Curtis and Boyle's Dynamic Duo
It was only natural that Working Title Films would reach out to collaborate
with screenwriter Richard Curtis on a passion project that had been bubbling up
through the studio's development channels. Producer Tim Bevan has known Curtis
for 30 years, and-from the films of the Bridget Jones series to Notting Hill,
Love Actually and About a Boy-every film Curtis has written has been produced by
the company that's synonymous with British cinema.
"One of our producers came to me with Jack Barth's idea, a story about a
musician who remembers The Beatles' music in a world where no one else does,"
Richard Curtis says. "I loved the idea, and at that point told them I didn't
want to read the script...as I would like a crack at it myself. I went away and
wrote a film based on that simple-but-brilliant idea. So, whilst the
extraordinary premise is Jack's, the script and shape of the story are mine."
Although Curtis is known for sometimes helming scripts he's crafted, on this
occasion he abstained. "I was never going to direct it," he says. "I didn't even
think about who should because first you've got to write a script worth anyone
directing. However, once I had finished the script, Danny Boyle was the first
person I asked."
Curtis and Boyle knew each other a bit, as the writer had helped Boyle with
his opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics, being called in to create a
Chariots of Fire spoof with Rowan Atkinson. "We did a little thing on the
Olympics where I worked with Rowan, creating a performance for Mr. Bean," Curtis
says. "It was great that Danny wanted something funny in the middle of the
opening ceremony, because that's not a very usual thing."
As the joke was about cheating-a daring move for the inaugural evening of the
world's biggest sporting event-it was a break from tradition in more ways than
one. Still, it's this approach that defines Boyle as an artist. "Danny wants
more out of a scene at every point, and that's exciting," Curtis says. "He's an
ecstatic filmmaker. He kept talking about how Jurgen Klopp manages the Liverpool
football team with something called 'Gegenpressing,' which is when you squeeze
as much into the attack as you possibly can, and he says that's what he always
wants to do."
So, six years after that Olympic triumph, Curtis sent Boyle his draft of
Yesterday, but he wasn't particularly optimistic that Boyle would say yes. "I
thought it was unlikely at the time," Curtis says, both because of Boyle's busy
schedule and the nature of the story. "In a way, Four Weddings is the anti-Trainspotting,
and Trainspotting is the anti-Four Weddings." Still, both films embrace
Britishness and have euphoric cinematic, uplifting endings. "It cuts both ways,"
Curtis says. "It's expected and unexpected."
To the delight of those involved, Boyle agreed to direct. "This is not your
typical film story," Bevan says. "Getting to that stage is usually very
difficult, but in this case, it was pretty easy."
As Boyle remembers it, Curtis had sent him the script without revealing much
about it. "I read it through in one sitting and emailed straight back with a
phrase I love that Coleridge used about Wordsworth," Boyle says. "I wrote, 'This
is unborrowed genius.' Richard said, 'Well it's not actually. It's based on a
story that's already been written, and I've rewritten it.' Anyway, it was a
wonderful surprise and a delight to see: this simple idea of everybody
forgetting The Beatles, apart from one struggling singer-songwriter from
In the Boyle-Curtis partnership, Bevan saw connections between these
seemingly disparate artists. "The interesting thing about Richard and Danny is
that they both emerged in the late '80s/early '90s with Trainspotting and Four
Weddings," Bevan says. "They both had films that were British and very
successful, and both made the decision to stay in the U.K. to make their films
and not head to Hollywood. They understood that a cultural specificity in their
work was an important part of it, and that it's easier to make good work when
you are dealing out of your own culture.
"They both did these two things," Bevan continues. "Both had lots of success
and turned around the whole perception of modern British cinema because they
stayed in Britain and made British movies. Those British movies went out around
the world and did mega-business. There's a logic that at some point those two
would work together and a logic, too, in that both love music-particularly pop
music. The film they might work together on would be about pop music. Between
them and the iconic songs of The Beatles and Working Title, another British
brand, is that you have an interesting combination of British filmmaking and
Still, before Boyle would put his name to the romantic comedy, he had to be
sure he would have complete freedom to make the film he wanted to make. "When
Danny came 'round to see us, he asked if he could audition for the film, which
of course is an absurd idea," Curtis says. "But what he was doing was checking
whether the ideas he felt strongly about were acceptable to us. If they weren't,
he wouldn't do it. He pitched the film he wanted to make right back at us."
