Clemency, director Chinonye Chukwu’s searing look at capital punishment, arrives in the UK this week, after building a head of steam on last year’s awards circuit.
Alfre Woodard plays a prison warden, increasingly crushed by the burden of supervising executions, while Aldis Hodge, recently seen in The Invisible Man, is a prisoner on death row making a last desperate attempt to be reprieved. Initially attracted to the project because of its depiction of how capital punishment profoundly affects so many people, Hodge found it was an experience that unexpectedly connected to his own life.
Talking to The People’s Movies Freda Cooper, he reveals that he did minimal preparation for some of the film’s most powerfully emotional scenes and the reasons why he believes the UK release is perfectly timed.
Freda Cooper Congratulations on such a superb film – left me shattered at the end of it. You play a man who’s on death row for something he didn’t do and I wondered how you reacted to the idea of playing a part like that, where you’ve got your liberty taken away from you and you’re facing death when you’re innocent.
Aldis Hodge When it came to the idea, I loved it when I realised how it was going to be done. I had just finished a film playing a man in prison for something he hadn’t done, so I was pretty familiar with the idea in terms of the emotional toll, but this is a very different way to show it and the result is very different. I was very happy to jump into his shoes for a little bit and see if we could have the other side of this conversation, the injustice within the justice system.
FC The person that you spend the most time with on screen is your lawyer, played by Richard Schiff. How did you go about building that relationship? Did you have any rehearsal time or did you just jump straight in?
AH We rehearsed very minimally. Most of the time, we just jumped straight in. I believe with rehearsals there’s a time for it but there’s also a time for actors to just allow the raw nature of their craft to figure itself out on screen and that’s a lot of what we did. Richard Schiff is a beast of an actor, a really fantastic performer and scene partner – he was always dialled in – so we just found it naturally. We had great leadership from Chinonye, our director. She was so enthused about everything that her energy permeated the entire room in the best way possible and because we had that support and confidence in her, we were able to be comfortable automatically. So it was one of those things that naturally found itself.
FC There’s a lot of powerful, emotional scenes in the film and one that stuck in my head is when you’re told how the lethal injection is going to affect you and you fall apart in front of our eyes but it’s pretty much silent. How do you prepare for a scene like that and get to that emotional pitch?
AH I didn’t really prepare, to be honest. I don’t mean to sound like I’m lazy, but what I like to do sometimes is to just find it because with that I have to think about it and engage myself and realise that no, you can’t prepare for this, because how do you prepare for somebody telling you you’re going to die? How do you really think about that? So in that moment, I didn’t rehearse or anything like that. We just jumped into it and we did two takes of that scene.
And I wanted Anthony, my character, to see his whole life going through his mind and also see all those dreams he wanted that would never, ever actually happen. When someone threatens your life in real life, it’s real. What people say is that your whole life flashes before your eyes, and it does happen. Time speeds up and slows down at the same time and it’s freaky. I was young the first time my life was threatened, so it was a short flash because I didn’t have much life on me. But I wanted the audience to experience that with him, to figure out who he was as a human being in that moment and that his life was actually worth something. I wanted to explore it and when you have somebody like Alfre who’s at the top of her game, I needed her to be at her best so that I could try to be at my best because I was feeding off of her and she brought it to me so I thank her and appreciate her for that scene.
FC The film’s taken a while to get here to the UK and has arrived at a time when racism is very much in the spotlight. What do you feel the film has to say about that and what makes it relevant right now?
AH I don’t know if we have an antagonist in the film, but we’re dealing with two storytelling vehicles, that’s Alfre who plays the prison warden and myself as the prison and we’re both black. They’re both in strange positions. One is thinking she fights for justice and she’s trying to do the right thing. The other, myself, has the finger of justice pointed against me and the system is weighted against me primarily because they think that statistically he probably did it because he’s black. That’s part of the reason why I did the film, so that we could have the conversation about how multi-faceted black people are in all areas but how we are all affected differently as well. In terms of racism, I think that ignorance comes from fear, which is the primary ingredient, but also there’s the ignorance of thinking that we live in your imaginations and your imaginations are faulty because there’s a lack of real cultural experience. And with all of my work I want to show people how multi-faceted we are, how beautifully creative and ingenious we are in different ways, ways that aren’t always given credit. So I did this film to have that conversation about empathy.
With this particular character, I wanted people to see a man beyond his prisoner status and to look at him as opposed to judging him, to look at him and explore him with empathy and mercy. And when you add on the fact that he’s black, you need to add in how black people have been treated by the justice system and look at the statistics that were built against us and not for us. So I think that it’s coming out at a good time, that it’s an asset to the conversation about racism and racial injustice as it applies to us and how it’s built against us in this country and the world over.
FC And now we’re getting to see the film in the UK, it’s on digital and not in cinemas. Are you disappointed that it’s not going to be in cinemas, or do you think that it’s going to be an advantage?
AH I don’t know if anything’s in cinemas these days! (laughs) I’m grateful and happy that it’s going to be seen and I just encourage people to see it with open eyes and hopefully learn something from the experience. But I’m just happy that people are going to see it.
Clemency is released on Friday, 17th July. It is available via Bohemia Media’s bespoke platform at bohemiamedia.co.uk/clemency/ and on Curzon Home Cinema.