Thomasin McKenzie‘s repressed prison secretary Eileen in William Oldroyd‘s movie of the same name is a young woman whose bodily obsessions are an almost pathological rebellion against social decorum: downing chocolates and spitting them up, masturbating in car parks and shoving snow down her pants to stop up her desire, or examining a pubic hair embedded on a bar of soap.
In the novel “Eileen,” written by Ottessa Moshfegh who also co-writes the movie with her partner Luke Goebel, the character is much more scatologically fixated, compulsively eating laxatives and talking openly about matters of shit. But her gross little world in early 1960s Massachusetts is punctured by the arrival of a platinum-blonde, liberated psychologist played by Anne Hathaway.
“There were definitely some moments I was nervous to do. There’s some things you don’t want to be known for,” McKenzie told IndieWire. “I don’t want to be known as the actor who shoves snow down her pants to quell her desire. You get it. Or chewing chocolate off of lollies and spitting them back out. They’re pretty visceral images. I was excited to take them on. As actors, we have to do a lot of things that scare us, but oftentimes, those things lead to the better performances because the fear opens you up and allows you to be vulnerable and more honest with the camera. I don’t want that to sound too cheesy.”
Oldroyd said that while “there was no sanitization of Eileen” in the page-to-screen process, one scripted sequence ultimately didn’t make it into the shooting: “We had a sequence where Eileen and her dad [played by Shea Whigham] are in church, dad has fallen asleep with his gun on his lap, and the priest is giving the message of Christmas about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and so on, and how the angels of the Lord came down. Eileen is taking laxatives in church and it’s intercut with dad then waking up and thinking he was hallucinating and then firing his gun in the church, then Eileen rushing home and shitting her brains out. Basically, she has diarrhea, and all the time the voiceover of the mayor is about the Virgin Mary giving birth to the Lord Jesus Christ. It just felt really beautifully like the sacred and the profane in one little nutshell in that moment.”
But who wants to see someone shitting their brains out onscreen?
“I definitely wasn’t complaining about not having to do that,” McKenzie said. “My team has recommended me not to do films because of scenes similar to that, like, you don’t want to be known for doing that.
“When we got to shoot the movie, there were just not enough days in our schedule to shoot everything we had in the script, and we had to make some cuts. I would’ve loved to have shot that sequence, but in the end, it wasn’t detrimental to the movie overall for me,” Oldroyd said. “There’s enough in there — touching herself thinking of Randy [her co-worker, played by Owen Teague] in the prison and sniffing her fingers afterwards, stuffing snow into her underpants, inspecting the pubic hair of Rebecca’s. I hope the movie will take people to the book so they can see some of these behaviors of Eileen anyway.”
Moshfegh said she was “really glad” this bowel-busting fantasy moment didn’t make it onscreen. “Reading ‘Eileen’ gets under your skin in a different way, and I didn’t think any of us felt like we were trying to simulate a reading experience […] I don’t think anyone wants to see anyone on the toilet. I certainly don’t. We want to watch a movie while we’re sitting on the toilet.”
“Eileen” is now playing in select theaters from Neon and goes into wider release on December 8.