At the heart of Hard Sun, the new series from Luther mastermind Neil Cross, is Agyness Deyn as Detective Inspector Elaine Renko. She’s a force of nature — in the first episode alone, she survives being stabbed and nearly being immolated, and instead of succumbing to the will they, won’t they trope of so many other procedurals starring a man and a woman, she’s handed her partner Charlie Hicks (Jim Sturgess) his ass. And all that in the face of an impending apocalypse.
If her star turn in Terence Davies’ Sunset Song wasn’t enough to establish Deyn’s bona fides as an actress, Hard Sun ought to do it. After quitting modeling a decade ago, Deyn has slowly but surely kept working in film. Hard Sun is her first TV project, and given how much of it rests on her shoulders, it is certainly an impressive debut to make. “It was really hard work, but such a joy to not have to hang up their shoes after a few months,” Deyn tells me, as she describes making the jump from one medium to another. “Renko’s such a badass, intellectual, enigmatic woman. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with her for six months?”
For now, we’ve only got six episodes, but the show, streaming now on Hulu, is still one hell of a watch. We caught up with Deyn to discuss the series, as well as changes in the film and modeling industries, and almost breaking Jim Sturgess’ nose.
Hard Sun is a very dark series. As you’re working through it, how do you keep that material from getting to you?
Neil is obviously such an amazing writer, and he writes these complex, interesting characters. He’s also, even though he writes such dark material, he’s an absolute joker. He has such an amazing sense of humor, and I think that, in some ways, speaking to him a lot about Renko, it makes you realize that when you have a lot of darkness, there has to be a lot of humor. So, while we were shooting it, you kind of, even though it’s such a grueling schedule, and it’s pretty full-on, you’ve got to have fun with it as well. It’s a fun story to tell. There’s nothing really humorous about Renko, but I think working with Jim and the rest of the cast, you just kind of have a laugh at the same time, or try to, anyway.
Was Neil Cross on the set a lot, or was this mostly in conversations as you were prepping for filming?
Yeah, he was. We were really lucky, actually, because we had about one or two weeks before we started shooting for prep, which was glorious. Brian [Kirk], the establishing director, and Neil, Jim and I got to sit down and really comb over our characters, and ask lots of questions, and do some rehearsals and things like that, which was really, really cool. Getting into Neil’s mind is such a joy, the way he thinks about things, and he helped me a lot in crafting Renko. He was kind of on tap for me even when he was back home in New Zealand. He was on the phone all the time, and I’m an actor that wants to ask lots and lots of questions and explore different things, so that was good to have him there to kind of guide me.
With regards to the larger plot, how much of that did you know when you started? Did you get the scripts intermittently, or did you know the entire arc when you started filming?
We had [episodes] one, two, and three. When I got offered the part, I’d read one, two, and three, and Neil wrote four, five, and six while we were actually filming, which he says was really fun, because after Jim and I got cast as Renko and Hicks, Neil said he was then writing for us. Four, five, and six, he wrote with us in mind, our physicalities, the way we talk, and things like that. So we hadn’t got a clue, and we only got scripts — because everything, obviously, is last minute in this industry — we were getting stuff, and then we would be shooting the episodes in a few days. And Jim’s like, “Have you read it yet?” And I’m like, “No, I’ve not got that far, don’t tell me!” [laughs] It was an exciting discovery as we were going along for the back end of it. It was just really exciting to get the new scripts, and see what weird and wonderful things Neil had come up with.
Yeah, that’s really cool. So, in the first three scripts that you read, was there any specific point or line or character turn at which you knew that you had to do this part?
Yeah, it was on the first page. I mean, as soon as you’re introduced to Renko, she’s being brutally attacked in her house. It’s the best introduction that I’ve read to a character, the way that she really fights for survival, it was at that point that I was like, “Who is this woman? What is going on? I have to figure out how I can play her.” And I think Jim had a similar experience with Hicks, because you’re introduced to Hicks with a sawn-off shotgun, pointed at someone in bed. Like, wow, these people are really on the edge of humanity. These people are living life in the moment.
The first episode ends with a pretty brutal fight between you and Jim. Can you talk a little bit about the fight prep that you did for the show? I understand that you used to do karate.
Yeah, I did. I never got the chance to do ballet or gymnastics or anything, because I had an older brother, and my mum and dad just kind of said, “Oh, well, you can just do what Greg does.” So I ended up doing soccer and karate and all that kind of stuff. I did that from being 4 years old, and fought competitively and thought that was the norm. I think I was 13 when I stopped. I think I discovered boys, and being an adolescent. [laughs]
But yeah, the prep started as soon as Jim and I met, because when you read the fights in the scripts, everything that he’s written, we did, which was really exciting for Neil, to write a full script and it doesn’t get reduced down to just a shove. As soon as Jim and I met, straightaway we were rehearsing. I think we kind of said hello, and then we were rolling on crash mats, biting each other. We kind of saw it as a violent dance that we had to learn, and you have to know where each other is, just because of safety and everything. So we drilled this fight constantly throughout the first block of shooting, and when we actually got to it, we were shooting it on the beach of the Thames. It was freezing, it was February, we were up against the tide coming in and out. We just did it all day.
Did anyone ever end up getting hurt?
