The British television actor Will Sharpe (Giri/Haji; Flowers) is increasingly directing and writing, too, and helmed the new feature The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Victorian cat painter and Claire Foy as his wife Emily. At the Toronto International Film Festival last month, Sharpe spoke about his attraction to this unusual character who enjoyed great success as his anthropomorphized images of cats gained wide popularity – and suffered bitter sorrow as his wife died prematurely and his mental health deteriorated.
Tell me why you took on this project.
On the surface of it, this was a story about an artist who specializes in drawing and painting cats. Some would say he’s the reason that people in the U.K. keep cats as pets. Before Louis Wain rebranded the cat as a cute, funny little creature, they were basically seen as vermin. But I felt an immediate personal connection with his pictures.
Had you known of them before?
The funny thing was – and I think a lot of people have this kind of relationship with Louis Wain – when I saw the art, I felt like I had seen his pictures before. They felt very familiar to me, but I didn’t know him by name and I didn’t know anything about his life story.
When you first come into contact with a Louis Wain picture, it feels like it is playful, colourful, funny – sometimes it has satirical about aspects of Victorian society, but occasionally you would see little cracks. He worked in a huge range of styles, and his most famous pictures are so psychedelic and abstract that it almost doesn’t look like a cat any more. It’s just a pattern and somewhere in there is a cat’s face. I felt this was somebody who, underneath the playfulness, had a fragility and vulnerability that was very fertile ground for a story.
And the story of his life was so extraordinary that it almost is beyond belief – some of the events that take place feel like they are inventions, but they’re not. I had a huge admiration for his courage. I was really inspired by the spirit in which he lived his life – it felt like he was a hero. He had a mind that would challenge him from time to time; sometimes the world around him would challenge him. He lived through a war [and] the flu pandemic. But even at the end of his life, when he was in a psychiatric hospital that became a kind of sanctuary for him, he was famous for painting these huge cat murals on mirrors and walls. I felt like I wanted to share that story.
He didn’t stop painting, even when he was hospitalized?
I think it was something that he couldn’t help doing. He was an outsider. He was someone who made choices that pushed him out of society: His choice to be with Emily and to marry out of love when she was someone from a lower class who was older than him.
There’s debate about what exactly he was suffering – whether it was schizophrenia. I even read somewhere a theory he was poisoned by a toxin in cat feces. How did you approach his mental illness?
I think we need to be sensitive – he’s not around to tell us about it. Essentially, he was diagnosed during his lifetime as [having] schizophrenia, and since then that has been contested. That’s kind of all you need to know.
I was very interested in how you introduced the character, with Olivia Colman reading that heavy narration right off the top, explaining the history. We’re in an era where voice-over narration is often scorned. What was your rationale for using it?
We were trying to bring the world of Louis Wain onto the screen. He illustrated storybooks and fairy tales throughout his life, and this felt like it lent the story a kind of fairy tale quality that felt apt. We were always trying to imagine what would Louis do.
There is this English reputation for producing eccentrics. Do you feel that is a fair characterization?
I don’t think we saw Louis as a British eccentric. I think we saw him as a kind of misfit hero. It’s a global human thing. There are some people who don’t automatically connect with the people or world around them. Louis Wain was someone who had to show enormous courage and resilience in finding a way to connect with other people – whether it was with people who came across his work, or with Emily, or with his family. To be present in a sometimes frightening world, I think that was his heroism. His life was not handed to him on a plate, but he found a way to live it. I found that just really beautiful.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain opens in select theatres Oct. 22
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.