Juno Temple: ‘Real eroticism is about how somebody’s sweat tastes’

Juno Temple in Little Birds: ‘Sometimes, you can be turned on by things that you might be frightened to be judged for.’ Photograph: Dean Rodgers/Warp Films/Sky
Juno Temple and Hugh Skinner play ill-matched newlyweds in an adaptation of Anais Nin’s erotic classic Little Birds. They discuss restrictive underwear, sexual liberation and the worst thing about sex scenes

In Little Birds, Sky Atlantic’s sultry new Anaïs Nin-inspired drama series, Juno Temple and Hugh Skinner play Lucy Savage and Hugo Cavendish-Smyth, newlyweds who met in the cultural maelstrom of 1950s Tangier. Wedded bliss, and even the marriage’s consummation, will have to wait, however, because Lucy is a naively virginal American debutante and Hugo is a closeted English lord involved in a dangerous romantic entanglement with an Anglo-Egyptian man. Both of them, in other words, are the repressed products of a confused time.

The actors, by contrast, get along swimmingly. When we connect over Zoom to discuss the show, Temple and Skinner chime in on each others’ anecdotes and enjoy making each other laugh. Did they try to go method by avoiding contact with each other? “Are you kidding?” cackles Temple. “No, we hung out the entire time!” confirms Skinner merrily.

There’s also no need to ask if they’re more laid-back than their well-starched characters; it’s all in the hair. Skinner, at home in London, is serving us mid-period Hugh Grant with a romcom-ready fringe; Temple, from her Los Angeles porch, is a naturally curly hippy chick with multiple necklaces and a cigarette on the go. They look relaxed and tanned – as if they’ve just come back from an extended break in Morocco, in fact. “I would definitely want to go and spend a week in the Tangier that we created,” says Temple. “I think it would be a hell of a good time.”

Products of a confused time: Hugh Skinner and Juno Temple in Little Birds. Photograph: Dean Rodgers/Warp Films/Sky
Products of a confused time: Hugh Skinner and Juno Temple in Little Birds. Photograph: Dean Rodgers/Warp Films/Sky

We’ve all been reliant on television to provide an escape lately, and if TV shows were travel agents, Little Birds would be at the luxury end of the market. The exquisite set design, in carefully curated shades of sunset and Mediterranean turquoise, makes it feel like a stay at the kind of five-star establishment where every detail is taken care of.

It’s the same sensual world of silks, scents and secrets that Nin conjured up in her erotic writing. Born to Cuban parents in France in 1903, Nin was a prolific diarist from childhood, her journals detailing her marriages, friendships and many affairs with literary figures from the period, including the psychoanalyst and Sigmund Freud collaborator Otto Frank and the American writer Henry Miller. It is her erotic fiction, however, with which she is most associated, including Little Birds and its fellow story collection Delta of Venus. These were first published in the late 1970s, but both are thought to have been written during the 1940s, when a cash-strapped Nin was paid $1 a page to write for an anonymous collector.

“It’s not your quintessential, what people think of as ‘erotic’,” says Temple, who has been a fan of the writer for years. “That might have been skewed by porn and those images that kind of tilt our brains. Actually, real eroticism is about, like, how somebody’s sweat tastes or how somebody’s hair feels in certain places, or what the lack of touch creates. That’s something that I was really struck by, at 17, reading Little Birds.”

To re-create that mood, Little Bird’s Qatari-American screenwriter, Sophia Al-Maria, has set the series in a unique city, at a particularly fascinating point in its history. Once a Berber town, then a Phoenician trading post, Tangier had been considered an “international zone” since 1924, under the joint administration of France, Spain and the UK. By 1955, when Little Birds is set, Tangier and the rest of Morocco stood on the brink of independence. Much like young Lucy, then.

Behind the scenes, Little Birds reflected this sense of exciting cultural exchange with a diverse crew and ensemble cast including Rossy de Palma, the flamboyant muse of the Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, the Lebanese actor Yumna Marwan, in her first English-speaking role, and the French-Algerian heart-throb Raphael Acloque. They all had time to socialise while shooting in Tarifa, in Spain, says Skinner. “Everyone had something – nationality, sexuality, whatever – to bring with their character. We’d go for dinner and there were often four or five languages being spoken, so there was a lot of learning.”

