Twins are always remarkable; they share a bond that is specific only to them. They can often read each other’s minds and even feel each other’s pain. Singleton siblings can, of course, be close, but there is something extra special about being a twin. (I know this because I have an identical twin, Henry.)
Twins are the subject of the extraordinary documentary, “Tell Me Who I Am,” debuting in select theaters and on Netflix on Friday, Oct. 18. Marcus and Alex Lewis are identical twins who were born three, maybe six — Marcus will say five — minutes apart. They're raised in a world of privilege with their parents outside of London. One night, 18-year-old Alex has a motorcycle accident and ends up spending weeks in a coma in the hospital. When he wakes up, he remembers only one thing: that Marcus is his twin brother. Alex must relearn who his mother and father are and what his life was like and turns to his twin for answers. Marcus fills in Alex about their lives and their family, but it's also revealed that he hasn't been telling the whole truth. In fact, for the most important aspects of Alex's past, Marcus has been lying.
Director Ed Perkins’s riveting documentary is told in three parts. The film opens with Alex telling his story — introducing the audience to his situation, as it were — and then, at a critical turning point, shifts to Marcus, who recounts some of the same events differently. The third act brings the brothers together. This is not quite a “Rashomon”-style narrative, but rather an unbelievable true story that gets at some thorny moral issues: Is it appropriate to withhold information from someone you love to protect them? How far will you go to learn what might be an unpleasant truth? And can one ever truly have closure?
“Tell Me Who I Am,” which is also the name of the twins’ 2013 book about their experiences, chronicles Alex’s search to work out what’s inside his twin’s head and discover the truth, no matter how painful. And it depicts Marcus’s efforts to justify his behavior, which may seem questionable, or even objectionable, to some viewers. The strength of Perkins’s inspiring — one might even say life-affirming — documentary is that it does not force the viewer to choose a side, but rather understand both positions.
Alex and Marcus, along with director Ed Perkins, met with me (but alas, not my twin) at this year’s Telluride Film Festival to talk about “Tell Me Who I Am.”
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you learn about the twins and their story?
Ed Perkins: I learned about their story five years ago. I read an article about the book and I was totally blown away by this story. It plays out like a psychological thriller, and yet it’s real. It’s one of those stories, that if it wasn’t true, you wouldn’t believe it. I thought the themes of memory and identity, truth and lies, and the blurring of fact and fiction were fascinating. But there is also this amazing premise to the film — an 18-year-old boy waking up in a hospital bed from a coma, and having absolutely no idea who he is, where he is, what happened to him, what’s his name, and he turns to his brother and says, “Tell me who I am.” What we tried to build the film around was this thorny moral dilemma that Alex’s twin Marcus is faced with: Do I tell my twin the truth, as difficult as that might be, about our past? I wanted to get the audience to really think: What would they do in that situation? Is it ever OK to lie to protect someone you love?
How did you gain their trust to tell their story?
Perkins: We first met five years ago. About three years ago, Alex called me up and said, “I’m really sorry, I know we’ve been developing this, but we just can’t make this film anymore. It’s too difficult.” And I got a call a week later saying, “Actually, we changed our mind. We think it’s important that we go through this.” So, one of the benefits of that long gestation period is that we built an amazing relationship of trust. I felt it was really important to just have them as the only two voices in the film. That was the first core idea. It felt imperative to give them space and agency for them to tell their story in the way that they wanted. We set up a studio and filmed interviews over seven days. We had six days of interviews. So, for four hours in the morning I’d be with Alex. Then we’d all have lunch together and talk about everything under the sun other than the story. We’d laugh and joke downstairs, and then we’d walk back up and all get serious again and go back in the studio. For four hours in the afternoon, I’d be with Marcus. Neither of them knew what I was talking about with the other. We stripped the crew back to the absolute minimum, so it was me, the cameraman, someone running sound and that was it.
