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In Fabric's Marianne Jean-Baptiste on playing a lonely romantic and the clothing that last tempted her

By Carly Lane
In Fabric

In Fabric, which initially premiered at TIFF last year, gives new meaning to the phrase "killer dress." The horror-comedy film by director Peter Strickland follows several characters — including bank teller Sheila Woodchapel, played by actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste — and the misfortune they experience after their paths cross with a gorgeous red dress that does way more than just look good on anyone who happens to try it on.

It's a daring new movie with plenty of old-school giallo vibes, as hypnotic and strange as the TV ads promoting the mysterious department store Dentley and Soper's — not to mention the red-lipsticked women dressed all in black who work there.

Ahead of In Fabric's wide release, SYFY FANGRRLS had the chance to speak with Jean-Baptiste by phone, where she offered some insight about what drew her to working on the movie in the first place, Strickland's unique vision, and the last article of clothing that tempted her into buying it for herself.

What initially drew you to the project? What was it about the story or the script that left you feeling like you wanted to be involved?

It was different, interesting. [Sheila] is somebody that I certainly have not played, character-wise. I really liked the script. I thought, "This is crazy and I want to experience working with this guy, actually." Because I loved Berberian Sound Studio. So I was just like, "Mate, let's go. It will either work or it won't. But it will be interesting trying to discover that." You know?

It's a film that definitely pays tribute, in a lot of ways, to horror movies that have come before, but it puts forth its own vision. Were you given any homework or anything to refer to before filming started?

No, there were no references to approach it with. The only references were his previous work, you know, in terms of what it was going to look like and the feel of things — which, with Peter's work, they're just sort of slightly bizarre. I coined the term "Stricklandland" to describe the world that you enter in when you do a film with him. I kept asking him, "Are we in the '80s, are we in the '50s?" It felt like it could have been in a number of eras. And he wouldn't quite answer the question. So I think you just sort of commit to being in his world and exploring a story that is placed in this world.

It's interesting that you talk about the bizarre, because I do think there is that element in this film, but there's also so much that's identifiable.

Oh, totally.

Sheila's a character who experiences a lot of loneliness, especially in terms of her romantic life. Watching that first blind date that she goes on is so relatable. That feeling of sensing that there's probably not a lot of compatibility but trying to muster through it anyway.

Yeah, yeah.

Was there any personal feeling that you tapped into to play those moments?

For me, I just tapped into a longing. I just felt that what's very sad about the character is that she has a longing to be happy and to be cherished and accepted. There were so many subtle moments where you see it. On the street when she's looking at the shop, just walking past, and she says hello to one of the women who work at her bank and the woman completely and naturally ignores her. And you just imagine that that's her life. She's unseen. Even in her own home, there's a lack of appreciation for who she is and what she does. So it was just playing with all that stuff.

In Fabric trailer

There's loneliness and sadness in the character, but there are some funny parts too. The meetings between Sheila and her bosses are honestly some of the funniest moments in the entire film.

Oh, my god.

How hard was it for you to sit and keep from laughing while they're saying these most ridiculous things? Because you're the one who has to play those scenes totally straight.

Totally straight. Yeah, it was very difficult actually, because I'm one of these people who ... one of the most thrilling things about being on stage for me is the fact that I laugh so easily. So it's about not laughing. I laughed a lot during some of our work together, but then I just had to let it out. And then I couldn't even crack a smile because it would have been over.

I remember working with Julian, one of the guys who plays one of the bosses. I think we'd worked together for about a day or so. And the following day, we were talking at tea break, and I looked and he had these teeth in his hands. And I was like, "What the hell?" And he was like, "Oh no, these are for the character," and he popped them back in. I think they were from something else that he'd done and he thought, "Oh, these would be really good for this character, so I'll put these in." And then of course for the rest of the afternoon, it was all I could do to not look at his teeth when we were doing the scenes together. Jesus. Yeah. They were great fun, those two. Great, great, great fun.

It's just bizarre, do you know what I mean? Because it's that whole corporate thing about the handshake, and [telling her] "Your handshake's a bit weak. And we feel that you need to do this, and here's a pamphlet on it." And it's like, oh shit, I remember working in places where there would be sort of crazy, crazy rules and protocol.

What was the last thing that you found while you were shopping that you felt like you just had to have?

Well, there's actually a designer that I really love, T-Michael Bergen, and he runs a company called Norwegian Rain. And there was a jacket that I had to have. I had to have it. I still haven't worn it. It's one of those things that you go, "Oh, that's for when ..." but it's sat there. I now have a T. Michael Bergen piece and I'm very happy.

Now you'll have it for whenever you decide to wear it.

That's right.

What are you currently FANGRRLing over?

Do you know what, I think I might be a bit late, [but] I am watching something called Patriot. And it's on Amazon. It's about this guy. I can't work out what he bloody does. I think he's a bit of an assassin or what have you. But he's a folk singer and he's had some kind of traumatic experience, because he's losing it. Because the folk songs he sings are all about the people he's killed and things that he's done, but they're beautifully written songs. He'll turn up at an open-mike night in Luxembourg when he's supposed to be dropping off money or whatever and start singing about, you know, taking someone hostage and torturing them. That's what I'm watching at the moment, because I am enjoying the liberties that the creative team are taking with it.

In Fabric will be released in theaters on December 6. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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