Lola Bessis on why ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is the feminist period drama we have been waiting for

Loosen up those corsets ladies, things are getting intense...

07 Aug 2018

Outwardly is one of those impossibly chic Parisians who you want to emulate so badly, you verge on jealous AF. However, beyond the veneer of cool Lola, star of BBC’s cracking adaption of Picnic at Hanging Rock, is as layered as the show’s storyline.

Not only is she one of those rare actresses who acts from the gut, but Lola wrote and starred in her first feature film, Swim Little Fish Swim, a tale about an interfering new flatmate who wedges herself in the middle of a fragile relationship of a nurse and her musician husband. If that wasn’t enough, the twenty-five-year-old has directed short films for Chloé and as we speak, her mind is flooded with ideas as she is in the process of writing another project – “maybe I will write something about a female footballer,” she enthusiastically exclaims, so inspired is she by the French World Cup victory the night before. Such is the life of a millennial multi-hyphenate.

But her role as French teacher, Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, in Picnic at Hanging Rock will firmly put this astute actress centre stage. Set in the early twentieth century, the six-part re-make of the cult classic 1975 film goes beyond the mystery that surrounds the disappearance of a set of boarding school girls and their relationship with their icy cold school mistress (Natalie Dormer) to explore the expectations that surround female beauty and sexuality. Not just your typical corset costume drama then? As Lola defiantly says, “Absolutely not – it’s a modern reimagination!”

Here Lola, whilst sharing her behind the scenes diary, confides that roles for actresses are STILL restricted to the limiting position of the ‘girlfriend’ and why this is the feminist drama we have all been waiting for – despite those corsets…

In this period drama the women are subjects NOT objects…

Larysa Kondracki, the director, is such a strong filmmaker and wanted to give the story back it’s female point of view. The book was written by a woman whereas the film was directed by a man and we see the female characters through a male perspective. I first spoke to the director, about the role on Christmas eve and I said to her, "I am so glad you are thinking of me because I love the movie!". She just said to me, "I don’t give a sh*t if you like the movie because this is going to be so different!". I love her because she says exactly what she thinks. In my memory, it’s about girls who are coming of age and as a woman, that is a very difficult time. Even though it’s set in the 1900s, there are so many similarities with today, too. But here the girls are subjects not objects as they have their own desires and their own will. This is why I wanted to do the show because it is super feminist, not just in the narrative, but the way it was made as there are a lot of women in the crew, not just in the cast.

The cast made me realise you should never overthink…

Spending time with the teenage actresses who play the school girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock made me realise you should never overthink anything when it comes to acting. You should keep it natural – you need to tell your body to remember what being younger feels like. Your body has an amazing memory you can tap into. We had a lot to do in not a lot of time and when you have a lot of people working in a close space, you are there for each other when personal things happen. It was the best experience I have ever had as when it get difficult on set, you are surrounded by the best.

The corset puts women in a box but these girls aren’t just wives and daughters…

I didn’t have time to research the role as I found out I had the job less than a week before we started filming and I had to travel from France to Australia. I was very stressed out about the fact I was doing my first period piece as I had no idea how you were meant to behave in the 1900s as the social norms are completely different; there was even a specific stipulation over how you should eat!

As soon as I got in my trailer and I had my fittings, I was fine because when you put the corset on, you know what it means, there is only one way of doing anything – one way of walking, one way of sitting and one way of behaving. The corset is a great metaphor for the situation of women as you have to fit in constantly, you have to fit into a box that society wants you to be in. Women weren’t entitled to have their own wills and desires, they had to marry a man their parents chose for them. They have to reject and ignore their own personal desires. The series is super modern therefore, in a way, because when you think of the 1900s, you think women were just wives and daughters doing what they were told. The show isn’t about that. When you see the scene where the girls undress and throw their corsets in the air, it is super symbolic.

You can play any character you want to it’s just other people who try to pigeon hole you…

I learnt so much from Natalie Dormer. She is professional and generous in her acting. When you act in France with really famous actors, they get to do their thing and then leave. They don’t give you anything and when you do counter-shots, they just leave and someone else reads their lines. Natalie wasn’t like that at all. Sometimes when we had two units running at the same time, she would do her best to try and stay to read the lines. What I learnt from her is that you can play any character; it’s just other people who try to pigeon hole you. I hadn’t watched Game of Thrones and nobody told me who she was as no one told me who the cast would be until I arrived at Melbourne.

I was sat next to her in the first read through in Melbourne, both jet legged, and she was super kind and sweet. She was so sweet, I was a bit sceptical about her playing this strict headmistress. The day after we started shooting, I didn’t even recognise her – she was so different in terms of her character. I was actually scared and frightened by her. That made me think that when anyone ever tells me, "you can only play this type of character", it simple isn’t true, I can play whoever I want.

As an actress, for every ten roles you are given, there is only one well-rounded female character...

As a writer, I don’t write my own parts as I want to concentrate on one job at a time but it’s hard to find the right projects as an actress. They always want you to play the same kind of characters. It’s very often - I am not going to lie - that I turn down parts because they are a prostitute or the girlfriend. I am not against that but when nine projects out of ten are about that, it starts to get annoying. When it’s not those roles, it’s the best friend, the wife or the girlfriend and that is all they are defined by. I have the luxury to choose my own projects that I act in as I spend most of my time writing but there are a lot of projects I say no to as I don’t feel that I can defend the characters - they are too flat and not relevant.

As a writer, I want to create super strong female characters. I still can't see myself reflected on TV...

In France we don’t have the kind of shows like Girls, which have a strong female cast. So right now, I am trying to think about an idea which is centred around a strong female character because I can’t recognise myself in any contemporary French TV shows.

'Picnic at Hanging Tree Rock' is on BBC Two every Wednesday and on BBC iPlayer now