Interview with Joanna Scanlan for AFTER LOVE

Having converted to Islam, British woman Mary (Joanna Scanlan) is devoted to her sailor husband Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). His sudden death prompts a re-evaluation of her marriage though. Looking at his mobile phone, she discovers text messages from the son she didn’t know that he had. Venturing across the Channel to France, she sets out to find out more and reveal his death to his other family.

You have worked in so many different genres; what drew you to After Love?
It was a very unusual script for me to read. Straight away, I could see that I would be going to a place I had never been before. This script is an extraordinary cocktail of Mary’s family, her conversion, her husband, her life in Dover, and then in France. It is a story of lost and found, the loss of a child, the finding of a child. Some elements were typical, and yet it tells the story in a way that is so fresh and unusual. There are none of the tropes that you get out of a standard box of storytelling. This was fresh and complex but done in a way that is easy to follow. It has simplicity and profundity. So that was the first thing that drew me in, this brilliant script. Aleem Khan did an amazing job; it is a special piece of writing.

The film’s writer/director Aleem Khan’s parents partly inspire your character, Mary, and Mary’s husband, Ahmed. Did you feel an added responsibility to get the portrayal right?

When you have a writer/director, they know how they want to direct – they understand the writer, and the writer can understand the director. You want to be able to serve them well because they have put so much into the film. When I worked with Deborah Hayward on Pin Cushion, a similar kind of film in the sense that it’s BFI funded, a BBC Scotland production with a writer-director who is also a first-time feature director, it was a similar experience. Deborah had dreamt and thought about Pin Cushion for many years. You want to help that dream come true. When it is a writer-director, you know how many years have gone into imagining their film come to life. I really felt that with After Love. I was able to meet Aleem’s mother. She taught me the recipe for Saag Paneer, which we play out in the film. We made other dishes together, and she told me her whole life story. She is an amazingly wonderful person, who I have found quite an inspiration. I wanted to make sure that I did her justice; even though the story is not her story, she had been some of the inspiration for the story.

Did you do much research or meet anyone who had converted to Islam?
I had to do quite a bit of research. I met with Aleem’s mother, and I also met with other members of her circle but also, I did do quite a bit of reading about it. I went to the central mosque in Regent’s Park and talked to people there, and I spoke with as many women as I could. I found it a very warm place, a very calm place, and incredibly beautiful.

Through my ignorance, I was surprised to see how dedicated Mary is to her adopted faith after her husband died. Were you surprised to see how strongly a converted person held on to their religion when they no longer had to?
No, my mother is a convert to Catholicism from the Church of England and her faith is everything. It did not surprise me at all. My father was born Catholic, and my mother converted, and of the two of them, my mother is much more the leader in terms of daily practice than my father would be. I’m not saying that either one has a bigger faith, but how they conduct their everyday life, the convert is much stronger. I was born a Catholic. When you learn things as a small child, you have a completely different understanding of them. If I were to convert to another faith my appreciation of the concepts and the doctrines would differ from that of a tiny child, learning it little by little. In Mary’s case, she is a woman of faith and, for me, it is a story about faith really, as much as anything. Her faith is challenged in simple ways, like when she hears that Ahmed drank beer. The interesting thing is that the faith and the love that she has for Ahmed become twisted into each other. People watching the film can take their own view on this, but I believe that the love that Mary feels for Ahmed is not lost when she discovers the truth about his betrayals. Her love gets challenged and gets kicked about, and she undoubtedly gets upset by what she discovers in France, but somehow enough love remains. Despite everything that happens, she finds her way back into being a loving, faithful woman. She doubts her faith. She questions some of the trappings of it, but by the end, she is still the Islamic woman that she was at the start. Her faith is restored and grows stronger.

We can’t talk about a moment as it is a spoiler, but it involves a shirt. Mary’s love is palpable at that moment. How did you express such love for a character we don’t get the chance to see much of in the film?
Nasser Memarzia, who plays Ahmed and I had quite a few scenes together that did not make it into the final edit. I love Nasser as a person as an actor, and we have had a lovely time working together. The film opens with his death, it is the catalyst for everything that happens next, but we had filmed all these lovely scenes before he dies. I was able to carry those all the way through the film. I was able to keep that love because I had those experiences with him as an actor and as a character. We had a great connection, and he is very lovable!

 Mary’s clothes are beautiful and quite different to typical western attire. Did you feel a difference when you wore them? Did they make you feel more like Mary?
I really enjoyed wearing the Hijab and the Shalwar Kameez. I found it comfortable and elegant, and it is also practical. I spent some time wearing it in London so that it became natural. The wardrobe department worked hard to make sure it looked right. We wanted the costume to tell a story. Positioning of the head covering is important because different sects and nationalities wear them in another way. In Pakistan, you wear it slightly differently from how it is worn in Saudi Arabia or Iran. We followed Pakistani tradition, which is somewhat looser. We were careful to ensure that it was always correct for where we were in the story and what we were trying to say about Mary’s relationship with her faith. When she doubts her religion, she wears it looser than she usually would.

For a big part of the film, Mary does not let her grief out. She stays silent, but we see her react with expressions or movement. How hard is it as an actor to have to hold such strong emotions in?
Well, in the common parlance, I ain’t gonna lie, it was an emotionally challenging shoot.

Again, on that front, Mary does not speak French but spends a lot of time with people speaking it. Is it hard to react when you don’t know what is going on around you or make it easier?
My French is better than Mary’s, so not understanding was all acting. I have always longed to be in a French film. I love French cinema. When I did those scenes, I felt like I was in a French movie, but it was happening all around me, and I was detached from it in some ways. We were in France with a French crew, and the food we were eating was French. It was a dream come true for me. It was almost like a genre clash. I was in my British way, both as a character and approaching things as an actor. One of the things I have always loved about French cinema is the fluid way the words kind of just tumble and the vast amounts of dialogue that gets said with a particular tone. The French actors were doing their thing, and here I was, being British, stuck, unable to let my emotions out for fear of betraying Mary. I found that clash really interesting.

 You have won lots of awards for your portrayal of Mary, and one of those awards was the Dublin Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival. What is it like to win festival awards?
It is lovely to win awards, but it is funny to be winning things during COVID. The ceremonies feel quite alien because you aren’t at the events. Generally, if you go to film festivals, you are part of something, and there are lots of people around, and you are with the people who created the film. It’s very odd, and you’re missing the party elements and the excuse to get dressed up. That said, I am hugely enjoying the reception for the film. You work hard at things, but they don’t always pay off. It is great to know that people are connecting to the story and the character. And I’m grateful to Dublin Film Critics Circle, especially with my Irish roots. My grandfather was Irish, and my father got his Irish passport recently. I’m doing the genealogy on that at the moment. I’m very excited to learn more about my grandfather’s family. Hopefully, I will get the chance to visit soon.

Words – Cara O’Doherty

AFTER LOVE is now showing in Irish cinemas