Sally Potter on making a film about violence with Chris Rock: ‘He is aware of what happens when a man feels humiliated’

In Look at Me, Rock is thrown to the floor by Javier Bardem. Potter discusses male anger in her film and the similarities between that and Rock’s real-life experience of being slapped by Will Smith at the Oscars

When Will Smith strode on stage earlier this year at the Oscars and slapped Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, the British director Sally Potter was putting the finishing touches to her new short, Look at Me. The film features a scene in which Rock, as an events organiser named Adam, is thrown to the floor by Leo (Javier Bardem), a drummer scheduled to perform that night at a gala fundraiser. The two men are lovers, which only heightens the tension as Leo raises his fist above Adam.

Potter was instantly aware of the parallels between Look at Me, which she shot in 2019, and the fracas at the Oscars. “I had this feeling of: ‘OK. That’s interesting,’” says the 72-year-old film-maker, as she pours water for us in her office in a quiet east London courtyard. “I could see there was a thematic overlap here with the film about how men cope with their anger – issues of respect, humiliation and communication. There was a certain appropriateness to it.”

Chris Rock in Look At Me.
Chris Rock in Look At Me. Photograph: Courtesy of Adventure Pictures

The slap was headline news for weeks. “It shows the power of gesture in this time of TikTok,” she says. “These short moments become emblematic and they get repeated in ways that, prior to social media, would not have been the case. But I think it’s the wrong vortex. It doesn’t help understand male violence, or the etiquette of response, or the ethics of turning the other cheek. It doesn’t help anything. It was a sad gesture. And, I would say, a dignified response from Chris.”

That is more than can be said for the response of the those attending on the night. “People didn’t know what the fuck to do or say, or how to respond,” Potter says. “The Oscars does not lend itself to clear thinking.” She was there in 1994, when her wickedly imaginative Virginia Woolf adaptation, Orlando, with Tilda Swinton hopping between centuries and genders, was up for a couple of prizes. “It was one of the most tense, unhappy situations I’ve ever experienced. It’s not an atmosphere of success. It’s one of fear of failure. In that context, irrational behaviour seems normal.”

Alice Englert (left) and Elle Fanning in Ginger & Rose, 2012.
Alice Englert (left) and Elle Fanning in Ginger & Rose, 2012. Photograph: BBC Films/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Aside from a few throwaway remarks, Rock has not addressed the incident. “I completely understand that,” says Potter. “Who would want to be identified by something that was done to them rather than something they’d done?” She knows, though, that the contretemps will increase interest in Look at Me. “People have this curiosity, but I hope the film will be a counterweight to that. One can’t control where things are going. One can only accept it and say: ‘If you’re interested in Chris Rock, then have a look at another aspect of him. Look at what this man can do!’”

She is right: the title of the short could double as a clarion call from Rock, who has never seemed so delicate or heartfelt. Bardem is like a raggedy caged lion; he is even shown drumming in a cage, while the tap dancer Savion Glover, dressed at one point in Guantánamo orange, kicks up a storm in a neighbouring pen. “You gradually become aware it’s something to do with the incarceration of people of colour,” says Potter. “It’s a metaphor for other areas of freedom and constraint.” Unlike Bardem, Rock is poised and graceful, often manipulating the situation with his eyes alone. Vanilla highlights lend him a dandyish edge. Power is distilled into his modest frame and scornful glances. He is in charge.

The actor and director inhabit such different worlds that I imagine Potter must know Rock from I Think I Love My Wife, his remake of Éric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon. Not at all. “I’ve always been a fan of his standup,” she says merrily. Who else makes her laugh? “I like Dave Chappelle.” Even his virulently transphobic recent material? Her jaw drops, and she buries her face in her hands. “Oh God. OK. I may be out of date with his routines. I’ve never seen that one, so I’ll take your word for it.” I mention one of Chappelle’s gags about transgender people from his Netflix special The Closer, and she lets out a groan. “That’s disgusting. I made Orlando, after all. These issues are very dear to my heart, and I’ve been answering questions about them for 30 years.”

Tilda Swinton in Potter’s 1992 Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando.
Tilda Swinton in Potter’s 1992 Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando. Photograph: Adventure Pictures/British Screen Prod/Allstar

For Rock, who is currently touring with Chappelle, she has only praise. “I love how he bursts on to the stage. That grin! It’s very life-affirming. Like many comedians, he’s a quiet, serious, intelligent individual. We discussed the whole question of male vulnerability and fear. He and Javier are both aware of fragility, and what happens when a man feels humiliated.”

Bardem tells me later by email that he found Rock to be “a very caring and generous partner to play with, a pure joy. He was absolutely fully in the mood of his character, which is not a light one. At the same time, in the moments we were waiting to shoot, he was being the incomparable and natural comedian that he is.”

Look at Me began life as part of Potter’s film The Roads Not Taken, starring Bardem as a writer with early onset dementia, his past and present bleeding into one another. The intention was to incorporate different realities and sexualities for its protagonist (very Orlando) as well as separate eras. “The story was included in the original movie as a glimpse of what Leo could have been if he had made other choices in his life,” says Bardem.

It was while screening an early version of The Roads Not Taken to friends, however, that Potter realised the entire section had to go. “It should never have been there,” she says. “As a writer-director, the working cycle is so slow, and takes so long, that an impatience sets in, and you sometimes try to jam all your ideas into one film. I’ve excised chunks of material before, but I’ve never had one film lurking inside another like a Russian doll.” While Bardem remained the star of The Roads Not Taken, Rock and Glover were excised. “Chris and Savion were very understanding, but I was heartbroken. I cried.”

Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning in The Roads Not Taken, 2020.
Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning in The Roads Not Taken, 2020. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

That’s film-making for you: everything is in flux until the curtains part. I remind her that she cast Robert De Niro as an opera singer in her wartime drama The Man Who Cried, starring Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, only for John Turturro to end up playing the part. “How on earth did you hear that?” she asks. “Yes, all right. I did work with him for a bit. We sat in the [Hollywood hotel] Chateau Marmont and went through the script, then met again in New York. We discussed opera singers, as I recall. And hair.” When the filming dates changed, De Niro was no longer available. “I’d forgotten all about that,” she says wistfully.

Right from her 1983 debut The Gold Diggers, which starred Julie Christie, Potter has always attracted the highest calibre of actor. Riz Ahmed, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Jude Law and David Oyelowo were in the murder mystery Rage; Cillian Murphy and Kristin Scott Thomas were among the guests trading barbs in her acerbic comedy The Party; and she has twice directed Elle Fanning, in Ginger & Rosa and The Roads Not Taken.

Noext up is Alma, which, she says, “deals with the idea of how the English relate to their history, this nostalgia for a nonexistent past. It’s bleakly funny.” There is also a TikTok-related project in the works. She is certainly no streaming refusenik. “You can disappear into the small screen if what you’re watching is magnetic enough. You can go through a very small portal and still have a very big experience.” She could even be describing Look at Me: a tiny film that stings like a slap in the face.

• Look at Me premieres at the Venice film festival on 9 September


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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