There were some injuries that happened on that fight. There was this one punch that I had that Brian was like, “That’s the only punch I’m not getting, and I need you to come down harder on the punch. Come down harder, and lower.” And the stunt coordinator went to Jim, and was like, “Can you help Aggy out? Can you come up for the punch?” So we got these two conflicting notes, and I ended up punching Jim in the face, square-on in the nose. We just heard something crack, and I was just like, “Oh, shit. I broke his nose. I’ve just broken his nose. I’ve never broken anyone’s nose before, and this is it.” [laughs] There was lots of blood, and I stood there in tears, on the beach on my own, everyone swarming around Jim. We didn’t break his nose because I had a knuckle duster on. There were three knuckle dusters: there was the real one, which we obviously weren’t going to fight with; there was a medium one, that was really hard plastic; and then there was a rubber one, which we weren’t using because when I clenched my hand, you could see that it was rubber. So I was fighting with the hard plastic one, and then my hand started to really ache because of gripping this thing, so I was like, “Can I just put the rubber one on for this take?” So I had the rubber one, and if I hadn’t, the stunt coordinator said I definitely would have broken his nose. We had a cup of tea afterwards and made friends again, and it was fine.
It was fun doing all the fights, especially playing Renko, because that was the thing that I found so helpful in prep. I did krav maga, Korean stick-and-knife, and boxing for the prep, and with every punch and with every kick, I found her, which was very different from prepping for other roles that I’ve done, like Chris Guthrie in Terence Davies’ Sunset Song was a different way that I started prepping. But for Renko, it was that physicality and the way she stands, and the way she holds herself, and the way she can protect herself, that then manipulated into her emotional state and how brave she is. It was really, really important to get that, so doing all of those fights was very symbolic of who she is.
You just mentioned some of your other work, and I wanted to ask, what’s it been like to make the jump from film to television?
Really exciting. The thing about working with Neil and Brian Kirk, and especially the DP, Chris [Ross], there’s such a cinematic feel about it. In the way that we shot it, it was very similar — the time that we had, in some ways, for each episode. The thing that was so different was the amount of material that you have to facilitate. After the first block that we did, I was like, “Oh my god, I have to do this again? And then I have to do this again?” I’ve never filmed something for so long before. I’ve never filmed something for six months, and been with a character for that long. It was really hard work, but such a joy to not have to hang up their shoes after a few months, to be with them and constantly evolve with them was really cool. Renko’s such a badass, intellectual, enigmatic woman. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with her for six months?
The last year has seen a lot of discussion about both gender bias and the kind of raw deal that women have in the world, especially when it comes to working in the modelling and film and TV industries, and how much time it’s taken to make any kind of change. Given how long you were modelling, and how long you’ve now been acting, do you feel like you’ve seen that change, or experienced it at all yourself?
The climate of now is so magnified. If you look back, even when you play — I know you’re not in that time, but — when you take Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song that I did with Terence, I’m playing a woman in 1910, and she’s going through a change as a young woman, trying to find her place in the world, and her strength, in some ways in this masculine environment. We always have seemed to have this dynamic that’s occurring. It feels like, in a lot of ways, the root of it is the same. But it’s hard to feel change, it’s really hard to feel it and whether we are going through actual change. How do you feel about it? Do you feel like, in your industry, do you feel change? Because it’s hard to pinpoint whether there actually is change, or we’re just like, “There needs to be change.”
That is kind of what I’ve been worrying about. It’s a good thing that there’s been more discussion in general, but it’s more important to see if any change is actually coming out of it, and I’m not sure if that’s the case.
I mean, I’m represented by mostly women. My English agent, my American agent are women. I feel like I surround myself with powerful women who champion women, who also champion men. I’m always like, “Let’s not forget the wonderful men.” I don’t think it’s segregating men and women off all the time, it’s just having strength as people, and humanity, and allowing individuality and independence, whether you’re a man or a woman. I’m definitely pro-feminist, humanist, and not segregating, and not being just women, because I think there’s wonderful men, and I’ve experienced working with wonderful, wonderful men, who have an amazing projection of a woman, and the power and creativity of women. I have been surrounded by men like that, like my grandparents. It’s also hard to see change because it’s evolving constantly. I don’t know whether you find that as a young woman. You’re constantly evolving as a young woman, so you’re constantly changing, so to feel the change is hard, because you are changing, that’s the nature of the beast.
Yeah, it’s hard to feel it in the moment.
And you’re always going to be fighting for your own independence and integrity. But it is definitely an interesting time. But one thing I just don’t want to forget is all the brilliant men. I don’t think it’s about that, I don’t think it’s about them and us. I think that’s also a strange line to trapeze. We’re stronger together in a lot of ways, and you don’t want to just be like, “Just women!” That’s not how that works, that’s not how we procreate. [laughs] It’s hard to have an opinion about it.
On a smaller level, in terms of change, you’ve been acting for a pretty long time now, and you have some big projects under your belt. Have you found auditioning for projects any easier?
No, not really. Auditioning is an interesting experience, because you read something and you either connect with it or you don’t connect with it, and you try and create this person within a short amount of time, and try and communicate a little bit of your understanding of this woman. And there’s a certain fear and excitement in it, because you care about it, and obviously you’re auditioning because you would like to play the part. The one thing that I do know is that whatever role you’re supposed to do next, you’re gonna do. Whether you get the part or not, it’s all good. It’s all a stepping stone to the next part, so I kind of try to look at it in that way. It’s all useful. You just have to feel like it’s all a part of the bigger picture, and to have faith.
Now, as you’re moving on, is there a dream role or dream collaborators that you’d like to take or work with?
It’s hard to say specifically. I’m definitely drawn to drama. I love drama, it’s the thing that ignites my flame. I love playing women that go through some change, and are fighters, and have meaning in life — that are trying to discover life. I think that I’m drawn to that because I have that part of myself that wants that, and wants to feel that and experience that. I would love to work with Steven Spielberg, I mean, watching his movies as a kid, all these great directors that you’ve grown up with. That would just be really, really cool. You’d feel like you were walking back in time, into some dream land. But yeah, just women that have a massive point of view, and have something to say. I think that’s what I want to play all the time.