Bevan has long been impressed by how singular Boyle is as a director. "He's a
person who says, 'If somebody else can direct this film, there's no point in
getting me to do it,'" Bevan says. "He gets his DNA into it, and that's a good
thing. He also surrounds himself with non-divas. All the heads of department and
his producer, Bernard Bellew, are here to do the job. They love the job, and
they love him. It's a very democratic set. It's the way things should be done
and, sadly, are not done often enough. It's extremely refreshing. Danny clearly
loves making movies and getting into the detail with his heads of department."
Once Boyle was onboard, he asked Curtis to change about a quarter of his
working script, and a percentage of what Curtis had written was altered
completely. "Writing is always a process of change," Curtis says. "By the time
it's edited you end up cutting 25 pages completely, so I'm not the slightest bit
sensitive about it. It was all for the better. Jack is telling a lie throughout
most of the story, and how do you express that? I kept using 'he feels very
guilty,' and Danny said this is quite hard to do; there's a limit to how many
times you can cut to a bloke looking a bit guilty! He had this idea about
putting in a nightmare where all his worst fears come true, so there's now a
scene where that visualizes Jack's guilt, rather than just showing him feeling a
bit guilty. That's a big-old proper scene. It was things like that, taking the
film and making it more visual, more exciting, better."
Boyle loved collaborating with Curtis as they finalized the shape of the
film. "I've always regarded Richard as Britain's poet laureate of romance and
comedy," Boyle says. "I'm in awe of his devotion to that intersection of romance
and comedy. I made a couple of films early on, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting,
that were very low-budget, did very well and had everybody hammering on our door
saying, 'What are you going to do next? Do this. Do this!' I went off and made
what I thought was a romantic comedy, A Life Less Ordinary, which I'm very fond
of. But when we came back after we'd shot it, before we'd even edited it, I
remember reading Richard's script for Notting Hill. I thought 'Now, that's a
romantic comedy in its purest sense.' It's been great to be part of the process
of working on a script like this from him, and to deliver a full-hearted romance
that truly believes in love. Belief in The Beatles is a belief in love. Richard
certainly has that."
With Boyle in the director's chair, it was now time to find a home for
Yesterday: a studio that would not only support the filmmakers on their journey
but one that trusted their instincts. On paper, the film, without stars with
proven box-office records, posed big potential risks for a major studio.
When Curtis and Bevan pitched the idea to Universal, it raised eyebrows among
the studio executives. "It's a pretty wacko idea," Bevan says. But the
executives were willing to take the leap because of the filmmakers involved.
"They said that if anyone could pull this off, Richard and Danny could. When
dealing with studios, or American industry backing, the one thing they
understand is the scarcity of good directors. If you get a renowned director,
all the other issues tend to go away."
Boyle was thrilled that the film had found the right home. "Being part of The
Working Title/Universal setup, which is the only production outfit we have in
Britain really, gave us a sense of security as we planned and went into the
film," Boyle says. "We knew it was safe, was going to be financed well and we'd
be left to make the film we wanted. It's been a delightful process right the way
For Boyle, Curtis and the other filmmakers, the primary and constant goal
with Yesterday was to fuse the emotional truth of The Beatles' music with a love
story worthy of their songs. "Somebody said something about the number of times
the word 'love' appears in The Beatles' songs compared to the Bible," Boyle
says. "By some extraordinary margin, The Beatles win hands down. I hope that's
what people will take out of this film: that it's a love story. So where better
to go for a love story than The Beatles? A dual love story. A love story to this
music, which is a part of world culture now, and a beautiful unexpected love
story that runs alongside it that benefits from the story arc that takes you on
such a roller-coaster journey."
It is also a film about limitless possibilities, the idea that, even when
something has been lost, you can regain it. For Boyle, The Beatles' music
represents the fundamental moment where the world came out of a half century of
world war and was reborn. "It shifted the world on its axis when the people were
given the power of their instincts, about art, love and poetry," Boyle says.
"All those things that can be in those songs fundamentally changed the world to
the force of movement...toward the teenager and the glory of pop sensibility.
People decided to live. All because of these four guys."
With the film greenlit, the filmmakers began the critical task of finding and
casting the actor who would play Yesterday's reluctant hero, Jack Malik. That
proved to be tricky. "We had some great auditions," Curtis says. "We had some
very good actors who couldn't sing and some very good singers who couldn't act."
