Stephen Daldry: He'll turn his hand to anything

Theatre, film - maybe even traffic - Stephen Daldry can direct them all. Here he talks about his acclaimed new movie The Hours, sexuality and his surprise marriage

Before I have even taken off my coat, I tell Stephen Daldry that I liked his new film The Hours. And he says, 'You did?' in a tone that suggests one-eyebrow-raised dissent - almost as if he were not its director.

The unexpected response is typical. It is impossible to second-guess Daldry. In my slight acquaintance with him, I have always found him genial but cagey. He is thin as an exclamation mark with blue eyes and spiky peroxided hair - and his laugh is big enough to engulf him. And listening, I am struck for the first time by his beautiful speaking voice, which is at odds with his energy - languid, as if he had all the time in the world.

We meet at the offices of the film production company Working Title, in Soho, and sit opposite each other across a wide desk as if about to embark on some mysterious piece of work. He lights a cigarette, lounges, leans, stretches in his chair. On which side of the desk should Stephen, by rights, be sitting? Is he friendly or aloof? Gay or straight? (Recently, confounding friends and family, he married, at 42, Lucy Sexton, a dancer from New York.) And where does his heart reside, in theatre or in film? He has recently directed Caryl Churchill's A Number , over here, (it won the Evening Standard Best Play award); and his sell-out production off Broadway of another Churchill piece, Far Away , has been seen by American audiences as defining a post-11 September world. At the same time, he has been working on The Hours , his second film, (which opens in America at the end of the month) and it has just been selected by the National Board Review in the States as Best Film of 2002 (usually an indicator of glories to come).

After he had left the Royal Court, where he was artistic director, but before Billy Elliot won its Oscars, Daldry was approached by producer Scott Rudin and asked if he would direct The Hours , based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer- prize-winning novel. It is an ingenious triptych about Virginia Woolf and two fictional women each affected by her early novel Mrs Dalloway . Rudin already had a cast lined up: Nicole Kidman would play Woolf, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep would co-star and the screenplay would be by David Hare (Daldry had directed Hare's one-man show Via Dolorosa).

I ask Daldry whether he admired Woolf's writing at university,where he studied English. To my surprise, he responds as if this were a personal question and almost indecent. He hedges, finally settling for 'pretty much enthusiastic'. Would Woolf have liked his film? ' Gosh. I have absolutely no idea?' What did he think was the secret of her writing? ' Gosh. It is hard to generalise.' Sure, I say, but try - and he roars with laughter. He is nice, after all. Nice - but if anyone is to be in charge of the script, he would prefer it to be him. The film is full of black moments, I say: it describes women lost in their own lives and yet their depression has a kind of lustre. Had he any personal experience of depression? I don't expect him to answer.

'It is very interesting to talk about this. It is hard because I resist intuitively the idea that when one talks about films they have to be autobiographical. People always used to ask me about Billy Elliot - is it a true story? No. We made it up. With journalism, films always have to be to do with some personal statement of your own. As a general rule, I resist that. In the States, a question that kept coming up was this: how can you, as a man, talk about three women?

I interrupt but he presses on: 'Sorry, it is a long answer to this question. In that particular context, I said [his tone is lightly sarcastic], "No, you are right: only women should talk about women, only men should talk about men, only black people should talk about black people, only Jews should talk about Jews - if you extend the argument it becomes nonsensical." So I resist your question.'


'But, in fact, yes would be the honest answer. When I experienced a break-up in a relationship, I knew I was in a risky place for a period of time. And I have known people who are - or were - manic depressives. The biggest influence was Sarah Kane [the playwright] whom we all knew very well and was going through this terrible time. She killed herself, while we were still working on the script, just before we started making the film.'

Nicole Kidman was also depressed. 'She was going through a peculiar, difficult time and I know she drew on that for the film. There was one particular day that she was incredibly distressed all day, shooting the scene where her sister Vanessa leaves her.'

Daldry is like this: he veers between eloquence and withdrawal. He is a master of the monosyllable and the tactical full stop but loves polemic. The first time I became aware of this was at an Olivier awards ceremony when he hijacked a moment conventionally reserved for saying 'thank you very much' to launch into a speech - designed to shame those it touched - about arts funding. It was brave, it was rude, it was brilliantly opportunistic. Daldry (his first training was as a clown) is an instinctive politician.

