Infatuation and obsession — not love — lurk behind ‘Eileen,’ its actors believe

William Oldroyd’s psychological thriller “Eileen,” based on the 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, is a challenging movie. But that’s exactly what drew in Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway. McKenzie, who plays a withdrawn young woman working in a boys prison in 1960s Massachusetts, recalls being completely unsure of herself the first few days of filming, which reflects how the New Zealand actress approaches her entire career.

“I don’t ever want to feel settled,” she says, speaking over Zoom alongside Hathaway. “Maybe this is my ego talking, but I want to feel like I’m continuing to prove myself and challenge myself and put myself out there. It’s wanting to explore all the different parts of myself and all the different kinds of people out there.”

Hathaway plays Rebecca, a prison psychologist with a falsely shiny veneer, and also saw the film as a chance to push herself. The film came as part of a collection of projects she made around the same time, including “She Came to Me” and “Armageddon Time.”

“I didn’t go to drama school, so I’ve been learning on the job and trying to find parts that really, really, really scare me so I can become a better actor,” Hathaway says. “The joy of this is always: What is the scariest, most challenging, seemingly impenetrable, seemingly impossible challenge? And who are the right people to agree to try that with?”

In “Eileen,” co-written by Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, the tension came from Rebecca’s glamorous, self-assured presentation, which captivates Eileen. She’s a product of her time, when not many women were afforded the education or position of a prison psychiatrist.

“She intends to remake the world,” Hathaway says. “She believes she knows better than everyone else. Ottessa’s writing in the book gave me permission to make it really exaggerated, because I leaned into the summation of Rebecca in the book, which was ‘If she seemed affected, it’s because she was.’ I heard that line and I just went, ‘Bingo!’ It freed me up.”

She adds, “I found her devotion to her own sense of importance heartbreaking, fascinating, hilarious and intriguing. How long has she been this way? At what point did it cease to be a performance and it just became her, and what does it cost? She’s a puff of cigarette smoke that looks really cool, but it’s going to kill you.”

Eileen is less assured. She struggles with an alcoholic, abusive father (Shea Whigham) and a dead-end job, and often imagines killing herself. Rebecca represents the possibility that there’s something bigger out there for her.

A young woman looks pensive in a red dress and fur coat.

Thomasin McKenzie stars as the title character in “Eileen.”

(Neon)

“I related to Eileen in a lot of ways,” McKenzie says. “I didn’t want to play that she’s weird. She’s just so isolated, and everything is through her perspective. You’re with her. She’s approaching the world and interacting with other characters in a very inexperienced, raw way. And that was quite fun.”

Hathaway was cast in 2020, in the midst of early lockdown and just months after the birth of her second child. Although she’s confident she would have accepted this role whenever it had arrived, there was something about being in the “hinterland of chaos” that seemed to connect with “Eileen.”

“From that specific place of just feeling so unmoored the way you do in a postpartum state and the way we all did at that point in the pandemic, it struck a nerve for me,” she recalls. “It was not at all what I expected, and I loved that. I also loved the tightrope walk of it — I had no idea how we were going to pull it off. It felt almost experimental in nature, and that seemed really appealing to me.”

The film shot in New Jersey in late 2021. The weather was as cold as it looks in the film, which is set over Christmastime.

“Nobody had a trailer to return to after shooting,” Hathaway remembers. “There wasn’t fanciness or pampering or anything. We were all just in it together. I really do feel like we all took care of each other on this. We looked out for each other.”

The relationship that develops between Eileen and Rebecca is unconventional, and the actors had only a few days of rehearsal to prepare it. Oldroyd has joked that the film was a Christmas love story, but McKenzie describes the unlikely connection as “obsession and repressed desire.”

“There’s a lot of false connection,” she says. “No one’s really listening or seeing each other. It’s a story with the guise of love.”

“It’s messy, isn’t it?” Hathaway responds. “To me, it’s more about infatuation and intoxication and obsession than it’s about love. But I think that Eileen loves as much as she can. It’s such a specific story. This is the fulcrum for her that sets out the rest of her life.”

Both McKenzie and Hathaway found what they were looking for in the process of making “Eileen.” Although production was isolating due to the pandemic, the duo found a common ground in the exploration of the comically dark story.

“I just keep wanting to think about [the film],” Hathaway says. “Eileen’s not likable, and maybe she doesn’t go out of her way to make herself likable and she doesn’t stand out in any particular way, and yet she still exists. She has this roar inside of her. It’s really cool that we all wanted to gather together in the middle of COVID to explore what would make someone like Eileen be someone like Eileen.”

“I could feel her pain, and I just wanted to hold her in some way,” McKenzie adds. “I loved that there is still life to her. She isn’t a victim. It’s such a great character film. There are so many layers to each and every character.”

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