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Bringing arthouse defiance to a jaded Hollywood, the rising force discusses complex roles and her turn as troubled pop star Celeste in Vox Lux

Ever had a sliding-doors moment? Chances are you won’t know if you’ve experienced one of those instances in life where everything could have changed. Or maybe you haven’t had one yet. For 17-year-old Raffey Cassidy, her own came early and distinct, one day when she was tagging along with her older brother to an audition.

“It’s a funny story,” the young Mancunian begins, sitting in an east London cafe late on a Sunday afternoon. “I actually got into acting because my brother, Mossie, had an audition after school. I was with him and they said, ‘We need another girl. Would you like to come in and try?’ So I went in and had a go. Literally, the audition was (me) coughing: I coughed and died and that was me. I ended up getting the part.”

In 2019, somewhere between acclaim and anonymity, Raffey Cassidy moves freely – but for how much longer? Just seven years old at the time of her television debut, the actress has now been appearing on screen for longer than she hasn’t, starring in films alongside George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Natalie Portman. In person, the teenager is the antithesis of her recent roles. Cassidy plays a troubled girl who grows up too fast in this year’s Vox Lux and a girl who grows to become trouble in 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, taken advantage of by a sleazy rock star in the former and muttering “Fuck you” to her mother from her hospital bed in the latter. The real Raffey is curious and considered, giving you the distinct feeling that she has spent her childhood warming up for greatness. Her smart screen choices have paid off – these are performances that show all the signs of imminent arrival.

So much so, the first hour of Vox Lux is entirely hers, laying the groundwork for Natalie Portman to pick up halfway through. Pressure, much? “It sounds daunting when you put it like that,” says Cassidy from under her fringe. But the actress is unshakable, even opposite Jude Law as a dickhead music manager in taupe suede.

Cassidy and Portman share the film’s protagonist, Celeste, portraying her as a teen and a 31-year-old respectively. Later, in an effective device catalysing thoughts about role and nurture, Cassidy plays the daughter of Portman’s Celeste, Albertine. A high-school shooting survivor, Celeste’s past is exploited to engineer her rise to pop megastardom. Beginning with the moment of that tragedy, the film is a story of unravelling written in three parts, like an opera. Or maybe it’s a grim fairytale, such is its foreboding narration from Willem Dafoe. (Avant-pop legend Scott Walker contributes the ominous score.)

A diner scene where Portman acts the bratty, bullish mum – complete with white wine in a soda cup – lets Cassidy showcase her versatility, playing introspected Albertine with a captivating subtlety in comparison. “Albertine has witnessed this kind of outburst so many times; this is how she knows her mother,” the actress explains. “In the end, Albertine’s the one who is left upset. She brushes it off, but it actually does affect her, which I think is really sad.”

The short of Vox Lux is that the only time Celeste is functioning, or as near as she can feign to it, is when she is on stage. The long of it? Well, how long is a therapist’s couch? Her pop-star presentation – all wings and rivers of glitter – is versed in the fantasy of escape. “(Celeste’s stage show) is very extravagant and shows the massive contrast from when we see her at the memorial service,” says Cassidy. “You can see that she’s been produced; everyone’s had their go at her.”

Real-life pop star Sia even took time out from swinging on her chandelier to write songs for Celeste, alongside producers Greg Kurstin (“Chandelier”) and Stargate (Beyoncé and Shakira’s “Beautiful Liar”, Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World”). Separate them from the film, and they stand just like any other Top 40 bop, having been made with the exact same process. “I went in (the studio) for a few days and recorded,” says Cassidy. “I have the songs on my phone – I listen to them a lot! I’ll be humming them and my friends will be like, ‘What song are you humming?’ I’ll be like, ‘Never mind!’”

“You don’t really get the chance to play two characters in the same film,” says Cassidy of the unique challenges presented by her dual role in the film. “It was shot completely in order; Celeste first, then Natalie came in and we shot Albertine. Once I’d done Celeste, I could just forget about her character and focus on Albertine. It was important not to make it gimmicky. I thought that was really fun to work on, creating these two different characters.”

Writer-director Brady Corbet, also an actor who has worked with the likes of Gregg Araki and Lars von Trier, praises Cassidy for her intelligent approach to the script. “Her delicate demeanour and eloquent way of delivering text made her the ideal person for the role,” he says. “On a personal note, she’s also just a fantastic person to have on set. I sincerely hope we get to collaborate again in the future. She’s my kind of actor.” Cassidy returns the compliment, adding that she would work with Corbet again in a heartbeat. “It was amazing working with Brady,” she says. “It was always really easy on set because he has been an actor himself, so he understood and gave really clear direction.”

Despite her role as Celeste, Cassidy is a somewhat reluctant singer – without trying to, she has found herself carrying a song on screen several times now. Before Vox Lux, she sang a cappella underneath a tree to Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer – an awkward, tender moment of adolescent expression to her character’s crush. “I mean, I had never really thought about singing,” she reveals. “It was never a passion of mine but the more I do it, the more comfortable I get. Now I don’t care because I’ve done it in front of so many people.”

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer, if you’ve not seen it, is a Greek tragedy redux. And if you think you know the meaning of the word going into it, you’ll soon realise you don’t: no one does tragedy like the ancient Greeks. They invented it.

In the film, Colin Farrell plays surgeon Steven Murphy, who befriends a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a man who died at his hands on the operating table. Steven and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) have two kids – Kim (played by Cassidy) and younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic). They have a lovely life – a World of Interiors house with immaculate garden, subtle Cartier jewellery, a mid-range Mercedes and Range Rover. Nothing to fret about except the cuisine choice for dinner. Suddenly, when Martin wedges his way into their lives, they have everything to worry about. Described by the BFI as a “high-art rattler”, the film is a Google wonder, offering a list of expansive search suggestions centred on potential meanings and metaphors. It’s a film everyone has a personal take on. And it’s made all the better by the bleak straight-man monologuing about chronograph watches – the merits of a leather strap versus a metal bracelet. (So true: men buy glossy magazines about it.)

