Imogen Poots hits the road in “Need For Speed” as Julia Maddon, an uptight Brit working for a big-time car broker with an impressive knowledge of cars. The role was a tricky one to cast because for a good part of the film Poot’s character is in the Mustang with street racer Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) driving. Since there were not a lot of tricks to fall back on, the actors needed to have the acting chops and chemistry to keep the audience engaged. Fortunately, Poots had worked with Paul in the past. They trusted each other and were comfortable enough to be fearless with their actions and emotions.
At the film’s recent press day, Poots talked about her initial impressions of her character, why she liked being in the passenger seat, how Paul encouraged her to take the role when Waugh offered it to her, their comfort level with one another after having worked together before, downplaying the romantic element and playing counterpoint to the testosterone-fueled male characters, learning about the stunt culture and its daredevil insanity, her hairiest stunt sequence, her favorite racing film, and her upcoming movie, “Filth,” with James McAvoy.
Here’s what she had to say:
QUESTION: Being in the passenger seat versus in the driver’s seat, which did you enjoy more? And your first year of driving, what do you remember?
IMOGEN POOTS: Well, in terms of the filming with the car, you always wanted to be on the side which the cameras weren’t, because – and it sounds ridiculous, but getting in and out of that car, all in leather, in the heat, was a problem. So Aaron and I would be like, “Which seat are we in this time?” And we were always thrilled if we were in the passenger seat, because it was like an easy exit. So that. But also being in the passenger seat is better because you can eat, drink shots, and have more space. In terms of driving, I actually don’t have a driver’s license, and it’s kind of ridiculous. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years and just have somehow managed to avoid taking the test, which I did last week and failed. I couldn’t find the honker. I felt bad about it, but it’s just a little bit embarrassing, I guess, to be in this film and not have a license.
Q: I mean it as a compliment when I say this character is kind of a weirdo. What were your initial impressions of her, since she had to be capable but still out of her element?
POOTS: Right. Well, I think from the start, you getting involved in the project, when they understood what kind of a character she was, there’s always a feeling of like, oh God, is this going to be dull, because it’s a genre movie, and it’s a studio film, but it’s very specific subject matter. She’s an exotic car dealer. This is the description, so you’d think she wears Hawaiian shirts? What’s the deal? But then when we got down to it, I wanted her to have something different, and I think when Scott cast Aaron and I, he certainly made a choice with the two of us, so I found comfort in that to kind of take her where I wanted to take her. Also, being around Aaron, I’m not going to lie. That inevitably informs your performance. We were already buddies by this point, so even though you’re in character, the chemistry is there. It’s already kind of electric. So I felt comfortable to have fun with her.
Q: He said he kind of dragged you into this one?
POOTS: He did? Okay, good. So I don’t have to say it. We were basically filming in Spain, doing this British film (“A Long Way Down”), and I remember very clearly I was talking to Scott Waugh on the phone and he was like, “I promise you, she’s not just like ‘the girl’,” and I was like, “Are you sure? Because it kind of seems like she is.” Aaron was next door just eating eggs going, “Did you say yeah? Are you gonna do it?” But I was intrigued by it. I also felt trepidation purely because I don’t love cars. I was like, is this going to be really dull? And once I knew the type of guy and director that Scott seemed to be and getting into it with Aaron, I said this could be fun. I was like, if I’m ever going to do something like this in my life, I would be very happy to have Aaron by my side rather than not-Aaron. (Clapping)
Q: Is that your Aaron impression?
POOTS: That is my Aaron impression. He does a lot of clapping, like “Yeah!” A lot of that happens.
Q: I thought he was in the room.
POOTS: You did (laughs)? Did you hear when those guys out there said hi to each other? Did you hear the uproar? It’s just like they slap each other and stuff. It’s just kind of testosterone crazy.
Q: How then does it feel to be the counterpoint to that, especially given that the romantic element is really downplayed in the film?
