Allen Leech – Interview – In Fear

After much anticipation and excited since it’s Sundance premiere earlier this year, Jeremy Lovering’s, dark British psychological horror, In Fear, finally hits UK cinemas. Starring Iain De Caestecker (Agents of SHIELD), Alice Englert (Ginger and Rosa) and Allen Leech (Downton Abbey), this three way story burrows deep in the audiences mind and doesn’t let go until the very last moments. Check out our five star review for In Fear, here.

We were also given the opportunity recently to chat with Allen Leech, best known as Irish politically driven chaffer turned high society man, Tom Branson to find out what attracted him to the role of Max in In Fear, how work on Downton Abbey is and whether the Irish really do like to turn road signs around to confuse drivers…

How did you first become involved in the film?

I went in for an audition with Jeremy and just sat there and he told me this idea and said I don’t have a script but I have this idea that I want to be told in a very improvised way. He explained what he wanted and said “lets set up a scenario”. We did a 5 minute improv and he said “I like what you’re doing” and walked out. Two days later I got a phone call and they wanted me to do it. They sat me down properly and discussed how they wanted the process to work. Everything that I have done has been very structured and going into something where it was literally like “go” is slightly unnerving and you’ve got to bare in mind that this is actually being captured and will be turned into a film, so you don’t want it to be shit. So it’s kind of playing that thing of having enough of a basis and grounding and the rehearsal period was very important because I was kept separate from Alice and Iain. It was then how I would go in and how they reacted to certain situations and we would set up that situation again and see how I would deal with those reactions, kind of like what Max would do as a character but on his own but I had the foresight of their reactions. It was very interesting when we got to film how that changed in the actual surrounding of the car and the physicality and the claustrophobic nature of just being in those seats right in front of me, you had to change your approach. As an actor and as the character, I had to manipulate them into doing certain things. They were never told. Jeremy would give me a scenario of what he wanted to happen in this part, be it get Lucy more on your side or get Tom to think I might be Lucy and that’s quite hard but that’s when the game starts. We always said for Max it’s ultimately a study of human nature and that’s what was nice about playing it because no matter what happened, Max would just sit there and say “isn’t that interesting”.

There was so much secrecy in the making of the film, how was it when you were actually filming on set and they first saw you?

I became a member of the crew for two days just to see how they reacted and how they interacted with the crew as well. Funnily they didn’t even notice I was there because I was running back and forth to the van to get stuff. On the day I arrived in [the film itself] they had already been filming for a couple of hours and the first time they see me is when I open that door and she screamed and Iain ran back. Jeremy said the only thing I want you to do is make sure Iain gets back in the car and drives away with you in it. The problem is that Jeremy sets up that take and brings all that energy out and condenses it to the moments that you thought were the best. That was interesting because you got the initial reaction and all that energy and the minute you went into the next take you had a memory of what had happened. What was really interesting was, I sat there very quiet in the back of the car waiting for the next take and Iain wouldn’t speak to me in any shape or form and Alice lit a cigarette and turned to me and said  “So are you a stuntman?” My reaction in my head was obviously my performance was wonderful. Immediately the two were on me and were asking how much do you know? I played it like I was hired four days ago and was asked to come down here and he’s [Jeremy] feeding me stuff as I go along and they were OK because I was one of them. Then I got to play the manipulation game by saying “Did you see Jeremy? Did he say anything?” where I got to play the idea that I was as lost and as intrigued as they were. You do feel like you have this strange sense of power, which Max obviously had. Once you know the end game in a way, it is fun to see people play it out for you. When you are in a safe, filming environment you can’t really fail because you can always go again. There is a great sense of play you have but that element of constantly playing between them and even off set was really fun and kind of devious. It happened even in rehearsals, I would go to the coffee shop and I would sit behind them and listen to what they were talking about in relation to it. One time, Alice doesn’t remember this in any shape of form, she turned and she smiled at me and I thought “She knows me, I’m done” but she hadn’t in anyway, she was just smiling. It was weirdly kind of exciting in a way because in two weeks I’m going to be down in Cornwall messing with your mind.

Had Jeremy told you the end of the film?

Yes. Ultimately Max is looking for someone strong enough to perform. He’s constantly playing on the fact that he isn’t doing anything wrong. He lets all these set ups create the tension and the fear in them to turn to violence and he never does himself. He always says, “I haven’t done anything”. Ultimately when they commit a crime of violence he feels he’s justified to do so back to them and he’s looking for that one person who will commit that mortal sin of murder.

Is it hard to play a character that doesn’t really have a motive?

It is hard to find a justification but there are enough crazy people in the world. Ultimately the justification he needs is his own gratification and curiosity.  He’s driven to literally do a social experiment. It’s just slightly more extreme than others. Max in Big Brother would be good but you’d be low on contestants.

How did you get in touch with your dark side after playing in Downton Abbey for the past couple of years and now playing virtually the opposite?

Yeah, part of it was the excitement of watching a lot of horror movies but also, what is great about the job, is going from playing a 1920’s family member cum chauffeur and then playing something in the modern day that is quite sadistic and evil. There is something always mischievous and malevolent about playing the darker character that allows you to try your hand at something you haven’t done before. Maybe it was rather easy to find my dark side?

