Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe Talk Controversial Comedy Poor Things

It may be one of the year’s biggest awards contenders, but Poor Things is arriving in UK cinemas on a wave of controversy.

The adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, a loose, gender-swapped reimagining of Frankenstein set in Glasgow, may be scooping up critics’ prizes left, right and centre, but cinema audiences in the US appear to have been scandalised by its frank sexual content. You don’t have to look too far on social media to find posts from people discussing mass walkouts at screenings they attended.

Sure, it may be a surprise to see an A-list star of Emma Stone’s calibre playing such a bold role – as Bella Baxter, a woman brought back to life by a mad scientist nicknamed “God” (Willem Dafoe) who implanted her brain with that of her unborn child – in an explicit tale of self-discovery. But for co-stars Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo, who play the two men most pivotal in her journey, such controversy is baffling.

Ruffalo, who plays her egotistical partner Duncan Wedderburn, explained to Zavvi: “It does seem like audiences are getting more prudish, if this has become the big talking point. I’ve been surprised to see people reacting to the film in this way.

“Sex is such an important part to this story, but it’s not gratuitous in any way. I do feel like we’re entering more of a prudish time in culture.”

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Dafoe added: “It’s not so much the sex in the movie (that’s scaring people), it’s the attitude. Here is a woman that is truly uninhibited and not ruled by social convention – the movie is about liberation, and ultimately, sex is a part of that.

“I think it freaks a lot of men out”, he concluded. “And makes a lot of women jealous!”, laughed Ruffalo.

If you’re familiar with the source material, it should be unsurprising that the film has ruffled feathers in this way. One particularly controversial sequence even had to be edited down to receive an 18 certificate from the BBFC, who would have rejected the film for release in the UK otherwise – a sign that, as liberating as the film may be for its protagonist in some areas, it’s deeply disturbing in others.

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This is a keen reminder of the horror origins that overlap with the coming-of-age tale, although Dafoe rejects the idea that Poor Things is anything more than a vague take on Mary Shelley’s classic.

“The story opens as a take on Frankenstein, but my character doesn’t particularly resemble him despite being the one responsible for bringing this woman to life”, he told Zavvi. “He’s more of a combination of the Doctor and Frankenstein’s Monster, but he doesn’t easily follow the trajectory of either character, even if his appearance looks like a mix of both – he’s not a character you’d find in a horror movie, once you get to know him.”

In the distinctive hands of Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek filmmaker behind The Favourite and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, controversial subject matter is offset by frequent deadpan, surrealist humour. The juicy wordplay in his movies is one of the key reasons he’s able to frequently assemble A-list casts, and the screenplay by Tony McNamara is no exception to this rule; every member of the cast I spoke to recalled one specific line that made them knew they had to sign on instantly.

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For Ruffalo, it was being able to say “I’ve become the very thing I hated – a cloying succubus of a lover”, for Dafoe, it was functioning as the “straight man” within the movie, despite having the most outlandish physical appearance.

“Mark has many good lines, but my character is pretty dry in comparison. The script is so rhythmic, it’s hard to single out one line; he really comes alive when it’s an interplay with other characters.”

This is just Dafoe being humble though, playing down his co-star’s clear admiration at every opportunity during our chat – he was far more comfortable playing practical jokes on his colleague, at one point calling in Oscar Isaac to show up on set and tell Ruffalo he’d been replaced, than accepting how much of an acting inspiration he is to him.

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Shutting down Ruffalo’s claim that he’s “always been jealous” of him, Dafoe responded: “He’s only saying that because it was one of the first things I told him after I watched this for the first time – his performance was so good, I was jealous. I completely adore him and his performance.”

Legends respecting legends is one thing, but a newcomer to this world, it can be daunting to go toe-to-toe with actors at the top of their game. However, that wasn’t the experience for Ramy Youssef, with the comedian likening making his movie debut – as Max McCandles, the man hoping to marry Bella and save her from a life of sin – to a “fun vacation”.

He explained to Zavvi: “When making my TV show (Ramy), it felt like being in a pressure cooker; I described it as very “immigrant” because when working with a small team, you have to have your hands in everything. Here, I got to show up to set, listen to a master director and watch other geniuses at work – when you’re in Budapest, spending the day cutting open lamb organs with Willem Dafoe, I realised this was the strangest holiday I’d ever been on in my life, not the intense experience I was used to.

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“To be in a film with my favourite actors, people I’ve watched all of my life, is an incredible feeling. I started my career off writing jokes in my bedroom, now I’m on set working with people I idolise.

“In many ways, it almost sucks that this was my first film experience. There’s no way that it isn’t all downhill from here!”

Youssef’s character increasingly appears as the most sympathetic of Bella’s suitors, not that there’s much competition; Ruffalo, after all, plays a misogynist who would likely have an existential breakdown if you told him he was bad in bed, whilst later in the film, Christopher Abbott appears as a former flame with abusive intentions. It’s enough to make you forget that Max McCandles is first attracted to Bella because, as a Frankenstein-like figure, she’s someone he believes he could easily control within a marriage.

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The actor explained: “He definitely has that controlling urge that the other men in the film have, but I think he has a maturity they don’t. He’s the only man who shows any sign of growth, and that’s because he is the only one of Bella’s partners who loves her for who she is.

“That love is put to the test though, but that was a fun journey; I want to make audiences question his intentions, and just how sincere his emotions are, even as he sticks with her and they come closer together.”

Within a coming-of-age tale that doesn’t shy away from the depths of cruelty towards women, that arc offers some hope on the surface. But like much of Poor Things, what initially appears whimsical is designed to leave a far more bitter taste…

Poor Things is released in UK cinemas on Friday, 12th January.

Alistair Ryder

Alistair Ryder


Alistair is a culture journalist and lover of bad puns from Leeds. Subject yourself to his bad tweets by following him on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.