Early in the process doing research for what the film was going to be about —and I often talked to them individually — Alex kept saying, “We’ve been through this extraordinary thing. It’s been really difficult, and the crazy thing is, we’ve never talked to each other about what happened.” He’d end every statement about their story with that. Similarly, I remember one day turning to Marcus, and asking, “Why do you want to make this film? What is it that makes you want to make this film?” And I don’t think we had an answer to that for a while, and then I remember suddenly looking at Marcus, and him [expressing] that there was something unresolved in their relationship. They wanted to talk [even] as hard as it was going to be to talk. Every decision we made was to try to create a safe space in which these guys could come together and feel safe enough to say the things they hadn’t been able to say to each other.
Where did your sympathies lie in this brother-protector narrative?
Perkins: I think it would be really difficult to spend the time I had with Marcus and not totally sympathize and empathize with what he did. I try with all subjects to not pass judgment. If I can stay impartial, it allows me to ask the really difficult questions. I had to ask Marcus questions that were difficult to challenge him about the more difficult parts of that dilemma.
How much of what happened did you know as you worked on the project? Marcus says in the film it was the first time he discussed what had happened.
Perkins: We knew about this incredible retrospective story, with all these twists and turns, but the challenge for us with the film is that we didn’t want to make a film of the book. The book did something in their lives. We wanted to make a film that built upon that and moved to somewhere totally different.
Marcus: The book is ambiguous. I managed to do the book in such a way that I could get away with giving [Alex] as little information as possible and making it ambiguous.
Perkins: I had a feeling that Marcus wanted to talk. As hard as it was going to be, I had a feeling from some of the things he said to me that — if the moment was right, and if he trusted me — that I would deal with whatever you said with respect. There was an extraordinary moment in Act III, when Marcus gives an amazing speech. You don’t see this in the film, but in the interview process, I said to Marcus, “Would you be able to tell me the details of what happened?” He looked at me and said, “I didn’t think you were going to ask me that! I didn’t think we were actually going to have to go there!” I think he thought that, like the book, he could go through the process of making the film without ever having to reveal anything.
Marcus: It was strange for me. From the writing of the book to sitting in the studio with Ed, and having had a five year relationship with him, meant that I felt that the whole journey had come to that point. We spent 20 minutes where Ed and I did this dance, and something snapped in me. I thought, we’ve come to the end of this journey. We’ve been filming for five, six days, and I can’t keep this anymore. I lost the power to hold the lid on and I said, “Fine, I’m just going to tell you.” When Ed showed me the [clip] the following day, I didn’t remember telling him any of it. It was almost like a trance.
Perkins: When I asked Marcus to tell me the details of what had happened, he challenged me, “Why should I tell you? I never said this to anyone. Why should I tell you now?” My response was, “You don’t have to. Screw the movie. You don’t have to say anything. But if you do want to talk, I’m here, and I’ll listen.” And Marcus was really unhappy with that. He kept saying, “That’s not a good enough answer. You need to tell me why.” I think he wanted me to say it will give me the ending of the movie. We steadfastly said no.
Alex, what observations do you have about relearning who you are, what things were, who people were and how to live? Many of us can’t imagine that experience, but your process is especially complicated as you had to do it twice. Can you talk about regaining your life?
Alex: The hardest thing is that I am actually not 18 [when I wake from a coma]. I’m a young boy mentally. If I was 18, I think I would have had a different journey. I wasn’t a mature 18-year-old boy. I was like a 10-year-old boy. It’s hard to explain. You’re trying to ask me to watch 20 TV channels at the same time. I could not do that. I could only watch one. Let’s go with a pair of shoes, and deal with that. And go to here, and deal with that. As an adult, it would have been different. In that state of mind, it was a very slow process.
You talk about photos being of happy times, and you said, “Normal is your family because it’s what you know.” What are your thoughts about having an idyllic second youth (if you will) and then having to reconcile that with some difficult truths?
