COVID-19 has been tough on us all. Imagine, though, that instead of bingeing Friends on the sofa surrounded by friends or family, your lockdown was spent 12,000 miles from home in the company of complete strangers. That’s been rising actress Morfydd Clark’s reality for the past six months.
“It was very clear that I needed to stay here,” she says via Zoom from New Zealand, where she’s been filming Amazon’s megabucks new Lord Of The Rings series since February. “I’ve certainly been homesick, but it’s a really small cross to bear in comparison to what’s going on at the moment.”
It’s not as if the rising Welsh actress has had time to mope, anyway. Most days, she’s out among the rocky outcrops and rolling hills of Middle Earth (Auckland, to the keen elf eye) pretending to be a young and sprightly version of elven queen Galadriel. Before that, Clark was enjoying a jam-packed year of successes on both the big and small screens. There was Dracula, the BBC’s hit Yuletide adaptation; His Dark Materials, in which she played a super-creepy nurse; The Personal History of David Copperfield, Armando Iannucci’s Dev Patel-starring Dickens’ reboot; and croc-horror flick Crawl. If it hadn’t been for the COVID crisis, that list would be even longer. After multiple delays, her buzzy new horror, Saint Maud, is finally hitting UK cinemas next month.
Set in a crummy seaside town, the deeply-unsettling film is part-body horror and part-psychological thriller. First-time director Rose Glass puts viewers in the shoes of a hospice nurse who, having recently found consolation in God, grows obsessed with her newest patient – a retired dancer ravaged by terminal cancer. Critics have already drawn comparisons to Ari Aster’s breakout debut Hereditary and coming-of-age classic Carrie. Clark’s performance, almost unbearably intense, is a revelation and marks her out as a top-tier British talent for the future.
“Playing a Welsh woman in ‘Saint Maud’ is a really big deal for me”
“Something I still can’t believe is that I play a Welsh woman in it. That’s a really big deal for me,” she says. “Originally, when I went in to do my audition, Maud was supposed to be Irish but Rose heard me speaking in Welsh with my sister [they both grew up in Cardiff]. We tried using my own accent and went from there.”
Born in Sweden to a Scottish father and a Welsh mother – Clark’s dad found a job there when her mother was seven months pregnant – Clark had moved to Cardiff by the age of two. Brought up on Scandinavian adventure books like Pippi Longstocking, she says both countries encouraged her creative streak. “There’s just so much passion and time put into the arts in Welsh language schools,” she says. But even that support couldn’t alleviate the self-doubt that plagued her early attempts at acting.
“After my GCSEs, I felt like I was having some sort of a meltdown,” she recalls. “I think that the school system didn’t suit the way that I learned things – [Clark was diagnosed with Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at the age of seven] so I decided to go back to Sweden to do work experience at an architecture company, on a farm, and as a teaching assistant.” While there, she auditioned for the British and Welsh National Youth Theatres on a whim and, to her great surprise, got in.
“After my GCSEs, I felt like I was having a meltdown”
“I’d done a lot of dressing up, dancing and recitals during Eisteddfod back home. It’s a festival we have every March that teaches performing isn’t all about winning. It helps you learn to fail, in a way. So I did a lot of that, but I never thought I would end up acting full time.”
Now, after rising through the ranks with a variety of supporting roles on stage and then on screen, Clark is in a position to pick and choose the types of roles she’d like to take on. Her humility, however, prevents her from doing so. “Virtually everything I’ve accepted has been because I needed a job,” she says. “I’m so critical of myself. At the very most, I’ll think my performances are borderline OK even when people praise them.”
Clark must not read her reviews then, because the industry has been going crazy for Saint Maud. “Stupendous” was how the Evening Standard described her first lead role, while Variety wrote that Clark’s troubled nurse is “a genre anti-heroine to cherish”. When the film premiered at London Film Festival last year, it received a special commendation from the official competition jury. For its star, though, this was just an opportunity to jump feet-first into her favourite genre. “I love that uncomfortable peace that horror movies give me,” she explains. “I’m quite an anxious person because I find it hard to concentrate on stuff. What’s so wonderful about [horror films] is that you find yourself so immersed in such intense feelings that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. I really struggle watching horror movies, sometimes, particularly when they are sad. J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage really traumatised me when I was a teenager because it’s both scary and smart.”
