On Dec. 9, Academy Award-winning director and writer Sam Mendes’ next film hits theaters. Starring Olivia Colman, Empire of Light zeroes in on Hilary, a woman in a coastal Southern England town who works at the old Empire Cinema. Her uneasy past and present complicates a relationship with new coworker Stephen (Micheal Ward). Still, the two find an unlikely attraction and discover healing through the power of movies, music and community.
Ahead of the film’s premiere, LA Confidential spoke with Tanya Moodie, who plays Stephen’s mother, Delia. She opened up about working with Mendes, finding connection through film and the need for quiet movies.
What was it like collaborating with Sam Mendes?
He had an openness and a sensitivity to any moments that we felt maybe were not sitting in a place of what we thought was authenticity.
Delia being a first generation immigrant from the West Indies and her son being a young Black man in the 80s, Sam was just acutely aware of that experience and anything that doesn't sit right and let's please talk about it. And so that's what we did. It just allowed us to have access to a sense of authenticity and really being able to inhabit the character.
You play mom to Micheal Ward’s Stephen. What was it like establishing a connection to portray being mother and son on screen?
It was easy peasy, really. He's adorable, isn't he? And he's literally young enough to be my son. I happen to be a mum of a 15-year-old girl. So you bring all of that wealth of experience and understanding into the part and then just do the work, in terms of technique, just do the work and you will establish that connection that will come quite naturally. And you can really trust as well what the audience is bringing to that. The audience is the other character in a sense in the room that we haven't met yet, but you can really trust that their perception because of the writing, because of seeing us there, they will innately understand that mother and son bond, even if in the moment we might be struggling with it.
Empire of Light hones in on the magic of movies bringing people together. Why do you think film is such a powerful way to have a shared experience?
If you're with a group of complete strangers in a room, you've all individually, separately made the choice to come together and to sit in a darkened room and to be told the same story. You're all on an individual journey being told that story, but you're all doing it collectively. It's a very powerful thing. It's very different nowadays we've got our phone and we all key into, for example, there might be some narrative being told in some several media outlets about something. And we all key in individually, but collectively, we're all seeing the same thing, but we're all in our own little spaces and our minds. We're drawing individual conclusions as to what's going on, but when you're in a space with other people, there is a synergy, there is a kind of osmotic effect in terms of how we're all receiving this thing. And how we're all taking it in. I think it's a very powerful thing. It's the same in live theater as well. I think it's something that we mustn't take for granted how important that is.
What do you think parents can take away from Delia’s story?
What I did understand from her relationship with her son is that when you really accept with your child that they might have come out of your body and they might be of you, but they are completely separate human beings on their own path. And you get reminded of that again and again over the years, even when they're very little, you get reminded. You’re thinking, “My God, they almost have nothing to do with me. No matter how much I'm imparting to them. They are separate people on their journey. And all I can do is support them to be independent and wise and courageous and compassionate. And bring that into the world.” I think Delia tries.
Why do you think this ‘80s-set film and its story is important for audiences to witness now and in this moment?
It’s a very quiet film, which I think has very gentle waves of storytelling. And that draws you in. And in terms of these two people that are at the whim of their loneliness and being outliers who come together and are drawn together through their loneliness and also have film there for them to, I suppose, help them process the emotions of what they're going through in terms of mental health issues or racial discrimination. And also the love that they find together. I think it's a very different experience to a lot of film offerings that we're very used to at the moment, which aren't bad, they’re very exciting space movies or superhero movies or thrillers. It's just a very different offering to what we're used to at the moment. There's a lot out there that’s very big. It's very big and bold and brash and this is very quiet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures; Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures