top of page
  • Rich

COMPANION PIECES with Abigail Hardingham

Updated: Mar 25

Single White Female (1992) / The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992)


With a break-out performance as Holly in the Blaine brothers’ 2015 debut feature Nina Forever, British actor Abigail Hardingham managed to strike a very specific chord… and hit every single note. Feeding into a film that navigated a rare balance of horror, comedy and heartfelt drama, it is no surprise they were recognised that same year when awarded “Most Promising Newcomer” by the British Independent Film Awards. Abigail followed this up with the second series of The Missing in which she played the traumatised Alice Webster; a character that, in hindsight, reflects many of the points raised in this discussion.


It’s no secret that Nina Forever is one of my favourite British horror movies — having had the pleasure of writing some Holly-inspired words on the loving dead plus a Nina-infected love bite — so, it was a pleasant surprise when I found myself sitting next to Abigail in a pub in London during FrightFest ’23. They couldn’t have been more pleasant, the two of us geeking out on film before being introduced to her latest collaborators, director Tiago Teixeira and producer Andy Edwards. Having just shown a sneak peek of Teixeira’s debut feature Custom — which premieres at FrightFest Glasgow this Saturday — I managed to gain some insight into a project that deals with 'specific' tastes close to Abigail with the cosmic chamber piece delving into a Cronenbergian spin on the kink community. Despite such dark desires, there remains a warm and welcoming playfulness as she immediately comments on part of the film library behind me… “Look at your backdrop for god’s sake. You must like films or sumink.”


They’re holding the house up. [Laughs]


Well, I’ve come prepared — notes ‘n’ that.


Marvellous. Before we dive into your Companion Pieces, let’s talk about your latest film, Custom, which premieres this weekend at FrightFest Glasgow. What are all the sickos to expect?


The film is essentially about being an artist but also coming from two different schools of thinking as an artist: Do you just make it for the person who is buying it or does there have to be some risk in what you are doing? That there should be some collateral. My character sits on that side where there needs to be some pain in order to produce something of importance. I wanted that element to be as realistic as possible, hence being an associate producer; so that the exploration and crossover of the artistic medium and sex work were portrayed properly… yet twisted even further through the lens of horror. The entire film is very meta and — not to detract from it in anyway — perhaps feels less delicately considered than Nina Forever. In light of this, it’s more explicit… a little bit ‘unguided’... in all the best ways possible. Therefore, it feels more experimental but, at the same time, wears its influences on its sleeve.


Hex life. As Harriet in CUSTOM (2024).


The website really feeds into the meta aspect; there is a lot to explore and become lost in.


Yes, you’ll see some other collaborative pieces in there, including Lenka Rayn H.’s beautiful photography I snuck in. Overall, I felt that I'd gained a lot from working on the film; more confidence in my artistic voice, which I feel I’m only just using… and horror seems to be my niche at the minute. It's a fertile genre to explore and find a corner within.


Definitely.


I also feel horror has more of a bandwidth of characters. There are obviously films that are just horror, but I find it often straddles a few genres which makes it more interesting. For example, the latest one I was offered is a ‘werewolf Western’.


Gold! So, what has your journey been towards acting?


Well, I’m an Army brat, so I ping-ponged around a lot of different schools. When I moved back to England from Scotland my mum — hoping to help me try and make friends quicker — put me into different clubs. So I did the likes of karate and gymnastics… but once we settled in High Wycombe it was more me pushing my parents; I became pretty vocal about wanting to do dance and acting so I started going to my secondary’s after-school club called Jackie Palmers. Unbeknownst to us at the time, it is one of the big kid agencies, so they would set up a headshot and you would go for auditions. I was just really lucky that the first thing that I went up for, I got the job and it kind of created a monster… in that I realised you could do it and that it was feasible. In the early days, I ended up doing some Disney pilots and then I became the advert Queen bagging tons of commercials, which I always attribute to the fact that I had this really cute little bob. [Laughs]


Did your love of film begin around the same time?


I was born in ’91 so computers obviously existed but it was in the very early stages of the Internet eventually exploding and DVD becoming king. So, whatever my parents had in the house was what I ended up watching. It was a lot of Bruce Lee films and, surprisingly, a lot of horror; considering my family doesn’t really enjoy the genre. There wasn’t a lot… they were never film nerds at all, so it was totally my own drive to watch my favourite actors and learn from them… so that’s where my love of film came from, really.


But, I also had a really good acting teacher who would often reference films like Raging Bull and encourage us all to watch Lawrence of Arabia, and often harp on with “Look at Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier’s opposing views on acting,” and pointers like that… when you’re like, eleven. [Laughs]. He was a bit of a weirdo, but he was very good.


What a wonderful introduction to studying movies and understanding acting. It sounds like you learned to love film in tandem by learning about performance. How seriously did you take the different methods he was referring to — did you just watch the films and take it all at your own pace?


Yeah. Definitely. I’ve never been someone who really ascribes to any school of thinking when it comes to acting. I definitely lean slightly more towards method acting. I mean, I hate saying that — I don’t mean in the Daniel Day-Lewis-sense, which is incredible and I place that acting on a high pedestal — but more in the sense of just using my own experiences. As an entry point, that’s just easier for me. I’ve never felt like I could just put on a face that looked and felt like the emotion I was trying to convey. I need to excavate. Maybe this is because I never went to acting school… but, as mentioned, was just fortunate enough to have a good tutor. There’s no real in-depth education… I figure it out as I go, learning how challenging it may be through the doing.


A fucked up fairy tale. As Holly in NINA FOREVER (2015).


Was there a moment when you gravitated from an Ad Queen to television and edgier work?


I’d like to say that it was something that I orchestrated. I would have made it happen a hell of a lot sooner if I could! But it’s just not the way the industry works. It was more a rite of passage doing an episode of Casualty and Waterloo Road... getting those notches on the belt…


Was there something conscious in eventually going in a more fearless direction?


Well, all of the previous work led to a completely random audition when Nina Forever came through. I was the only person in the room the casting director didn’t have a personal relationship with or individuals hadn’t already been in the room before to audition for other projects. So I was her wild card. My agent always had an eye on this kind of role though as he foresaw it knowing my taste in films and music.


Which brings us to your choices. I had so much fun revisiting these…


I know, right? Especially in how much they feel like sister films… such perfect Companion Pieces.


I never realised, until rewatching them, that they are the same year — the “Year of the Woman”, as it is often labelled. There are so many seminal films around that time (which we’ll get to); creating a strand of cinema that made it both better and worse for women on screen and how they were perceived. What do you think it was about the ’90s that made it more rife with thrillers, specifically?


To some degree, I’d call them trashy thrillers. I was saying to my partner that these two particular films are a quick bite… a single mouthful. I watched these in the mid to late-noughties and, born in ’91, I can never really view this through the lens of when they came out and being a woman during that era… so a lot of what I have taken from them will be different. My version of feminism — coming into my own personhood — is obviously going to be very different to what that was like during the ’90s. I think, when you look at it closely, it seemed to rest in an era of filmmaking in which the female (for whatever reason) needed to be either crazy, deranged, incomplete or bereft of a man in order to be considered these Award-bait characters. But then, I even feel I’m guilty of it; where I’m like, “Oh, I’d love to play the crazy woman!” And then I step back and I see… "Oh fu -- "


I think you’ve already answered the question, in that you’ve played those roles yourself. There is already this duality and contradiction in the roles you and other actors accept. They’re meaty and have substance but then they can also fall into these trappings. What do you think it is specifically? Is it something psychological as an actor? Do you want the role? What is that?