His work is fearless too. He likes to rethink everything he takes on. An Inspector Calls , the show with which he made his name was a scintillating recasting of a conventional thriller. And his production of Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen reconstituted the Royal Court itself (the stalls were gutted) to accommodate the set. He secured £16.3 million in Lottery funding for the rebuilding of the Sloane Square theatre, something he now refers to as 'the thing I am most proud of'.

The Hours is a risky undertaking too. Cunningham's novel is tricky, interior, not obviously suited to film. But Daldry loves its form - its not-so-eternal triangle, its fearful symmetry - and argues that 'once the stories start colliding, it works like a mystery'. The second risk is Kidman, who does not, in spite of some help from a beak of a nose, look at all like Woolf. Daldry relishes the danger of this casting. He felt the part needed Kidman's 'combustibility' to 'break out of the literary mould'. She was 'resistant' to taking the part on but he reassured her: 'It will be fine, we will make up our own Virginia Woolf.'

It is far easier for Moore and Streep to excel because we do not have any real characters with which to compare them. Streep is especially dazzling as a modern Clarissa Dalloway. Oddly enough, Streep is mentioned in Cunningham's novel and likened to an angel. It is as if Cunningham had made an unconscious prophecy: one day, Streep would be in a film of his book. It must have been moving when this serendipitously came to pass?

Daldry seems more comfortable with the pedestrian (in this case, literally) answer: 'Her agent says that she took it because she could walk to work. She lives in the West Village on 12th Street, we were filming two streets down on 10th, which is where the book is set'. But he lets me in on a secret: Michael Cunningham is in the film, for a second, outside the florist's shop'

What was it like to work with Streep? How did he direct her? I am particularly interested in a scene in her kitchen in which she breaks down or, in her own word, 'unravels'. It feels like something unrepeatable, as though it could only have happened once. How many takes did he do? 'Meryl was surprised when I would do 16 or 17 takes of a scene. She would say: we're going again? And I would say: yes, let's see what else happens. I think she always felt it as a slight criticism, whereas I just thought we were exploring the different possibilities.'

Streep can 'access' deep emotion easily, Daldry explains, although he is at pains to add that 'it costs her'. She is a technical 'genius' too, he says. Even in a scene of intense grief, she knows where to put herself so that she stays absolutely in focus and at the end of a take will 'wink at the focus puller and say, "I hit the mark, didn't I?"'

Daldry says it is fortunate that all three actresses have worked in the theatre, for this will always be his starting point. He is at once a meticulous and playful director. He works behaviourally, tries to find actions that will 'release the emotion' of a scene. 'You look at a scene, you rehearse it, you do it in a number of different ways and at the end you might say [as he did in Streep's kitchen scene], "Look, let's crack eggs shall we? Let's make something, let's see what the eggs give you".'

Daldry gets remarkable performances this way. Jack Rovello, the child who plays Moore's son, is only six and was not expected to understand his place in the story. The film's co-producer, Ian MacNeil, would read the boy Jack and the Beanstalk to secure on film the range of emotional reactions required. Daldry is warm when talking about children. He has said before that he would like to have children of his own and has made a kind of unofficial son of Jamie Bell who played Billy Elliot. Bell once put it simply: 'I would kind of like him to be my dad and he'd like me to be his son.'

Daldry divides his time between New York and Hertfordshire. He bought a big house near Potters Bar 18 months ago from a friend. He had not planned the move but now 'loves it out there'. It is hard, though, to imagine him idling in Potters Bar for long: he admits that when he is working on a project 'it is impossible to do anything else at all. It is hard to explain to your family. My wife understands because she is a dancer. But even though my friends are in the theatre, having to say to them that I am going to go underground - I'll see you in two years - is extreme...'

When Daldry is written about, it is often in a tone of surprise: he left the Royal Court at the moment you might have expected him to become sumptuously installed, just after the new building was completed. And his marriage has amazed everyone, too.

I had grasped, I thought, that if Daldry would not talk about Woolf's prose style, he would be unlikely to wish to talk about anything personal. As usual, my predictions about him were wrong. I was taken aback when he seized on my question about the ambivalent sexuality in the film like this: 'I'd have to go back to me to answer that,' he said. 'I find it incredibly difficult to box in people's sexuality. If you take a room of people, it seems to me that the sexuality of each individual will always be unique and different with its own particular fantasies and extraordinary depths and apparent strangeness to everyone else.'

When I suggest that he enjoys overturning people's expectations, he nods. Most of all, he likes to surprise himself: 'I love changing. I hate it when people try to box me in to a relationship or in a work context. Any situation where I feel boxed in freaks me out. And I feel the need to reinvent myself or I'll get bored.' Is boredom what frightens him? 'As soon as I know how to do something, I usually get bored with it.'