POOTS: It is, you’re right. It’s funny. When I watch the film, it’s almost like an afterthought. It was crazy even at the time. But yeah, in terms of that, I’ve pretty much just kept to myself a lot of the time. The boys are awesome, and obviously Aaron, I feel very close to, but Dominic Cooper, I think he’d be okay with me saying he isn’t the most outwardly testosterone-ridden guy. Whereas the other guys were like, “Yeah, we’re gonna go do this action today on our day off. We’re gonna go do this mad adventure and rent crazy mopeds.” Dom and I would go, “I’m just going to get a spot of lunch, and eat buns and things.” It’s funny. There was actually a moment when I think all of the boys planned this action day out, and they roped Dominic into it. He looked extremely nervous, just holding his swim trunks like, “Yeah, we’re going to go find this river and have a great time.” And I was like, “Really? Don’t you want to come with me and go eat sushi?” and I coaxed him away from the group. But I never felt in any way isolated or excluded, and I think that’s down to the director being aware of, you know, he’s got a wife, and he understands that it can be a quite hard environment, especially with all of the stunt guys.
Q: Do single directors not get that?
POOTS: Uh, yeah, no. Not at all. No, I think he just felt he needed to put me at ease going into it.
Q: Coming from the perspective of a person who wasn’t interested in cars, did you learn anything about their mechanics that you did find interesting?
POOTS: Yeah, of course. I would be crazy if I didn’t eventually have an open mind to it because I knew with Aaron, you’re surrounded by people who really go crazy for cars, and I’m sure people who go see this movie will know exactly what kind of Tiger-Mustang it is and all of these things. But the things I learned the most about are just the stunt culture and the ability these guys have to really push themselves to a crazy place – like daredevil insanity. That was interesting for me because I probably had a notion of stunt work just being heavy handed mechanical action, when actually there’s a real delicacy to their work – and the fragility too in terms of the danger element. So I learned a lot about that, and also the camaraderie of these stunt guys. It’s an emotional thing. It’s often like down through the families that they’re doing this and still doing this, and it was cool to be exposed to that for sure.
Q: What are the advantages or disadvantages of being the passenger for these stunts? They might need you more than they would need Aaron?
POOTS: Yeah, yeah. I was pretty down to do a lot of it. There were times when Aaron was like, I’m going to give this one a go. I think we were speeding down a road that had lots of bumps on it. He was like, “No, I got this. We can do this.” I was like, “We can? I’m getting out of the car, so have fun.” Because you have to feel safe doing some of those things, to be comfortable to kind of focus on the performance, although she’s terrified a lot of the time. But being in the passenger seat is fine. And in terms of learning little things, I really didn’t have to do nearly as much as Aaron. I was often just kind of eating cake around the corner.
Q: Did they make you sit in the passenger seat when they did the grasshopper jump?
POOTS: No, they didn’t. I mean, there were times when one of our stunt guys called Troy, I’d get in the car and be like, “Oh, you’re not Aaron. You’re just some guy wearing Aaron’s costume.” Huh? You’re just “some” guy (laughs). You’re an amazing stuntman wearing Aaron’s costume who is going to do something insane right now. So you get psyched up for it, and also they’re really, really talented, at the top of their game, so you have to step back and kind of be like, okay.
Q: The scene where I really came to love your character was during the refueling. Was that your hairiest stunt sequence?
POOTS: It was. It really was. And it’s funny you say hairy because I actually had so much hair in this film attached to my head.
Q: And then when you got back in—
POOTS: Yeah, when I got back in I had a full-on fro. But it was funny because we practiced the day before, and you start at 10-20 miles an hour, and we got it up to 65 or 70. So when you know you can do it, and you’ve done it once through, then you can have fun with it. But there were silly things like you can’t get ahold of the nozzle to get into the pump place – what’s it called? Yeah, the tank. So there were definitely moments where things would go wrong, and you have to start over again with a car you’ve just gone 65 miles an hour down the road in – you sort of have to go back to square one. But that was really cool, and I enjoyed that.
Q: It’s the moment your character starts having fun, and the audience knows they can have fun.
POOTS: Yeah, exactly. Well, there’s also a point even in the screenplay where it’s like, if someone’s irritating, you’re kind of waiting for the scene where they get decapitated or something. You’re just like, “Yeah!” But I like the way that she eases into it and he opens up and it doesn’t seem too cheesy.
