someone who is so arrogant, so convinced by his own beliefs of there being no God, of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, you’re stupid, I’m right,’ and how that arrogance manifests itself in other ways. In a way, he abuses people in the same manner that Father Enoch does. Obviously, in very different ways, but it’s the same type of abuse. It’s about using their power and position in order to make the little people, so to speak, suffer. So, those two characters would be the main suspects, but I think what Harry’s script does so well is it offers this Father Enoch character and it offers this Huxley character, and they are completely opposing characters and ideas and beliefs and whatnot, and yet, at the end of the film, without giving too much away, they are both saying the same thing. I think that’s quite an interesting journey. ‘Are they as different as we think they are?’ In terms of their beliefs and how they carry out their lives, maybe they are more similar than we think they are. But most definitely, those two would be the most questionable characters in terms of their behaviour.
Say Your Prayers is a comedy but is very dissimilar to all the laugh-a-minute Americanised comedies that are quite common nowadays. Which do you think is better?
It’s tricky that… I don’t think I’m the best person to ask! I often think that my taste is quite alternative to how the rest of the world might be getting into and in a way that’s quite a good thing because I try not to and I’m pretty successful at not worrying about the film after it’s been released. You can get yourself into a really sticky situation if you’re constantly trying to work out why something has been more successful than another thing, or why this hasn’t landed in the way you thought it might. That’s a really dangerous territory to live in as an actor. I think you’ve almost got to prioritise the work – the character you’re playing – and do the work obviously and try and find the truth within that person. Be it, as you say, a more alternative darker comedy, or a more beat by beat, ba-dum-tish kind of comedy. I mean they’re both very different in style, but you still have the same job of finding the truth to what this person is because I think, and I might be wrong, that’s why things are funny. Obviously, there’s elements of timing and whatnot, but things are funny because people don’t think they’re funny. If you start asking for a laugh, you’re never going to get a laugh. I think it’s always got to live in the truth that you’re trying to express from the character’s point of view.
What was your favourite part to shoot?
I really enjoyed the first scene of the film. Not only was it a beautiful location, it’s such a misleading first scene and you don’t really know where the film is going. And then obviously something happens and you go, ‘wow, okay, this is where this film is going.’ I love the fact that the first scene is such an open-ended entry point for the audience, and then suddenly it finds its course and we’re off. So, I really enjoyed doing that and I really enjoyed the quieter scenes with Tom Brooke who plays Vic because he’s a wonderful actor. I also really enjoyed the scenes in the hotel room with Derek Jacobi who was incredible and those moments that provide backstory for certain characters: Tim and Vic both living under the ruling of Father Enoch. I really enjoyed all those scenes especially, just because it gives the film a bit more weight and gravitas and hopefully allows the comedy to oppose those more sombre moments.
Did you have a favourite on or off set moment?
There was this café round the corner that me and Tom were very keen on and so we would always try and make a deal with one of the drivers in our lunch break to just nip us round the side to the café and get them a bagel or whatever; we were always trying to do that. There were so many moments. When you’re making a comedy, it needs to live in that fun space, in that sort of, ‘ooh what could happen?’ So there were many, many fun moments. I remember the fight with Roger Allam was fun and stupid and crazy, and I think I put my leg out at one point and I jumped on him and hurt my leg. I had to get physio the next day but still, it was a really fun film to work on from start to finish.
Who is most or least like their character?
I’m not really Tim-like. There are obviously qualities of Tim that I share, but I would say I am quite different to Tim. Obviously, Jacobi and Allam are nothing like their characters because they’re lovely people, and then Tom is not like his character because he’s not a psychopath. I think we’re all fairly different to be honest, but they’re obviously unique qualities when you act like someone. For example, there’s the open-mindedness that I have with Tim, how I see the world and compute the world. You have to use qualities of yourself but actually thinking about it, we are all pretty dissimilar to our characters, thank god. It would be quite an intense scenario to find yourself in if everyone was like their characters!
There are quite a few themes throughout such as power, control, religion, and family. What, for you, would be the most important takeaway?
I think what’s interesting is how they’re all interlinked. Obviously family, in terms of my storyline, is very important because his relationship with Vic is probably the most important thing to Tim, but interwoven with that is religion and Father Enoch’s rule over them and how that’s impacted their lives, how it’s impacted certainly Vic’s life in terms of what he believes in and what is the right thing to do. It’s a very complicated spiderweb of all these things that are so tightly knitted together and hopefully the film can slowly but surely take them apart, and say, ‘What is radicalisation?’ Because radicalisation, yes, can be to do with religion, but also you can be radical in terms of anti-religion. That in itself is form of radicalism, which I think Roger Allam’s character definitely represents. I don’t think I could take away any single thing, but probably what I do take away is closely linked they are to one another and how much of a complicated equation it is.
As an actor, do you have one piece of advice for our readers who were perhaps hoping to get into a similar career?
I just think advice is so tricky. Obviously, when I was at drama school, you would get so many tips and tricks and things about what to do and advice, and of course it was in good faith and they were trying to help you in terms of getting somewhere, but actually advice is quite a dangerous thing because suddenly you think there is an equation that works, or there’s a rule that ‘if I do this, then this,’ and I just think that that is quite a dangerous thing to believe in because there isn’t. There really isn’t. One drama school teacher said to me that there is only one version of you so make sure that you are always doing that. Make sure you are being obedient and offering things to the director but try and make sure that you are always doing it through the filter of you and who you are. And I always took that away as a good note because it’s the kind of idea that you’re enough, you don’t need to be striving for something else or to be something else. Actually, what you have already is enough. That’d be my takeaway, but I say that with much trepidation. There’s no rhyme or reason, you just have to put you head down and do the work. I think if you concern yourself with that then you’re going to be alright.
Say Your Prayers, directed by Harry Michell, is distributed in the UK via Central City Media, certificate 12. It will be released on demand 28th September and can be pre-ordered here.