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Talking to the stars of Black Mirror’s new season

Jodie Foster, Michaela Coel, Alexandra Roach and Maxine Peake share their stories of working on the latest of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian series

Across three seasons, Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones and a huge cast and crew have built an entire universe out of our deep-seated fears and paranoia about an unsettling near-future, cloaked in dark comedy, offbeat horror and relentless action. The fourth season, out now on Netflix, builds on this even more. The series kicks off with space epic ‘USS Callister’, with a Star Trek-like theme that quickly turns sour and sinister; Jodie Foster directs ‘ArkAngel’, exploring the relationship between a mother and daughter with hyper-surveillance at play, while ‘Crocodile’ is a brutal story of murder and mystery. ‘Hang the DJ’ amplifies digital dating anxieties, ‘Metalhead’ sees Maxine Peake on the run from killer robot dogs and the fascinating ‘Black Museum’ harks back to old season stories and horrifying new tales of dystopian tech.

Here, we speak to actors Maxine Peake, Alexandra Roach and Michaela Coel, as well as director Jodie Foster about their experience of immersing themselves into disturbing dimensions not far off from our own.

ON GETTING INVOLVED IN THE TWISTED WORLD OF BLACK MIRROR

Maxine Peake, ‘Metalhead’

“It was a little bit last minute for me. I got a phone call about a Black Mirror script - they asked me to quickly read it, but I told them I didn’t need to, it’s Black Mirror! I’m such a fan, and Charlie Brooker is brilliant, though I’m slightly gutted he couldn’t do Screenwipe this year. Charlie’s got a different eye on the world to most of us. Then with David Slade directing this it was a no brainer. With my story I knew it was going to push me as an actor.”

Alexandra Roach, ‘Black Museum’

“I didn’t have to audition for my part, they sent through the script and it was one of those things - ‘are you kidding me?’ It’s one of my favourite shows. It all happens so fast with Black Mirror too: read throughs, rehearsals, getting on set. I had such a visceral reaction to the script when I read it: I was like ‘no!’, ‘what?’, ‘ah!’.

Michaela Coel, ‘USS Callister’

“I’d seen all the previous series before my audition came through for the last season (Nosedive) back in 2016. I’d just done Chewing Gum, and it came at a time when I was very stressed - I had a lot of stuff going on in my personal life and having this scene that was I to go over, make concrete, was great for me. I met Charlie and Annabel at my audition. Charlie is an amazing guy, we worked through it as an episode that would draw more of the comedy out in the series. I got an email about being in this episode in December last year, I was like ‘whaaaat’ - it’s very cool to be in two seasons of Black Mirror.

Jodie Foster, ‘ArkAngel’

“I didn't know anything about Black Mirror at all previously. I was having lunch with my favourite Netflix executive Cindy Holland, and I was talking about the state of the movie business. I really wanted to go back to doing a beginning, a middle and an end, to have the satisfaction of that. Where the story is central, and the characters are etched so carefully and methodically in order to create that story. And she was like’"oh well do I have the place for you?’. You know, the Twilight Zone was my favourite thing as a kid too.

I felt like (ArkAngel) was a book I had written years ago and I had just rediscovered it in a treasure chest. It was everything I had been thinking about.”

THE INTENSE FILMING

Maxine Peake, ‘Metalhead’

“A lot of people assume the landscape is in Scotland, but we actually shot in Devon and Kent. The house we filmed in too apparently belonged to one of the Chapman brothers - this elegant, cool, modern house.

‘Metalhead’ is the first episode filmed totally in black and white. It’s one of the shortest too, and that made it very intense. There isn’t much dialogue either, as it’s much more focused on the action - I’ve never done anything like that. I’m always an advocate of ‘acting is reacting’, which can be difficult. It was a challenge, having to delve deep into your imagination to see this robot dog. Nothing lingers, you can’t get sentimental, you have to keep going for the chase, the thriller. I also spent lots of time in the car doing those handbrake turns. It was great! I had a brilliant stunt double, but I thought I’d have a go.”

