Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby explores the story of Connor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) as they try to navigate a life together. The film is an unapologetic look at the highs and lows that come with sharing a life with someone else, and at its core, it’s an emotional love story—one that McAvoy believes people should have the chance to experience.
“I hope it will find its audience in the way it sort of didn’t in the cinema, unfortunately,” the actor shares. “Because when people watch it, they’re quite often sort of floored by the double bill of it. And even then, without the double-bill aspect, it’s really valid interest of 90 minutes of your life at the cinema.”
Shot as two separate films with differing perspectives of both protagonists (Him and Her, respectively), The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was released in theaters as a hybrid version called Them, which offered viewers a more streamlined look at Connor and Eleanor’s stories. Next week, the film comes to DVD in the original way that Benson intended, with the additions of Him and Her.
EW spoke with McAvoy about the challenges of filming two different versions of the same story, his experience working with Chastain, and more.
The following conversation discusses significant plot details of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.
EW: This is the type of film I wish would get made more. I was blown away by how affected I was after watching it. Did you have responses like that, from people in your own life?
JAMES MCAVOY: The only people in my life who have actually probably seen the movie are my agent and my wife. I first got offered that script five years ago, maybe even longer ago, and I said no to it because I’d just had a little baby boy. I didn’t want to touch something that had that kind of subject matter. We both went through this whole thing of whether or not I should do it, or whether or not I would be able to do it, and whether it would just be too much like self-harm to have just welcomed this little baby and tell this story about somebody’s baby dying. It was quite an emotional thing for my wife and I to watch it together. So we were touched by it.
To be honest, I haven’t got the first actual clue what most people would think of this film, because it’s is so open to interpretation. You’ve got the Them one, you’ve got the Him one, you’ve got the Her one, you’ve got the combination of all three, if you want. It’s such an empowering set of movies for people. I mean, any movie allows you to have a variety of reactions, but this one purposely and willfully inspires an even greater diverse reaction from people. You know what I mean?
Absolutely. And although most people have seen the Them iteration, the film is obviously the richest when you can see Him and Her because of the elements it adds to the storytelling.
The Him and Her is what we designed, those two are the films we actually made. Them is a movie that we never planned to make. That’s just a kind of extra. But what’s weird is it’s become the front set of the thing. And so hopefully, that will help bring people to the Him and the Her ones as well.
Since these were essentially two different movies, you had to learn two different scripts, right?
Yeah, we had two separate scripts that contained entirely different narratives. So a lot of the times, I wasn’t in her script and likewise, a lot of the times she wasn’t in my script. But even when we were in each other’s scripts, those things that were similar were actually completely contradictory in a lot of ways. You have me saying one thing in my film, and me saying an entirely different thing in her film. So that was quite good fun to do, actually. It’s quite discombobulating and quite a challenge, because you find yourself playing not just your character as you see them, but your character as she sees him. That’s not something that we usually do as actors—play somebody as perceived in the mind of another. So it was a first, I think, for both Jess and I. And while it was kind of weird and strange to begin with, I think we ended up enjoying it, because it meant we got to play with our characters quite a bit.
After watching the film, I’m imagining that the production was a little intense, both in what you go through as a character and also with shooting different versions and learning different lines.
And also, you’re trying to play the truth of your character. You’re trying to do the right thing by your character, to make sure his experience comes across, and that he’s understood. And then that becomes completely secondary when you’re in her movie and likewise when she’s in his movie, because you’re there to help her be interested. And even though you’re playing one of the two leads, you’re playing a supporting character as well.
You mentioned you had the script for quite some time before you actually started shooting it. Is there something specific that drew you to the project and kept you interested enough to stick with it?
I think it was Ned’s ability to write like an adult, which you don’t get a lot. And to write about the adult experience of love and how subjective that is, and how difficult that is, and yet how beautiful that is. Because regardless of all the brilliantly defined characterization in the adult-like way about how hard it is, he still manages to make it magical somehow. He still manages to inject it with something that transcends the tragedy of childbirth and modern love. He still manages to transcend it with something magical and poetical and just sort of beautiful. And I just thought, “this guy was amazing.” And he wrote it. And he wants to direct it. And whenever you get a writer who writes something that you respond to that much, it gives you such a key into the head and the mind of the person who put the film together, in a way that sort of sitting down with him on set and “talking the talk” could never do.
I know you’ve talked a lot about working with Jessica, but given your onscreen relationship, it’s clear you guys really found a groove together.
We had to come up with a whole tragic backstory and fill in all those gaps and agree on a lot of stuff and kind of create a shared history and shared experience. And that experience is so moving and so touching that you can’t kind of help but be vulnerable around that person you’re working with. And that’s a great thing, because it stops you from being afraid around them, and it helps you get that feeling of intimacy on screen that you need to have between two people who have made a child together. That intimacy doesn’t just become about kissing and cuddling and sex, it goes beyond that, and that was something that we really tried to do. And it helps that she’s just a really generous actress. She’s a great actress as well as a nice person. I saw her the other night, we reminisced about our time on set playing each other’s versions of ourselves.
I hope it wasn’t a depressing conversation!
Whenever we get together, we just cry [laughs].
This film is an emotional rollercoaster of love and loss in relationships, and I’ve read interviews where actors say that they don’t want to bring their own emotional baggage to a film because chances are, the audience already has a perception of them. And you want them to see you as the character, not the actor.
I don’t mind going to those places. I enjoy examining what it is to be alive and how f—ing hard it is to be alive and I get to do that for my job, and I have a great time every day in my life. I’m quite a happy person, so I don’t need to examine on film what it means to be happy all the time, you know? [Laughs] But yeah, as much as people go, “I just want a rom-com, I just want a feel-good movie” or whatever, we are obsessed with tragedy and we are obsessed with sadness. We are. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have all those Shakespearean tragedies, we wouldn’t have all that sad poetry, we certainly wouldn’t have all that maudlin horrible music that teenagers and students and even adults listen to nonstop. And drama just continues to be about tragedy, as much as people go, “It’s just feel-good comedies we want!” We do want those, but we are obsessed with tragedy. I am. I love it.
What other projects are in the works for you?
I’ve got Frankenstein, which I think is October, and then after that there’ll be another X-Men movie. And then after that, who knows? The world is completely empty of James McAvoy movies after that for a little awhile. [Laughs]
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and On Demand on Feb. 3.