Interview: The Haunting of Radcliffe House: Olivia Williams

Williams 2Olivia Williams may be best known to genre fans for her role as Adelle DeWitt in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, but she’s also appeared in many such projects across the years, including the post-apocalyptic The Postman and The Sixth Sense. She stars as Meg Hamilton in The Haunting of Radcliffe House (aka Altar) which was screened on Channel 5 last Christmas, and is now out on DVD. Shortly before she returned to the States to work on her new show, Manhattan, she chatted with Paul Simpson…



What did you think when you first read the script for The Haunting of Radcliffe House?

Well, I came at it slightly differently from usual. The writer Nick Wiling and his wife, the producer Michele Camarda, are good friends of mine and so I’d had inklings of what this was going to be before I read the script. They’d been telling me they were going to make a haunted house movie in a house in Yorkshire in January.

I really liked the sound of it – I love Nick’s writing. He always has a quirky way of looking at things. They said they were offering me the lead role, which is always a lovely message to get for any actor, and then when I read the script, I was extremely relieved at how good it was. If it had been dreadful, it would have been very embarrassing. Fortunately, Nick writes beautifully, and given that it was very conventional in some ways, it was also very original.

Nick is the son of two artists, and I loved the whole angle of the ghosts possessing an artist. I think if anyone is going to be susceptible to possession, an artist is a very good person to choose. I also thought it was an interesting depiction of a marriage with a very creative person and a very practical person, with an underlying conventional ghost story going on behind the scenes.

haunting-of-radcliffe-houseDo you remember the old series Sapphire and Steel?

I remember it very well!

This film sometimes had the feel of that – I almost expected Joanna Lumley or David McCallum to turn up and be directing things…

I’ll take that – even if it’s not meant as one, I’m going to take it as a compliment!

Very much meant as one – like that, it doesn’t talk down to the audience. They have to put the pieces together rather than spoon fed…

I also think we have to pay our audience the compliment of taking it seriously. We took the drama of the marriage and the family and the possession very seriously, and considered what this must be like. [Co-star] Matthew Modine was very much up for exploring the idea of possession, its effect on the marriage and his relationship with his children, and the effect of this very strange place.

I’ve filmed a lot on the Isle of Man, and there are only about five locations there – and three of them are old Masonic temples, things of that kind. There is a very strange atmosphere that happens around those places, and the script, the place and the production design really plugged into that strange ritualistic sinister Victorian feel. I felt that the house did act as a character in the piece in many ways.

The film was originally released in the US as Altar, but from the comments in reviews, it does seem as if people didn’t pick up on that temple element…

I love Nick, and he loves nothing more than a bit of wordplay, but I think it ended up not being clear enough in the action that there was some weird Masonic ceremony going on that would have been on an altar.

haunting 2It sounds as if Nick wrote the part with you in mind…

I don’t know – I wouldn’t want to make that claim. You’d have to ask him that…

But how much did it change once you’d come on board?

Very very little. I think we pretty well shot what we first saw. Matthew and I did a bit of interesting work, picking up some of the stuff about our marriage in rehearsal, but very little.

What about working with the two youngsters?

They were great. I’m always amazed by these kids. The girl [Antonia Clarke] – she’s not a girl, she’s a young woman – has far to go and is very talented. The boy [Adam Thomas Wright] had that brilliance of articulation – he was meant to be a bit of a smartypants. It was very funny working with him, it was very good fun on the beach – that was a very good scene, and the part was very well written for that boy’s character.

How long was the shoot?

Five weeks in Yorkshire. We worked very quickly. The set ups were extremely quick.

Any word on a sequel – there’s potential in that final scene for a follow-up…

No, but I’m very available!

Maps toWhen you get a script, what do you look for when you’re reading it through?

It’s shifted over the years. I used to really look for a lead role and one that changed the script, and someone who had an interesting effect on the movement of the plot. Now, I’m being realistic, and I think there are many interesting roles that are very peripheral.

The David Cronenberg film that I did recently [Maps to the Stars], it’s not the lead role but it’s not a role that any woman would sensibly turn down. I loved that script – the script just made me laugh. There are some things that you just have to be part of. With An Education, a couple of people said, “Why are you doing this very small role in this film?” And I said, “I love the film, it’s a beautifully written piece of work and I just want to be part of it.”

Not many people are going to turn down the chance to work with Cronenberg!

Well, exactly. It was really fun. That script is so outrageous and interesting, I just wanted to be a part of the ride. Bruce Wagner, who wrote it, does write beautifully – it was a very very very entertaining read, quite apart from the film.

Dollhouse oliviaDollhouse was to my mind, one of Joss’ underrated series…

Good! I’m glad you think that. I think that too.

Has there been any serious word about trying to pick it up again?

No. Joss has left the television building, and he’s in movie land now. He’s in a place now where he must exercise his creative freedom. Dollhouse was still part of this relationship he had with Fox, and it was never going to sit comfortably. He has this chance now to do what exactly he wants.

I sometimes think artists’ work is helped by having some really painful boundaries they have to work within, and he’s had several thousand of those very painful boundaries. It will be very interesting to see what Joss does when he’s unbound.

What’s next for you?

I go next week to New Mexico to shoot another series of Manhattan, which is an American series about the invention of the first atomic weapon. If you like science fact put into a drama, it’s the one for you. You can get the first series on Hulu; it hasn’t come over to the UK yet. A wonderful lead, John Benjamin Hickey, is trying to invent the atomic weapon and I’m trying to find out what he’s doing!

RadcliffeFinally, if you were trying to explain The Haunting of Radcliffe House to someone who knew nothing about it, how would you describe it?

I would say that it’s a conventional haunted house with some really interesting writing about the nature of possession and the creative process, and it’s also beautifully made. It has the pacing and the cinematography of a really beautiful piece of film making.

The Haunting Of Radcliffe House is released on DVD 11 May 2015 from Image Entertainment UK.


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