When Jodie Comer first encountered the script for her biggest film role to date, she had difficulty finding the character. Literally.
When the British actress, best known to American audiences for her Emmy-winning work as the slippery assassin Villanelle in the lauded AMC drama “Killing Eve,” was first tapped to play Marguerite de Carrouges in Ridley Scott’s fact-based medieval drama “The Last Duel,” she struggled to see much depth to the woman as she was portrayed in Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener’s screenplay.
“Even when I was reading the script, it says its heart and soul is this woman, and I’m reading it and I’m going, ‘Okay, okay, well, I’m looking for her, and I can’t see her,’” Comer said in a recent interview with IndieWire.
The problem went away once she finished it. By the end of “The Last Duel,” Marguerite emerges as both the film’s hero, its raison d’etre, and the ideal showcase for an actress eager to upend expectations.
Told in three distinct chapters, the film follows Marguerite, her husband Jean de Carrouges (Damon), and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) as the trio attempt to explain away their sides of a tangled story. Fast friends turned bitter enemies, Carrouges and Le Gris’ long-simmering disagreements come to a startling head when Marguerite accuses squire Le Gris of rape, with knight Carrouges eventually responding by challenging him to a duel to the death, the last event of its kind in French history.
Needless to say, there’s a valid reason why Marguerite is undeveloped in the film’s first two chapters, which are blinded by male ego and its jilted perspective. But by the time the film works up to the final chapter, Marguerite is the real star — and so is Comer. It’s the sort of juicy, tricky role any performer would relish playing, but Comer said there was a personal edge to the work that helped fuel it even further.
“Even when I got announced for the role, people were like, ‘Oh, she’s playing the wife. It’s about a duel. She’s going to be doing the cooking and the cleaning and then probably not saying very little,’” she said. “And, in [Jean and Jacques’] perspective, she is pretty much doing that, because that’s how they see her, but then you get the payoff at the end. I thought that was really, really clever.”
Comer said that little about the script and its unique format changed during production, though one tweak ensured that its overall perspective remained unimpeachable. Each section of the film opens with intertitles that introduce which character is performing this particular telling, starting with “The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges,” followed by “The Truth According to Jean Le Gris,” and finally, “The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges.” But before Marguerite’s story starts, part of the intertitles fade away, until only “The Truth” is left, blazing on the big screen.
“The Last Duel”
20th Century Studios
“I think that was always the intention for all of us,” Comer said. “I think that was actually a decision made in post, when they were editing the movie together, especially in regards to how long that stays, and it stays there for a little while before it fades, which I loved. But we just always wanted and needed people to come away from watching this movie thinking, ‘I know that her story was the truth.’”
Comer had a clear understanding of the earlier chapters. “It was what their ideas of me were,” she said. “You never really see her taking control of the home [in the other tellings]. In Carrouges’ story, he does the books and he looks after the horses, and he doesn’t do that very well, which we come to learn. She’s not afforded that space to show that part of herself. I didn’t treat her as different characters, but I was always just having to [engage] with a very surface level take in those narratives.”
Comer enjoyed the final chapter “when you see her and all her glory.” There’s plenty of overlap between the three tellings, and Comer delighted in being able to play the same scene in different ways. Her favorite of those challenges involved a dinner scene that takes place before Carrouges heads off to Paris to collect payment for his latest campaign.
In the first version, told from Carrouges’ perspective, Marguerite all but begs her husband not to leave, pleading, “No, please stay.” But in Marguerite’s version, she’s totally unbothered, eating her food, and only tossing off a sarcastic, “No, please stay.” You can practically hear the eye-rolling. “It was those little moments that I really tried to find just to really kind of give a nod to the audience of what I really think of him,” she said with a laugh.
What Marguerite thinks of Jean is central to “The Last Duel,” and the role required nothing less than an active, thoughtful performer to embody her. Even in the different tellings, Marguerite casts such a spell because she appears to be the only character capable of inner reflection. That seems to be what Scott saw from the start, as Comer first came to the project without even reading a full script. Mostly, she said, the filmmaker wanted to talk to her.