Q: Do you see yourself doing something like this again?
POOTS: Here’s the thing: in terms of this studio film and what is seen as the bigger film, I think that’s totally fine and great and fun, and I would love to be a superhero or a princess—
Q: Or a Jedi?
POOTS: Or maybe even a Jedi. But I think the subject matter of this was what I had to get my head around, first of all, so I think it would have to come down to that. If the subject matter was something I was intrigued by, the size of the film would be irrelevant because you’d be into who the director is, the filmmaker, and what your role would be. But yeah, if it was a film and I wasn’t into the actual story, yeah, I wouldn’t go there.
Q: How tough was the helicopter lift sequence to shoot?
POOTS: I remember that day I was extremely nauseous, and I want to say it was the heat, but it might have been one too many glasses of red wine before. So you’re sort of tilted like this, so you’re already feeling pretty shit, and then they have the cameramen up with you. It’s a whole set-up, so a lot of these things would be just out in the open. We were not even in a studio or anything like that. But that was hard because the blood is going to your head. There was another time when I was actually upside down in the car, and it was like, “Boo hoo! Actress problems.” But when you’re upside down for ten minutes, you start to feel really bad, and I got quite panicked a few times. So moments like that can be pretty horrendous if you take note of what’s actually happening. But that was a funny thing. I liked that bit in the film, too.
Q: How much of the character’s costume did you have control over and how important was that to you in developing her?
POOTS: I fought so hard to get a headband or sunglasses. If I think about films, and I’m talking about an independent shoot in New York, the idea of the character’s costume is integral. It’s an extension of them. It’s like everything. And you can go to town if you have time really exploring that, because it changes the way you feel and the way you walk. With something like this, it was hard and it was a struggle sometimes to really try and shout out about “Let’s do something unique.” You look at Patricia Arquette in “True Romance,” and okay, it’s a different type of film, but we always remember her leopard-print pants and the blue top and all of these things are so wonderful. You can actually make an incredible statement for an era with a movie like that. But we had a great costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick, who did “Behind the Candelabra,” and she’s so talented. So having someone like her on board was a relief because she listened to what I was saying and she listened to what the studio wanted, and you have to have somebody who’s able to collaborate with both. But I really wanted a pink shoulder-padded suit.
Q: Michael Keaton jokes in the film about pretending to be British. Do you encounter that a lot, where Americans will accuse you of playing up or faking your accent?
POOTS: People do sometimes get confused by my accent. It’s the same in America, obviously, but there are so many different British accents – and it’s almost the way I say “British” or “Bri-tish.” It’s just probably what happens being in “Amurica.” But people often think I’m Australian, which is completely ridiculous, but fun.
Q: We finally get to see “Filth” before too long.
POOTS: Oh yeah! I’m so excited for you to see it. James McAvoy is unbelievable in that film, yeah. It’s really great.
Q: Is it nice on a movie like this to have fewer costume changes than you usually might?
POOTS: It’s kind of like being Bart Simpson, because you have one outfit for the entire thing.
Q: You remind me a lot of Bart.
POOTS: Oh, great! That’s exactly what I was going for with Julia. But with a costume to some extent, yeah, it was fun taking off the leather jacket, yeah, because it means you’re not going to sweat your entire organs out of your eyeballs inside the car.
Q: It must be nice looking at a rack with 20 versions of the same thing.
POOTS: Yeah, it was. Also, what I find so funny is with your pants, they’ve got 26, 27, 28, and you’re like, oh, three different sizes. I guess it’s just in case you eat too many pies on the film, and they don’t like the actress to know she put on weight, so they’re just like, I’ll switch out the trousers, which I think is kind of hilarious.
Q: Do you have a favorite racing film?
POOTS: You know, I haven’t seen “The Getaway,” and I can’t wait to see that. “Bonnie & Clyde” probably doesn’t count as a racing film, but “Thelma and Louise” – “Thelma and Louise” actually is probably my favorite film with a car in it. I kept telling people, “I’m doing this movie ‘Need For Speed,’ but it’s going to be like ‘Thelma & Louise,’” and they’re like, “Okay, Immy, whatever” – not true.