A Word With: Kiera Duffy on Becoming Bess, the Heroine of ‘Breaking the Waves’

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What was your reaction when you first saw the film?

I was equal parts devastated and totally thrilled. Bess is a modern-day martyr type, in the best sense, and Emily Watson gives this monumental performance. I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel the specter of it. It is the kind of performance that leaves an impression. But I swore to myself that I would not watch the film again. I was very nervous, and wary, about Kiera Duffy playing Emily Watson playing Bess.

James Darrah, the director, said we’re not trying to do a theatrical remake of the film version. The beauty of opera is you’re able to freeze moments in time and delve deeper into the psychologies. Missy created a piece that really stands on its own.

It’s hard to always understand what’s motivating Bess. How do you approach her?

I think this story is about a woman trying to survive in this very bleak emotional landscape, and trying to be good, as glib as that may sound. I think she’s just trying to do the right thing. And unfortunately there’s a lot of misunderstanding in Bess’s world.

Photo

Kiera Duffy in “Breaking the Waves.”

Credit
Mark Makela for The New York Times

She’s childlike in her extremes. I have a 17-month-old toddler and I see a lot of similarities. There’s not a lot of nuance in her emotional world. When she’s feeling good, she’s feeling wonderful, and when she’s feeling sad, she’s in a level of desperation that most of us don’t know. There’s no pretense about her. She sees the world in this very open-eyed way. Which makes the story so incredibly devastating.

What were the most challenging aspects?

Some of the sexuality is quite brutal, just as a human being and certainly as a woman. The first time, especially, when you start to do those scenes is really difficult. To James Darrah’s credit, I think he could see me struggling with that and going into myself a little, which wasn’t conducive to this character. And he would step in and make it very clinical. Because it was very scary for me.

Is the nudity difficult? Surprisingly, not so much. Obviously the first time you drop trou is really scary. But quite honestly, there’s just so much going on, there isn’t a whole lot of time to dwell on it. And if I’m really in the moment, if I’m really in the head space of Bess, I’m not feeling self-conscious.

How did you prepare?

I had probably the most rigorous routine I’ve ever had in my professional life for this role. There was a lot of physical conditioning I had to do. It’s a monster role, and the emotional stakes just get higher and higher and that takes an incredible toll physically. I have never done a role that requires this much singing, this heavy an emotionality. You have to be very mindful about when to save, just not putting all the emotion in the voice. The first act is almost a whole opera in itself. The first time we did the third act in the dress rehearsal, I almost couldn’t make it to the end.

So I would eat fatty fish beforehand. I would have chunky peanut butter toast. I would have a huge salad with nuts and more fatty fish. Bananas. I did a lot of coconut water. I did Gatorade, which I never do. But I felt since I was using the sugars and carbs, I could do it. It was very much what I imagine athletes do, not that I would want to compare myself to them in terms of physical condition.

And then were you carrying the emotional weight home with you?

It was hard to shake off, but when you have a small child you have no real choice but to hook back into your real life. I think it could have taken a much heavier toll on me had I not had my little guy to come home to. When you’re changing diapers, you’re not able to wallow.

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