While prepping to shoot the Civil War-era “Hostiles,” Rosamund Pike heard that award-winning documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman was taking on a biopic of American war correspondent Marie Colvin. The project, based on the Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin's Private War,” struck Pike immediately. “All I was thinking was, ‘How can I meet Matt Heineman?’ ” the actress says. “And it was another eight months until I met him.”
The pair finally connected at a screening of Heineman’s documentary “City of Ghosts” in Los Angeles and discussed the potential film over breakfast the next day. Pike was adamant that she should portray Colvin, who died while reporting from Syria in 2012.
“People say, ‘Oh, did you fight for this role?’ and I suppose I did,” the English actress recounts in a suite at the Corinthia Hotel in London. “But I didn’t fight with anybody else. I have no idea if anybody else wanted it or anybody else met on it. I just fought in terms of the fact that I had passion and conviction and I wanted him to hear it.”
“A Private War” opens Nov. 16 and stars Pike as Colvin and Jamie Dornan as photographer Paul Conroy. It is told both through Colvin’s experiences in the field — in war zones in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — and back home in London, where she worked for the Sunday Times. It’s Heineman’s first feature film, and in many ways he treated it like a documentary. It was that aspect that initially drew Pike in, as well as her immediate love for Colvin.
“When Matt came on I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is going to penetrate into the soul of this person,’ ” Pike remembers. “Because that’s what he does with his docs. He makes us surprised. He lingers on people. He’s never afraid of an uncomfortable silence. And he’ll let you see. I thought, ‘Well, of course, he’d rather be making a documentary about Marie.’ He would have adored her.” She pauses. “I suppose, in some ways, my performance is an apology for not being her. It’s an apology for it not being a documentary.”
“I think Ros kind of cast herself,” Heineman says. “I really wanted someone who was going to get their hands dirty, who was going to dig into this role and research it in the same way that I wanted to dig in and research it. I feel like she went after this role as if — I almost felt like it was Marie going after an article.”
Pike dove into the research headfirst, reading everything she could by and about Colvin, and watching and rewatching hours of footage. She didn’t have access to Colvin’s diaries but spoke with many of her friends and family members. She committed early on to losing all vanity, taking on a gruff American accent, donning three different wigs and Colvin’s signature eye patch, which the reporter wore after being injured during the Sri Lankan civil war. “It’s a process of becoming,” Pike says. “I took her into my body. There was a way I stood. I think if I start doing her voice, everything comes together now.”
Heineman’s documentary background came into play several times during filming. Instead of casting extras to fill out the scenes in Iraq and Syria, the director found refugees in Jordan from those places and put them into the film. Their reactions, at various points, are real, and some of the most memorable lines were not scripted. This meant that Pike could simply walk onto the set as Colvin and explore. In one scene, Pike had to interview Syrian women trapped in a basement during the bombardment of Homs.
“Matt said, ‘You can talk to whoever you want, but the camera will be with you and you’ll have a translator,’ ” Pike says. “That’s what we filmed. Pretty amazing things came from it, but troubling. I talk about it with you and I can feel it in my gut again. It leaves an impact. The exciting thing about being an actor is you never know where an emotion will take you. It’s exciting and scary, in equal measure. It’s always a leap of faith. The second woman I interview in the [scene] said to me as Marie, ‘I don’t want this to just be words on paper. I want the world to know my story.’ She wasn’t asked to say that. That was her treating me like I was a journalist.”
Pike feels a kinship with Marie, someone who saw the darkness and still remembered the light.
“I’ve understood war in a profoundly different way than I’ve ever understood it before,” the actress says. “Modern warfare is a very, very scary place to be. There are images I’ve now seen I will never, ever forget. That I will never be able to un-see. That’s a tiny fraction of what Marie would have been exposed to. But Marie was amazing. She was such a romantic, she was such an optimist. She saw all that and she remained such an optimist, in such a lovely way.”