Is he ever surprised by his own success? 'My mother is. My father always expected me to work in a shirt factory in Taunton making Van Heusen shirts - he would have been very surprised but he died when I was 15 (saving me from the shirts). When I got married, my mother was very surprised. She said: What on earth is going on? I thought you were gay?' Was she a little bit pleased? 'Mostly surprised' - he laughs explosively.

He prefers not to feel 'boxed in' by the future. He does not like to think too far ahead. It is almost certain that he will direct the film of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (David Hare is to do the screenplay). But he does not want to be definite about this. In the immediate future, he is casting Caryl Churchill's A Number for Broadway and recasting it for the West End. He is a great champion of Churchill's work and would like to bring back Far Away to London too.

I notice, as we talk, how two verbs dominate his conversation: 'to box in' and 'to release' - I lose count of the number of times I hear them. And, suddenly, I can see how Daldry uses claustrophobia positively in his direction, overcoming, with each new work, his fear of finding himself doomed to being only one person in a single life.

The rise and rise of Daldry

Born in Dorset in 1960, the son of a singer and a bank manager, Stephen Daldry joined a youth drama group in Taunton, before winning an RAF scholarship to Sheffield University to study English. Here he cut an ostentatious figure, notable for his flamboyant dress (which included a deerstalker and pillbox hats).

After university, Daldry spent a year travelling through Italy where he became a clown's apprentice.

On his return, Daldry worked at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield from 1985 to 1988, then moved to London's Gate Theatre, which he ran between 1990 and 1992.

His National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls, in collaboration with designer and ex-lover Ian MacNeil, won a Tony when it transferred to Broadway in 1994.

In 1992 he was appointed artistic director of the Royal Court.

In 1998 he directed the short film Eight for Working Title.

He returned to the theatre to direct David Hare's monologue Via Dolorosa, then embarked on his first feature film, Dancer, retitled Billy Elliot (2000).

The film won Oscar nominations for screenwriter Lee Hall, supporting actress Julie Walters, and director Daldry. Sir Elton John and Daldry are currently working on a stage adaptation.

· The Hours opens in Britain in February


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

The great leap forward

Billy Elliot (111 mins, 15) Directed by Stephen Daldry; starring Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis

Philip French

01, Oct, 2000 @12:18 AM

Nicholas in a twist

Other films: Dickens's classic loses out in a new screen adaptation, but at least it's not full of guts, gore and buckets of vomit.

Mark Kermode

29, Jun, 2003 @10:48 PM

My date with Oscar

Nominated as best screenwriter for Billy Elliot, I had my acceptance speech ready. Then Tom Hanks ruined everything...

Lee Hall

01, Apr, 2001 @10:23 AM

That's my boy...

The former Royal Court director takes his new film, and its 14-year-old star, to a packed press screening

Stephen Daldry

28, May, 2000 @5:06 PM

Interview: Ian Rickson at the Royal Court

Stephen Daldry ran the Royal Court with aplomb. Does Ian Rickson have the same magic touch? Kate Kellaway finds out

Kate Kellaway

28, Jan, 2001 @9:14 PM

Review: Jumper

Philip French: Jumper is not, as the title suggests, a sensational biopic of the author of Knit Couture

Philip French

17, Feb, 2008 @12:09 AM

Article image
How Britain became the toast of Broadway

Gaby Wood catches up with Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry, to talk about theatrical renaissance, juggling stage and film projects - and his complex love life.

Gaby Wood

13, Jun, 2009 @11:01 PM

Anne Thompson on 2004's unpredictable Oscars

Letter from LA: Tuesday's Academy Award nominations will have a novel element... surprise. No one has a clue who will be up for honours. By Anne Thompson.

Anne Thompson

25, Jan, 2004 @1:07 AM

Oscar hope as Daldry film wins US film award
Stephen Daldry's film, The Hours, his follow-up to the surprise success of Billy Elliot, was yesterday named best film by the National Board of Review in America, an early indicator of how the Oscar awards may go.

Fiachra Gibbons, arts correspondent

06, Dec, 2002 @12:59 AM

Article image
Britain's big Bafta night as The Hours has the edge on Hollywood blockbusters
The British film industry was given a much-needed boost last night when Stephen Daldry's The Hours won two awards at the Baftas, the UK's answer to the Oscars, against stiff competition from big budget Hollywood blockbusters such as Chicago and Gangs of New York.

Rebecca Allison

24, Feb, 2003 @3:24 PM