Actress Rosamund Pike is in high spirits as she appears on my laptop screen, wearing a cream-colored blouse and draped in a cream jacket. Her blonde hair adds to the dessert-like aesthetic. It is early evening and she is calling from Prague, where she resides with her partner and two sons. She had been filming The Wheel of Time in Prague and decided to stay when the pandemic struck. I inquire about the luxurious wood-panelled setting behind her, questioning whether it is real or virtual. She assures me it is a real hotel and even shows me some props to prove it, including water, cookies, and tea. She jokingly mentions her quirky preference for using a cup with four straws. As we chat, her past role as the cold-hearted Miranda Frost from Die Another Day, which she landed straight out of university without having seen a single Bond film, feels like a distant memory.
An hour has passed, yet Pike maintains a smile. However, her friendly demeanor has slightly soured. “I initially had a great time,” she says as we bid farewell. “But at some point, I began to feel uneasy. It was as if you held up a mirror that I didn’t want to face.” It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly went awry.
If we focus on the new movie, we are on stable ground. Think about what would happen if The Talented Mr Ripley went to Brideshead and became lost in the maze from The Shining with the cast of The Go-Between – that’s Saltburn. In her second film, writer-director Emerald Fennell presents Oliver (Barry Keoghan), an Oxford scholarship recipient from Merseyside who is taken in by charming Felix (Jacob Elordi) and invited to spend the summer at his country estate. It is there that Oliver encounters the entire unpleasant family, including Felix’s mother Elspeth (played by Pike), who is particularly hilarious. She resembles the snarky little sister of Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, expresses her disdain for ugliness, mocks her daughter’s bulimia (“Fingers for dessert”), and reminisces about her time as a fashion model, temporary lesbian, and Britpop muse. Pike’s brilliantly comedic performance is deserving of an Oscar nomination.
Inquire about the character and she will respond with a sense of horrified fascination. According to Pike, she lacks the ability to handle anything remotely real. She believes that even dabbling in genuine emotions will lead her to a never-ending downward spiral. In Saltburn, there is a moment (only heard, not shown) where Elspeth lets out a scream in response to a shocking discovery. Pike dreaded having to re-record that scream during the post-shoot looping session. However, once she closed the curtain in the small booth, she was immediately transported back to that moment. This is likely because Elspeth has been bottling up her emotions, and they had lingered inside of Pike. As the film progresses, Elspeth becomes more like a ghost, as she is deprived of basic human experiences. She struggles with emotional and sexual anorexia and relies on denial to maintain control. Although she craves attention, she despises being emotionally close to others.
Does Elspeth possess a genuine identity? “A genuine identity?” Pike echoes, sarcastically. “Who would desire that? How dull and sincere!” Sincerity is clearly one of the most undesirable traits in Pike’s world, although she is not immune to it: in 2020, she stated that she took on the role of a con artist targeting elderly individuals in I Care a Lot, which won her a Golden Globe, because she had recently portrayed “a lot of very noble women”, such as journalist Marie Colvin in A Private War and scientist Marie Curie in Radioactive. She admitted to becoming “too sincere for my own good”.
Examples of her commitment can be seen in the moment when she used gaffer tape to wrap her upper arms, allowing her to experience the same physical tension as Colvin. “Oh my goodness, I did that!” she exclaims when I bring it up. “I had forgotten about it. How incredible.” Elspeth’s focus was not on preparing for the role. “It was more about avoiding certain things. I avoided reading books because she couldn’t stand them – not enough pictures. Instead, I would often be seen on set reading magazines as Elspeth, feeling envious of the people in them.”
Pike, age 44, possesses an elegant speaking voice, received an education from Oxford, grew up with parents who were opera singers, has a background in costume dramas (including a spirited adaptation of Pride & Prejudice directed by her ex-fiance, Joe Wright), and has a talent for portraying upper-class characters (her portrayal of a sweetly sorrowful socialite in An Education is particularly exceptional). Despite these factors, she does not see herself as similar to Elspeth and believes she may relate more to Oliver. “I have found myself in situations where I felt out of place,” she shares. “I was once invited to a horse race and, as usual, I fretted about the customs – there are so many rules in British society. I asked a group of girls if I needed to wear a hat. ‘Oh no, absolutely not. No hats.’ Yet when I arrived, everyone was wearing hats, including the girls who had told me otherwise.” She places her hands flat against her cheeks, resembling a living Edvard Munch painting. “I may have committed a faux pas simply by asking.”
She has always struggled with feeling out of place, not just during a day at the racetrack. Growing up as an only child, she often spent time with adults, accompanying them to rehearsals and shows, and exploring backstage areas. She especially enjoyed the costume department and playing games, finding it refreshing to be around those who didn’t take themselves too seriously.
As a child, she was sent to Badminton boarding school in Bristol where she received a 75% scholarship. Her mother cautioned her that she might feel like she doesn’t fit in. She told her, “You may come across others who have things we cannot provide for you.” However, she wonders if she would have even noticed as a child. Her mother’s concerns may not have been her own at the time.
Was she aware of the difference her mother had foreseen? “Many people would take vacations, so there was a lack of connection to that. I don’t believe I had even traveled on a plane before. Girls would arrive at school from other nations, discussing this concept known as ‘jet lag’.”
She discovered her community, as she describes it, when she became a member of the National Youth Theatre. These were young individuals from all around the country who shared the same sense of liberation when they were on stage. That’s where she has always found her sense of freedom, not in social situations. She desired to be surrounded by others who were fascinated by the human experience. Finances were still a concern. If Pike wanted to remain with her fellow performers in north London, where all the excitement was happening, rather than staying with her parents, she needed to cover living expenses. “I took my cello out into the streets of London and played music until I earned enough money. Someone even gave me a tenner. I will never forget that.”
Performing the role of Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet led to her obtaining an agent, which meant she already had professional representation when she started acting in plays at Oxford. She chose to keep this advantage hidden from her peers. When asked how I knew this information, she reacted as if I had been snooping through her belongings. “Is this from an old interview?” she questions. “Yes, I kept it a secret because I didn’t want to come across as arrogant or different.” While studying at university, she would travel to London for auditions, paying £6.90 for a coach ticket on the Oxford Tube. However, most of the time she returned feeling defeated, wishing she had spent her time in the library instead.
“Did she believe she fit in at Oxford?” She answers cautiously, “Not really.” “Looking back on it now, I realize that the people I found intimidating were just as nervous as I was.” She reminisces about the days before smartphones. “There was a service called Pigeon Post, where if you saw someone you liked in a lecture, you could write them a note and it would be delivered to them by one of the bike messengers. I received one titled ‘Looking for Cinders’ from someone who had seen me at a party. It was quite charming and romantic. It required a lot of effort.”
Suddenly, the temperature plummets without warning. “I am feeling a bit self-conscious, can you tell?” she asks. While we were initially chatting, her hands were in her lap, but now they are folded across her chest. “I reach a certain point and I no longer want to talk about myself. Are we almost done?” This is not the response any interviewer hopes for, but I assure her that we are more than halfway through the interview. Perhaps she is bothered by these questions about not fitting in, even though they are relevant to Saltburn. As I begin to explain that it would be easy to assume that someone with such a successful career has always… “Always felt like they belong?” she interrupts, finishing my sentence. “No, I have always felt like an outsider.”
She has benefited from this. David Fincher wanted someone less well-known for the female lead role in the thriller Gone Girl; Pike, who was nominated for an Oscar for her clever portrayal of Amy Dunne, was the perfect choice. “I am drawn to complex characters who have both admirable and unlikable qualities,” she explains. “In Gone Girl, Amy is brilliantly satirizing the trend of people crafting a public persona for the sake of media approval. This was before the era of Instagram, with its constant updates on baby showers and gender reveals.”
Pike previously expressed feeling like she was experimenting with different personas during her adolescent and young adult years. Has that changed at present? “Oh my, did I really say that?” she exclaims, caught off guard once more. “No, I no longer feel that way. I am fully aware of my true self.”
Can you identify her? “Who am I? Er…” She is unsure. “Perhaps we can grab a drink together sometime.” However, she becomes anxious and begins to nervously gesture, her composure fading. “Oh my goodness, that might sound like I’m asking you out! You know, this is what happens when it’s late in the day. Oh dear.” She refocuses on the topic at hand: “I can’t just tell you about myself. I can’t give a definitive answer.”
After our discussion, she shares her opinion: the awkwardness, the unflattering reflection, and more. Thankfully, it’s finished now. “Thank goodness,” she exclaims, revealing her inner Elspeth.