“Whenever I watch the lemonade scene,” says Cassidy of a typically surreal moment in the film where Martin talks about his love of homemade lemonade, “I remember none of us knew why, but we could not stop laughing. It got to the point where someone had to go, ‘C’mon guys, we need to get this, you all need to focus,’ because Sunny and I were children and had to finish at certain times. That scene was strange because in rehearsal, Yorgos (Lanthimos, the film’s director and co-writer) had us doing such weird things – like we would have to hum the whole time Barry was talking. Or we would look up, make eye-contact with someone else and swap seats. That’s one thing that will always stick with me.”

Both Cassidy’s recent films are strange, unconventional choices for a young actress. What links them is a loss of innocence in the characters that she plays. “In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Kim wants to rebel against her dad,” says the actress, “and I think her dad is the one who wants to keep her innocent. Whereas in Vox Lux, Celeste wants to keep her innocence, but everyone – including her manager – wants to get rid of it. I guess it’s more about people taking advantage of her inexperience in the world.”

For Cassidy, the two projects came along more through serendipity than any desire to do something purposely ‘weird’. “To be honest it wasn’t conscious at all – I know it seems like it, because I’ve done two very dark things,” she says. “It was purely based on the fact that I met the directors and loved their scripts. If I read something and it’s a cool script then I’ll do it. I had just done Tomorrowland (2015 sci-fi epic starring George Clooney), which I had so much fun on, and then I tried the complete polar opposite – which I think is fun to do.”

In Tomorrowland, Cassidy played Athena, an animatronic girl designed to recruit dreamers into a technological utopia. Cassidy trained for her physically demanding role in the film with months of swimming, gymnastics and mixed martial arts “with the best people”. “I love doing sports, but the funny thing is I was the one (doing the) punching and fighting, not the one getting hit – which I was OK with,” she laughs. She enjoyed the stunt work involved in the part, working on wires – “which I first actually experienced on (2015 fantasy film) Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism. (My character) had these long dream sequences where she would be in the clouds dressed as a chocolate bar or something. Obviously, I would never get to do that in everyday life!”

If it wasn’t for acting, Cassidy might have chosen to pursue special effects make-up as a career instead. Or fashion – as an ambassador for Miu Miu, she recently appeared in their AW18 campaign. “I’m very happy and honoured,” Cassidy reveals, citing co-ambassador Elle Fanning as one of the reasons she knows she’s in good company.

“When Raffey told me she was going to be a make-up effects artist our relationship changed, our dialogue completely shifted to talking shop and I was impressed with what she knew,” says Monica Huppert, the make-up designer on Tomorrowland. “When we wrapped the film I sent her a parcel with all kinds of make-up and for the next year she sent me emails with pictures of her poor family, all cut and bruised with missing fingers – the most memorable was her mum’s frozen face. She’s an artist at heart and will be good at whatever she decides to do.”

“I like sewing and making things too,” Cassidy reveals. “It’s taking forever, but my sister and I are making a dress for my mum. We are a quarter of the way through; we have a pattern which we’ve cut out and everything. It’s just sat there in a box. I absolutely love the film Clueless – one day I want to do a line inspired by the film. The plaid tailoring and long knee-socks! That would be my dream.” (Alicia Silverstone, a world apart from her cult 1995 role, starred as Martin’s mum in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.)

“My ultimate ambition is to have done something from each category – like comedy,” says Cassidy. “I would love to work with Wes Anderson and Lynne Ramsay. Have you seen You Were Never Really Here? After watching that I was like, ‘Who directed that?’ And Joel Edgerton – The Gift is one of the best films I’ve seen, and he wrote, directed and starred in it.” The actress speaks affectionately of Lanthimos, who she credits with making her choosy about the roles she pursues. “I would probably blame him for sparking my interest in unusual characters in filmmaking! After doing (a film with Yorgos) it’s kind of hard to find roles and projects that surprise me.”

“Raffey was one of the many young actors we saw for the role of Kim,” says Lanthimos. “From the first tape she sent, she immediately stood out. She had a weight and intensity, way greater than you would imagine for a girl her age. I subsequently saw her in an audition where we did various theatre exercises using a monologue from the film, and I realised her intensity was still there, but could be guided in different directions, which is an ideal quality for an actor. When I saw her once more with Barry Keoghan, who I had cast for the role of Martin, I was certain they would make great pair.”

Three days after our London meeting, Cassidy is spending time in New York, where she talks over the phone from The Bowery Hotel. “My most treasured possession is probably my spot cream – I nearly lost it at the airport which I was really upset about,” she says, laughing. “I like that I have to travel for work. If I lived in New York I wouldn’t be travelling, or going on holiday to do the work, I’d just be at home. It’s exciting leaving and even more exciting coming home once I’ve finished. One day I’m in Manchester with my friends, going out, messing around, doing homework. The next I’m away. I think it’s important having the two different sides, and I hope it remains that way.”

During our conversation, Cassidy suddenly hits upon a quote it feels like she’s been dancing around this whole time. “I would say yes, I am attracted to non-straightforward roles,” she says. Or maybe the roles are attracted to her.

RAFFEY CASSIDY
PHOTOGRAPHY LAURA COULSON
STYLING ELIZABETH FRASER-BELL
TEXT DEAN MAYO DAVIES
DAZED, SPRING 2019