Kaya Scodelario is playing one of literature's most famous heroines in a screen adaptation of a beloved classic. But the 20-year-old British actor has never read Wuthering Heights. She learnt almost everything she knows about Emily Bronte's wild saga of passion and cruelty while playing Catherine Earnshaw in director Andrea Arnold's film.
''We didn't [study] it at school,'' she says. ''When I got the role, I wanted to read it but [Arnold] asked me not to. She wanted us to go in completely fresh … I will read the book one day, I promise.''
Bronte's novel has been filmed many times. The actors who have played the doomed and volatile lovers, Catherine and Heathcliff, have included Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, and Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. In comparison, Scodelario is a relatively obscure performer. She came to acting at 14, when she was cast in the gritty British television drama Skins. ''I still don't feel like a professional actor,'' Scodelario says. ''It's just that no one has chucked me out yet.''
Next to some of the film's other actors, though, she was a seasoned veteran. James Howson, who plays Heathcliff, had never performed professionally. Nor had the teenage actors who play the young Heathcliff and Cathy, Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer.
Arnold's adaptation emphasises the raw, difficult emotion of Bronte's novel, and Scodelario says the director encouraged the actors, trained and untrained, to play it from the heart. The child actors have the most screen time and the fierce, obsessive love between young Heathcliff and Cathy unfolds almost without words, through looks, gestures and long, muddy rides across the moors.
Arnold ignores the second half of the book, which spans several generations, to focus on the central relationship and its complications.
In this incarnation, Heathcliff and Cathy's world is dirty, wet and sometimes bloody. Heathcliff, a dark-skinned stray taken in by Cathy's father, is often savagely beaten. Filming in a remote corner of North Yorkshire, the crew and actors contended with torrential rain and difficult terrain. In this context, it is easy to understand why Catherine is drawn to the wealth and privilege of the neighbouring Linton family.
''We have got to a point where period dramas are done in a certain way,'' Scodelario says. ''Everything is brightly lit, everyone walks slowly, speaks slowly and is classically beautiful … [Arnold] wanted us to ignore those conventions, to make it rough and natural. This is something different, which is terrifying and exciting.''
CRITICAL BUZZ A bold approach to sacred source material.
STARS Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Solomon Glave, Shannon Beer.
DIRECTOR Andrea Arnold.