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Animals 2019, Sophie Hyde Alia Shawkat Holliday Grainger
Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger in Animals

Animals: the debaucherous dramedy giving female friendship nuance

Director Sophie Hyde and stars Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger discuss their new kind of coming-of-age story and portraying millennials with care

It seems like darkly comedic stories about female friendships in Dublin are having a bit of a moment. Similar to Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, director Sophie Hyde’s new film Animals explores the messier side of a friendship between two millennial women. In the film, Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) are close to 30, and their previous party-all-night-puke-all-morning lifestyle begins to lose its charm. While life changes suddenly for Laura in the form of a new romance, Tyler is left behind, and the women are forced to confront the nature of their friendship.

In a cinema in central London, we spoke to the stars of Animals, Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger, alongside director Sophie Hyde, about what happens when the party of your 20s is over, what comes next, and filming the physicality of female friendship.

How did you first hear about the book Animals, Sophie?

Sophie Hyde: I was sent the film through my agency. I had been sent a few things but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to direct something I hadn’t developed myself. But they told me what it was and I thought it sounded great. I read the book in a day. I thought Emma [Jane Unsworth, the book’s author] has this great way of capturing the experience of being a young woman. It felt very real and visceral and it was so grounded in the feeling of waking up hungover and feeling desire. That was something I wanted to see on screen. 

So, I went back to them with my take and then we worked on it for a couple of years, redrafting it. We moved the story to Dublin which was one of those weird finance things. We considered shooting in Dublin but making it Manchester [where the book is set] but then you go to Dublin and it’s so perfect for this story. It feeds into the story you’re telling and who these women are.

Holliday and Alia, how did you get involved with the film? 

Holliday Grainger: Sophie sent me a little pack with the book and a little lookbook for the film. I also read the book in a day and then I watched 52 Tuesdays [Sophie’s first film] and I thought it was just beautiful storytelling. So it was a combination of Emma’s story and Sophie’s story that was exciting.

Alia Shawkat: Same, I got sent the script and Skyped with Sophie one morning and we just hit it off.

Sophie: It was an interesting casting process. I loved Holliday so much, she’s a grounded, interesting, vulnerable actor. I really wanted to see her in this role that was a bit grotty. I always want to see a movie with interesting casting which isn’t what I expect but it just feels right. With Alia, I felt like I’d seen her in loads of great stuff and watched her grow up on screen, but I thought the old school glamour of Tyler could be really fresh for her. Putting the two together felt really excellent if a bit unusual. 

“There’s something about friendship with women that can be intense and very physical” – Sophie Hyde

Laura and Tyler’s relationship is the heart of the film. How did you build that dynamic?

Sophie Hyde: Part of that chemistry is actors being good at what they do, part of it is luck that they got in and part of it was being in Dublin. We did two weeks of rehearsals which was talking and discussions but also tasks like intimacy exercises. There was a whole load of work we did to build that relationship but we were also in an excellent city and most of us outsiders, so there was a school camp vibe. 

Holliday Grainger: Sophie gave us lots of little tasks and sent us out to bars and places so we got to know each other through that the places are characters would hang out.

Sophie, you mentioned that you were drawn to the visceral parts of the book. How did you go about capturing that on screen? 

Sophie Hyde: That was really important to me. I was so interested in the parts of the writing where Laura loves the smell of her own body and the smell of other bodies. We’re very bodily as humans and our experiences are bound and guided by the body. We don’t see that too much in movies – we’re kind of disconnected from it. 

And there’s something about friendship with women that can be intense and very physical. Holliday’s character is dealing with a lot of competing desires and I feel that sometimes, being a woman, it’s hard to differentiate various wants. Sometimes I don’t know what I want in comparison to what’s expected of me or what I’ve been taught to think I want. I feel conflicted. Finding a way of bringing those things from the book that are very internalised onto the screen was the challenge. We did it by making the film very distinctively from Laura’s point of view. Holliday had to sink inside of that and Bryan Mason, the cinematographer, had to film their bodies like he was with them from a subjective position, and not through someone else’s eyes. That had to flow through everything – all through the sound design, the music and the edit.

Animals is a different kind of coming-of-age story that we’re used to seeing, where the characters come of age by turning 30.

Alia Shawkat: It’s the next decade and it’s a little less false. With your first coming of age at 18, everything’s ahead of you, and then you get to your 30s and you look back at all the mistakes you make, and think about who you are now. It has a little more of a sadness to it; you have to be more honest with yourself and each other.

Sophie Hyde: We’ve sold a myth that we come of age and then we’re ourselves, but actually we just come of age and keep changing into new seasons. 

The characters’ friendship is also a bit like changing seasons.

Holliday Grainger: That was something we spoke about in rehearsals. Our experiences in friendships and how that related to our entire sense of self and growing older and how friendships mould and change with that.

Sophie Hyde: It was important for us to celebrate that friendship while we were also saying that they were moving on from that.

“With your first coming of age at 18, everything’s ahead of you, and then you get to your 30s and you look back at all the mistakes you make and think about who you are now. It has a little more of a sadness to it; you have to be more honest with yourself and each other” – Alia Shawkat

It’s a more honest portrayal of friendship, especially friendship between women.

Sophie Hyde: I don’t know about you but it’s a bit disheartening when things are fake hopeful. I find hope in sadness and pain because we all feel this stuff and feeling it is a good thing. I don’t want to be told in a saccharine way what it feels like to love my friends. Those squeaky clean stories don’t feel true.

Holliday Grainger: I think there’s something beautiful about both the characters in that they share all their colours to themselves and each other and the audience. There’s no sense of right or wrong or what they should be or shouldn’t be, it’s about finding the honesty and integrity within the characters. And that includes all the inbetween shittiness in people and in friendships. 

It’s also a more honest portrayal of being a millennial that we’re used to seeing in films.

Sophie Hyde: It’s funny because Emma and I are both older than the girls so there’s a certain amount of nostalgia for us telling the story. We talked a lot about if we were going to set it ten years ago but we decided we didn’t want that. We cast two women who are very modern and we wanted things like phones to be in there but not be the driving force of the story. My feeling is to be a young woman or a person is to have a subjective experience at all times. We can theorise and categorise but the specificity of what it feels like is what you’re looking for in a story like this. But they also are very much millennials! 

Alia Shawkat: I think it comments on it a little bit but it isn’t too on the nose. The fact that they’re both 30 and still working at coffee shops and partying and being single and just getting into relationships. Things have changed a lot since the last generation before us who had maybe more of a set path. More people of our age are becoming storytellers and talking about this stuff and it’s about trying to figure out our identities for better or worse. We’re kind of obsessed with figuring out who we are. It’s like we have too much time on our hands in a weird way and too much time commenting on who we are rather than taking action which can sometimes be a very crippling place to be in. Both Laura and Tyler are going through that.

Animals is released in the UK on August 2