Sam Mendes and the stars of “EMPIRE OF LIGHT” discuss cinema’s glory days

The stars and directors of “Empire of Light” held court from Los Angeles recently, following the American premiere of the new film held there. Writer-director Sam Mendes was joined by stars Olivia Coleman, Michael Ward, Toby Jones and Tanya Moodie.

The intriguing film, which came out yesterday, stars Coleman as Hillary, a movie theater employee experiencing mental health issues amidst affairs with both her married boss (Colin Firth) and an underling named Stephen (Ward), who is not only much younger but also black.

The film centers on the Empire, an old movie theater on the coast of Kent in the south of England at a time when roving bands of skinheads roamed ready to harass anyone who wasn’t White.

Mendes said that setting the film in the early-eighties, when movie theaters were still kings, locked in with his own recollections of going to the movies as a younger man in and around Oxford.

“I do have a lot of regret that the next generation won’t have the same degree of nostalgia not just for the places but all the things we see in [this] movie,” Mendes said. “But cinema is still alive, and I think we should celebrate…and keep those alive rather than worrying about the past,” the Oscar-winner said of his time watching films in Oxford.

Coleman, meanwhile, grew up in Norwich, frequently heading out to the Prince of Wales cinema and the Art Cinema.

“It was sort of a game changer,” the star of “Empire of Light” said of finding art films. “I sort of discovered a whole new genre of filmmaking I didn’t know before.”

“I’m nostalgic for films I wasn’t [permitted] to see,” added Jones. “They promised an adult world that I was excited to kind of get into.”

That sentiment was echoed by Moodie, who recalled seeing “A Clockwork Orange” in the theater and being really upset by the violence. In the film, she plays Stephen’s mother, an immigrant from Jamaica who becomes suspicious of her son’s relationship with Coleman’s character.

Coleman said she agreed to star in “Empire of Light” before even seeing the script—trusting her instincts as well as those of Mendes.

“Hillary is a part I hadn’t played before, something I found a little bit scary, which is exciting to me, and being the age I am” she said of her role. She added than, when it came to Hillary’s affair with the much younger Stephen, “Michael was much more mature about it than I was,” she nudged her co-star.

Much like “American Beauty,” the family unit at the heart of “Empire of Light” is unusual. This wasn’t much of a surprise to the new film’s writer/director.

“There aren’t any normal families” in my films, Mendes said wrily.

“Empire of Light” opened on December 9th

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