AS a Jimi Hendrix biopic splits the critics, Imogen Poots, who plays the woman at its heart, talks to Alistair Harkness
‘Hello? Hi. I’m really, really sorry. I’m standing next to this tree...” Three unconnected calls later and Imogen Poots has finally managed to find somewhere with mobile phone reception. “I have no service where I am. It’s such a surreal situation. I’m standing next to this tree in the middle of a field in Texas.”
The star of Filth is in the Lone Star State shooting A Country Called Home, a coming-of-age drama featuring the music of Ryan Bingham, the country singer who won the best song Oscar for his work on Crazy Heart. But it’s another musician the 25-year-old actress is on the phone to discuss: Jimi Hendrix, the game-changing rock star whose arrival in London from New York in 1966 that her new film, Jimi: All Is By My Side, dramatises.
Written and directed by John Ridley, Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, the film follows the 12 months or so from Hendrix’s discovery on the R&B circuit in the Village in New York to his arrival in London, where his incendiary performance style started coming into its own.
Poots plays Linda Keith, the sometime model known for being the girlfriend of Keith Richards – she’s the inspiration for Rolling Stones hit Ruby Tuesday.
She was instrumental not only in making the record industry pay attention to Hendrix (convincing Jimi’s eventual manager, the Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler, to sign him), she helped Hendrix (played by Outkast’s André Benjamin) to find his own identity on stage.
“She really started from a place where she was so focused on having his talent be recognised,” says Poots, whose early scenes show Linda’s frustration at the industry not seeing what she could see. “Just to experience that kind of rejection of something that’s not even about you, but something you can care about, shows a great strength of character on her part. She just had to do it. That’s certainly the story that we wanted to tell.”
One of the interesting things about the film is that Poots’s performance and Ridley’s deft writing overturn the misogynist view of Keith at the time as a mere groupie. “It certainly wasn’t a goal to be with him sexually,” agrees Poots, who decided against reaching out to the real Linda to prepare for the role.
“I would have loved to have met her, but I know for a fact that John [Ridley] had spoken to her and that was more than enough of a blessing. Because what do you really want from someone? You want permission, ultimately. And I think she’d given John that. I was excited to piece together what I could find and take it from there.”
Not everyone has been happy with the film, though. Kathy Etchingham, who became Jimi’s girlfriend after he arrived in Britain (she’s played by Hayley Atwell), has been vocal in her disapproval, and the Hendrix estate refused to licence Jimi’s music.
The film also received a mixed reaction from critics when it opened in the US earlier this month. And yet much of this can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the film doesn’t spoon-feed audiences the cliché-ridden, cradle-to-grave biopic tropes familiar from the likes of The Doors, Ray and Walk the Line. Instead it reflects the abstract, somewhat cosmic nature of Hendrix’s music and aesthetic outlook, with Ridley cutting it together using fractured editing techniques reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance.
“Or a Kenneth Anger film,” adds Poots. “It’s almost more of a collage of ideas, and I love that about it. It’s funny; I feel like a lot of people are surprised that it’s not what they expected and can’t work out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But it’s kind of great. With the biopic there’s always a formula so it’s fun to step away from that.”
Poots seems intent on stepping away from formula with her own career too. Since appearing as straight-laced police officer Amanda Drummond opposite James McAvoy in Filth last year (a film she says she absolutely hated when she first read the script – then absolutely loved), she’s been racking up interesting experiences working with 1970s film-making legends Peter Bogdanovich (in the forthcoming She’s Funny That Way) and Terrence Malick, in whose über-secretive Knight of Cups she co-stars with Christian Bale. Perhaps.
“There was no script so no-one really knows what it’s about,” she says. “We can all piece together what we think it was about, but sometimes it’s better left to see what will happen.”
Given Malick is notorious for downsizing the screen-time of even major stars – just ask Sean Penn – that’s perhaps the attitude to have. “That’s the fun of it,” she agrees.
As for Bogdanovich, working with him was an education, a chance to feed off The Last Picture Show director’s incredible knowledge of film history. “But we became great buddies too,” she laughs. “We’d go to Prêt a Manger, which everybody in the UK knows is a big coffee chain, but there are a couple now in New York and every time he’d suggest going he’d pronounce it as if it was a really upscale French restaurant. It’s hilarious.”
Poots has certainly come a long way since playing Robert Carlyle’s daughter in zombie horror sequel 28 Weeks Later. It was the success of that film – which she shot during her summer holidays from school – that fast-tracked her career and she credits Carlyle with being one of the first actors to give her a solid grounding in how to approach the craft. “I’m very aware of how fortunate I have been in the last five or six years in terms of the actors I’ve worked with.”
The list includes James McAvoy, Steve Coogan, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Fassbender and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, with whom she’s worked twice this year – albeit in two films (Need for Speed and A Long Way Down) that needed her a lot more than she needed them.
Building a successful career at such a young age, however, is a tricky feat, requiring a combination of guidance, gut instinct and, she says, the wherewithal to stay connected to what she loves about the job. “You do reach a point at which you start to say: this is what I would love to do if I can, and maybe this is something that does not make me happy or fulfilled.”
Has she reached that point now? “I do feel happy that I’ve worked on a handful of films that I’ve loved working on and loved the final product. The Hendrix film is an example of that.”
That will hopefully continue with her next few projects. Once she’s finished shooting in Texas she’ll be heading north to Oregon to make Green Room, the new film from Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier. “Did you see Blue Ruin? I loved that. Wasn’t it a great film?”
It was indeed. What’s Green Room about?
“It’s about punks,” she says, delighted. “Punk music is at the core of it, but it’s not about the movement. But I do play a punk.”
• Jimi: All Is By My Side is on general release from 24 October