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Maisie Williams: “Even in kids’ films female characters are over-sexualised”

There’s a lot to be learned from Early Man. Stars of the new Aardman epic Eddie Redmayne and Maisie Williams tell The Big Issue why passion, hope and good football skills are the only tools needed to rock the system

It was a mammoth task. Telling a story of hope through football, set among Stone Age primitive people and Bronze Age brutes, overflowing with positive messages alongside gags galore.

Yet the latest painstakingly put-together claymation film from Nick Park and Aardman – set somewhere near Manchester, a few thousand years BC (Before Cantona) – pulls it off with the usual panache and charm.

So what can we learn from our primitive forebears?

Quite a lot according to Early Man’s superstar voice actors Eddie Redmayne and Maisie Williams, who play enthusiastic young Stone Age hero Dug and Bronze Age football fanatic Goona.

TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK

Maisie Williams:Early Man is a typical, comedic underdog story of bravery and teamwork and overcoming the impossible. Or the seemingly impossible.

Eddie Redmayne: Teamwork? I can totally relate. As an actor or a human. What is weird about the process of doing the voice for the film is that you are weirdly isolated. The team you see are the director Nick [Park] and one of the animators who will be reading the other parts. But you never really see the rest. I only did one session with Maisie, where we were able to interact.

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MW: Although football is a key part of the story, it is not the whole story. And the idea of working together and teamwork – it is a great way to show that through football. But I don’t know if I do relate, to be honest. I don’t know if I am that much of a team player. I never liked doing group projects at school. I’d have really great ideas and the teacher would say “and you’ll be working in groups” and I would go, “Oh no! I know how I want it to be.”

I am not very good at giving up control. So it is something that I am working on. But our voices and their nimble thumbs? That is teamwork at its finest.

ER: Going to Aardman in Bristol is mind-blowing, The sense of teamwork, with all the departments in one building – I have never seen collaboration quite like it. And collaborating so intimately, because everything is on such a small scale. So while our part of the process felt quite isolated, the making of Early Man is one of the best pieces of teamwork you could ever see.

UNITE AND FIGHT

MW: There is nothing like seeing a group of people uniting and standing together. I am very, very proud of the women who have spoken out about the issues within this industry, but I am really glad we are not ignoring all other industries. We are more visible, we are under a microscope, so whenever something is going wrong in acting, everyone is aware of it.

ER: And I think all of the conversations that are happening in our industry and across all industries at the moment are beyond important. I hope there is a sea change. But I think the success of female-directed, female-led films – the top three films of the year have had women in the lead roles – that is testament to the fact it is no longer an excuse.

MW: It is a common issue that people put women against other women, then women start pitting themselves against other women, and we compare ourselves. And it is so negative. I really, truly believe that uniting is the only way we are ever going to progress as humanity. And not just in the workplace and the issue with gender equality in the workplace, but with racial equality.

What does a real-life ‘early man’ make of Early Man?

POSITIVE ROLE MODELS

MW: The female characters in a lot of animation are hugely over-sexualised, even if they are a fish or an animal. It is so strange. Even in kids’ films. That is still something that is thrust upon you from a young age. This idea for this film started a long time ago. But it feels very topical at the moment. I like that in a kids’ film you can enjoy escaping into this fantasy world, but it is reflective of what is going on all around you. That idea of coming together and teamwork is important. And it is really nice that even in a kids’ films we send better messages – and not about sexy fish! No more sexy fish!

ER:Early Man has got so many wonderful messages. There is real, real hope and passion in it about pursuing your dreams and not letting hurdles prevent you from serious aspiration.

I’m trying to as I grow older become less cynical – Eddie Redmayne

MW: As a kid, when you are watching something that is ‘educational’ you know when it is just being shoved down your throat. It is important to incorporate good, honest messages into something that is really fun. And I don’t think it is that hard to do. This idea that sex sells has been on everyone’s minds. But it is wonderful to be part of something that is much smarter and treats the audience with more respect than that.

So Goona is absolutely perfect and the best role model for young girls. Right from the start I loved her and signed up to it. I thought she was really cool.

ER: It is nice to do a film my kids can see. I showed Iris, my 18-month-old, the trailer and she managed to sit through it. Obviously, she doesn’t have a massive concentration span, but that was good.

LEVELLING THE PLAYING FIELD

ER: Goona is the most exceptional player on the pitch and has not been given the privilege of getting on the pitch as a consequence of her gender.

There is nothing bad that can come from these women speaking out – Maisie Williams

MW: After showing the film to focus groups, in the third act they incorporated Goona more because audiences liked the woman teaching the tribe how to be a team and being the football coach. I feel very proud to be part of a production and group of people making good characters – even in plasticine – and making real women.

THE JOY OF AARDMAN

ER: Oh god, I am such a sucker for anything Aardman. I really, really enjoyed it – I was just hoping I wasn’t butchering my favourite brand of movie.

MW: I want to be as ambitious as possible in my career. And this seemed like a great part. Whenever this came up in my career I would have absolutely said yes, because I am such a huge Aardman fan. I want to be constantly pushing myself as an actor. And this film did just that. Using my voice as my sole tool and relying on other people to fill in the gaps – that was very strange and different.

ER: I grew up with Creature Comforts. I used to love them. Having talked about how much I love them recently, I realised I hadn’t watched them for ages. Have you been down the YouTube Creature Comforts hole yet? It is one of the great holes to go down! My favourite is, erm, what are they called, the seals in cold places? A sea lion! A sea lion being questioned with the microphone, and in the background a penguin jumps off a diving board, does a full-on swallow dive, and its beak goes into the ice and he is just stuck there. It is just pure joy. Wonderful to watch. One of the funniest things I have seen in an age.

NO MORE CYNICISM

ER: Playing someone who is 15, it was getting into that mindset of optimism. It is an important message to send out at any time. Nick and I were talking about how this character has such hope at the beginning. And one of the things I love about Nick’s film generally is the lack of cynicism. When Nick first showed me the model, you see his big wide eyes like this [opens eyes wide] and it makes everything you say sound wide-eyed. Your physiognomy ends up affecting the voice. I’m trying to as I grow older become less cynical rather than more cynical – and it is a battle, especially when the world is a very complicated place. Just to keep finding chinks of hope and living that way.

PLASTICINE AND POLITICS

ER: You’re asking can the group of young outsiders beating the guy with tiny hands [Tom Hiddleston’s character, Lord Nooth, below] be seen as a political statement? Totally. Absolutely. And there are more visual references to Donald Trump. I think the film is about not being bullied, not being told you are incapable, not having your wings clipped.

MW: I have been so lucky to have been able to play such amazing female roles. Even if this one is made of plasticine! And I have only ever felt very inspired and empowered in this industry. But every day I am learning that it is not quite that perfect and we have had some really tough years as women in film. It is opening my eyes to the fact that I have been extremely lucky. It is not like this for everyone.

But it does make me optimistic that there will be change. I don’t feel like anything negative can come from the issues that have been raised over the last few months. I truly hope this is only going to keep pushing us forward and going up and up and up. There is nothing bad that can come from these women speaking out.

After Game of Thronesfinishes I’ll either have more time to fight for women’s rights or do more voiceover plasticine work! And if they can go hand in hand beautifully like in this film, then we are off to a good start.

This interview was printed in Issue 1291 of The Big Issue, which you can purchase from The Big Issue Shop 
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