Well… you’re definitely giving me too much credit as few actors are able to forge their careers and I’m still not at a stage in my career where I can pick and choose the roles. But, I do look back on The Missing and think: I’m playing someone who was kidnapped and was sexually abused for years and (spoiler alert!) is also, in some ways, portrayed as the villain because she’s doing whatever it is that she needs to do in order to survive. Again, another incomplete woman just doing whatever it takes. I look back on that now and I don’t think I would ever play another role of a woman who was so abused at the hands of a man. It’s also interesting — now you’ve drawn these parallels — that in The Missing it’s all for the abductee’s child, right… and this duality?


Stolen identity. As Alice (?) in the second series of THE MISSING (2016).

Which leads us to The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. An interesting note I made is how both Peyton (or Mrs. Mott) and Hedy — from Single White Female — are clearly broken or incomplete stereotypes that have this other persona and/or identity. So, each of these characters is trying to absorb the victims or assimilate into their lives and this appears to be what will make them feel whole again. I mean, how would you describe Holly in Nina Forever? She seems so determined to not be perceived as vanilla that she charges head-first towards the more dangerous aspects of life… and death. But… she isn’t that person.


It’s all hinted at with the pomegranate, right? It’s perfect symbolism in which she’s triggered (along with the audience) by all those fairytale-like clues. The sadomasochism is the outlet and, rather tragically, becomes this inevitable thing she embraces. What differs with Holly is the innocence that remains no matter what is happening and how twisted things become. Despite all of what happens, it retains a sense of normality amongst a classic triptych of characters.


I wonder if there’s something to Holly in also trying to assimilate Nina… in an attempt to feel her skin. It’s fascinating; all of this — watching these companion pieces — really had me thinking and looking back on one of my own characters that are so dear to my heart.


Interesting that they have refocused things thematically.


Yeah. I knew that Holly was to be perceived as this mousy forgettable girl, while Nina is this “painting that is always wet”. That was always there… and that she wanted to be loved the same way Nina was loved. Even in grief. But my notes on these films just highlighted how incomplete Holly is and her own assimilation. In hindsight, this was unintended… at least to begin with!


How did you first come across these films?


My partner likely introduced me to both. The Hand the Rocks the Cradle would have been a shorthand for “I want to watch something Single White Femaley.” It’s how I work with films; finding something I’m in the mood for and referencing a favourite.


I was expecting you having seen them at a sleepover.


No… [Laughs] I’ve always been a bit of a loner watching films.


Because you like to study them?


That… and people tend to talk over them. It’s annoying. [Laughs]


What was it specifically about these films that leapt out at you — that you wanted to present?


Well, I think what was apparent to me is that both are about women seeking other women. It seemed that filmmakers during this era wanted to fuel this idea of female codependency being unhealthy. The idea of raising your children with other women or communal living with other women was going to be bad because you’re not codependent on men. Through the lens of a trashy thriller, it obviously ends in death. Both films have these women who desire something outside of their relationships with men, yet at the same time present stories that completely ruin the idea of female friendship being such a beautiful thing. Which is what it is.


"... each of these characters is trying to

absorb the victims or assimilate into their lives

and this appears to be what will make

them feel whole again."


— Abigail Hardingham


Although The Hand that Rocks the Cradle was written by a woman (Amanda Silver), both films are directed by men, so it makes you think how different they would have been through a female lens.


I feel like a lot of the things women enjoy together — like sharing clothes, perfume, looking after a dog, and raising a child — here, it’s completely looked at through a jealous lens. These are typical things we enjoy in our relationships (with women) so it’s interesting that, in both films, they share jewellery and perfume, yet in both instances, it’s done without consent. In real life this is something that is a canon event; that any girl that has a sister or girlfriend, you take each other’s shit. These are thrillers so it only adds, in this sense, to how sinister they play out, so it works that way. Take the norm and the seemingly mundane and dramatise it. Twist it into something sinister.


The female touch. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda share more than just an appartment in Barbet Schroeder's SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992).


