‘Swan Song’ explained: how Mahershala Ali was ‘cloned’

After finishing “Swan Song,” the Apple TV + drama about a terminally ill man facing imminent death, Mahershala Ali took two months to shed the emotional burden.

«I think the hardest part [of the process] he was in a really vulnerable emotional space for four months, ”the actor said recently at DTLA’s Soho Warehouse. “That was really a challenge and it definitely exhausted me at a certain point. I had to take a couple of months off just to allow myself to go down because it is very unsettling and it is not really sustainable to be in that place for long.

Written and directed by Benjamin Cleary, the brooding “Swan Song,” now airing and screening in select theaters, features two-time Oscar winner Ali as Cameron, a family man in extremis, and Jack, the clone. meant to replace it. Naomie Harris co-stars as Cameron’s wife, Poppy, who is pregnant with their second child.

“The premise was so good,” Ali said. “I hadn’t really seen black and brown people in that space, leading these kinds of stories. Once I had a chance to sit down and talk to Ben, they sold me. It just felt like a direct reflection of the beauty of the movie. [He’s a] very sensitive and mindful person, which makes sense because the script felt mindful and beautiful. Once I sat down with him, I thought, ‘Yeah, this feels good.’

“It was an amazing moment when I heard that Mahershala had read the script and wanted to meet us,” said Cleary, who makes his feature film debut with the film. “I was so close to writing at the time that I think I had lost a lot of objectivity.”

Cleary wrote the script years ago as a way to cope with various personal losses. The night before their meeting, the director reread the script with Ali’s voice in mind. “And suddenly the script was completely alive again,” he said. “I felt like I was there again crying and feeling it all. And then I met him the next day and we had one of those two hour conversations. Definitely for me as a first-time filmmaker… working with a master of his craft like Mahershala was literally the dream. “

Ali was nominated for a Golden Globe as a lead actor for the role, a category he shares with Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Javier Bardem and Benedict Cumberbatch. “It’s wonderful to see Mahershala being recognized for the incredible work he did on this film,” said Cleary. «I think what he did [in the film] it is wonderful. Watching him share [the category with] those amazing names are great and deserved.

“It feels like being a human being surrounded by a bunch of superheroes,” Ali said of the nomination. “Like ‘Okay, how is this arm wrestling match going to go?’ It’s humbling to grow up watching these people work – they are great hitters. And so I am honored to be in such wonderful company with people whose work I sincerely admire. “

The Times caught up with Ali, Cleary, and Harris to discuss making the film, filming during COVID, and working with an estimable cast that included Glenn Close and Awkwafina.

Mahershala Ali in a scene from the 2021 Apple TV + sci-fi drama “Swan Song.”

(Apple TV +)

How were the scenes between Cameron and Jack captured?

Cleary relied on split screens, over the shoulder shots, and a body double to represent Cameron and Jack simultaneously.

“The main thing I wanted to do was try to find a way to film an actor for two in the least technical way possible,” he said. “Because I knew that, from an emotional point of view, this was a very difficult dual role to play. I really didn’t want Mahershala to be waiting three hours for us to try and work with a great motion control team. So we try to do it in more traditional ways. We only use a repeatable head, which is a piece of equipment that allows you to split the moving screen, once on the film.

And then from a management point of view, it was really about [capturing] in a way that preserved the incredible cadence, rhythm and soul of Mahershala’s performances, “he added.

«When you play another actor, the scene constantly changes because you keep finding things [together]Ali said. “With this, I have to shoot one side at a time, so there is no room for that. So first I had to replay the scene in my head and say, ‘These are the things I want to achieve in every beat of the scene.’ And he had to be able to play well on one side at a time. So it was really a collaboration with my stage partner, Shane Dean, and Ben came in and tried to curate all the little moments, support the ideas and improve them.

“When I switched to play Jack, I would take the audio of what I had done on camera [as Cameron] and play [it back while his body double] Shane Dean was speaking part of the audio, ”Cleary said. So Mahershala was actually acting in front of Shane but listening to his own [voice]. I think it was really a beautiful way to give Mahershala a sensory vision of himself to play with.

How did you establish the emotional and psychological differences between Cameron and Jack?

“I knew this was an incredibly challenging role and something that was going to require a lot of nuance and subtlety,” Cleary said. “And I always looked up to him in the Mahershala roles; I loved how he was a chameleon and he could step into these different characters and feel completely and utterly different. I knew then that Cameron and Jack were going to have to find a difference in that inner world.

