July 19, 2024

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The warm sun and cold shoulder of Rosamund Pike in ‘Saltburn’

5 min read

The actress speaks with a refinement that says, although she may not have been born into Elspeth’s manor, she at least knows those who have. In Rosamund Pike‘s clever hands, the “Saltburn” character is plenty salty, and her targets feel her burns — of the freezer variety. Elspeth is a virtuoso at the warm sun/cold shoulder art of manipulation, whose elegant gazes of cool disapproval can slam doors.

“I do want you; I want all of you,” says Pike in character (though by Zoom), “until you don’t interest me anymore.”

In “Saltburn,” as the matriarch of the fabulously wealthy clan luring its son’s (Jacob Elordi‘s) working-class college mate (Barry Keoghan) into its clutches for a summer, the actor, who surpassed chilly for full-on chilling in 2014’s “Gone Girl,” could draw on her own run-ins with the British class system for inspiration.

When Elspeth arrives to find Oliver [Keoghan] seated for drinks right on time, she coos witheringly, “ ‘Oh, Oliver, how punctual,’ which is not a compliment,” Pike notes. “Elspeth is able to damn with praise all over the place. ‘How clever of you, how punctual.’ And it just chills, because you know you’ve done something wrong, but you’re not quite sure what it is. And there are so many people like that in England, I’m afraid.

“You can’t try too hard. There’s just so many pitfalls in the English aristocracy, and if you meet any of them, you’re going to fall into some of them. It’s lovely to have a son at Oxford, and you want him to do well, but [working hard at one’s studies] is not really the done thing either. It’s this funny paradox.”

Pike herself attended Oxford, so she knows of what she speaks. Was writer-director Emerald Fennell’s aim true in her arch portrayal of the school and its scions? “Oh, a hundred percent, yeah,” says the actress. “It is a terrifying place.

“It’s baffling and interesting, and Emerald got it all right,” she adds of Fennell’s satirical take on England’s passive-aggressive — sometimes quite aggressive — class conflict. “I found it very fun, because it sort of assuaged lots of times when I’ve been on the fringes of that milieu and felt wrong. So I really relished playing the person who would’ve made me, Rosamund, feel wrong. It’s sort of paid therapy.”

Rosamund Pike as Elspeth, lady of the manor, and Barry Keoghan as Oliver, perhaps hapless naif, perhaps scheming interloper, in Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn.”

(Chiabella James / Prime Video)

Keoghan, playing the stranger in the strange land of the grand estate known as Saltburn, says, “I love the moment when I walk into the living room and Elspeth’s like, ‘You’ve got beautiful eyes. I just have this horrible thing against ugly people.’ ” He laughs at the recollection. “I’m trying to play it straight, but Rosamund just played it so f—ing well. I’ll always remember that moment.

“Rosamund was brilliant, and she’s always checking in on me; she’s a proper mother figure on set. And her little kids were there as well, and they were lovely, and her husband. It was really, really nice. She’s so far different to Elspeth. It’s crazy. But she’s funny, man. She’s funny as hell.”

Fennell has spoken of her interest in making a “country house drama,” which calls to mind the likes of Evelyn Waugh‘s “Brideshead Revisited” (in which the young protagonist is befriended at an Oxford-like college by a wealthy friend who brings him to his family’s country manor), but with significantly more poison and sex.

“I think Emerald is fully acknowledging her references,” says Pike. “Of course it is like ‘Brideshead’ to start with and then you realize, ‘Oh, this is nothing like ‘Brideshead Revisited.’ And it’s obviously embraced when [Elspeth’s son, Felix] says, ‘Most of Waugh’s characters are based on my family, actually.’ ”

Pike savored the details of the world Fennell created, down to Felix’s room being “a total pig sty” and “the fact that the family sat around eating Quality Street chocolates [common boxed chocolates affordable to mere mortals, as opposed to the nectar of the gods one might expect] as they watch ‘The Ring’ in a small sitting room when they have 180 other rooms …. The way she planned the dinners, what we’d be eating, and why.”

“I remember when we were doing the drinks scene, me and Barry out on the lawn, and the props master kept bringing snacks that they might’ve had. He said, ‘What about olives?’ And [Fennell] said, ‘Olives are far too posh.’ And we were like, ‘But aren’t we posh?’ She said, ‘It’s not done. Olives are too, you’re trying too hard. There’s only one thing you can have as a snack, and it’s Bombay mix. Elspeth is just going to be picking out from the Bombay mix the one thing that she likes at the top of that scene.’ That’s all I’m doing, is picking out the little green peas in the Bombay mix.”

Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) is the Mistress of her Domain in Emerald Fennell's savage class psychodrama, "Saltburn."

Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) is the Mistress of her Domain in Emerald Fennell’s savage class psychodrama, “Saltburn.”

(Chiabella James / Prime Video)

But under Elspeth’s shallow, appearance-obsessed exterior is someone desperately holding up that veneer, a former model from the Britpop London of the 1990s (the film is set in 2007) happy to burnish her own legend rather than face hard truths.

“I don’t find Elspeth unlikable,” Pike says. “She’s just baffling to me, because I am someone who likes to go deep into things and have meaningful conversations. And Elspeth is terrified of those kinds of conversations. She sort of doesn’t want to dip her toe into the water of emotion for fear that it will engulf her and suck her down with the bathwater of feeling.”

When a serious issue does befall the clan, Elspeth “smothers the family in small talk,” says Pike, chit-chatting away even the possibility of coming to terms with the uncomfortable. “She vainly goes on about the Pulp song ‘Common People,’ having probably been written for her, all of that.”

For the record, those lyrics include: “Laugh along with the common people / Laugh along, even though they’re, they’re laughing at you / And the stupid things that you do / Because you think that poor is cool.”

“That’s quintessential Elspeth to me,” she says, “implying that she was the sort of muse of Jarvis Cocker while at the same time appearing to kind of dismiss the very idea but making sure that it’s absolutely cemented in everybody’s heads. That name-dropping self-importance; I just love her. I love her need to be someone.”

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