Scary and smart are two words that most definitely apply to Saint Maud. Smart, in that it poses complex questions about religion and mental health. And scary because, well, let’s just say some bits aren’t for the faint of heart. In one scene, Maud, convinced God is punishing her for overindulging down the pub, places pins in the bottom of her shoes as an act of penance. “The crew would hair dry a special material just before we filmed,” says Clark about the film’s gruesome practical effects. “It would harden enough for me to be able to actually step on something that looked like pins. I could definitely feel something happening to my foot which made a big difference to my performance.”
“My horror is being lonely”
Thankfully, Morfydd “never went method” for the role, so the impact of playing such a tortured soul was only psychological. But other aspects of Maud’s character, like her job, made Clark think about the healthcare workers in her own life.
“[Members of my family] have been affected by working in the system and it’s terrible,” she says. “My mum had burnout, for sure. She was a paediatrician who knew what she should have been giving to her patients but wasn’t able to because there wasn’t enough funding.” Seeing patients suffer and feeling responsible, in the knowledge that so much could be averted if the right resources were available, took its toll on Clark’s mum – and even as a youngster, her daughter noticed. “If you work too hard – even more so for nurses – and you feel you’re never helping patients in time, you end up feeling humiliated,” says Clark. “The guilt of so many care workers who are doing the absolute best they can under the circumstances just builds and builds. I felt that this was what had crushed Maud and I find myself thinking even more about it now [during COVID-19] because you know all these people are doing their utmost and it’s still impossible to do what is needed.
“I feel that the situation that Maud is in could be lots of people’s situations. I like to spend time alone but at the same time, my horror is being lonely,” adds Clark. “I think that the very reason that I get through life is because of my friends and my family and I don’t know if I would have the resilience to do it without that. The film reminded me of that idea of intense loneliness when somehow, even in this world of super-connection, people can still be totally alone.”
Loneliness is something lots of us have dealt with since coronavirus restrictions came into effect – but Morfydd, who’s been isolated on the other side of the world for much of 2020, is trying to look on the bright side.
“It’s definitely strange going into lockdown with people that you have just started working with,” she says of her new Lord of the Rings support network. “But I think we all treat each other like family. Sure, you’ll occasionally get annoyed by people, but you still like them… because you don’t have a choice. I think this time I’ve spent with the cast will be useful on set. But I obviously worry that the audience will be able to see in our eyes that certain sections were filmed pre-lockdown and some afterwards.”
“I don’t think things could get much bigger than ‘The Lord Of The Rings'”
Despite a lack of actual contact, Morfydd’s friends and family back home have played an important part in getting her ready for the role of Young Galadriel – a character made iconic by Cate Blanchett in the original trilogy. “My friends love [The Lord Of The Rings]. Whenever they came back home to Cardiff from university and I came back from drama school, we’d hibernate in one house and watch all three films back-to-back,” she says. “But, when I told them I’d been hired for the series, they were like: ‘Oh, really? We’d been so looking forward to that but now it is just going to be you in it we won’t be able to enjoy it as much.’ That was very sobering to hear!”
Regardless of what her friends might now feel, the hype around the series is off the charts. Amazon has already confirmed the series will take place long before the events of Peter Jackson’s movies, so there won’t be much room for star cameos. But Elijah Wood (who played Frodo Baggins) has already thrown his hat into the ring, telling IndieWire that he’d love to appear.
Meet our Fellowship. pic.twitter.com/Npouu6ZlRt
— The Lord of the Rings on Prime (@LOTRonPrime) July 27, 2019
“Those films are so iconic for me. I’ve actually been suppressing what I know about the Tolkien universe since I came out here,” says Clark. “I honestly just love the idea that Elijah Wood has said that because I am such a fan. I’d love everyone to do a cameo in it. It’s so nice to hear support for the series from someone like that.”
It’s comments like these, and Clark’s chilled-out vibe, that make you wonder if she fully realises how famous this gig might make her. “In many ways, I’m at my happiest and most fulfilled doing more intimate projects like Saint Maud,” she says, unaware that it may be difficult to go back to that world after donning her first set of pointy ears. “I feel like I’ve got my fix of the massive stuff by doing Lord of the Rings. The amount of [people working] on this show is continually mind-blowing. One guy’s job consists just of seeing how dust reacts to footsteps and breath! That would never have even crossed my mind before. Other than something like Marvel, I don’t think things could get much bigger than this.”
‘Saint Maud’ arrives in UK cinemas on October 9
Photographer: Guy Coombes
Stylist: Paris Mitchell Temple
Hair and Make-Up: Kath Gould