Filming sex scenes is a deeply awkward business. The lights, the directors hissing instructions about where to stick your hands, the veteran gaffers looking bored in the background. Even with an intimacy coordinator at hand – a fixture on set these days – it can be hard for an actor to get truly comfortable among all that weirdness.
Not for the two stars of ‘Femme’, a terrifically tense, sexually-charged London thriller about a drag artist (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) seeking revenge on the closeted thug (George MacKay) who assaulted him.
‘I had to feel George up under the table in a club scene,’ remembers Stewart-Jarrett, ‘George had a cup on – it's all fine – and one of our co-directors came over to give us some notes. We’re listening and nodding and eventually I say to George: “My hand is still on your cup.” I’d had my hand on his groin for this entire conversation. It was one of the funniest moments of my career.’ ‘Neither of us noticed,’ says MacKay. ‘That's how you want it to be.’
Both are quick to give props to the film’s intimacy coordinator, Robbie Taylor Hunt, for helping them reach those levels of chill. ‘Given the amount of sex we have and the nature of the sex, we needed to feel comfortable,’ says MacKay. ‘I've worked with a few intimacy coordinators but Robbie was incredible,’ adds his co-star.
Chatting to the pair in Covent Garden’s The Garden Cinema after our photoshoot, there’s an obvious and easy chemistry between them. I ask if they’d met prior to working together on this film and they both laugh. ‘George doesn’t remember,’ says Stewart-Jarrett. ‘We had one very brief meeting that I was very embarrassed to have forgotten,’ admits MacKay with a rueful grin. ‘I was doing “The Caretaker” at the Old Vic and Nathan came to my dressing room…’ Stewart-Jarrett jumps in: ‘It’s weird to visit an actor’s dressing room in between shows, having not seen the show, and then never seeing the show.’
Given the amount of sex we have, we needed to feel comfortable
‘Femme’ is co-directed by Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping and expands on their own 2021 short film (starring Paapa Essiedu and Harris Dickinson). Like a Safdie brothers or William Friedkin thriller exported from New York to a nocturnal East London, it’s amped up with ’70s-style filmmaking energy and cinema-seat-gripping tension. Stewart-Jarrett plays Jules, whose performances as drag queen Aphrodite are stopped in their tracks by that brutal assault. Instead, he embarks on a mission to hit back at Preston via gaslighting and revenge porn.
It’s its own thing, but the feature-length ‘Femme’ shares common ground with the short, not least in showcasing two fast-rising London actors. ‘Misfits’ fans will have been early to Stewart-Jarrett, while his lead role in new Disney+ heist thriller ‘Culprits’ shows that Hollywood is waking up to him too. MacKay, of course, spearheaded Sam Mendes’s Oscar behemoth ‘1917’, to add to a CV full of canny choices like ‘Captain Fantastic’ and ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’.
In 2014’s feel-good ‘Pride’, he played a closeted gay man finding his tribe and embracing his true identity. Here, it’s a much more dark-edged vision of what it means to be at odds with your sexuality. The repressed Preston is all jagged edges; on paper, a tattooed menace you’d cross the road to avoid. But MacKay brings enough boyish uncertainty to stop him being an out-and-out villain. Freeman and Ping’s clever script keeps you guessing as Jules fits in with Preston’s lairy, PlayStation-playing mates while secretly seducing his target.
The idea of ‘drag’, in ‘Femme’s world, can mean sticking on a yellow hoodie and jeans as much as heels and sequins. Identity here can be a disguise or a maze to get lost in. ‘These people are speaking through their clothes,’ says Stewart-Jarrett. ‘Jules is away from the codified queer world and everything has rules, it’s all a performance.’ That made costume choices pivotal. ‘They really informed who Jules is in drag, or as himself, and when he’s trying to trap Preston – the power he feels in this kind of “boy drag”. My whole physicality changed.’
I lived in east London for years and “Femme” feels so London London
Stewart-Jarrett went to unusual lengths to master the art of walking in heels. ‘I’d asked for some training heels to take on holiday and I had these huge heels thrown at me,’ he laughs. ‘I saw a YouTube video of this guy going nuts on a treadmill in heels, so I thought I'd give it a little try. I almost cracked my fucking head open!’
MacKay had his own gym-based travails – mainly caused by Preston’s many tattoos. ‘The temporary tattoos would last about three days before they started to flake. I've been going to my local gym for ages and haven't had tattoos and suddenly I turned up with a collar. I was conscious of them flaking and people being like: “Why have you got a fake tattoo, man?”’
MacKay grew up in Barnes and Stewart-Jarrett in Wandsworth, and both got a major kick out of making a proper London movie. ‘,’ says Stewart-Jarrett. ‘We don’t have Big Ben in it,’ laughs MacKay, ‘although we did have a few scenes on a bus.’ One pivotal scene, that sees Jules and Preston going on an awkward dinner date, was filmed at Hawksmoor in Shoreditch. ‘I ate quite a lot of beef that day,’ says MacKay.
Both of them hope that ‘Femme’ contributes to a growing conversation around the nature of masculinity, especially for young men burying their feelings beneath testosterone and the pressure to conform.
It has the potential to pop... this is a wee beast of an indie film
‘We have a massive problem with toxic masculinity,’ says Stewart-Jarrett, ‘we need to talk about how masculinity can exist now, because coming from someone like Preston, it's dangerous. We've got to talk about our feelings.’ He adds a caveat: ‘We can talk about masculinity and how men haven't got that room but the argument is that the patriarchy – men in general and people who aren’t queer – have all the room and queer people don’t have the gamut to be themselves in many spaces. It’s a large conversation.’
Neither, though, wants to pull too much focus away from ‘Femme’ as an old-school, Friday-night-at-the-movies ride. ‘This film continues a conversation, but it’s not an essay,’ says Stewart-Jarrett. ‘I want people to be entertained.’
‘It’s an amazing film that Sam and Ping have created, and it has the potential to pop. It’s edgy, it’s current, it’s insightful, it’s exciting and sexy,’ says MacKay. ‘It’s a wee beast of an indie film.’
‘Femme’ is in UK cinemas Fri Dec 1. Read our review here.