Laura Benson is a British actress based in Paris – she was in Dangerous Liaisons – who plays a lead role in the controversial and challenging new film Touch Me Not (which also features Seani Love, a sex worker who appeared in the AoA Tantra Hot Tub Salon which was FB Live). Touch Me Not follows three characters, one of which is called Laura, a 50 something woman, who is in out of touch with her sexuality and takes some radical steps to address this situation. The film coasts a fluid line between reality and fiction. It won the Golden Bear earlier in the year in Berlin and is the London Film Festival on Oct 16 and 17th plus a special screening at the ICA on Oct 23rd.
How were you cast in Touch Me Not?
Through a casting agent, who works with the French co-producer. They were casting in several countries. I was asked to send something that I had shot recently. The film I had just done wasn’t out yet and I didn’t have anything recent in stock. So they sent me five pages about the subject of the film and I was asked to do an exercise: a video diary for my lover. I thought about it for a week and then did it and sent it, like a bottle in the ocean. The next week I was asked if I could go to Bucharest to meet the director. I obviously agreed. We had a four-hour meeting. I had understood what she wanted from this meeting. It wasn’t going to be a chit-chat… she wanted to feel who was in front of her and what I was made of. So my challenge was to go and not contain myself and be as free as possible.
What were your initial thoughts about playing this character, Laura who has difficulty with sex and intimacy?
What I had read gave little insight into her feelings and her struggle. She seemed cold and terribly cut of from herself… dead in a way. I didn’t know how I was going to bring her to life.
Were you excited by the original script in that you were playing a woman in her 50s who is the main character in this revealing/naked about vulnerability way? It’s unusual to get this opportunity, isn’t it?
I would say that what is unusual is to have a lovely part to explore (which has nothing to do with the age) and to work with an inspiring director that you get on with and understand in a way as well as on a project you like. All those ingredients are not always present all at once! I never actually considered that I had the main character and her vulnerability appeared during the process. I didn’t know before we started working that this would emerge. And yes yes, it was a lovely opportunity, which came out of the blue! I feel very lucky. I think that Laura could be 40, 45, 50, 55…
Obviously, it was a wonderful opportunity to have an interesting important part to play, considering that most important characters in the film are under-45! A casting agent friend of mine told me that in France when they suggest actors over 50, the producers and TV say ‘no, menopaused’! But I do more theatre than film, and a female actor’s age doesn’t have the same significance on stage, because there aren’t close-ups — the body and how you move and your energy are more important than the reality of your age. I’ve seen some Comedia dell Arte where the character is 20 and the actor behind the mask 80. So to answer your question, I didn’t realize really how lucky I was.
What were you challenged by in the process as an actress where it sounds like you had to get in touch with your own vulnerabilities?
For me, the challenge wasn’t as much about being in touch with my vulnerabilities than it was about dealing with my fear of the unknown, my lack of confidence and my doubts.
And how did the improvisation go? Do you enjoy this way of working?
The script was just a starting point, like a trampoline that we could bounce off. A kind of skeleton, if you like. It acted as a kind of safety net. There was very little dialogue. A great deal of the material, the nature of the interaction, came from what was happening on set and how it was happening. Doing a scene when you have no idea where it is going to go, and more to the point – if it is going to go anywhere at all can be very uncomfortable. I would say that ‘exploring a situation’ rather than ‘acting a prewritten scène’ is a lovely way of working when you have a director that you can understand (and can understand you) and with whom you share the same vocabulary. There is a certain amount of preparation needed in that kind of approach. Adina has her way of working that takes you into a profound process, so you’re not lost and you are pretty charged. What was nice about the relationship on set, was that she was as worried and excited as us. So we all worked together (technicians included because for the camera and sound people, it wasn’t easy either) to do the best we could. The work was about being in the present moment, being spontaneous and authentic.
What did you discover personally?
I discovered how little I knew! How much there is to experiment with! I think the most surprising thing I discovered was when I was filming myself on a day off. It was a way of staying involved in the process and not losing touch with the film. It was something that spontaneously came to me when I woke up that morning. I put my body in the window frame (the window was very big) and I pushed and pushed against the structure. The architecture became my prison. And since I had voluntarily put myself in that space – that I wasn’t a victim – my frustration and anger transformed into pleasure. Close to a sexual pleasure. It was very empowering. When Seani Love talks about ‘conscious kink changing the world’, I understand how some sexual activities can release and transform very powerful negative energies. And that changed my outlook on BDSM.
What kind of dialogue about sex and intimacy was going on between you and the director, Adina Pintilie? This is also included in the film?
We spoke about many many things; I don’t remember it being focused on sex. But the conversations, when we weren’t talking about work, were generally intimate I think they contributed to creating a particular dynamic based on trust.
Did it make a difference having a female director?
I have often worked with women. Doing this film with a man would no doubt have been very different… but how, I cannot exactly say.
Do you think it is valid not to explore why the character Laura has ended up with such difficulty in her sex and intimacy life? Anger with her father is intimated but not explored.
I think that Adina is more interested in looking at someone’s attempt and struggle to change than explaining where the problem comes from. As far as I am concerned, we don’t need to know where Laura’s problem comes from – what is important is that she can move towards going beyond it. A young couple at a film festival said that it was the only ‘positive’ and ‘uplifting’ film they had seen in the film festival.
What was your interaction with Seani Love like? He was in our AoA FB Live Hot Tub event on Tantra, we loved him. He’s playing himself in the film? A sex worker, who deals with intimacy issues.
Seani’s work is really interesting and I would say that the interaction we had is what you see in the film. We didn’t meet and talk before, my only interaction with him is when we were on set filming. I didn’t even see his face before he came into my sitting room!
Were there moments when you had to say ‘No’ to the director?
No. Adina was very respectful of limits even though wanting everything! She never – or rarely – asked for anything precise. So the limits were where you yourself put them. I asked her at the beginning of the film, when we were preparing the escort scenes : ‘Are you expecting me to sleep with them?’ She said: ‘you do what you want’. Things were generally not decided before. It was more organic than that.
The film’s reviews have been very mixed, I read the Guardian one by Peter Bradshaw and laughed. I wondered if this is because these reviewers have difficulty themselves with intimacy issues?
I think the reactions correspond to the anger someone can feel when they are going out to have fun and escape reality, then find out that someone is forcing them to have a therapy session and that they weren’t asked if they wanted, let alone warned that they were going to have one (whether they like it or not).
What kind of conversations has come out of it for you?
People have shared some lovely things. One young man said that he spent his first night with his girlfriend just after they had both seen the film and that it totally changed his way of relating with her and changed both of their approaches to their intimacy. I am surprised because a lot of people have thanked me and given me hugs. I recently spoke to a woman who said she was happy to meet me because she had been worried about me during the film. I think it is a film that is a relief for a lot of people who have suffered feelings of inadequacy. In Kiev, a young woman had been thrown out of a café three weeks earlier because she suffered from cerebral palsy. She was so pleased to see the film. It gave her courage and hope.
What did you enjoy about making this kind of film? And the responses?
I enjoyed the complicity with Adina, the challenge and adventure and am relieved that I managed to overcome any fears and doubts, or at least deal with them. I am pleased to have managed to be spontaneous. So I guess that I have grown up a bit!