“I had an email that said Ridley wanted to meet me for the role, and it had a brief description and said it was based on a book, so I bought the book and started reading,” she said. Soon, she met with Scott and the pair “just had a chat,” with the filmmaker peppering Comer with all kinds of questions. Now, she realizes that Scott isn’t a big fan of auditioning actors just off a script, preferring to “have a sense of who they are and see how creative they are or how their imagination works,” she said.
Jodie Comer, Ridley Scott, and Matt Damon behind the scenes of “The Last Duel”
Comer recalled with some amusement that Scott was confused when he finally realized that she hadn’t yet seen the screenplay, and insisted she read it to provide her honest feedback. Once she read it, she barely even ran it by her agents before she signed on.
“They were like, ‘Okay, but can we know what it is? Can we read it?,’” she said. “It was a no-brainer, really. When I saw the format of the script and this idea of perspective and the fact that it was Matt and Ben and Nicole and Adam, I was just like, ‘Yes.’” (As for Scott, he has already cast her in his next project, “Kitbag,” in which she’ll play another unsung historic figure — Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Josephine, opposite Joaquin Phoenix.)
While Damon and Affleck took on the bulk of the writing duties when it came to telling Jean and Jacques’ sides of the story, Holofcener was brought on to craft Marguerite’s perspective. “She brought a nuance to the script that wouldn’t have been there before, because there’s just an understanding of the female experience and that kind of sensibility,” Comer said. “It was so great to have her and really be able to open up and be vulnerable and share things and feed that in any which way we wanted to.”
At the heart of “The Last Duel” are deeper questions about the fallibility of human perspective. In both Le Gris and Marguerite’s chapters, the attack is played out in wrenching detail, but some audiences will respond differently to each chapter. That’s the point, Comer said.
“The Last Duel”
“I think, without a doubt, both scenes and both explorations are rape and it’s unfathomable,” she said. “How does Jacques not see that? That is the beauty of exploring these types of things, and they are tricky and they’re difficult to watch, but they start conversations and you realize that everything’s not black and white.”
Comer said she strove to find the different beats to each version of the story. From Jacques’ perspective, for instance, the moment when Marguerite starts backing away from him before he attacks her needed to have the slight sense that she’s making “an invitation” to him (at least, as far as he can tell), while Marguerite’s version of the scene required no such gray area. In both depictions, she’s backing away and saying no, but with a slight inflection of a word or a more gentle movement, the nuances have radically different connotations.
While all of the stories converge in the same place — that titular last duel, of course — before that bloody battle, the trio must go to court, where both men make their claims before Marguerite herself is put on the stand and subjected to a volley of intrusive questions by a litany of men who don’t give a damn about her.
“I had all those men surrounding me, asking me those questions,” Comer said. “To have those eyes on you when acting is one thing, but then to really kind of embrace that, to be able to use it was huge.”
“The Last Duel”
Comer said she channeled the the adrenaline of the scene straight into her performance, using that feeling of “public embarrassment and violation” when Marguerite is being asked about her sexual desires and pleasures. “And she says, ‘How am I supposed to enjoy rape?,’” she said. “When I try to imagine what that must have been like for her in that situation…” She paused. “Those scenes were always really, really charged,” Comer continued. “You could hear a pin drop.”
Ultimately, she concluded that if Marguerite could do this, she could, too. “You only have to look at the history of what she was up against as a woman, to be like, ‘Why would she do this? Why would she ever decide to do this when her life was at stake?’ It just doesn’t make any sense,” Comer said. “Then you realize how remarkable it was that she did stand up, and she didn’t back down. And there’s that moment within the courtroom when she looks at that man square in the eye, and she’s like, ‘I’m telling the truth.’ So strong.”
A 20th Century Studios release, “The Last Duel” will be released in theaters on Friday, October 15.
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