And through this domesticity, there is this call back to the femme fatale. The ’90s felt like a return to classic Hollywood but with a trashier and more lurid approach. Sure there may be the female protagonist but it always comes back to “crazy women”.


Definitely. But both films also have this underlying male threat. Especially with the sexual assault. Although Peyton’s character in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is clearly a villain, there is little to zero emphasis put on the fact that her husband sexually assaulted multiple other women. It’s the same in Single White Female as well, where Allie’s boss attempts to assault her. Oddly, it’s interesting that both these horrific incidences — men’s actions — are key to both characters’ survival. Almost as though there is this message of, “You’re going to struggle without us.” We get the message. Thank you very much.


It’s true. Also, when you look at the birth of ’90s cinema — specifically 1991 — you have what are deemed to be inspiring and strong female leads such as Sarah Connor’s transformation in Terminator 2. She’s a heroine, but locked away in a mental asylum; the ultimate fatal female who is willing to kill to save the world.


Even strong women are crazy. Then there is Thelma & Louise also from ’91.


Of course! Another film that certainly feeds into what you have highlighted. Thelma and Louise are two women who seem to be fuck-ups without men but — as screenwriter Callie Khouri set out to illustrate — are simply damaged individuals hiding behind makeup. These “bitches from hell” (how the worst of men perceive them) will never be able to function properly without them… to the point they literally drive themselves off a cliff.


Then, in ’92 — the same year as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Single White Female — we have Basic Instinct, which is one of the most infamous films of the decade, primed by Fatal Attraction a couple of years before which was certainly a huge part of this influx of femme fatale movies. Not forgetting, it’s also a home invasion movie that illustrates that insertion element again. Fatal Attraction was also a film that was a conduit (or Trojan horse) to speak about the AIDS crisis, which (let us remind ourselves) was falsely assumed to be a gay man’s disease but in actual fact, any heteronormative household may contract it.


Adrian Lyne's FATAL ATTRACTION (1989). Female threat, home invasion... AIDS commentary? The film that kickstarted a very specific brand of thriller.


That blew my mind. It’s an important allegory… but at the same time uncomfortable when they have attached it to an already demonised female character.


Yes. It’s the insidious nature of the affair and how it permeates all aspects of his life that speaks to the AIDS crisis. You could, therefore, argue that Peyton is symbolic of the trauma of suffering at the heart of sexual abuse and how that infiltrates the home. Then the idea of Single White Female being that Allie — the protagonist in this case — has reached a point in her life where it has fallen apart and is confronting the idea of being alone. And the result of that, again, is her fiancé having had an affair. Human behaviour as a disease.


Race comes into play too. Obviously, these films are of their time — glaringly white — and play into heavy use of stereotypes.


For sure. I mean there’s been a remake with people of colour with Single Black Female, which was a TV movie from a couple of years ago. In the original, she has this ‘white’ friend that is, I guess, all symbolic of how she wants to feel safe. In The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Solomon, the only person of colour is, despite how sympathetic he is, framed as a scary (black) man… and also intellectually impaired. It correctly displays how white women can weaponise their tears against (in this case) someone of colour. This way, Peyton has more control, structure and (ultimately), power.


The scene of Peyton threatening Solomon and seeing how observant he is of her — that despite his difficulties, he sees right through her — is heartbreaking. Ernie Hudson elevates that role beyond something that could have become much more problematic.


So well done, but no escaping how uncomfortable it is to watch in today’s age. I also found it really uncomfortable that the character even needed to have a disability in the first place, as though being a black man couldn’t be sympathetic. It felt like maybe they were trying to distract from this perceived racist threat by adding these more ‘simplistic’ qualities to him. It’s not just distancing either, it’s the privilege of being white as I am sure black audiences would have had a more immediate reaction!


Without a doubt. Do you still feel there is value in these films from a performance perspective?


