By Gary M. Kramer.
I feel my whole life has been one big gamble from the moment I chose to become an actor. I feel the buzz of getting a job is the same as winning the jackpot.”
Getting to Know You, available on demand November 24, is a poignant, touching romantic drama that hinges on a “faking dating” plot. Two strangers, Luke (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Abby (Natasha Little), meet cute in a small town hotel lobby and find themselves spending much of a weekend together. He has just left a high school reunion where he tried, unsuccessfully, to reconnect with his ex, Kayla (Rachel Blanchard). She has just arrived to attend her estranged brother’s funeral. Luke and Abby are each lonely, restless, and anxious for some company. Things get complicated, however, when a drunk Kayla turns up in Luke’s hotel room, hoping to seduce him. He refuses to get involved with her because she is married with two kids. He asks Abby to pose as his wife to extricate him from this uncomfortable situation, which she does.
Of course, the situation spirals out of control, and Abby finds herself posing as Luke’s wife as the weekend unfolds. In thanks for her support – and because he wants to spend more time with her – Luke escorts Abby to her brother’s funeral and helps her pack up some things from her brother’s house. The two strangers are undeniably attracted to each other, only they can’t act on it. Abby, like Kayla, is married with two kids. Luke insists he is a gentleman.
Penry-Jones gives a fantastic performance as a man unable to succumb to his desires. He gracefully handles the awkward situations Luke faces, and displays some real comic timing during some of the film’s sillier moments. But it is the way Luke looks at Abby – wistfully, longingly – that makes his performance standout. When Penry-Jones, finally lets down his guard and is aching at letting Abby get away, he is especially moving. Likewise, when Luke coaxes Abby to tell him how she feels, his reaction is quietly powerful.
Getting to Know You is a change of pace for the actor, who frequently works on British TV series (MI-5, Black Sails, The Strain) and period costume drams (Vita & Virginia, A Little Chaos, The Four Feathers). Penry-Jones spoke with Film International about his new film.
Gary M. Kramer: Getting to Know You opens with Luke making the best of an awkward situation he finds himself in. Over the course of the film, he finds himself in a series of awkward situations. He displays patience and kindness. But Luke also has a moral code – he won’t be a homewrecker. What observations do you have about his character?
Rupert Penry-Jones: He has this high school sweetheart [Kayla] he’s come back to see, and she gets too drunk and he can’t follow through with it. And he’s met this lovely lady [Abby]. A lot of men would go for whatever is available with two beautiful women who are potentially available. But he realizes Abby is a very special woman, and he wants to go down whatever road she needs him to. I think that is quite honorable. I think he’s very lost and lonely. He’s been away from home, and when he was at home, it wasn’t much of a home for him. Abby is in a loveless marriage and going through a difficult time. He has woken up, middle aged, and realized he has nobody. They are desperately finding a way to belong and find someone to love.
GMK: I like that Getting to Know You is not about getting the one that got away, it’s about finding someone to love. It is also about taking risks and making a sometimes public declaration of love. What are your thoughts about putting yourself out there? You do this as an actor
RPJ: Personally, I’m not very good at taking that many risks. I play it quite safe. I like to have backups. Whenever friends talk about gambling or I get invited to go to the horse races, I have absolutely no desire to gamble. I feel my whole life has been one big gamble from the moment I chose to become an actor. I feel the buzz of getting a job is the same as winning the jackpot. It’s a similar adrenaline rush. I’m too English for big declarations for love I’m afraid [laughs]. In a movie, I love it. I love extreme emotions in a movie – throwing myself at the feet of the woman I love or killing someone who has crossed me. I love that opportunity to push emotions as far as you can. But in real life, I’m pretty English and pretty controlled.
GMK: Luke admits to making stupid decisions in his life. How do you cope with bad decisions?
RPJ I try to let them go, but they do sit with me. Everyone actor has that one job they nearly got but didn’t that could transform their careers – turned us into movie stars, or earned us an extraordinary amount of money, but didn’t. Generally, with regret, you have to look at the life you have – it’s easier for some than others. You have to be grateful for what you have and see all the wonderful things you do have instead of focusing the things you don’t. And think of the wonderful things that have happened to you instead of the things that haven’t. Everything happens for a reason – I do believe that. When I don’t get a job I want, in that gap, when that job would be happened, something else happens that wouldn’t have happened. When something good gets offered to you, I think – what’s the catch? I always think there’s a catch.
GMK: I am curious about your penchant for physical humor. There is a scene in the film where Luke trips going up a flight of stairs that I love – it’s unexpected, but completely in character. The physicality Luke has with Kayla is also fantastic. Can you talk about that aspect of the film?