Heart-throb: Raphael Acloque in Little Birds. Photograph: Dean Rodgers/Warp Films/Sky
Heart-throb: Raphael Acloque in Little Birds. Photograph: Dean Rodgers/Warp Films/Sky

This meant engaging with the legacy of colonialism, but in a way that felt more collaborative than confrontational. “Particularly at the moment, it feels like the ceiling’s been raised in terms of levels of understanding… You’re not sitting there going, ‘Well, that’s very interesting, but I’m a British lord, so let me tell my side of the story.’”

For Temple, the writing’s nonjudgmental quality allows themes, both international and intimate, to come to the fore. “Sometimes you can be turned on by things that you might be frightened to be judged for – especially in the 1950s, when being gay was something that was soooo not okay. And that’s just touching the surface.” The all-woman creative team of Al-Maria and the series’ director, Stacie Passon, provided a nurturing environment for this exploration and ensured that Nin’s perspective was honoured. “For Lucy, finding out who she is, and what makes her tick in all different ways, was such an incredible journey,” says Temple. “Having so many women present was, I mean, sensational!”

International cast: the Lebanese actor Yumna Marwan in Little Birds. Photograph: Dean Rodgers/Warp Films/Sky
International cast: the Lebanese actor Yumna Marwan in Little Birds. Photograph: Dean Rodgers/Warp Films/Sky

Temple comes across as entirely at ease with all things sexual – as you’d expect from an actor whose breakthrough Hollywood role, in Killer Joe, involved full-frontal nudity. “I don’t really get nervous for a sex scene,” she says looking almost bored by the notion. “I’ve done quite a few of them now. You too, Hugh, right?” The key, she says, is still good communication, just as it was before the #MeToo era of on-set intimacy coaches. “Ultimately, it’s between you two and about making sure that boundaries are covered between the two of you. It doesn’t have to involve even the director.” Skinner nods along, though he looks less convincingly relaxed: “I mean the only bit that’s ever awkward, I find, is when you’re sitting on the beach with your bum out, in between takes, do you know what I mean?”

Of course, playing the awkward, posh Englishman is entirely on-brand for Skinner, who’s known for such characters in The Windsors, W1A and Fleabag. Little Birds, though, has provided space to push past parody into a deeper compassion. “It’s really sad, but Hugo thinks of [being gay] as a perversion, if he had to put a name on it. I think it’s something he does, and he’s in such deep, deep denial of it, and, as a result – as a lot of people were then – he’s pretty much an alcoholic.”

Juno Temple in Little Birds: ‘Sometimes, you can be turned on by things that you might be frightened to be judged for.’ Photograph: Dean Rodgers/Warp Films/Sky
Juno Temple in Little Birds: ‘Sometimes, you can be turned on by things that you might be frightened to be judged for.’ Photograph: Dean Rodgers/Warp Films/Sky

Temple’s way in was also through a period detail, although a more tangible one. “The dress I had to wear on our wedding night was one of the tightest pieces of clothing I’ve ever worn. I think that’s a big change for women; we aren’t constantly being squished into tiny pieces of clothing that might make you faint. We can sit like a man – or, like a human, I guess, is a better way of saying it.”

In a show that draws parallels between the political liberation of a country and the sexual liberation of individuals, the costumes are naturally important. This is equally true for the men, says Skinner, only in reverse: “It’s funny because, whereas the women’s were tighter, a lot of the men’s stuff was looser. The higher waist on trousers for a man and the period pa– .” He stops short and reconsiders. “Oh, I shouldn’t say ‘period pants’, should I? Well anyway, the thing about ‘period pants’ is they’re loose. They’re really, really loose.”

Saucy outfits and exposed flesh are to be expected in a TV show inspired by Anaïs Nin’s erotic fiction, but kudos to Little Birds: it seems to have taken the concept of “revealing underwear” to a whole new level. – Guardian

Little Birds starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm today