Emily Beecham on Her Cannes Award-Winning Role in Little Joe

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Emily BeechamPhotography by Conor Clinch

Beecham opens up about her role in new drama Little Joe, in which she stars alongside Ben Whishaw – a performance which won her the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actress

A highly stylised vision of Britain, Little Joe is the first fully English-language feature from acclaimed Austrian director Jessica Hausner. A fan of Hausner’s distinct filmography to date, British actor Emily Beecham jumped at the chance to work with her. For her efforts, she received the Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The film, which co-stars Ben Whishaw, sees Beecham play Alice, a workaholic senior plant breeder for a corporation developing new species. She’s engineered a special flower with great therapeutic potential: if taken care of properly, the plant makes its owner happy. Breaking company policy, the single mother takes one of the crimson flowers home as a gift for her teenage son, Joe. As the flowers grow, and both Joe and her colleagues start to seem unlike themselves, it becomes apparent that every plant like this she’s bred may not be as harmless as initially thought.

Speaking to AnOther ahead of Little Joe’s cinema release, Beecham describes Alice as “quite cerebral, quite inhibited. Very confident in her workplace, but a little bit frigid. Her personal life is something that she doesn’t control so well. That’s really come second to her work. She can’t really control her relationship with her son and romantic relationships aren’t important to her. Which is why it starts to press her buttons later on when things start changing, when she realises that she’s making a massive mistake and that her Frankenstein’s Monster has mutated into something she can’t control.”

Little Joe has elements of sci-fi, horror and fairy tale, all filtered through the purposefully antiseptic aesthetic Hausner and her design collaborators have put together. If you’ve seen any version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you might think you know what to expect from the premise. “It’s like a mystery thriller, psychological thriller, sci-fi thriller, and then it’s not at all,” Beecham says of the film’s simmering dread. “I think it’s like a Jessica Hausner genre, which is lots of different types of things. She subverts the expectations of what you think the genre is going to be and takes a U-turn. She’ll lead her audience to believe that it’s going to head somewhere, like a certain type of scare or thrill, and then shock them in doing exactly the opposite with where she takes the camera.”

“The aesthetics are so very vibrant and slightly artificial,” she continues. “Deliberately artificial. It was really joyful to go in every morning and see the costume and the set, and it gives you a chuckle because it’s quite humorous. But then I had to ignore it and just follow the direction of what Alice was going through, which is quite serious stuff most of the time. It’s a lot of awkward power plays between the characters and then, of course, the paranoia. She’s flitting between thinking it’s a scientific explanation or psychological, like her colleagues are mad, or there’s nothing happening at all. She’s going through all three of them, constantly fluctuating.”

Excluding a role in part of an anthology feature, Beecham’s previous film role right before Little Joe was in the London-set drama Daphne (2017), for which she also won a major acting prize: Best Performance in a British Feature Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Two back-to-back lead roles picking up festival gold is a rare feat for anyone, and then there’s the profile boost an acting award at Cannes can give a star on the rise. But what do awards mean to Beecham?

“It’s such a privilege and it’s quite heart-warming and relieving that you didn’t fuck it up,” she says with a laugh. “It’s really amazing and something that you can keep forever and a lovely thing to treasure. But also, on the other hand, I taught myself and learned that it’s not the result that matters, it’s the process that’s important. I think you have to be really grounded because the whole business can be very glamorous and distracting, actually, and quite seductive... But it is amazing and it also enables you to be able to do more work and it brings you many things later on, which is ultimately the best thing.”

Little Joe is released in UK cinemas on February 21, 2020.