Alexandra Roach, ‘Black Museum’

“It’s like nothing I've ever done before! I had to be on set when they were filming all of the stuff when I'm in (my partner’s) head. I had to hide in a cupboard or under a table cupboard so I could give him my line and he could react to them. For my bits, where I’m sitting in the chair looking at the big screen, it was really hard - I wasn’t acting alongside real human beings. It was pretty challenging.There was no room for improvisation or feeling in the moment. All the challenges you face as an actor when creating a series are sort of squished together and heightened a bit with Black Mirror because there's only a small window where you have to make sure these characters come to life.

It's funny as well, because as it goes my character Carrie gets quite naggy and a bit annoying. It's funny as well as quite disturbing.”

“I felt like (ArkAngel) was a book I had written years ago and I had just rediscovered it in a treasure chest. It was everything I had been thinking about” - Jodie Foster

Michaela Coel, ‘USS Callister’

“It was pretty different from my first experience - I was in basically every day of shooting, we started early and worked late. It was cool, the cast was lovely and the costumes were really out of this world. I couldn't pee or move too far, but they were great. It’s all amazingly designed. Every job is different really, but the breadth of what we got to do in this episode - onboard the ship, in the ‘reality’ of the office, was incredible.”

Jodie Foster, ‘ArkAngel’

“It’s a short story, and for me that’s the greatest form, my favourite form. I think in some ways it's the truest to my voice. Every single piece of information that you get,  single piece of dialogue, each character is meaningful and will get you to the end. In a lot of television, there's a lot of filling in, but with Black Mirror its message is in every single frame and gesture, contributing to one big idea. It's funny for me to be any kind of a spokesperson for Black Mirror because of my gosh, there’s five other episodes, five other directors with their own tones and genre.”

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES

Maxine Peake, ‘Metalhead’

“A lot of the time it was me alone. I don’t see a lot of the action obviously, I see a man in a black hoodie and black tracksuit bottoms, with a thing on wheels! He was just the loveliest, warmest man, playing something that’s trying to kill me - when I saw it edited in after it was terrifying.

I think the biggest thing for me was that there’s very little backstory and dialogue for my character. Who is she? How has she got to this point? I had to really go beyond the script, which had very little in it to tell me what she was about. At the same time I think that’s the beauty of this one, it could be anybody, any time. It’s not a character driven story, but an action driven one. As a human, if you're in a scary situation you pretty much forget about everything else! You just try and survive.”

Alexandra Roach, ‘Black Museum’

“The character arc and the journey that my character goes on is quite intense and short. So I knew that it would be quite challenging for me as an actress. It was all very technical for me too, working solely with playback and no other actors - I’m inserted into his head, and I don’t get to react to people in real time.”

Jodie Foster, ‘ArkAngel’

“We got through some revisions of the script. I wanted to really explore that symbiotic relationship between a mother and a daughter, and how technology just highlights their emotional complexity. All-encompassing, that pressure from birth until the day that her daughter could walk away from her.”

FAVES FROM PREVIOUS SEASONS

Maxine Peake, ‘Metalhead’

“I've got a big soft spot for San Junipero, but then the one that really stuck in with me was the Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson one (Be Right Back). I love all of them, from the first with Rory Kinnear who played the Prime Minister with the, you know. They’re groundbreaking, impressive, on the moment and at times prophetic.

Alexandra Roach, ‘Black Museum’

“I love the ones that don’t feel too far away from our own lives, sometimes with the least amount of futuristic tech. Like the Shut Up and Dance episode, that left me feeling a bit cold and shaken up. I love that.”

Michaela Coel, ‘USS Callister’

The Entire History of You is probably my favourite, it’s something that seems pretty real, and something I would maybe do. Like your very own documentary. Obviously it gets very dark, but I love that idea that you could store all your memories so vividly and watch them back.”

Jodie Foster, ‘ArkAngel’

“Charlie can anticipate where we are headed just by looking at our faults - I think sometimes he has to be psychic. I love The Waldo Moment, and White Christmas. Charlie felt the rising, the popular dissatisfaction, the weird world of reality TV and put out Waldo.”

