When Aimee Lou Wood would tell people that she was starring in “Living,” a re-imagining of Akira Kurosawa’s classic story of a terminally ill bureaucrat’s quest for meaning, the response she received terrified her.
“Everyone I spoke would tell me it was their favorite film of all time or the most beautiful film of all time,” she says. “It was a lot of pressure.”
But after watching the original, she became convinced that “Living,” which moves the setting from Japan to 1950s Great Britain, had used the elements of Kurosawa’s story that made it so powerful, but provided a fresh perspective that’s uniquely its own. It also helped that the film gave Wood, best known for her work as the popular and big-hearted teenager Aimee Gibbs on Netflix’s “Sex Education,” a chance to work alongside one of her acting icons, Bill Nighy. The two play Mr. Williams, an emotionally inert government functionary, and Margaret, a vivacious subordinate whose zest for life and ambition helps inspire her boss to make a difference in his final days. “Living” premieres Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, a celebration of indie film that will go virtual for the second year in a row due to omicron.
“I was in a bit of a mood for a while, because I was so looking forward to going,” Wood says. “I’d never been to a film festival before, but after a couple of days of feeling deflated, I got over it. I’m so grateful we got to do the picture in the first place.”
In advance of the film’s debut, Wood spoke to Variety about making “Living” during COVID and what’s next for “Sex Education.”
How did you get involved with “Living”?
I was in lockdown, and I read the script. It moved me so much. I found it so beautiful. It came to me at the perfect moment. When I read it, it aligned with where I was at emotionally. When I did the self-tape, I really enjoyed being Margaret. She was such a brilliant character. I was desperate to get the part because they don’t come around that often. There aren’t that many roles you truly fall in love with. When I read the script I was feeling a bit lackluster or muted, but this story is about seeing the beauty and the extraordinary in the ordinary and being grateful and present and appreciating the small things and the connections we have with people.
Lockdown made a lot of people reevaluate their life choices. Did the story resonate with you differently because you were in the pandemic in semi-isolation?
I think it did. Even when we were filming, it was challenging because you were always nervous you’d get shut down, so you were trying to be in the moment as much as possible. You just don’t know for 100% certain it’s going to stick and it’s going to last. My gratitude levels were very high.
What interested you about Margaret as a character?
Since I graduated from drama school there’s been a theme to the parts that I’ve played. They’re all very selfless, and they’re all very kind. We say being selfless is a really good thing, but if you think about it you’re saying self-less, like without a self. You’re putting everyone else before you. What I love about Margaret is she has that kindness and warmth and openness, but she also wants things for her self. She’s kind of assertive and she’s a really honest person, but she’s not just a people pleaser.
Why are you offered so many selfless characters?
It’s a compliment, I suppose. It’s a vibe I give out. I didn’t think that would be the type of roles I would get. Doing “Sex Education,” my character Aimee is super funny and super silly, but at her core, she’s fiercely loyal and kind. Playing a part like that entered people’s psyche, so they assume I’m that person.
What was it like to work with Bill Nighy?
I’m obsessed with Bill. I’ve been a big fan of his work. The first time I met him, I had a moment where he was talking and I thought, “How am I going to act with him? I’m just going to be so nervous.” But he is the loveliest man. We had some dinners and loads of chats and lunches together on set. It’s important the actors playing those parts have an easy connection, and we had the same kind of pure connection. It made those scenes really fizzy. We had these long takes and he has this really important monologue, and it felt so real. It was easy to be in the moment. I felt so lucky to learn from him.
What did you learn from him?
He always knows absolutely everyone’s names on set. He connects with every single person. His generosity is lovely and that comes through as an actor. He really listens, and he’s right there with you in the scenes.
“Sex Education” is such a phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. Why do you think people respond to it so strongly in the U.K. and the U.S.?
Everyone has someone who they relate to in the story. When you watch “Sex Ed,” it’s like being with your friends. They’re these flawed, human people. They’re not aspirational. A lot of these teen shows, the people in them are so cool and they’re kind of like rock ‘n’ roll. And I wasn’t anything like that when I was that age, so that makes “Sex Ed” so refreshing. It celebrates the awkwardness of that time. That is a really hard time, so it’s truthful.
The last season of “Sex Education” ended on a cliffhanger with Moordale Secondary School sold off to developers. Given that big change, what can people look forward to in Season 4?
I know basically nothing about Season 4. Our school is gone, so I’m confused about what’s happening there. I know a few little things about my character, but I really don’t know much. I hope they’re going to continue to flourish because I felt like they were growing up in Season 3. It will be interesting to see them outside of the school more and in their own lives.
It does seem like a show that has a natural endpoint since it deals with adolescence. Do you feel like there’s a cap on how long “Sex Education” can run?
We’re going to have to because I’m fast approaching 30. We could go to uni, I guess, but I don’t particularly want to be playing a fresher when I’m 45. It’s going to have to come to an end, which is sad, but also I feel like you should always leave them wanting more. Always end on a high instead of having people go, “I really wish they would stop.”