Rosamund Pike: War correspondent Marie Colvin "was not fearless"

Salon talks to the star of "A Private War" about bringing "complicated admirable women onto the screen"

Published November 8, 2018 4:30PM (EST)

Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin in "A Private War" (Paul Conroy/Aviron Pictures)
Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin in "A Private War" (Paul Conroy/Aviron Pictures)

In a world and an era where journalism is under attack, a new film about Marie Colvin, one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, is indeed timely. Colvin died as she lived, covering conflict around the world. Salon recently sat down with Academy Award nominee Rosamund Pike, who plays Colvin in the powerful new film "A Private War," which opens nationwide Friday, to discuss Colvin's life and work.

This was a hard film to watch, an important film, very strong, and so many scenes shot, of course, to depict war and conflict in the environments in which your character lived, indeed. She was very fearless and rebellious, and driven always to the front lines of conflicts across the globe, to give voice to the voiceless.

The film does highlight her constantly testing the limits of bravery and bravado. What did your study of her character teach you about her persistence?

Well, one thing, I've really found that she was not fearless, as this little trope of the adrenalin junkie, fearless war correspondent. I found that real courage is when, my goodness, you have fear, but you feel that the pursuit of what you're going after is worth quelling that, suppressing it, writing through it, and keeping on going where you're going.

The film's called "A Private War." We're talking about a journalist who never went with the pack. She had fixers all around the globe. She had an incredible network of contacts. She was one of few journalists who had the ear of Gaddafi, who had the ear of Arafat. She'd have meetings with these leaders like three in the morning, largely because she could smoke and drink with the boys, and she would sit and smoke cigarettes with Gaddafi's henchmen and then be called for an audience with the leader in the middle of the night.

It was very interesting how she could straddle that, and she could write witty things about Gaddafi's leopard-skin shoes, or snake-skin shoes, and then go and be so empathetically involved with her subjects. I think "A Private War" is her taking that solo journey into combat zones, but also the private war of what the cost is. I think, especially in this moment, which you alluded to, of journalism under attack, and truth coming at such a high price [for] journalists like Khashoggi or Galizia, the woman who was killed in Malta this time last year for exposing corruption. Narratives are being silenced everywhere, but what the cost is of us getting these stories.

In her case, it was alcoholism, it was PTSD, but none of that detracted from what a remarkable journalist she was.

Absolutely. And we do see a lot of her writing and composing in these horrific war zones and scenes where children are being murdered, and their parents. She may not have been fearless, as you say, in other words in the way that she's been observed, but she did not seem deterred by danger, and she did make great self-sacrifice, the least of which perhaps was one of her eyes, despite mental illness that ensued. But tragically Marie Colvin did die in Syria in 2012.

If you could have met her, what would you want to ask her about her experience, or motivations, for constantly putting her own life at risk to tell these important stories?

It's funny. I feel like I've come to know her very intimately, although I have never met her. I would be sort of loathe to ask her direct questions, I think, because the way she always got stories was by really getting to know people. She always managed to bypass almost the interrogation of the journalist, and she'd get to the truth. She really connected with people.

So I think, absolutely, I'd love to spend an evening with her. I'd like to go out and drink a few vodka martinis and chew the fat, and hear some of her wilder stories. I'd love to hear some of the truly remarkable things she did, like going into Chechnya and embedding with the rebels, as they were seen on the Chechen side. She almost didn't get out. It was one of the coldest winters, she was walking over mountain ranges trying to escape under aerial bombardment. Exactly find out where fear situates in the body.

Then I feel I've explored a lot of it, because I tested myself, I tested the limits of my own fear in preparation for the movie. I went to work with the landmine charity, MAG, the Mine Advisory Group in Lebanon, because I wanted to put myself out of my comfort zone and go to somewhere that I thought was unthinkably dangerous, which was a live contaminated minefield, and see how with new understanding I could actually walk that line and put on the hardhat and suit and walk the minefields with a lot of women who were doing the job of de-mining.

I mean, Marie, she was a great storyteller. She had this glamour. She had this ability to hold your attention, but she never wanted to be part of the story herself . . . which was always a conflict when something like her eye happened. She lost her eye in Sri Lanka and obviously that did become a story, and that was so not what she wanted.

Of course, similarly, in her death. Suddenly, the Western journalist targeted and killed is the story, but I think Marie would've wanted the world to know that she was one of many, many, many journalists being targeted for speaking the truth, and many of them are actually killed by their own governments, as we've seen recently.

And you do see some of that in the film.

She descends into alcoholism, and she suffers extreme PTSD. Do you feel that this film might shed some light for the general public on PTSD further, for not just soldiers, but how other people who are involved in wars are affected?

I really hope so, yeah. We had a premiere in Los Angeles last week, and a woman came up, and she sought me out after the premiere, and she said, "I served in Vietnam for a year-and-a-half," and she said, "I just want to tell you, this is so important that you're talking about PTSD, and this is what I've lived with since that time, and people are not talking about it enough, and we haven't had realistic enough depictions of it on the screen," and it was something very close to our director, Matthew Heineman. He comes from a documentary background. He made films like "Cartel Land" and, more recently, "City of Ghosts," about citizen journalists inside Syria.

Because he comes from a documentary background, there are spaces in our film to really sit with the character, dive inside her mind. Some of the loneliest places [are] when you're by yourself, perhaps you've had this sort of maelstrom of the flooding of your brain with the images that you witnessed and the conflicts, then you have to go back a hotel room, or back to wherever you're sheltering — sometimes it was a bombed-out hospital — and file your copy.

We have a number of scenes in the film where we see the fragmentation of Marie's mind, and we jump inside it, and we see the cost of witnessing all this and the responsibility you feel to get an audience back at home to care how that weighed on her, and similarly panic attacks when she's back in London. It was the most intimate kind of filmmaking that I've done. It was the most exposing for me, I suppose, because you have to take your mind to a very, very scary place, and then just see what your body produces. There's no design. You can't plan for scenes like that as an actor; you just have to transport your mind and trust that the body will follow, if that makes sense.

Absolutely, it makes sense. Is it difficult then to withdraw from the role when it's done? I imagine, especially with one as difficult and all-consuming as this, to just sort of shut the door and say, "Okay, now I'm going to go play Marie Curie."

Yeah, it is hard, and I think there's a part of Marie [Colvin] that will stay in me. There's an emotional engagement with her that manifests itself at surprising moments. I was in the Hamptons at a screening, and I looked up during a Q&A, and I saw her sister in the audience, who I'd never met, but who I've thought about a lot in preparation, because I've had to take her family into my mind. Suddenly, I saw her sister, and I couldn't speak. I literally was in the middle of answering a question, and I thought I'm going to have walk off. I can't physically get a word out. I felt so just sort of completely overcome with emotion. So there are things like that.

Also, when I relive deeply some of the moments of the film, which were profound, because they were unscripted. Matt populated our film with real people, real refugees from the conflict zones we were covering, who were living in Jordan. We filmed everything in Jordan.

When these people really opened up and shared their stories with me as Marie, it was so painful, so immediately . . .  you felt you had in your hands this sort of fragile painful trauma and, for them, suddenly the situation was utterly real, and for me it was utterly real. So those experiences do, they weigh on me, they're there. They're not there at the front of my mind, but when I choose to go there, or really talk about them, they resurface.

I watched this the other night, and my children were tucked in bed, and I found the scenes of the injured and murdered children particularly difficult to watch. I mean, always war is difficult, but you really just clench up when you see a little boy your child's age, or something like that. So, as a parent, what did you want to share about Marie and her realities for the women and children? What do you think she wanted to share about women and children in these war-torn regions? Because so often the focus is on the soldiers and those casualties.

I think Marie, that was her big motivation, was war for her was not about governments. War was on a human level; war was the civilian lives lost, where people are suffering and dictators are killing with impunity. I think she had this unique ability to care as if she was reporting on her hometown.

She went to these conflict zones, which, for us sitting in America or in the UK, seem very far away, and she had a way of dissolving the space between us. She would pick out a boy, she would talk about a Palestinian girl who made this run out of a refugee camp in Lebanon, running to the place where supply lines, food lines were coming in, and she saw this girl picked off by a sniper. It was the detail. It was seeing that child, realizing that that child reminded her of one of her nieces. She took in the details of her pearl earrings. She took in the details of how she probably thought she looked pretty that day.

And the way that she would think so-and-so reminded me of my nephew, of my niece. That was, I think, what gave her the ability to sort of puncture people's bubbles of indifference.

She never was a mother. And how, obviously, I asked myself, as you would, I'm sure, had she had a child, would it have changed the risks she was prepared to take? I think it does, doesn't it? As a mother, you reevaluate the decisions you make, things that you do when you're on your own, versus things you do when you're [not].

Going back a bit, many of us were first introduced to you on screen as a Bond girl in "Die Another Day" — fun role — and your career has taken a really deep dive into starring roles with lots of meaty depth, particularly of women characters [like] Marie Colvin, and now soon Marie Curie, as you mentioned. What responsibility do you feel as an actor taking on these historical figures who lived these really big lives and meant so much to women and, in fact, to history?

The responsibility of playing Marie Colvin was huge, because she was loved so fiercely and lost so recently, and I realized that for many people who knew and loved her, that the very fact that a film was being made was unthinkable. It was too painful and too raw, and there were times when I thought I should give up. Maybe this is too recent.

Then just as I thought that, one day a taxi arrived at my door, and one of her closest girlfriends sent me these two items of her clothing. She said, "I want you to have these, and I want you to wear them in the film." So, every so often, there was a message that said, keep going.

I want to bring complicated admirable women onto the screen. I want to bring women who you undoubtedly think are brilliant but, yes, do they have flaws, of course. They have flaws, they have qualities that are vast, hugely likable, and qualities that are unlikeable. I'm not scared of that, because those are the women I want to watch.

There were all these fabulous women when Bette Davis was making films, and then we got to this age where suddenly women had to be nurturing and maternal — great, all those qualities are the central part of womanhood, but they're not everything.

Then when I made "Gone Girl," I'd come home to my husband and I'd say, "My god, I get to do everything with this part. I get to be all parts of being a woman." She can play sweet and vulnerable and appealing. She can sort of live that as her truth, and be generous and sympathetic, but underneath, she can be devious and scheming. She's all of it. She's all of it. And she plays with the stereotypes and indulges those and cons the whole world by pretending to bind them, Amy does.

Then Marie Curie, I'm super excited to [do] that.

People might not realize, this woman literally changed the face of the 20th century. She discovered the single biggest scientific discovery of that century, that led to tremendous good in the field of medicine, and also some of the worst evil in the form of the atom bomb.

I've done two biographical films, but neither of them I think you could call a biopic.

"A Private War," is trying to really make you engage in the mental stakes involved with being a journalist, a correspondent, and with "Radioactive," we're really trying to explore an explosion of ideas and run the history of radioactivity through 20th century.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

MORE FROM Alli Joseph

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

A Private War Film Journalism Marie Colvin Movies Producer's Picks Rosamund Pike