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For Emma Corrin, identity is an ever-evolving project

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not a big leap from the projects and characters that Emma Corrin has lately chosen to their own exploration of gender, love, power, and the responsibilities and costs of being heard.

Emma CorrinEmma Corrin's Lady Chatterley’s Lover is streaming on Netflix. (Photo: Josefina Santos/The New York Times)
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British actor Emma Corrin knew that signing on to star in an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the racy D.H. Lawrence novel, would mean nudity and sex — and lots of it. They were even prepared to be wet, thanks to a pivotal scene in the rain, when the titular couple (Corrin as the lady and Jack O’Connell as the paramour) lovingly frolic naked. “It was that scene in the script that really drew me to the project, because I was like, that’s wild. I haven’t seen anything like that on screen,” Corrin said.

And yet, that sequence was also “the single most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life,” they said. (Corrin identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.) There was no movie magic, no hiding behind camera angles and modesty protectors: It was leaping, dripping, fleshy full-frontal vulnerability. Watching the movie, they said, took “a lot of whiskey.”

Corrin gamine-eyed their way to international fame and award recognition in 2020, playing Princess Diana in The Crown, their first major role. Though the settings are decades apart, there is a connection between the young Diana, contorting herself to meet an impossible ideal, and Constance Reid, an independent mind who marries into high aristocracy, circa World War I, only to find her Lord Chatterley dismissive of her needs. They are both “trapped women, searching for freedom,” Corrin said.

Connie finds it in Lady Chatterley — it premiered on Netflix on Friday — through moments of sexual intimacy rarely depicted in period drama. (Masturbation under all those skirts!) Bringing that to the screen, “you know that you’re doing something that is taking up space that needs to be taken up,” Corrin said. “I felt emboldened, with this edge of, ‘Oh, this is a bit terrifying.’ That’s an exciting place to be as an actor.”

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It’s not a big leap from the projects and characters that Corrin has lately chosen to their own exploration of gender, love, power, and the responsibilities and costs of being heard. They are currently starring in the title role in a West End production of Orlando, based on Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending, time-traveling novel.

Corrin’s ascent could have been simple: the English rose ingénue, who’s at home in flouncy frocks and looks as if they can blush on cue. (If only, they said.) Instead, Corrin has shared images of their experiments with chest binding and has changed pronouns twice, as their understanding of how they want to present evolved.

“My identity and being nonbinary is an embrace of many different parts of myself, the masculine and the feminine and everything in between,” they said. They hoped only for patience, and for roles that encompass the full spectrum of individuality. “It’s hard to be discovering something in yourself at the same time you’re navigating an industry that demands a lot of you, in terms of knowing who you are,” they said.

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Dan Levy, the Schitt’s Creek star, is a friend who has become “a lifeline” for Corrin, as they put it. He said that the expectation, in the social media age, that all facets of a star be accessible is dangerous, “especially as a queer person navigating your place in the world.”

“You want to lend your voice to the conversation,” he wrote in an email, but “doing so comes at the cost of a sense of privacy. Emma has been really thoughtful about what they want to say and who they want to be publicly.” What he admired most, he said, has been “their frankness about not being entirely sure — that who they are is an ever-evolving internal conversation. I know that must be of comfort to many people who can relate.”

Corrin, 26, lives in North London, in a décor-jumbled flat (they have a penchant for Lego sets), with three roommates, friends from their school days, and Corrin’s doted-upon dog, Spencer. On a warm fall afternoon, they turned up for lunch in Manhattan in shorts and a sweater vest, with short platinum hair curled, a new style they quite liked. In the group chat with the roomies, they floated the idea of getting a perm. “It’s very Renaissance boy, which I feel like I channel in my soul anyway,” Corrin told me of the look.

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Absolutely not, came the immediate texted reply: a photo of three blondes in a universal, arms-crossed, N-O. They are, Corrin said, the kind of friends “who know you so well that you can’t get away with anything, which is wonderful.”

Their support network is robust, almost to a fault. Corrin’s mother, a speech therapist, and two younger brothers attended the Lady Chatterley’s Lover London premiere. “I did give them all the disclaimers,” Corrin said. “And it was, yeah, mortifying. I think worse for my flatmates, to have to sit next to my family watching it.” But they appreciated the film, Corrin added: “I got such sweet texts from my brothers afterwards.”

