Martin Quinn and Rebecca Benson
TheatrePeople.com, May 2014
Strange happenings are afoot at the West End's Apollo Theatre. Crouching darkly amid Shaftesbury Avenue's chirpy comedies and shiny musicals is the National Theatre of Scotland's Let The Right One In, a haunting tale of friendship between a bullied boy, Oskar, and Eli, a new girl in his neighbourhood who just happens to be a four-hundred year-old vampire.
Martin Quinn and Rebecca Benson play Oskar and Eli in Jack Thorne's adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's cult Swedish novel and the acclaimed 2008 movie that followed it. Bringing truth, power and dreamlike strangeness to the party, brilliant performances by both these gifted young actors make John Tiffany's beautiful production into something really special.
Any expectations that Martin and Rebecca might be as spooky in real life as they are on stage flit batlike out of my mental belfry the moment I meet them in the foyer of the Apollo. Brimming with warmth, intelligence and fun, quick to finish each other’s sentences and given to hoots of laughter at the slightest provocation, if you could send their charm and energy out in an email it would shave thousands off the play's PR budget.
Did you know about this story before you got into it? Had you seen the film or read the book?
Martin Quinn: No, not at all. I was really surprised so many people have heard of it. I dunno, I must’ve missed out on a whole cult. [To Rebecca] I hadn’t heard of it, had you heard of it?
Rebecca Benson: Yeah, I heard about it.
I read an interview with you Rebecca in which you said you’d been a fan, but it wasn’t clear if you’d meant you’d been a fan of Let The Right One In or of the whole supernatural romance genre.
RB: Let The Right One In. I like sci-fi a lot. I really do enjoy Star Trek and I'm not ashamed of that, and I like Doctor Who. Supernatural for me is a bit weird.
I had a Swedish boy in my class at drama school and in Sweden this was a best-selling novel and it got adapted into this film, and we went with a big group of friends to see it. I had no idea what to expect, and it was just the most beautiful thing. It was a masterpiece, it really was. I was having a nice couple of months where I hadn't had much work, and I heard a rumbling about some workshops for Let The Right One In, and I thought, bloody hell, that'd be a brilliant part to play, you know: vampire – jeez!
They were doing auditions and physicality stuff, and I wasn’t sure if they knew I was comfortable with that. I was a bit sad that I probably wasn't going to be asked to audition for it, and then I got a phone call and John [Tiffany] wanted to meet me and have me read some of the part. I thought they were just ruling me out – making sure that they didn't want to see me for it. I did the reading and it was really good and I was like, this is a really good script but it's terrible, I'm just not right for this. And I got the part the next week.
MQ: Ha ha!
RB: So I panicked and I read the script again and saw it would be very physical. I went off to train and got fit so that by the time I got to rehearsal I looked as much like a vampire as I possibly could (laughs). It was a bit terrifying, and having seen the film beforehand I was a bit sceptical about how it would work, but when I read the script I understood that it was going to be a good play, and I was very happy to be part of that.
It conjures the film, but it's very much a theatrical experience. One of the big differences is that the dialogue's often really funny. Did that jump out at you from the page, or did you have to work on bringing the humour out?
RB: [To Martin] It happened by accident, didn't it?
MQ: I remember speaking to Jack about it, and it's a different Oskar that he’s written. Which I think was gonna happen anyway unless we got wee…
RB: …tiny children to do them.
MQ: Yeah. The way Jack had written it, I remember my mum asked him the first time she came to see it, she was raging that people were laughing and she was like, 'Is that my Martin ruining your script Jack?' and he said, no no, not at all, I totally meant the humour in it.
RB: I had a friend who had that sort of reaction, but his was different: 'Why are people laughing?' Some of the bits, people laugh not because it's funny but maybe because they feel uncomfortable. There's one scene in a sweetshop, which is also famous from the film, where Eli takes a sweet because she still wants to maintain a friendship with Oskar. And my friend was crying, was just gutted about this symbolic love, this need for someone else to like them - whereas everybody else found it hilarious. Well, maybe they did, maybe they didn't, but he found it very interesting that some people in the audience were getting a particular thing out of a scene and other people were being moved in a completely different way by the same scene played the same way.
You can be moved to laughter by pathos.
RB: Indeed you can. So it's a very, very good script.
Oskar is this weedy, rather scared boy. In real life that kind of person can just annoy us and bypass our sympathy altogether, though we might not like to admit it. But you bring all that weakness and vulnerability to the surface and still make him very sympathetic.
MQ: I think he's just a younger version of myself. Or my wee brother, when he first went to secondary school. He got on all right, but in my head I had this vision of him getting bullied and it was all gonna go tits up and was gonna be awful. Oskar's like what I worried my little brother might become, so I just play him all the time, who is someone that I like, so I suppose that’s how it comes across. It's not someone who I find annoying. That's a good way you had of summing it up though: if Oskar was real character you might just say, ah, piss off wee man!
