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Clara Rugaard is the heart, hope, and humanity of I Am Mother

By Courtney Enlow

In the new Netflix film I Am Mother, humanity is no more. The only signs of life we see are a droid unit we know only as Mother and the human baby she raises from super-fast gestation to young adult. Mother explains to Daughter that all life has been wiped out due to contagion, and that Daughter is the only human in existence, that once she is old enough, she will care for the thousands of other embryos and repopulate the planet.

Mother's relationship to Daughter, thanks to the warm voice of Rose Byrne, is strangely tender. This is no wire mother; this mother has warm hands, the appearance of kind nurture, a feeling that she genuinely feels affection for this child. Daughter, in turn, loves and respects Mother — not as an authoritarian figure, but as, as the title would suggest, her mother. She's a shoulder to place her head upon, a body to cover in bright and colorful stickers.

This relationship between AI and the child who has known nothing else feels realistic, human even — until Hilary Swank shows up to throw a wrench into that "only human in existence thing." 

Daughter as a character is forced to live in a realm of naivete and maturity, pure trust and timidity, hope and betrayal from all sides as she learns her life is not what she thought but humanity might not be all that great either, and this all arrives thanks to the performance of 21-year-old Clara Rugaard. The Danish actress previously appeared in smaller roles in films like 2018's Teen Spirit, and this is her first starring role. SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS spoke to Rugaard about the film, and how to find love from maternal metal.

I want to talk to you a bit about the actual filming. Luke Hawker plays Mother in her physical form with Rose Byrne as her voice. Did you get to work with Rose at all?

I didn't. I didn't actually get to work with her until I saw the finished product with her voice added on top of it all, which just brought so many more elements to the finished product. But no, I was working with Luke the entire time, who was providing the lines and providing a performance inside the suit. So yeah, he was Mother to me.

Was that by design? Because actually it adds a really interesting separation, where you can see your character's warmth toward Mother, but Rose Byrne has this very warm voice that is somewhat disconnected because she's clearly not acting with you.

Yeah. I mean, it does work out for the better, for sure. Her voice just provided so much more depth to the character of Mother.

How did you find that level of attachment to what is essentially just this machine? Because you had to walk this very firm line between complete trust and zero trust.

That's the theme throughout the film, for sure. There's not really much research to be done on a girl who grows up underground raised by a robot. So you sort of have to follow your instinct, and I mean, Mother — she's everything Daughter's ever known. She's the only thing that Daughter has any love for, besides from this yearning for human connection which is so indented in our DNA as human beings. It was definitely strange, but Luke Hawker, again, I take my hat off for this man. He made my life so much easier, because we developed a great bond on set and throughout the process, and he truly became Mother to me. There was so much energy to bounce off of, because he's just brilliant.

To me, I'm watching this as a mother and it's hitting me on a lot of different levels — with Mother herself, and Hillary Swank's character coming in with this almost maternal need to protect you. How did it affect you, these maternal moments from these two very disparate characters, as someone who is coming to this as closer to being a child than a parent?

That's the journey, isn't it, for Daughter? She essentially matures in this span of two hours. Because she has to face doubt and she has to basically doubt her mother for the first time in her life and stand on her own two feet. So she definitely has this really interesting mental journey which was one of the things that really drew me to the character, and I wanted to be a part of telling that.

This was director Grant Sputore's first film. What was it like doing this project with that in mind? Was there a sense of collaboration?

I mean, Grant is just fantastic in every way, and — being somewhat of a green bean in the industry still — it was just fantastic to be able to work alongside someone as thorough and genius as he is. He was so trusting in my character choices and gave me so much free reign to do with my character as I pleased. Obviously, we had a lot of conversations throughout, but I think it's incredible, this level of trust that you have to provide on set or on a project like this. It's really something that any actor would be so grateful to experience.

One thing I wanted to ask, was the character written to have dance training as part of this, or did you come into this as a dancer? Because your fouetté game is on point.

I'm not going to lie to you, I wish. People say I should, but actually, the really impressive stuff is actually not me. But I did dance ballet.

It looks very realistic so I was like, "Oh, she's good!"

Thank you! I mean, I actually did learn a full-on routine for this. I did dance ballet when I was younger, and that was also in the casting process. And I did ballet classes for, I want to say, a month, up until the point when we started shooting the scene. It was great to get back into it. I really enjoyed it.

On the other end of the spectrum from Grant, you have Hillary [Swank] who's had this long, incredible career. What was it like working with her, and did she give you any guidance or advice you're going to take into your next work?

She's so amazing. This is a known fact. We all know this. She's just a very, very talented lady. It was so inspiring to work alongside her and observe her in action. As you said, she's obviously been in the industry for a lot longer than I have, and she really just took me under her wing and was just downright lovely all the way through. At the point that she actually got on board the project, I'd been shooting with the robot for a couple of weeks. When she finally arrived and we did our first scene together, it was incredible to watch her because she's so raw and captivating and present. It was something completely different from having looked at essentially a piece of metal. Although Luke Hawker who was inside the suit was amazing and provided a brilliant performance. But yeah, it was different.

Something that I noticed watching this, it's a very female film, obviously. There's you and Hillary, but also Mother who at least presents as female. So it's this very female story but it's not about femininity or gender. It's almost genderless. Did that impact how you approached the character?

To be honest, I didn't really think about that. Obviously, it's a story that follows motherhood. It's the theme of nature versus nurture and how you bring that forward. The characters are so — they're neutral in the sense like my character's name is Daughter and [Hilary Swank's character is] Woman and it's Mother. It's female characters telling a really interesting story, and I loved being a part of telling it. I hope it inspires people to see that women can provide exhilarating performances in action films as well — sci-fi action. It's quite rare to see that.

I Am Mother is now available to stream on Netflix.

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