ON THE UNSETTLING NEAR-FUTURE AND THE LIMITS OF TECHNOLOGY

Maxine Peake, ‘Metalhead’

“I'm a big techphobe. Someone else helps me run my Twitter, I wouldn't be able to trust myself. I don't really engage with that world of technology, which might be to my detriment. Charlie would probably say that as well. What could happen, as seen in this show, seems to be happening too. Especially with this episode - we were chatting about how delivery companies are going to start using these robot dog creatures…”

Hang the DJ, one of the new episodes with Joe Cole and Georgina Campbell, and the dating thing - it just makes us think about the way we’re going to relate to each other. People use technology now obviously to meet, but it feels like we’re going to be dictated by it. In our lives, what we like, don’t like, should and shouldn’t do. It slightly terrifies me when I go on the internet and everything pops up that you’ve been thinking about buying. Then I get slightly offended - you’re not as deep as you like to think.”

Alexandra Roach, ‘Black Museum’

“With my episode, I was just thinking what would I do in this situation - I know I’d jump at the chance to have somebody in my head that I'd lost, to have that moment with them again and to have that time. Of course though... the repercussions for Carrie are quite dark. I read somewhere that a tech agency in Silicon Valley is developing this program where you can keep the people you have lost in a way - you can enter into their database their political views or how they feel about certain things, and it emulates it in a virtual bot. So I think we're not that for off, it's a leap but what's so disturbing about Black Mirror and brilliant is that you think of this could potentially happen.”

“I think we’re in a time now where we have to consider that people we trust to create these amazing new ways of living may not have the best intentions” - Michaela Coel

Michaela Coel, ‘USS Callister’

“It makes me very paranoid. It fascinates me but also... destroys my happiness! That’s the draw of Black Mirror really. I’d never really been into sci-fi, even as a kid I was very girly and focused elsewhere, but this has been a big turning point for me, and led me to think about things I mightn’t necessarily have before. I think we're in a time now where we have to consider that people we trust to create these amazing new ways of living may not have the best intentions. We see that in my episode, how things get sinister so fast.”

Jodie Foster, ‘ArkAngel’

“It is a dark mirror to our souls - the technology itself is empty, devoid of emotion or autonomy, and has completely emptied us of feelings or of intent. It really is a reflection of us. That’s what’s fascinating with Black Mirror. We have created this monster that has moved us towards the things we wanted, without any ethical component, or human heart. It’s revealed our own flawed humanity.”

CREATING A PIECE OF THE BLACK MIRROR UNIVERSE

Maxine Peake, ‘Metalhead’

“It's not just like a normal TV series really, they’re all individual films, and it's a hell of a lot of work orchestrating each one. Charlie is obviously crazy busy - I met with him and had a costume fitting. Annabel is around a lot of the time, there most days of filming. David Slade (Metalhead director) has a plethora of brilliant work, and what he’s done with American Gods is incredible. They just really let him get on with it. Some sets I’ve been on it can get a bit intrusive, but David had a really clear vision, a fantastic team, and we were really just allowed to work.”

Alexandra Roach, ‘Black Museum’

“Charlie and Annabel completely handed over to our director Colm McCarthy - we had total freedom. I was grateful I didn’t see Charlie as much as I think I would have just been really nervous. It felt like doing a film rather than an episode of something; with TV shows I’ve done you usually have eight episodes to really find the character, the arc and the journey throughout the whole series.”

Jodie Foster, ‘ArkAngel’

“Charlie and Annabel have such respect for filmmakers, and they want them to interpret their work differently every single time. I grew up in the film business, I grew up in front of the camera, as opposed to behind it, or consuming it. My decisions come from the inside first, the character first. Getting a script and seeing characters for the first time can feel like falling in love for the first time. Like seeing someone across the room and thinking ‘That’s the person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with!’ That can be the best love story, coming onto a film.”

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