Mrs. Henderson Presents follows Laura Henderson, who pushed the envelope during World War II – era England by presenting nude vaudeville performers at her Windmill Theatre. Did you research the woman in preparation for your film? ^ I relied on the script. The writer (Martin Sherman) had really done the research, and then you just start to think about it. There are women still alive, who were dancing there. I talked to them, but all they ever said was that it was like a family. And you somehow knew that’s what you were hoping to do – create a family.
Bob Hoskins really covers new ground here. Based on past tough guy roles, it seems like he’s often perceived as a… ^ A “brute”? (Laughter)
Yes. Were there things you asked of him, to convey the more elegant, refined image of theater manager Vivian Van Damm? ^ Well you see, he lost a bit of weight, and he spoke properly (laughter). Things like that. He’s an actor. He has done those other kinds of parts, and wanted something different. I think he enjoyed that.”
He also bares all in this film. ^ He takes his clothes off. That’s right.
In an early scene, he strips in an effort to make his performers more comfortable. It almost seemed as thought you were getting the nudity out of the way, so that audiences could concentrate on the story. ^ That’s right. Let’s get rid of it all, and make it all silly.
Did you find it necessary to change any factual information for the sake of a stronger dramatic effect? ^ The events are all what happened, but the characterizations, of course, are all invented. Drama demands this; real life demands that. That process is quite normal.
It was interesting to observe Christopher Guest playing Lord Cromer, a stuffy censor. For many filmgoers, he will be permanently associated with Cromer’s complete opposite – rock star Nigel Tufnel from Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap.” ^ Well, he is English. He’s a Lord. Lord Christopher Guest. You all think he’s American, but he’s English. He’s always trying to do something that’s original and brave.
You have collaborated with an impressively diverse palette of talent. Daniel Day Lewis. Martin Scorsese. Annette Bening. Jack Black. How would you summarize your experience with, say, Martin Scorsese, who produced “The Grifters”? ^ He’s very, very wise. Very clever. He had seen “My Beautiful Launderette,” and then he asked me to do “The Grifters.” Later on, I thought – from 3,000 miles away, he worked out that the man who had done that (“My Beautiful Launderette”) could do this (“The Grifters”). That particular thing really impressed me – that he could choose material for me better than I can!”
In 1990, “The Grifters” won you an Oscar nomination. Did this change the course of your career? ^ No. I mean, by then I had agreed to do studio films. I had gone up the ladder, in the conventional sense.
Give me your thoughts on Jack Black, whom you worked with on “High Fidelity.” ^ (Closes his eyes and gives a Cheshire Cat grin.)
Well, I think Jack must have trusted me. Other people suggested him. I had no idea he would give that kind of performance. He was initially quite reluctant to do the film. Very hesitant. I didn’t really understand why. Afterwards, I asked him why. He said that before then, he had preferred to keep his head down. Suddenly, someone said, ‘come on, stick your head up.’ I can only think that he must have trusted me enough to do it.
He was dazzling. He became what everyone now knows and loves. But you don’t get people to do that. You somehow create a world in which they feel comfortable enough to do it. He was talented and capable of that before I met him. I was just sort of a midwife to him. Or I was the one he decided to show it off to, when I was directing. He’s the most wonderful actor, so I’m pleased that he trusted me.
I remember Jack – the first shot I did with him, when he came into the record store, he looked very startled. Then I went in and tried to do a tighter shot of him. When you do that you try to get people to match, or repeat what they’ve just done. With Jack, that’s hopeless. It’s the freshness that’s interesting with him. So I realized that approach was a waste of time. From then on, I would just make sure I was covering what he was doing.
You have worked with a lot of once-obscure actors who became hugely popular following their appearances in your films. There’s Jack Black, and also Annette Bening, whose profile was brought way up by “The Grifters”… ^ (Looks flabbergasted, shrugs.) “I can’t take any credit. All you can say is that it was when I was directing that they let rip.”
Let’s not forget Daniel Day Lewis, from “My Beautiful Launderette.” ^ I know absolutely what you’re talking about. I just create a space in which they can deliver. Annette and Jack and Dan are all so talented. You just allow it to happen. You don’t interfere with them. You sort of celebrate what they start doing, and find a place that’s appropriate for them. Create a world where it’s appropriate for that to happen.
Mrs. Henderson is allowed by British censors to stage her productions with nudity, under the condition that the naked performers remain frozen, like “works of art.” Did this policy truly exist? ^ Absolutely. They weren’t allowed to move about. It was a sort of joke. It was idiotic. The audience would put a mouse onstage, or throw pepper onto the girls – anything to make the girls move. So having a mouse, you could always say, “they moved because there was a mouse. It had nothing to do with me.” It became a sort of competition between the audience and the girls.
At one point in the film, Mrs. Henderson tells one of her dancers, “You’re such a tired generation, always looking for love while we’ve done just fine without it.” How do you interpret that line? ^ It was just a more rigid society. Much more traditional. And young people always rebel against it. I guess there is a lot to be said for a rigid society, and a lot to be said against it. It has virtues and it has weaknesses. My parents were sort of like that. They ended up in an unhappy marriage. I live in a happy marriage. So for me, it’s changed for the better. But it was hard to watch that, as a child.
The film really gives viewers a sense that Mrs. Henderson has spent her life bottled up, and finally… ^ Here was this opportunity to express herself. That’s right.
It seems as though “Mrs. Henderson Presents” is, in many ways, the story of a surrogate family. Are there other movies you admire that have taken on this theme? ^ I can’t tell you a film off the top of my head, but I can see that it’s quite a theme that runs through the movies…people finding a sort of family, or a world they can live in. When you make a film, you create a family. To create the family within the film, you create the family to make the film.
When this “family” breaks up following each project, is it a sad experience for you? ^ Oh, tremendously sad. With Dan, I remember in “My Beautiful Launderette” he had his hair sort of blonde and dark, divided. The next time I saw him, his hair was black. I felt betrayed. I felt like a jilted lover (laughs and shakes head). It was pathetic. He had just gone on to do the next job. He’s an actor. But I get terribly attached to people, and find it very, very painful.
Can you reveal any projects you’re currently working on, to follow up “Mrs. Henderson Presents”? ^ I’ve got to get back (to England) to cut a film. I made a film about the present Queen of England. The mother of all of us. Then I want to go teach for a bit.
Do you find teaching a refreshing contrast to filmmaking? ^ It allows you to live a bit, and grow. I find teaching opens my mind. When my mind is more open, I’m more receptive to things. Young people are different. They continually say things that take you by surprise, and have different interests. You just start thinking about somebody else, rather than yourself the whole time. It’s a great relief. Whenever I’ve been teaching, it’s always been very beneficial to me, and led me in directions I didn’t expect to go.
You refer to teaching as a means of opening your mind to other people’s ideas. This sounds very different from the cliché of a filmmaker being very narcissistic. ^ Teaching is anti-narcissistic. It’s getting away from the narcissism. I’m sure there’s too much narcissism. It’s a relief from it.
Compared to contemporary lap dance theaters, there seemed a gentleness and artistry to the vaudeville of your film. ^ It has to do with the loss of innocence, really. I think it was a more innocent time.
Mrs. Henderson lost both her son and husband. Do you think that this kind of loss sparks creative impulses, as a kind of catalyst to deal with grief? ^ I wouldn’t want to make too grandiose a claim for it. You’re reading too much into it. But I could see how her married life wouldn’t give her opportunities to express herself in this eccentric way. She somehow benefited from being freed from that. So in many ways, it’s an anti-repression. They were very, very repressive times. A very repressive society.