When Kaya Scodelario was a shy ten year old, attending a Catholic school, she was compelled to argue against religion in a classroom debate. “I felt an overwhelming urge to put my hand up,” she says. It’s the same impulse that made her successfully audition for the controversial UK show Skins when she was just fourteen. “It felt like something I had to do, for myself, if I ever wanted to get anywhere. Otherwise I would've just sat in the corner for the rest of my life.”
And now Scodelario stars as Emily Brontë’s Cathy in a daring new adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Directed by Andrea Arnold – best known for the grim urban drama Fish Tank – it features no music, limited dialogue, and a torrential downpour of poetic imagery. “She’s part of a new generation, a new direction film’s going in, and I really wanted to be a part of that,” says Scodelario. “I think Fish Tank is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I didn't think for a minute I'd actually get the part. I just wanted to meet her.”
Playing Cathy is a little like playing Batman; fans already possess their own unshakable image of the character. “It’s unbelievably daunting. Especially as Brontë fans are quite...” – she searches for the right word – “...intense.” Arnold told her not to read the book and not watch earlier adaptations. In fact, the actors never received a full script. “We’d only ever get our pages the day before filming. So it was like creating a new character. Something different. Otherwise I would’ve been absolutely terrified, and that would’ve held me back from doing what I wanted to do.”
Is Wuthering Heights a romantic story? “That’s something I thought about a lot in the lead-up to filming,” she says. “Everyone kept telling me it was a big romantic role, and I was so lucky because I’d be swooning over a gorgeous Heathcliff. I thought, well, that sounds nice – but it doesn’t really sound that interesting.” (She adds: “Personally, if there's a period drama coming on TV, I'd much rather watch a documentary about a crackhead in London or something.”) But she was soon convinced that Arnold’s take on Brontë was much darker than most. “It’s about how love can kill you.”
Scodelario is the only one of Wuthering Heights’ four leads not making an acting debut, and Shannon Beer, playing the younger incarnation of Cathy, was only twelve years old during filming. “There’s something so magical about kids,” she says. “They’re so free, and not self-conscious or scared.” She resisted offering much advice to her less experienced co-stars during shooting, though, as she remembered how powerful it was to be part of the brand new, never-formally-trained cast of Skins. “We were all in the same boat, and learnt as we went along. I didn’t want to ruin that for them. By the end of it, all three of them were pros.”
Watching Shannon Beer, on camera for the first time, playing a younger version of the same character – it was bound to generate flashbacks. “You could see that look in someone’s eye, especially with Shannon. She was falling in love with acting, and it definitely reminded me of me.”
Wuthering Heights screens from Thu Oct 11.