Alex: Starting my life at 18 was an easier journey for me than having to do it at 32, when I did it for a second time [after stumbling upon a dark secret Marcus had hidden]. The anguish that went with that — and the intellectualizing of what everything was about — was 10 times more [difficult] than when I was 18, when I didn’t intellectualize anything. At 32, I struggled. It took a really hard toll on my life, and my wife had to guide me through the whole thing to the point where she said, “You just got to stop crying and you have to get on with your life.”
Are you sorry that you now know what you know?
Alex: No, I’m not. I had this innate want — which Marcus just didn’t understand — to know everything. Because, in a way, if someone gives you a little snippet, like he did, you put a monster in your head. You’ve made it this big, and your imagination goes wild and you go off in all different directions. All you want is the simple truth and you want to slim it down to something tangible. I was off on a journey, and he didn’t know that.
Do you blame your brother for what he did after hearing and understanding why he did it?
Alex: No. I get asked that question a lot and it’s an absolute no. A hundred percent.
Marcus, I’m very sympathetic toward you for what you did. I would have done the same thing with my twin. And that’s no offense to you, Alex, because watching you struggle and suffer for 20 years — that’s too much to put anyone through. I understand your pain and frustration at not knowing; it is palpable…
Marcus: It’s interesting though. Because most people we’ve met in America side with me, and English people [side with Alex].
Marcus, can you describe any sense of survivor’s guilt you experienced as a result of Alex’s accident that opens the film? He could have potentially lost his life, and you could have lost your twin. Losing my twin will devastate me…
Marcus: I had very little survivor’s guilt, because I knew he was going to wake up and he was going to be OK. All the way through the process, I was saying he was going to be fine. I had 100 percent faith that that was the case. I didn’t have any time to feel any worry or guilt.
Alex: Blind faith.
Marcus: I knew he had his accident. I felt him have his accident. I actually went to my mother at 4 o’clock in the morning and said, “He’s had an accident.” I knew the time when it was and then he went to the hospital and I knew he was going to be fine from the very beginning. So, the answer is no, I didn’t have any survivor’s guilt.
Do you feel a need to justify what you did as a brother-protector? The idea that you were playing God is floated. But I see your actions as sins of omission, not a manipulation; you didn’t want to hurt Alex.
Marcus: I always felt what I was doing was right because every time I got stressed about it, I would reverse the role, and I would expect him to do it for me. So that made it a straightforward concept for me.
Did watching Alex live without the knowledge of your past show you what life might have been like if things had never happened?
Marcus: No. It enabled me to live without it as well.
I kept thinking, if you don’t know, it can’t hurt you, but Alex’s need to know is so powerful. That’s where my sympathy was with you, Alex.
Alex: He was like “leave it.” But I couldn’t say, “OK, I’ll leave it,” because that wasn’t enough.
Perkins: One of the interesting things — I remember early on in the process asking, “Why have you never talked about this to each other? Why have you not confronted each other?” And you said, “Oh, we’re identical twins, we don’t need to talk about this.” After a while, I think the reason you haven’t talked was because it was too painful, not because you knew the answers.
Before the accident, did you talk about it?
Marcus: No. Even being identical twins, with the bond we got, fear overrides everything. You go to your fear mode and you shut down and you just don’t discuss it. And if you don’t discuss it, it’s not real, and it’s not happening.
Can you talk about the toll of leading a “double” life?
Marcus: That’s very hard. That had a big toll on me.
Alex: It required a lot of energy.
Marcus: It required a lot of energy and for me to be constantly playing a part. I look back on it now, and if we met Ed and done this when we were 35, things in my life would have been a lot easier.
Do you regret that you didn’t say anything sooner?
Marcus: Absolutely I do. Without a shadow of a doubt. It took the whole drama, and seven years, and a book, and a relationship with Ed, to get to that point to do that 20-second clip. And one of the driving forces for me is the message: Do it now. We put ourselves out there and if we help one person to change their life and talk about it and change their life, and move on, then it’s going to be worth it.
Alex: And we have seen that already with this film.
Are you closer now having come through the other side?
Alex and Marcus: Yes.
"Tell Me Who I Am" is available to stream on Friday, Oct. 18 on Netflix. Watch the trailer below: