7 Questions With… Little Birds stars Juno Temple and Hugh Skinner: ‘It’s quite out there sexually’
Juno Temple and Hugh Skinner reveal what it was like bringing Anaïs Nin’s Little Birds, a series of erotic short stories set in 1950s Tangier, to Sky Atlantic.
Watch Little Birds on Sky Atlantic on NOW TV from August 4
Bold, subversive and unlike anything else on TV right now, Little Birds is a stunning new Sky Atlantic series starring Juno Temple and Hugh Skinner.
Set in the sizzling heat of 1950s Tangier, the series is loosely based on the erotic vignettes of Anaïs Nin and tells a very modern tale of independence, freedom and personal discovery.
Temple (Vinyl, Maleficent) stars as Lucy Savage, a New York heiress fresh of a transatlantic steamer and ready for lover and marriage in exotic climes.
Skinner (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, W1A) plays her aristocratic husband, but their relationship doesn’t go as expected and when Lucy meets provocative dominatrix, Cherifa (Yumna Marwan), her journey begins to take many unexpected turns.
We hear from the show’s leads about what drew them to this melodrama and why they believe the series will capture viewers’ imaginations in 2020.
1. How would you describe Little Birds?
Hugh Skinner: It’s a trippy, dreamlike fantasy and very, very queer. The period’s so specific, and obviously the political situation in Tangier at the time is vital. When I read the script I read it as a kitchen sink, slice of life type thing but [director] Stacie’s approach was completely original. It’s almost like a musical. It feels very bold and colourful and funny in places as well.
2. Who do you play in Little Birds?
Juno Temple: I play Lucy Savage. In the grand scheme of the world of Little Birds she is kind of the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue. Most of the series is set in Tangier, Morocco in 1955. Lucy comes fresh off the boat from New York in episode one and she arrives in Tangier to marry a young, handsome, English Lord and hopefully start to begin her own story.
That means that she is like the audience - the only young person in this story that has not been in Tangier. It’s this incredible mystery land for Lucy: everything’s new to her; everything is exciting for her. She’s never been anywhere like it in her life. Especially given how women were supposed to be in 1955 in America… when Lucy arrives in a land like Tangier, it feels like falling down the rabbit hole for her.
Hugh: Hugo is a British Lord living in Tangier in the 50s. He’s in a relationship with Adham, who’s a man, but as the series starts we discover he is also engaged to a wealthy American heiress, Lucy Savage. Which, as a gay man, is perhaps not the best idea - but then that’s only the beginning of a series of increasingly bad decisions he makes.
3. They are in some way kindred spirits. What do you think connects them?
Hugh: I think most of the lead characters in the series are outsiders in some way. The story of the series, particularly for Cherifa and Lucy, is one of outsiders who’ve all been dealt very different lives.
We watch as everyone transcends their situation by taking ownership of their otherness. Lucy and Hugo are kindred spirits in that sense – they are both outsiders; both of them have never felt they’ll find love. And they’re friends.
Someone says of them early on in the show, ‘Apparently they danced well together on a boat at some point,’ which I’ve realised is slim pickings as a foundation for a marriage. But they do click and I think they help each other… although Hugo does do some pretty dreadful things.
4. How does the show approach sex and eroticism?
Juno: I think it’s been honest. [Director] Stacie [Passon] made a really, really cool choice of the two lead female characters in the show, Lucy and Cherifa, two women from polar opposite worlds: one an American debutante and one the highest paid whore in Tangier.
They couldn’t be from more different worlds and both of them are sexually awakened or trying to be. Yet both of them throughout the entire series never get sexually satisfied. That I think was such an interesting choice: they come really close to it but none of them actually reached orgasm.
Real erotica consists of the stuff that people don’t necessarily want to talk about. Sometimes it’s scary, sometimes it’s dangerous but it’s something that isn’t just about the beautiful side of sexuality, it’s a more perilous side of sexuality, you know? Which I think can also help you get to know yourself: it’s not about just f****** and getting off, it’s about getting to know your insides and how your blood pumps, you know?
Hugh: It’s quite out there sexually. But it’s about these repressed characters taking ownership of their situation, and a lot of that is through sex, as in the book. So it is important to the story.
5. Why are Hugo and Lucy in Tangier?
Hugh: Sort of living the high life. He moved there having grown tired of a life of pretending in London. He’s there in this relationship with Adham as the series opens, but I think also he can live a more decadent lifestyle out there on a budget.
The 50s was a horrendous time to be gay. Tangier in the 50s was this incredibly bohemian place - you could live a better life there as a gay person than you could in London I think.
From what I’ve read about it, so many particularly brilliant gay westerners were there around that time like Joe Orton, Tennessee Williams and William Burroughs.
Juno: I think she’s somebody who overstepped a few lines in her coming of age moments in America. Because women were supposed to be seen and not heard in that time, I think her parents immediately sent her somewhere so that she could be put back in line.
Which does mean also that for a chunk of time and throughout the show too, she’s quite heavily medicated.
6. Where was the show filmed?
Juno: So we shot for six, maybe eight weeks in Tarifa in Spain which still has a lot of the original Moorish texture that would have been very prominent in 1955 Tangier.
When it was lit it was absolutely beautiful and then you had the care and the detail added to it that just transported you there. I love that about being on the movie set.
Hugh: Tarifa’s one of the windsurfing capitals of the world and it’s so windy. You walk down the street at a 45-degree angle most of the time, like a Dali painting.
It’s great but it was hard for the sound department with all that wind. Then again the local food more than made up for it.
As for the interiors, and in particular the El Sirocco club where Hugo often hangs out, people will be flabbergasted to learn that that was, in fact, in Manchester. It’s amazing. They did such an incredible job on the production design, building this fantastic set.
People could have sex with people they couldn’t in other parts of the world and bohemianism rose in Tangier
- Hugh Skinner
Juno: I’m still such a sucker for the amazing layers that the artists and designers bring. Like when you walk into a cafe and it’s 1955 in Tangier, you’ll look down at the table and your art department have made their own napkins – you notice that the napkins are slightly different; they’re just a little more beautiful and they don’t look like they belong in today’s era.
The attention to detail is astonishing: even the trash on the floor won’t be today’s trash. We just had the most incredible team that built the universe for all of us on Little Birds.
The lighting, directing, producing, the hair and makeup, the costumes… the people that were in it even with very small parts – they would come in with such pizzazz and completely flourish in this past world.
7. Why do you think Little Birds is still relevant in 2020?
Hugh: Its take on equality is so important. One of the reasons that people could have sex with people they couldn’t in other parts of the world and bohemianism rose in Tangier at that time was the political unrest that was going on.
The fact that Tangier was in the international zone, and as it moves towards independence, created a lack of stability that created space for many different kinds of people to co-exist. You could be yourself, and that’s as important now as it was then.
Juno: A big part of it is about people getting to be okay with their truth. Not one single character that you meet at the beginning of the show is the same at the end. We had this great Anaïs Nin quote on the opening page of our scripts: "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom".
Each character does blossom but it’s not an easy journey and none of them blossoms the colour that you think they might. The show is really about people getting to know themselves and be okay with it even if it’s not who they necessarily thought they were or who they wanted to be.
Watch Little Birds on Sky Atlantic with the NOW TV Entertainment Pass.