Totally. Of course… and I find it so interesting watching performances from different eras, even right back to the Golden Age. Everything has a particular style and sits within a certain time. I knew Jennifer Jason Leigh from other films, but it’s been like watching her age backwards from my point of view, seeing her here as a much younger woman. She’s the standout for me, one hundred percent. I love her.


I appreciate how selective she appears to be; another one of those actresses who is completely fearless.


She’s been around the industry for years and possibly grew tired of it sooner than most. Speaking about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s ‘fearlessness’, I think it’s worth speaking further about the nudity.


Of course, it’s unavoidable in the context of these films and your own work.


I feel like the nudity is used to great effect. The scene in Single White Female, where Hedy, without consent, just undresses in front of Allie… and where she simmers away in the bath waiting for Allie to arrive home after rekindling her relationship with her fiancé is brilliantly handled. Both times there is something so unsettling about the situations and becomes a crucial device in both character development and plot. Equally, in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle when Peyton breastfeeds the baby, which is so horrifying but I feel, for its era, it felt quite progressive as it desexualises the female body and wasn’t being used to titillate… but to scare.


Stolen child. Rebecca De Mornay in infiltrates the 'family home' in Curtis Hanson's THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992).


You can also discuss so much about the clothes in Single White Female – I just love the way they both dress and that Hedy’s wardrobe slowly becomes identical to Allie’s. Then Peyton tells Claire to go with a more frumpy-looking dress, again to desexualise her; manipulating her to put on these virginal dresses so she remains the homemaker. I feel in both films clothes — the wardrobe as this sacred domain — are used very powerfully.

I loved the contrast, specifically in Single White Female, between those tender, intimate moments — getting out of bed and putting a robe on — to the more severe…


Specifically when Hedy sexually assaults Allie’s fiancé.


Yes, a rare moment where you see a male character raped before she kills him. It’s like observing a praying mantis at work… this monstrous femme. It’s progressive for its time, but I am not sure it would sit well today in the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal.

No, which is an interesting conversation in itself.


So, to wrap all of this up, if you were to screen these films which one would you put on first?


Single White Female, only because it’s my favourite of the two. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, for me, loses itself in the final 15 minutes — it just feels rushed and too choreographed. The fight between Hedy and Allie is the total opposite and feels like two scrappy women, which makes it more feral and energised.


The way Hedy appears more and more like a witch about to be burnt at the stake — the clothes she is wearing make her look like she’s about to be put on trial in Salem — they even descend into the basement where the furnace is. With all this, it certainly leans heavily into those tropes.


I didn’t quite draw such a clear conclusion but I certainly felt that it demonizes women and mental health issues… and, as discussed — if left to their own devices — they are left incomplete and that without men they become erratic, scary and ‘witch-like’. If you don’t settle you will be immediately pitted against other women, alone, all by yourself with some crazy spells in a basement. The idea that Peyton wants to harm another woman for what her husband has done is warped. She’s left widowed and barren in a time where being married with kids was seen as a status symbol and form of currency. The fact that to ‘get even’ she wants to hurt another woman is — despite written by a female — I feel is still very much a male point of view. This highlights what you are saying — that she’s just “bat-shit crazy” — which has nothing to do with the circumstance of the time in which these characters live.


How would you sell these films to today’s audience and at which cinema would you screen them?


Has to be Ciné Real on Lower Clapton Road because it’s just a few sofas out back and you’d be watching them in their original 35mm format. In terms of 'selling them'... I would say… [pause] Rebecca De Mornay and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s boobs. [Laughs] You know… despite this dissection, I do really like how both examples are so unpretentious. You may need to wade through some shit — the latent misogyny etc. we have touched upon — but you can still have fun with them.




You can follow Abigail via Instagram @franksmomager. Custom premieres this Saturday 9th March at the Glasgow FrightFest. In the meantime buy your tickets and read an interview with director Tiago Teixeira here. More information on the film via the official site.


Cover photo by Lenka Rayn H.

Commenti


bottom of page