The Inverse Interview

The stars of Men unpack its mysterious ancient symbolism

Alex Garland's new movie is full of references to Sheela-na-gig and Green Man. Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear discuss what it all means.

NurPhoto/Getty Images

Men isn’t like Alex Garland’s other movies.

His stripped-down folk horror fable stars Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear as a woman escaping recent trauma and a man who stalks her through the countryside, taking the form of every person she meets. But the true stars of Men might not be the actors at all. Instead, it’s a pair of ancient symbols that appear throughout the film and reveal its hidden meaning: Sheela-na-gig and Green Man.

At a Q&A following the movie’s premiere, Garland revealed that he’s been obsessed with the symbols for over a decade and spent the last 15 years trying to write them into a script. So when Men finally arrived, Garland was extremely involved in creating these characters. Kinnear, who plays a version of Green Man among other roles, tells Inverse the writer-director even applied his Green Man makeup by hand.

Jessie Buckley in Men.A24

“He had seen it so vividly over however many years that he's been thinking about Green Men for about 15 years he has been trying to write about it in some way,” Kinnear says. “That was quite something to see the level of care and concern he took over this figure.”

“I started seeing Green Man plaques absolutely everywhere,” adds Kinnear’s co-star Jessie Buckley, noting how both symbols have seeped into our society. “There was an abortion referendum in Ireland a few years ago, and female artists around Ireland started recreating Sheela-na-gigs and putting them on different buildings.”

Inverse spoke to Buckley and Kinnear about what Men has to say about trauma, the importance of these symbols to the plot, and more. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

A Sheela-na-gig sculpture on a 12th-century church in England.Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A Green Man symbol on an early 13th-century cathedral in Germany.Public Domain/Johannes Otto Först

For women, this is not really a horror movie. What Harper experiences is very familiar in a lot of ways. Rory, what does it feel like to know this is very relatable?

Rory Kinnear: It feels like a film that sets itself up to receive a multiplicity of responses, and hopefully those responses are thoughtful, and hopefully some of them offer some solace; some of them might offer some instruction. I knew that the men that I was playing all represented an element of male behavior, be it from the micro to the macro aggression.

But at the same time, I couldn't play a theme or an archetype. I had to make sure that each one of those characters was fully rounded, and that the way that they behaved to Harper was not a significant part of their life, and the way that they interacted with her and whether that was because she was a woman or not, it varied according to which character one was playing. But the way that they behaved was as much rooted in their own personal lived experience as much as Harper's response to them.

“It doesn't follow the horror trope where the damsel in distress slays the dragon.”

Did it feel cathartic to play Harper?

Jessie Buckley: [laughs] I wouldn't say cathartic, but I think she went to come to terms with the kind of monsters within herself and monsters outside of herself, and to meet them and for them to meet each other. And you know, the question isn't finished for me either about what this film is, and I'm really interested to see how that has affected other people.

It never felt finite. It doesn't follow the horror trope where the damsel in distress slays the dragon, you know? She meets the dragon, and she still has to live with the thing. She's come to learn how to live with the thing and learn from the thing.

“They're fables as well. They're kind of things that people can relate to in their own way.”A24

Which is also sort of an exploration of grief, right? Annihilation was about depression and self-destruction, whereas you can see Men is about, how do you go on when you've lost someone in such a tremendously sad and painful way?

Jessie Buckley: I think coming to terms with grief is absolutely right. We're all going to experience grief in our life. The ending of a relationship is something to be grieved and how people deal with that is what needs to be investigated in yourself.

Rory Kinnear: The film flags up both with trauma and grief, that sense of it never goes, it's finding a way of dealing with it so the pain becomes a redemptive pain or a pain that exists positively in your life. That's a really difficult ambition, particularly when you're in the early throes of it.

But the way it also re-announces itself in different forms. There are different triggers — particularly post-trauma — that you cannot be prepared for and that take different guises. I feel like the film chimes with me on that level most, that sense of how to repurpose the awareness that traumatic events do live with you forever, but you are in control of how you can coexist with them.

“In Ireland, there's not many Sheela-na-gigs left.”

The Green Man and Sheela-na-gig keep popping up throughout the movie. Did either of you do any research or have any interest in either of those archetypes?

Jessie Buckley: After I'd read the script, I started seeing Green Man plaques absolutely everywhere. They also have had moments through history where they've kind of revealed themselves again in our culture. I even moved to a new house just before we started filming and on the trees in my back garden were green men and I was like, “This is really fucking weird! Why are all these things coming out of the woodwork, actually?” [bursts out laughing]

In Ireland, there's not many Sheela-na-gigs left. During the 1700s or something, lots of them were removed from churches because of the symbolism. There was an abortion referendum in Ireland a few years ago, and female artists around Ireland started recreating Sheela-na-gigs and putting them on different buildings. There are things in our subconscious that we don't notice and then, at different points, they come forward. They're fables as well. They're kind of things that people can relate to in their own way.

Rory Kinnear in Men.A24

Rory Kinnear: The Green Man was the one character that Alex was absolutely driven by a certain vision. He was incredibly exacting about its look. He let me have the opportunity to flesh it out, to embody it — how he walked, how he behaved — but in terms of the look, it meant something incredibly powerful to him to the extent that for the last sort of stage of the makeup, he would do the makeup.

He had seen it so vividly over however many years that he's been thinking about Green Men for about 15 years he has been trying to write about it in some way. That was quite something to sort of see the level of care and concern he took over this figure.

I'm really interested in the Sheela-Na-Gig archetype because there are so many interpretations. Historians aren't really sure what it is or what it was supposed to be. Why they were on the churches? Are they warnings? Are they celebrations? I think that's an interesting way to look at Harper because, at the end of the movie, we're supposed to interpret who she is and what the movie is and what the movie is saying about gender, or if it's saying anything at all? I feel like you guys really want us to make our own interpretations but I'm just really curious — how did you guys see your characters? As good or evil or something beyond that?

Jessie Buckley: I don't know. I don't think you can kind of judge any character ever. Also, as people, we always will justify anything we do. I never judged her as good or evil, but I think we all live with everything in us anyway. We're all capable of everything.

Rory Kinnear: The Sheela-Na-Gig being without explanation, and that everyone has attempted to explain it over centuries and everyone has different interpretations, I feel like that that is where the film hopes to exist. It’s a provocation or an examination, but without explanation.

Jessie Buckley: Or just a catalyst. These things can live around us and sink into us. They'll at least make us curious.

Men is in theaters now.

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