“I had to think of them almost as twins,” Ali said. “If you’ve ever been around twins, you can tell who is older, even by seconds. And even though they are the same person, I had to think about the power dynamics. And that made Cameron feel like the older brother, so every time I played Jack, I had to get smaller in comparison. I had to humiliate myself. When you know where the power is in the room, it just changes the way you behave.

“I was thinking about what I could do [as the other character]Cleary said. “It was an amazing thing to see someone in charge of their craft being able to predict what might work well on the other side. It was kind of a masterclass every day for me and the team, really. Our editor said that in one day he had forgotten that he was an actor playing two, it just felt perfect.

A man and a woman hug and look at each other lovingly

Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in “Swan Song.”

(Kimberley French / Apple TV +)

What was it like meeting Naomie Harris on screen for the first time since “Moonlight”?

“Naomie is such a brave actress,” Ali said. Like me, she doesn’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time talking about it, she just prefers to intervene. So it was great because I was working with someone who in many ways was encouraging me to find my best actor. ” inside of me because things that are naturally easy for her, I’m a little more shy. So being with her was great training. She is a great coach. She is someone who encourages you to practice courage, so to speak.

“We work in a very similar way,” Harris said. “We both really don’t like to rehearse, we like to prepare ourselves and then bond over and just watch the moment. So we are fully alert all the time and focused on the moment because we have no knowledge of what the other person is bringing up. And many actors don’t like to work that way because it’s a bit scary not knowing what’s going to happen next.

“It was unbelievable,” Cleary said. “I would wipe my eyes after a take and look around the room and see a whole team full of people wiping their eyes at what Mahershala and Naomie were creating.”

How did Glenn Close and Awkwafina get together?

“I think when you have an actor like Mahershala on board, doors open because all actors want to work with [him]Cleary said. «With Nora [Awkwafina]I had seen ‘The Farewell’ and absolutely adored it. I thought he did an amazing job and wanted to find someone for this role who would be able to tonally shift from a heavier mood all of a sudden to something lighthearted or witty and a bit comical, because I really felt like the movie needed little palate cleansers. whenever possible because they are heavy things.

“Awkwafina couldn’t have been more humble and he really brought light and lightness to a story that needed it,” Ali said. “It was amazing to see her and Ben talk about things and see how malleable and flexible she was to adapt to their ideas.”

“And it was another ‘pinch yourself’ moment getting Glenn Close to make the movie,” Cleary said. “She really wanted to work with Mahershala.”

“It was a pleasure working with her and that was a dream come true,” Ali said. “Because I don’t know in what reality I could imagine us working together. But I said, ‘I’d love to work with you one day’ a few years back after ‘Moonlight’. And she said, ‘I’d love to work with you. If it was a little lighter, I probably would have blushed, but I blushed on the inside.

“Glenn is just a teacher and asks a lot of challenging questions,” he added. “She processes things in a way that really challenges you to think of everything in broader and deeper terms. So being around her and working with her was really refreshing and unsurprisingly an education.

A man, on the left, and a woman, both in winter coats and hats, sit outside looking sad.

Mahershala Ali and Awkwafina in a scene from the 2021 Apple TV + sci-fi drama “Swan Song.”

(Apple TV +)

What was it like to shoot in the middle of the pandemic?

“We were eight weeks away from filming when we found out they were going to shut us down and we had to go home,” Cleary said. “It was a very strange and uncertain time. We went back to filming about five months after being locked up and I think there was a great feeling of gratitude on set to be able to keep working when a lot of people weren’t.

“On the other hand, it was a time of nerves because then there were no vaccines,” he added. “So they were doing a lot of testing on us and there was a lot of concern that at any moment we might shut down again or[one would get sick]. You’re constantly wearing masks, the actors had to put on goggles between takes, everyone gets auditioned a few times a week, everyone lives a bit isolated. It was definitely a weird and challenging moment, but I think the good thing was seeing the human spirit and the camaraderie that grew out of the situation.

“I think the way we had to shoot was probably appropriate for the movie,” Ali said. “We all went back to our corners after shooting or completing a scene. So it was a pretty quiet set. Just with all the regulations, you didn’t have that freedom to move like you did before, which probably worked to our advantage when it comes to the concentration the film required. The intimacy, the silence, the focus, all those things were really necessary for the film to achieve all the attributes that the story needed to feel complete and organic.

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‘Swan Song’ explained: how Mahershala Ali was ‘cloned’