Since their big debut, Corrin has worked nonstop — “I’m a stranger to breaks,” they said. “I’m bad at not doing anything.” They spent the summer in New York to film a coming FX mystery series and to be profiled by Vogue, the first nonbinary star to appear on the cover.

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, the French director of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, understood why Corrin — whose pronouns were she/they during production — is in demand. The star “has a quality of being here and now,” the filmmaker said. “She’s believable in the ’60s, in the ’20s, today, but she has this immediacy and the spontaneity that brings you back to the present with her, and that’s a very strong quality. The singular energy that she has, the way she talks, the way she moves, it’s always surprising.”

Physicality is a big part of Corrin’s performances. They have worked with Polly Bennett, a movement coach and choreographer, regularly since meeting on The Crown, where they set out to unpack “Diana-isms,” Bennett said, like the princess’ signature head tilt. “When you try to look at it from an actor’s perspective, it’s to understand why Diana did that,” Bennett said. “Match the physical world to the emotional.”

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On Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Bennett put the leads through “some really quite outlandish, abstract perspective drama school stuff,” said O’Connell, who plays Oliver Mellors, the solitary but sensitive estate groundsman Connie falls for. “And I don’t have drama school experience, so I was very open to it.”

In rehearsals, the leads and filmmakers, along with an intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, blocked out the sex scenes and found their boundaries.

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For O’Connell, who is from the same part of Britain as D.H. Lawrence and recognized Mellors as a familiar sort of local figure, the coaching helped him “sit with feeling uncomfortable,” he said. “Before every take, there was like an overwhelming sensation that I did not want to do it.”

The rain scene, in particular, seemed to test everyone involved.

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For starters, though they filmed in and around an estate in normally drizzly, muddy Wales, “it was like the most sunny summer of the last decade,” said de Clermont-Tonnerre. Cue the rain machine.

The scene, which comes late in the film and serves to amplify Connie and Oliver’s love and connection, lasts 90 seconds. (To skirt an NC-17 rating, de Clermont-Tonnerre had to keep all the most explicit moments trim.) It needed to feel spontaneous and joyful, a natural exhilaration in a verdant field.

“That scene was so reliant on two people in physical abandon,” Bennett said. “You can’t just send two people out to do that. We choreographed shapes and moments, and how garments came off.”

But much of it was improvised. “We’re in the field and we looked at each other, and I’d never seen my own terror reflected back at me so intensely,” Corrin said. “We were like, what do we do?”

On a closed set of about eight people, with music blasting to pump them up, Corrin and O’Connell cut loose. “It was scary for all of us,” de Clermont-Tonnerre said. “And also liberating, in the way that we all wanted to get naked and go running with them.”

And O’Connell learned to quiet his inner doubts. “Once you get over the initial discomfort and sometimes shock, something really exhilarating can stem from that,” he said. “And that’s quite rewarding.”

Lawrence’s novel, originally published privately in 1928, was famously banned for decades, but after social mores loosened, it was the subject of multiple screen adaptations. De Clermont-Tonnerre wanted to ground hers in Connie’s perspective, as she leaves behind the rule-bound grand manor for earthier pleasures.

Ecstasy, in all its forms, was what she was after. “I needed this version to be erotic and to actually glorify eroticism as an actual and vital need,” she said. “I want people to get desire, and to really get horny.”

The kind of sexual awakening that Connie undergoes, “I think it’s at the center of a lot of our lives, definitely in terms of self-discovery — probably throughout your life,” Corrin said, adding, “I think that her determination to find something that is very genuine, and a real connection, definitely made me want the same. She’s brave in a way that really inspired me.”

Corrin hopes that some of the boldness sticks with them in other ways. “I’m very bad at conflict,” they said. At work, when a request feels iffy, they call Levy for advice. “He’ll be like, that’s out of order, you need to say no and set a boundary.” (“Self-preservation is a team effort!” he said.)

Getting angry, raising their voice on screen, still feels foreign to Corrin. “I’m always worried that I’m not landing it, because I’m so unused to that feeling in my own body,” they said.

Crying and having sex, on the other hand, “I can do all day.”

By Melena Ryzik

First published on: 05-12-2022 at 18:27 IST
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