RPJ: I threw in falling up the stairs without telling them. They thought I hurt myself. I wish I had done it coming down. It would have been funny to do it coming down as well. I don’t get the opportunity to do much comedy, or physical comedy. I would love to do more. I really enjoy it. But it has to come in the moment. I was going up the stairs in rehearsals so many times I thought I should slip something in.
In a long term relationship there is always someone who lays down the law.”
GMK: It is heartbreaking that Luke falls for Abby but cannot act on his desire. In what ways are you a “romantic,” or a “gentleman”? He wasn’t looking for love and that’s why he finds it.
RPJ: He was surprised by it. He’s so wrapped up in own world and the disastrous evening he had. They fall into each other’s lines of life. What’s romantic about him is that none of it is premeditated. He doesn’t set up a scenario where he woos her. He’s honest with her and genuine and they find themselves in these situations which come organically, rather than are forced. That’s the kind of romance I like. The idea of on Valentine’s Day booking a restaurant and having a bunch of flowers – that sort of romance is not something I’ve never been able to do. I’m not very good at it. Could be because I am an actor, and I’m always having my props prepared. My marriage [his wife is actress Dervla Kirwan] was a very small affair. The idea of dressing up and people taking pictures of us and applauding us as we walk into the room – for me, that would be like a day at work. I can’t think of anything worse than having someone dress me up. My wife’s the same; having someone doing her makeup and hair…Literally, that’s what we do every day at work. We did the opposite. I find I do the opposite of what a romantic thing would be. I’ve never been very good at the planned romantic gesture. It has to come in the moment.
GMK: I liked Abby’s speech about marriage. What observations do you have about relationships?
RPJ: My parents were both actors, so one would be away working when the other was at home, and vice versa. That constant shifting roles of being the main career helps level out the relationship if you have children. In my relationship, there’s not one of us who is at home all the time and not one of us who is at work all the time. We’re both bringing the money, so it’s all very even on that level. The more it can be even, the better, but it never is, I suppose. In terms of control of emotion, I don’t know, but in a long term relationship there is someone who lays down the law. It’s always changing with my wife because one of us is away and one is at home, but we are rarely at home together. With COVID, what was positive was being able to have break from the ambition and desire and competitiveness of being an actor waiting for the phone to ring. It was us together living in a house and being together.
GMK: I think the strength of your performance is in the way Luke hides his quiet despair. Can you talk about playing/portraying that?
RPJ: He knows what he wants is not really possible, so he is trying to do right thing and be the good man. There is wonderful woman in front of him, and he just wants to spend every minute he can with her without crossing the line. She has that lovely speech where she says she wants to sleep with him but is there anywhere they can where we’re not going to sleep together? It’s very funny that the woman lays her cards on table in very bare way. I think everyone finds themselves in situations where they have to check themselves and walk the right side of the line. That’s what he is trying to do no matter what his desires are.
GMK: It’s like Brief Encounter. What can you can about developing the relationship with your co-star? There is a palpable chemistry between you because we want them to be together.
RPJ: They are both into each other, and yet they are both denying themselves, and yet they are both loving each other’s company and prepared to do what the other needs so they can be together. We got on well as two actors, so it was easy to slip in and out of those roles. It was a strange experience because the film takes place in the downbeat hotel where the film was set. We were living in hotel where we were shooting. I’ve never done that before – shot in the place that I lived in.
GMK: Let’s talk a bit about your career. I first took notice of you in Virtual Sexuality, a zany teen film. I’ve since seen you in Cambridge Spies and other projects such as Vita and Virginia. You frequently play in TV series and costume drama. What are your thoughts about your career? Luke is not a role I’ve seen you play before.
RPJ: That was a reason why I wanted to do it; it’s not a role I’ve done. And to have a crack at American accent. That’s been a problem – I felt like I couldn’t act through it, that [the accent] would get in my way. So, it was great to play a role to do that. Even Brits struggle with period accents to make them sound real and not a put-on voice. I am very keen to do anything that stretches me and slightly scares me. A lot of the time as an actor, you get offered what you’ve already done before, and you can do it standing on your head. There is a certain range and most of the time you not offered parts outside of it. You fall into boxes. Getting to Know You was fun; it was comedy, an American accent, and I don’t get to do many of those. It ticked all the boxed.
These things come along at the right time and you just go for it. I’d like to do another heroic spy saving London every week kind of role. I loved doing MI-5. It was a high point in my career.
GMK: Have you ever met someone in your life who has had a transformative effect on you?
RPJ: My wife. We met doing a play. I nearly turned it down, and my agent talked me into the experience I nearly didn’t do it. And I ended up with a wife. Also, there was an English teacher who took me aside when I was 13, and said, “I hope you’re auditioning for the play.” It was The Tempest. I went because he forced me to. That was the beginning for me. He had a big impact on my life. After that, I was in everything.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.