Birthday Boy Is Easily Bored

Submitted by Brian Pendreigh on Thu, 06/20/2002 - 12:08

For all its glamour filmmaking can be a surprisingly tedious business. Ben Chaplin says that discussing the sex scenes with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock is one such example of that.

Some people might feel nervous getting naked with Nicole Kidman, in front of a camera crew and ultimately the world. But for rising English star Ben Chaplin it was just "a day at the office", a comment which suggests he is well suited for the role of a boring bank clerk in Birthday Girl. 

"I know that sounds bizarre to someone who doesn’t go to the office and do that," says the 31-year-old, who has carved out a glittering career in Hollywood since starring with Uma Thurman in The Truth About Cats and Dogs six years ago. "You don’t get turned on, you get embarrassed, but only mildly, because it’s your job. 

"She’s just an actress. There’s no starry stuff with Nicole... She’s used to it and it was never anything other than totally professional." Chaplin also shares intimate scenes with Sandra Bullock in the thriller Murder by Numbers, which also opens next week. "They were both delightful to work with," he says, but seems reluctant to prolong the discussion. 

Internet wedlock is only virtual 

Ben Chaplin in Birthday Girl
Ben Chaplin finds wedlock to a Russian internet bride rather restrictive

His character, John Buckingham, is undeniably handsome, but has no friends, little prospect of promotion and resorts to buying a Russian bride on the Internet. Yet Chaplin argues John is not boring. "You’re only boring when you’ve got nothing to talk about and he hasn’t got anything to talk about yet... As soon as he had, I think he wouldn’t be boring." 

But then this is a man who thinks that talking about sex scenes with Kidman and Bullock is "boring" and would rather talk about his problems picking up his cue from Kidman’s Russian dialect. So perhaps his perception of boring is rather different from that of other people, who might fancy a day in the office with either woman. 

It is not long before John and Nadia are rolling around in their birthday suits, even indulging in bondage games, though Nadia’s supposedly fluent English consists of little more than the single word "yes", which proves sufficient in the circumstances. 

Their relationship appears to be going well until Nadia’s "cousin" and his friend turn up on her birthday and the romantic-comedy twists into thriller territory. It becomes apparent that things are not as they seem and that John is the victim of a major con. 

Inspiration for the scam 

It was director Jez Butterworth’s brother Tom who came up with the initial idea, inspired by a couple of real-life Russians who raised a lot of money to save a Leningrad theatre that did not actually exist. "I came up with all the funny lines," says Jez, who wrote the script with Tom. 

There is some nicely barbed dialogue as the plot heats up - "Don’t tell me... it’s so cold in Russia, you have to go to England and shag people to keep warm," and "You can’t hurt me more than I’m hurt already," which brings the riposte, "If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to give it bash." 

Chaplin’s personal experience of scams is more modest. "I’ve had that bloke who comes up to you at Waterloo Station and is really well dressed and he desperately needs to get back to Basingstoke and can you help him out. And then you just do it, because it’s so boring." 

Kidman turns on the Russian 

The easily bored actor went to work in a bank to prepare for his role, while Kidman was faced with the challenge of learning lines in Russian. It was not that Butterworth did not consider Russian actresses - he went to Moscow to meet candidates, but, despite assurances to the contrary, none of them spoke English. 

Kidman was not exactly obvious casting. She was sent the script by Miramax and expressed an interest, but Butterworth remained dubious. "I really couldn’t see how she was going to be believable as this Russian." But within minutes of meeting her he had been convinced that she could rise to the challenge. 

Not only did she learn Russian dialogue, but she really looks the part with her black hair, kohl-rimmed, expressionless eyes and slightly tacky wardrobe, a cigarette ever present in her hand. Birthday Girl the range she displayed to great effect in Eyes Wide Shut, Moulin Rouge and The Others. 

Great shoot, "boring" post 

A co-production between Miramax and FilmFour, Birthday Girl was another big break for Chaplin, whose darkly handsome looks have won him a succession of romantic lead roles in Hollywood. No relation of Charlie, he made a name for himself on the London stage and appeared in The Remains of the Day before going to Hollywood. 

Birthday Girl represented a welcome return to his native land. "This is the only thing I’ve done here in the time that I’ve worked in America... I was just really desperate to do something in England and then when Jez sent me the script I was very excited." 

But although Kidman expressed a passionate interest in the role, she wanted to be with then-husband Tom Cruise in Australia, while he shot Mission: Impossible 2. Butterworth recalls: "Harvey Weinstein of Miramax said, ‘Let’s go and shoot it in Australia." 

Exteriors were filmed on location in St Albans and elsewhere in the south of England, while interiors were filmed in the studio in Sydney. But Butterworth ran out of time before Kidman was required on Moulin Rouge and he had to wait a year to shoot one final pivotal scene. 

"The shoot on this film was terrific and it was really, really fun," says Butterworth. "It was one of the best times of my life. The post-production has been an unmitigated nightmare for me because of waiting around. It’s just so boring." 

For Butterworth and Chaplin, there seems no end of things that fall into that category. They will be hoping audiences do not think Birthday Girl is one of them, though with all its twists and turns and another great performance from Kidman boring is not a word that readily suggests itself.

Filmmaking