Was it something you were deliberately looking for, to play something different?

Not literally, I always loved the horror genre and did a film back in Ireland called Rewind. It has always interested me playing those darker characters and I didn’t go searching for it but I was always open for it and it is lovely to play something in contrast to what you are known for. Plus the fact Jeremy really sold me on the idea. Actually the voice conversation at start of the film was a Skype conversation that Iain had and I was sent it. Then I thought, this could be really fun and saw the relationship develop. And Iain and Alice are such great actors that you knew they were going to be able to deliver on the day and they really did. But even in that scene when Iain cries towards the end and have to pick one over the other, even me as an actor thought, fuck that was far.

Jeremy’s inspiration was based on a story about him getting lost in Ireland because the locals were turning signs around. Was that specific and something quite realistic?

It is something that happens; it is friendly and a joke, but there is something dark about it – in making someone lost and having the knowledge of that. The unknown is really the most terrifying thing for any of us. But the unknown and dark and the Irish, it is an interesting concoction.  I was fascinated about that story. And I was interested about something quite mischievous in the Irish mentality. I think Ireland has an idea of playing tricks, especially with Irish folk law. I was brought up on the stories of the mythic, goblins and banshees. To find yourself lost in that terrain and find those who enjoy that game – it is plausible to happen in Ireland. Not to this extent but something like that. Makes sense to see someone cold and miserable and I’ve had six pints.

Is there a lot of footage left over from the film?

There was 52 hours of footage… There is a box set right there. That’s the nature of the D5 small little camera that was used. Jeremy would let us go off and shoot and sometimes he’d be behind us and sometimes he would just let us off. He would tell us what he wanted and then he would tell me the small little booby traps that were set up and I knew they were coming and I got to play with that. Those cars are difficult on those tiny roads. Playing with Iain and fighting in ditches, which didn’t even make the film! I even became a sat-nav for a while. At one point I was sent off and they met this Irish guy on the road, an old man who stopped them and was chatting away. They came home and they said it was freaky but it was cool that he had been set up. Then we all asked what guy on the road? Then they had to think were they being played with there as well. They also had a blow out on the road and they just asked how they managed to get that set up… No guys, you got a flat.

How did it feel to premiere at Sundance?

Amazing, I got to go out there with Alice. Sundance is one of those places that you want to tick off as an actor and I got to go there with this movie. The reaction out there was great out there. Of course with the Americans when you get a fright, they really get a fright, popcorn in the air. You are like, oh would you calm down, where are your sensibilities? It was brilliant and a perfect festival to kick off with. And FrightFest as well was brilliant because you know the fans are hardcore horror fans and they would tell you the truth. And they genuinely loved it.

How is your relationship with Iain and Alice now, after they basically learnt you were in on it?

I told them on the third to last night, Jeremy said tell them now. We had played up to the part of doing the big fight and they still thought I was being told at the time as things were happening but I had known for some time and I knew the end game. They laughed and said no you don’t. I said I do, Jeremy sent me over and told me to tell you now. They were like, you don’t know anything. They were like, you bastard. Weirdly they are still quite close and I am not really close with them. They are always like meeting for dinner, thanks for the call. I am just that weirdo who messed with their heads.

Do they have that reaction now when they watch Downton?

Exactly, quite funny. Max should come into Downton now. low voice I used to drive! The evil twin, plot waiting to happen. I’ll have a bad, false mustache that keeps falling off.

You mentioned you a fan of horror movies and that it helped decide to take part in this film. Do you prefer tense horror or gore?

I much prefer psychological horror, the minute you see gore in any movie you go ah. You see the force of the evil. Like even in The Conjuring, you see the evil and you sigh because the fear is almost taken out of it. Especially when it is human, the human psyche is much scarier than any goblin or ghoul because it is always there and prevalent. I much prefer that.

Do you have favourite horror movie? 

I don’t really, there are so many. I love the Saw movies, I really do. It has the gore but the first one is genuinely terrifying and it is talking about choices and the human condition and that is really interesting.

I love what Jeremy’s done as well, I know what happens in the movie and sometimes I forget those jumps are coming and you’re like, “Fucking hell!” The use of sound in the movie and that claustrophobic nature, I think he’s done a great job.

Do you have a favourite scene in the film?

My favourite scene is when the rabbits get caught because the guys genuinely freaked out. And then the rabbits got stuck in the windcreen wipers. It was my favourite moment because it was the most natural for every actor and I think because we genuinely were in that situation and they were terrified and I actually found it rather amusing. At one point one of the little paws came in the window and he [Iain] kept trying to close it but it kept hitting that child guard thing so it kept going down and I was just laughing in the back watching their reactions.

