Assassination Nation is the film release everyone will be talking about this month – it’s bold, brave, fun and shocking in every way. Picture this: an entire town’s phones get hacked, revealing everyone’s most private emails, text messages and photos. What follows is a witch hunt (fittingly, the town is called Salem) after whoever is behind the attack and an outburst of vicious revenge, fights and violence. In the centre of it all are four girls, Lily (Odessa Young), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Bex (Hari Nef) and Em (Abra), who also deal with their own issues in an internet-obsessed generation. We sat down with the film’s stars Suki Waterhouse and Hari Nef to find out what it was like filming the vivid spectacle…
Can you introduce us to your characters in the film?
Suki: I play Sarah, who is one of Lily’s best friends. All four of them are incredibly witty and funny, while going through what a lot of young girls go through at that age. Right from the beginning they feel like it’s them against the world and they really push boundaries and fight to change the mentality of the place they’re from.
Hari: My character Bex goes through the same things that I go through. She’s just experiencing a lot of them for the first time. Love and rejection, feeling supported in certain ways and not supported in others: all these things are human, but when you’re a teenager your world is so much smaller, so everything feels bigger.
How did you prepare for the film?
Hari: The basic script analysis and character-building exercises I learnt in theatre school, which are journalling as the character, combing the script and coming up with a backstory. Even just learning the lines is its own kind of character development. The biggest challenge was trying to get back into the emotional reality of what it was like being a teenager.
What was your first reaction when you read the script?
Suki: It was written by a man (Sam Levinson, the director), which surprised me at first. But you could tell he just absolutely adored these four girls so it was like a love letter to them.
Hari: It was so extreme and vivid and I knew if it was executed well it could go above and beyond. If it wasn’t, it could maybe be a disaster. But after meeting Sam and learning a little bit more about his process, I felt comfortable putting my trust and confidence in the project. It’s an intense one, but I felt really at ease following him and of course following my three brilliant co-stars.
What was more fun to shoot, the everyday-life friendship and party scenes in the beginning or the intense riot at the end?
Hari: Yeah, those friendship scenes were my favourite. I mean, the action sequences were a new challenge for me as an actor, but I love the scenes where we’re all just hanging out and chatting. I think those scenes ground the whole movie and offer an emotional reality that I hope feels familiar to girls watching.
Suki: I mean there’s a scene when I get taken out by a car and I was completely bruised up by the end of filming it, but I quite enjoyed that part because you really go through it and it feels incredibly real. But to be honest the moments when it was just us four girls were the most fun. Just sitting around in the room, chatting. And it was actually real, because Sam would just record us talking for half an hour and we went off script a lot.
Hari, how was filming that fight scene in the pool?
Hari: That was one of my most memorable experiences as a performer. I really wanted to do all of it myself, even though they had my stunt double on hand. I was jumping in and out of that pool with rocks in my pockets to make sure I stayed under water. I must have been pushed into that pool about 18 times or something. The crew kept checking in to see if I was okay, and I could barely speak by the end but wanted to go on. When we got the shot the whole crew gave me a standing ovation, which is what every actress dreams of really. I felt really proud of myself.
How do you think this film differs from other coming-of-age stories?
Hari: What I love so much about these girls is that the film gives them space to be imperfect. They have their own prejudices and struggles; they’re not that pure, sanitised version of teenagers we tend to encounter in most YA-targeted media. I felt that with my character in particular. Her arc is emblematic of a message that we’re trying to send with the film. If you take away the fun and the popcorn-crunching girl power spectacle of it all, we’re telling a story about empathy and putting down your sword to look behind the ideology which you feel opposes you. It’s tapping into the moral code of human-to-human contact that transcends any polarised ideologies.
Suki: It also has that element of the internet in it which is unusual. The way the film was shot makes you feel like you’re inside the rush of the internet when you’re watching it. It shows the wounds of the people behind the screen. The crazy thing about the internet is that it’s almost become a separate organ for us. Your choices online are manifesting your future. The internet almost knows what your hopes and dreams are before you do yourself. Nobody understands or can keep up with it really.
Friendship is such a big theme in the film – what would you say makes the friendship of these girls so strong and special?
Hari: The friendship is the glue. That’s how they get through. I think that these girls understand implicitly that they may struggle individually, but together they are strong.
Suki: Usually, in a lot of female driven films there’s bitchiness or someone gets left out. That never happens with these girls and that was really important to us. We wanted them to fight together until the end. The girls all empathised with each other and it didn’t matter what each of them did individually. With everything else going on around them it was important they always had each other’s back. If they hadn’t had that it would’ve just been a horrible horror movie.
Hari: These four girls, who just love each other, is the one constant throughout the film that anchors it all. It’s not Mean Girls, because when it’s a mean world mean girls can’t play into it. No offence to Mean Girls, I love that movie, but there’s just a new way we have to treat each other nowadays.
Why do you think it’s especially important for girls to support each other in this day and age?
Hari: There is so much strength to be found in sharing your experiences, your love and your life with people who struggle with the same things you do. Something I think this film does really well and which attracted me to it is that it locates all of the very different things these girls deal with – it’s a relatively diverse bunch. It boils all of that down to one common thing and that is the expectation of how a woman should be, look, act, what she should do and how she should do it. Those rigid expectations manifest themselves in various ways for these girls, but they’re able to unite against a common thing. I think that is exactly how we should be relating to each other in real life as well. We should acknowledge and accept our differences – not steamrolling over them for some nebulous idea of community – and work together or, if need be, fight together. I need the women in my life. I love them and I wouldn’t quite know what to do if I didn’t have them by my side.
Not many films show experiences like this from a female perspective – why do you think we need more films like Assassination Nation that do that?
Suki: The beauty of Sam’s work is that he’s a really and truly empathetic person. These characters’ morals aren’t always intact, and it’s fun that in the beginning you’re lulled into thinking these girls might be stereotypical archetypes of teenage girls. But then you discover that there’s so much more there.
Hari: Good art humanises and better art finds the nuances in different kinds of humanity. If you’re making a film in this day and age, that deals with rage, righteousness, moral persecution and the consequences thereof, it has to be about women. We’ve explored so much of male subjectivity at this point. That’s not a bad thing, but I just feel like women are owed a turn. All different kinds of women. Telling stories about women is storytelling of the other. That is a lens through which anything is possible to see.
Has being in this movie changed the way you use the Internet?
Suki: Well for one, I’ve never been inclined to attack people online anyways.
Hari: I combed my Twitter and deleted my Tumblr in the wake of it. Suki actually got hacked while we were shooting, but I refuse to live in fear of what could happen. I refuse to live in reaction to a violation that someone could make against me. Plus, I have a feeling that if I were to get hacked what you’d find wouldn’t be so different from what you have on your own phone and I take comfort in that.
Suki: In terms of privacy, I still wouldn’t stop doing anything I wanted to do. I’m never going to change the way I live my life out of an unknown fear. What’s the point of that?
Assassination Nation is out in the UK this Friday 23rd November 2018