One of the most arresting elements of Eli is her voice. I read a review that said it’s 'stilted', but there's more to it than that. She sounds weary, angry, afraid, resigned, all at the same time, and you maintain this mesmerising pitch throughout. How did you create her voice?
RB: That was one of the braver things, that I still feel quite vulnerable about actually, because if people don’t get it they might think I'm terrible at acting. It came from the first scene when she turns up at the jungle gym. She's meant to be fantastic physically, and that's my way into characters verbally. When she sees Oskar for the first time and says 'Hi', it's like she doesn't know what to say, because since Håkan [her protector] was young she’s never spoken to somebody else that age, for about fifty odd years. It's almost as if she has to learn to speak like a child again. She is still a child.
Also, I wanted it to feel like it was an older voice inside a younger body, so I wanted to have a lot of vibration going on, a lot of power in there, as if it was animalistic at times – making it scream and having it low. I felt that was one of the best ways that I could use the medium, the fact that we’re in a theatre, to demonstrate that she was a supernatural person and not human, and almost as if English isn't the easiest language for her to use, to try and indicate that she's got a past in other places and that she's been around for a lot longer than some people have been, which means that slang isn't really an option either. She's just a little bit too old in some ways.
Whether people get what I'm trying to do with my voice or not has been one of the things that's made me most nervous about my performance, because it is quite a distinctive choice, and that was my way of helping people to understand that she's not like everybody else that we meet in the play.
MQ: She's definitely otherworldly I'd say. That definitely comes across – I don't think you need to worry about that.
RB: Aw no, but you know what I mean. It's a distinctive choice, and that can be quite frightening.
I think you made absolutely the right choice.
RB: Thank you.
There’s a great moment where you get to scare an entire theatre full of people out of a year's growth. It must be great fun seeing the whole audience jumping out of its skin.
RB: Do you know what, it's so sad, 'cause I never get to see that.
MQ: I know, 'cause you're in the box. But I can see the audience in the front row and they jump and there's a moment when they're almost a bit embarrassed, like giggling amongst each other. It's quite cool, I enjoy it.
RB: That's one of my partner's favourite moments. He's been made to see it so many bloody times (laughs). But that's the bit where he always clenches himself into his chair. He says it's like a ripple effect that starts at the front and goes right to the back of the stalls and they sort-of get a bit of fear off each other, like a wave.
In the film the actors are young children. You aren't, so in your minds, how old are Oskar and Eli as you play them?
MQ: When we first went into rehearsals I was playing him about 12, but then we yanked it up a bit.
RB: I think I stayed 14, almost 15 for a very long time and I reckon you're about 15.
MQ: Yeah, about 15. 'Cause we couldn't get away from the fact that my voice has broken. For Oskar the boys around him are looking more like men, which I was like myself. It's quite a shite age actually. Sexually as well, he's not where everyone else is…
RB: He’s more like 10 stuck in a 15 year-old's body. And it's like I’m a 400 year-old something who’s stuck in front of you.
MQ: Maybe that's why they’re so perfect together.
And where are we geographically?
RB: We're in Scotland.
Definitely not Sweden?
MQ: John said 'Scotlandavia' and just walked away like there was nothing else to be said.
MQ: Oh yeah, that works better!
RB: We've got Swedish nods to the novel and the film, but all the accents are Scottish and we pronounce all the names with Scottish accents, so…if there was another Scottish island that was like Shetland but isn't Shetland and was right next door to Sweden but not normal that would probably be where we were.
You've come from Dundee to the Royal Court and now here. How are you feeling about the play at this present stage of its journey?
RB: It's getting into the skill of being able to tell the story in a fresh, happy, exciting, honest way every night, regardless of the venue or that we’re in London, for six months. It's been a relief to press it and finally be able to do that now, because that's what we came to do, isn't it? Tell the story.
MQ: You've just got to tell the story the same way, whether you're in Dundee or the Royal Court. The venue shouldnae really be important. You've just got to try to do your thing every night.
After a slightly tentative start at the Apollo it's great you're getting good houses every night now.
RB: It's nice that the houses are filling up like both times before, because it's a word of mouth play. You may be reluctant to see it at first because, vampires, hmm, and then be very happily surprised. It's really nice that you say that about your own experience, because I reckon there's a lot of people who have a similar experience then go home and tell their friends there’s something very interesting happening in the Apollo, which is what we want.
And people shouldn't be put off by the supernatural romance tag. Twilight is pretty silly, and some might think thatLet The Right One In will be like that, which it emphatically isn't.
RB: The relationship at the heart of it is what it's about really.
MQ: Absolutely. Twilight and The Vampire Diaries could put you off vampires completely. I think ours is a bit cooler than Twilight.
Martin was being modest. In fact, Let The Right One In is a lot cooler than Twilight, as a visit to the Apollo TheatreShaftesbury Avenue will confirm. Click here for more information and to book tickets.