How was working with Jeremy as a director? This is his first feature…

He had such a strong idea of exactly what he wanted and because I was kind of on that journey with him we had a great time in trying to play with them. We would genuinely get a little giddy. He’d go, “OK, see you all tomorrow” and on the way out I’d be like [whispers] “It’s going to be great tomorrow.” And we’d have a little discussion in the corridor and be like excited children setting up a prank the next day. I really enjoyed it. It was just one of those projects which you think could be really fun and really great. I think he’s done an amazing job for a first feature. And he’s just done Sherlock. We actually went out to do something and I said, “So tell me, how does he get off the roof?” And he’s like, “I’m not telling you. It’s all there.” He’s sworn to secrecy so I think he’s a dick! [Laughs].

But you’d work with him again?

I would love to work with him again. At one point he turned to me and said, “The only time that I really thought something was wrong with you was when Max breaks Tom’s wrist and you ssshhh him like a baby. There’s something very wrong that you would do that. That’s not right, he’s screaming out in pain and you’re soothing him like a child. It’s the only time you really unnerved me.”

Have you found major differences working in TV as opposed to film?

Yeah, definitely. The main difference – especially with an ongoing story like Downton – in any feature you know your story arc and you know where the end is, whereas working in a series you’re constantly playing the beats that you have but you never know where they’re actually going to end up or what beats are going to continue on. I’ve always come from a background of doing indie movies back in Ireland as well and there’s a sense of that element of trying to capture a moment. Because people are all kind of scrambling, especially with this movie. [Director of photography] David Catz Nielson – who worked on the first series of Downton where the set ups for lighting would take about two hours – on this he was like, “Martin, I need some light source please. Anything, throw it over my head and let’s shoot this.” Doing that kind of filmmaking is just so exciting because of the conditions. We were there for 3 and half weeks, all night shoots, in the pouring rain, freezing cold, but we were all there with the one goal of trying to make this. I think there’s a real sense of community, it’s something I’ve been brought up on and I love it. When it turns out like this it’s all worthwhile. The hypothermia [laughs].

Of those 52 hours was there anything you were sorry to see go?

There’s one turning point that very obviously makes it clear that Max is the bad guy. He stops the car to get sick and he turns and looks in the car and smiles to himself and I always wanted to keep that because I want the audience to have that, “Argh!” [moment]. Jeremy was like, ” You don’t need it” and I was like, “You do!” But I think he’s done an amazing job so I’ll bow to his superior knowlege of all 52 hours of footage.

Has this put you off booking hotels online now?

I have done nothing for the Irish tourism industry! At Sundance, someone turned and went, “Are all Irish hotels as scary?” – yes. Yes they are. It wouldn’t put me off booking online. Stick to the safe sites, don’t do any homemade ones.

Are you tempted to follow Iain De Caestecker over to the States, because he’s now doing Agents of SHIELD?

Yeah, he’s also been the lead in a Ryan Gosling’s new movie, that he directed. I’d love to. I’ve always said I wanted to do good, and exciting and interesting work. At the minute, I’m lucky enough to be doing that. I’d love to try out the States, but certain things are keeping me here for the next while. And those commitments, work wise, are quite large. So it’ll be a while. Maybe not that long, but a little while.

Film wise, you’re working on The Imitation Game. Is that finished?

I’ve just finished, but they’ve got another two weeks of filming. Because it deals with the life of Alan Turing, but it deal with him not only at the time of breaking the Enigma code, but also his life after. When he was discovered to be homosexual, and how the British government treated him, in relation to that. He was quite famously chemically castrated, and only recently pardoned. So I think it’s a very important story to tell, because he was such an incredible figure, and he’s never been celebrated in the right way. Simply because he was gay. I think it’s very important to tell the story of how influential he was in relation to the British war effort. So I’ve just finished that, and it was a great experience. Morten Tyldum did it, who did a movie called Headhunters last year. He’s such a fascinating guy. You talk through that movie with him, he had no money to make that movie. He said in that car scene, you know when he pulls that shard out of his head? That was glass in his head! When he shaved his head and started bleeding he went, “Now we have real blood!”. His style of directing, as well, he’s an amazing guy. It’s a really brilliant script, it’s been done beautifully. I think everyone in it’s pretty amazing. Being in a room and seeing Charles Dance, Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode and this actor called Matthew Beard, amazing young actor. We all sit down like, ‘This is good company!’ – everyone’s really put their heart and soul in it, so hopefully it’ll be a good movie.

You’ve spoken about moving between time periods. What have you enjoyed most about working on Downton Abbey?

My character story has been the most fun. I joined and did three episodes, and that was my contract in the first series. In the second series I was contracted by episode. So seeing how he’s developed, and become quite important, has been really lovely. I’m the only one who’s experienced both downstairs and upstairs. That’s probably my favourite thing, the fact that I’ve been able to work quite heavily in both areas, and I’m the only one who’s done that. I’m quite proud of that. I know exactly what people are talking about downstairs when they talk about the chaos, and it literally is chaos, compared to upstairs. There’s a tranquility on that set compared to downstairs. It’s pretty crazy. I suppose the fact that I’ve experienced the whole world of Downton is my favourite thing.

How far ahead are you contracted at this point?

Ah, I couldn’t be telling you that!

Thanks to Zoe at Emfoundation for her help in organising this interview

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