Adapted from Sarah Waters’ haunting novel, Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger uses the trappings of a ghost story to explore explosive class changes after World War II. In the film, Ruth Wilson plays Caroline Ayres, an upper class woman whose posh position of privilege is reduced to maintaining a decaying estate called Hundreds Hall and caring for her war-injured brother, Roderick (Will Poulter), and aging mother, Mrs. Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). When Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a local physician, demonstrates an interest in the hall and then Caroline herself, a strange force seems to awaken in the house, affecting everyone there. Wilson, who won a Golden Globe in 2014 for Showtime’s The Affair, has been applauded for her performances in theater, film, and television. She’s proven exceptionally adept at bringing complex literary characters alive, from Jane Eyre to Princess Betsy in Anna Karenina. “She’s able to find the voice, find the mode that Caroline operates in,” says Abrahamson. “She’s a very compelling three-dimensional person.”
We spoke with Wilson about what drives Caroline, why the story is so compelling, and what she thinks is really haunting Hundreds Hall.
What makes Caroline such a compelling character to explore?
We usually see aristocrats portrayed in a slightly nostalgic or romanticized way in film or TV. This felt much more exciting. Here are real people burdened with privilege and a class system that they cannot escape from. That was quite fascinating—and truer to life. In the story, Caroline is so complicated. She's funny and interesting and has a dog for a best friend. I found her a child in some ways, and then sexually repressed in others. She was very different in every situation. As an actress, there was a real journey to be had with her.
Neither Waters’ novel, nor the film, gives us much of Caroline's backstory. Did you think much about her past?
I did. I also emailed Sarah Waters questions about her. It is quite a mystery what this woman thinks or feels or what she wants from her life. Sarah had mentioned that Caroline had a sense of independence and purpose during the war. It was a period in Britain when the different classes freely mixed, and Caroline thrived in that environment. I also asked Waters about Caroline’s sexuality because it's not completely clear in the book. Sarah said that she never wrote her as homosexual, even though a few people have interpreted that from the novel. Caroline remains a bit of mystery. She might have had sexual experiences during the war. But now she is back at Hundreds in her traditional role.
"....perhaps she'll go mad, too, if she doesn't get out of the house."
It’s interesting that both Roderick and Mrs. Ayres have had some past trauma that informs who they are. Did you think something traumatic might have happened to Caroline as well?
No, not really, although I agree that the others had traumatic pasts. While she has been neglected and unloved, Caroline takes a practical, sensible approach to her life. She’s not as quick to believe in a supernatural source to the things happening at Hundreds Hall. That may be because she’s never been as closely connected to death as her mother and brother were. Roderick had been at war and almost died himself. Her mother had lost a child many years before.
How did you bring in a sense of the supernatural into your performance?
The location really helped. It was really big, but felt incredibly claustrophobic. There was so much energy pumping through the space that it helped create a sense of oppressiveness, which really helped with the performances. It was very creepy. The curtains are falling down and the wallpaper is ripping around you. It all gets into your bones and under your skin. You really feel like something strange is going on. You start to see things in the corners of the room that you’d never have looked at before.
The historical period is very important to the story. Did you do much research into that history?
I did quite a lot. I got some books on the dissolution of the upper classes after the war and learned a little about what Caroline did during the conflict. She was a Wren [a member of the Women's Royal Naval Service]. They were part of the war effort by doing things that men normally would have done [like driving, clerical work, handling communications, etc.]. That was a totally different lifestyle for Caroline, something she had never experienced before. And I think it was something she missed when she returned to Hundreds Hall afterwards.
The film keeps the question about what is going on at Hundreds Hall very ambiguous. How did that affect your performance?
It was more psychological for me. Caroline was trying to find a way to escape. We shot lots of different versions of every scene so that in the edit the director could keep that ambiguity alive. For Caroline, it really wasn't about the supernatural as it was about watching her family members fall apart and lose their minds. That’s more frightening than anything supernatural. With madness in her family, perhaps she'll go mad, too, if she doesn't get out of the house.