In Andrew Haigh’s intimate and emotional fantasy, “All of Us Strangers,” Claire Foy and Jamie Bell play parents who reunite with their adult son Adam (Andrew Scott) after a long absence, that is, his tragic death when Adam was a child. But don’t think of Haigh’s personal film as a ghost story. Foy and Bell certainly didn’t: They were there to create a believable mom and dad who just happen to look like they’re the same age as their son. “The fantastic or spectral element, I’ll never touch any of that,” says Bell, sitting next to Foy recently at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. “They are simply people who are alive and breathing, given this wonderful opportunity to correct some things.”
Grief is already such a mysterious process that the way Haigh presents his scenario makes it seem believable.
Claire Foy: What is so difficult about grieving is that you have to feel the acceptance that they are gone. But in my experience and that of those close to me, that is not the case at all. Nor should it be. What we experience as humans is very strange. Loving people anyway is such a strange thing. Why is it more strange that we are there again? He is able to conjure us in any way, in order to deal with something inside him.
What is the difficulty of depicting an entire marriage and parenthood in just a few scenes?
Jamie Bell: The histrionics are there in the text. In one of our first scenes, I say, “Look, I told you it was him.”
foy: And then you know who they are. And in one of the final scenes, when I say “I love you” and you say “I always wondered”… in that little thing, you see a complete marriage.
Bell: It’s amazing, right? Something so simple. And yet it evokes these really great universal feelings.
When a movie is so personal to its director and you’re filming it in his childhood home, are you constantly talking about his past?
Bell: I never felt burdened by any of that with [Andrew Haigh]. I mean, I would go up to him and ask, “How are you doing with this?” He said he developed eczema again. He hadn’t had that since he was a child.
foy: It was coming out of him in a big way. But she wears it lightly. Perhaps as a matter of self-preservation. But perhaps in recognition that he doesn’t want to be a burden on us or make us feel like we can’t make him ours. That made it that much more of an honor to have someone trust us with a personal experience.
Can you each tell me something you like about the other’s performance?
foy: There were times in this movie where I just couldn’t look him in the eye because he brought so much of himself to the table. You have such easy access to your emotions that it is so extraordinary. But in a very masculine way, which cannot be underestimated. What I like the most is your mustache. I didn’t want to make it too charming.
Bell: People like Claire, who have such control, this ability to trust yourself and draw on knowledge. I’ve been searching for that feeling of control for years. I have such a conflicted moment with that. Because he just goes “Bleaaah” and I’m like, “Please tell me he was rolling?” Whereas when you work with actors of Claire’s caliber… the bed scene, right?
You mean when Adam comes into your room and, like any mother faced with a scared child, invites him to crawl between the two of you.
Bell: Good. And I fainted. I can’t see what he’s doing. I just hear her voice and how soulful and intimate she is. Everything is in whispers and many things are coming to light. She loves having her son in bed with her and yet… that feeling of control amazes me.
That scene is very complicated, Claire: Andrew in those boy’s pajamas is just the edge of a joke, and then their exchange in bed is wonderfully touching.
foy: I think it shows the denial we were in, the fact that I never found it even remotely funny. I was like, [cheery mom voice] “Come on, honey, get into bed!”
Bell: Usually you would make fun of the actor and say, “Oh, you look ridiculous.” But I don’t think we’ve ever done that. I just forgot he was in his pajamas.
foy: I have that closeness with my own son. When you’ve grown someone into your own body, there’s always the feeling that that person can come back in, that you can basically become one again. I know it sounds very strange. But sometimes, as a mother, it is very difficult to achieve that distance.
Your characters react differently to finding out that their son is gay. There is discomfort, but also some moving reflections.
foy: I always felt that if she had been given the opportunity to grow in that role, the mother of a gay man, she would have done very well. I think what happens in her scene has a lot to do with her own judgment of herself.
Bell: They are people from a certain place and time. Not unlike the time I grew up on the playgrounds and football fields of England. It was pumped into homes: “Don’t do this, don’t show this.”
foy: There was no visible presence.
Bell: The other thing is that they are also someone’s children. They are hampered by whatever they have been through. Then they are offered the opportunity to change it. They are still the same people. There’s no massive catharsis, nor necessarily enlightenment, but they take advantage of the opportunity. And I think that’s the good thing about them.