One of the stealth flicks at Sundance this year is “Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes,” writer-director Francesca Gregorini’s disturbing drama about the captivatingly strange, motherless 17-year-old Emanuel and her mysterious new neighbor, single mother Linda. As the film’s Emanuel herself, Kaya Scodelario, says of the twisty script, “Just when you think you’ve figured out what’s going on, it fucks you over.” We caught up with the British Scodelario at the end of a long day of interviews for her on Main Street having just seen the film and eager to talk about the splashy set piece that finds Emanuel in an underwater dream world for an extended period of time.
By the time filming ended, how sick were you of being wet?
Oh my god, it was so bad! We did like two days in this huge tank someplace near L.A. And it was this giant 30-foot deep tank that’s pitch black. And it is terrifying. It’s not like swimming in a pool at all, because you go down and you have the oxygen and your ears start popping. It’s really quite scary. And then we did another day in a pool when we had a bunch of newborn babies who I then had to push underwater. They’re screaming their heads off and the director’s going, “Go on! Dunk it, dunk it, dunk it!” And I can’t! It’s a baby! But they have a natural instinct where they can hold their breath. Some freaky thing to do with the womb.
As I was watching, I kept thinking, How long can this girl hold her breath?
I was so proud of myself! I’m a smoker, so I thought, I’m going to last like five seconds. But we’d go under with the breather and she’d give me the signal that she’s going to take it away. And every instinct you have is, No, don’t take that away! I’ll die! But the first take was eight seconds, and by the end of it I got to 28 seconds! Quite proud of it. I fractured my ear drum, but that was about it. It could have been a lot worse.
To go back to the beginning, how did you first come across the script?
It got sent to me and I fell in love with it. I thought it was the best script I’d ever, ever read. And I suddenly was like, “This is too good, I’ll never be able to get this. They’ll go with someone really well known. They must have people killing themselves to be in the film.” And Francesca came over to take meetings, so I just sat down and had a conversation with her and hardly spoke about the project. And she said that’s how she chose me. Which I think was incredibly brave and could have been incredibly stupid, but it actually worked. She obviously wanted to find the essence of Emanuel. And I was so delighted she picked me!
What was it about the script that affected you so much?
Initially, I read the script first not thinking about the character, and fell in love with the mystery, the fantasy. And that it was two really strong female leads. You don’t get that a lot. In the last five years, every script I’ve got has been, “Oh, there has to be nudity.” Or, “Oh, you have to be someone’s girlfriend.” Or an airhead. I’ve never really seen a role for a female that wasn’t about her being female. It was beautifully written and there were so many layers to it. For girls my age or young women, you’re at a point in your life where you’re trying to work out who you are. You have to choose what your career’s going to be, what direction you’re going to go. And all these things happen so quickly when you’re a teenager. It’s so confusing and it’s so messed up and on top of that, every young person goes through issues with their family, where they feel like an outcast or whatever. But to never have that motherly care or love, that really interested me.
And you filmed in L.A.?
On the street where they shot the Michael Jackson “Thriller” video, with the “Charmed” house. It was my first time in America. I was 19, I don’t drive, I can’t drink because over here you have some crazy laws. So just smoke and work and sleep, and that was it. But I actually had a really great time because everyone was so cool.
Were you taking the role home with you? Was it tough to leave Emanuel’s headspace?
Not really. The way I work, I didn’t hold the accent all day. I dropped it between takes.
So you weren’t Daniel Day-Lewis-ing your way through the movie?
[Laughs] No, not at all! I really respect people who do that, but you’re in an environment where you’re on a set for two months working with the same people, everyone’s working their asses off… I love making an effort to get to know them and to talk to them. And if you’re holding on to an accent or a character, you can’t do that. For me, it’s a lot more uncomfortable. And otherwise, it would have been a really horrible two months!
And then finally, do you have any terrible audition stories?
Quite a few, really. I’m not the best auditioner. I live in England, I get sent American stuff and I have to put it on tape. And you sit in this little room on a hard chair and you’re expected to deliver like you’re on the set. And I get extremely nervous and almost bored. I want to talk to the director and see if I’m on the same wavelength with them! I have a few friends who’ve gone out for pilot season, and they’ve told me horror stories. I haven’t done that, luckily. I think I’d just kick off. I’m a Londoner, so I’m a bit feisty. I think if someone was really rude to me in an audition, even someone quite important, I think I’d be, “What are you doing? Don’t talk to me like that!”