Neither option was workable. "It quickly became apparent that if an actor
couldn't sing beautifully and play the guitar-as well as play the piano and act
and be funny-then he wasn't a contender," Bevan says. "It also became apparent
that whoever played Jack would probably be somebody who didn't have film fame."
Himesh Patel was not considered an obvious choice when casting director GAIL
STEVENS and her assistant, REBECCA FARHALL, first presented him to Boyle. "They
brought in this guy, saying he's on EastEnders," Boyle says. "I don't watch the
show regularly, but I had seen him. I was a judge on the short-film section of a
festival called Shuffle, in the East End where I live, which one of my daughters
runs. I picked Two Dosas, a 15-minute short, which Himesh was the lead in-very
funny with his droll, modern, 'boom, boom' humor. I didn't clock it then, but I
realized it afterward."
As soon as Patel began to play, something clicked. "He played 'USSR' on
acoustic guitar, and it was one of those 'bing!' moments," Boyle says. "As soon
as he sang it, I knew. There were other more obvious candidates for the role,
but I knew then, 'That's him.' It was like I'd never heard that song, a song I
loved, before. He'd taken it over. He was utterly respectful with The Beatles'
songs, and yet free with them as well. It wasn't some karaoke version that tries
to be clever. It felt like you were hearing the song afresh. There was something
about Himesh that the songs just belonged to him."
Casting Patel, who is relatively unknown outside the U.K., may have seemed
like a risk, but the decision to catapult him into the global spotlight mirrored
the rise of The Beatles themselves. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and
George Harrison were just lads from Liverpool who created something
extraordinary, and in so doing made an extraordinary impact on the world. "Danny
and I absolutely loved Himesh," Curtis says. "He was witty and charming; he
stuck to this beautiful clarity that let The Beatles' songs breathe on their
own, and we loved the fact that he wasn't particularly famous...unless you're a
fan of EastEnders. In which case, he's one of the eight most famous people in
Indeed, to watchers of the BBC One prime-time soap opera EastEnders, which
has been on the air since 1985 and has become a cultural institution in Britain,
Patel is a household name, having grown up on the show playing Tamwar Masood for
nine years. The series had been a boot-camp introduction to acting for Patel.
Players had to record 25 to 30 scenes a day and appear in as many as 8 to 12
episodes a week. Still, the prospect of his first movie was still an
intimidating one. "What with everything that I've had to do for this role, it
being my first film, I was a bit daunted by the setup of everything," Patel
says. "It was all quite new to me."
But the role resonated with him. "Jack is an aspiring singer and songwriter
who's been trying to make it for a while," Patel says. "In the beginning, he's
still playing to empty rooms and people who don't care, which starts to affect
his confidence and makes him wonder if he should go back to teaching. After he
realizes he's living in a world where The Beatles never existed, Jack is faced
with a conundrum. He ultimately decides to take the opportunity to pass their
music off as his own, which gains him the attention of none other than Ed
Sheeran. While touring with Ed, Jack becomes something of a superstar, and
although it's everything he ever wanted, it also comes with a whole new world of
Although Patel was prepared for how challenging the Yesterday shoot would be,
he hadn't fully realized what an academic journey it would be into the musical
legacy of the Fab Four. "A couple of weeks before we started shooting, Danny had
me write down a list of Beatles' songs as they came to me," Patel says. "I wrote
down 20 songs and there were some huge songs that I completely forgot about,
which made it interesting to take that into the film because it's such an
important part of the story. We stayed true to the songs lyrically and
musically, but also made them Jack's own. It was great to be reminded of these
wonderful songs and to play them in my own way.
"You've got to pick the songs that are relevant to the story, so there'll be
some huge songs that people will wonder why they're not in the movie," he
continues. "But Jack might not remember them; it's only at the end of the movie
that he remembers 'All You Need Is Love.' Throughout the film we've got this
thread of him not being able to remember the lyrics to 'Eleanor Rigby.' That's
been amazing, trying to remember lyrics. When I'm trying to remember the songs
myself, it's been an interesting exercise in this weird situation. What would
you do? Would you remember it all correctly?"
Before Jack's mysterious accident, he had used Post-It notes to write down
the lyrics of his own songs. "When he realizes he's the only person who knows
The Beatles' songs," Patel says, "he tries to remember the titles and lyrics by
writing them on Post-It notes, too. I did exercises to try to remember The
Beatles' lyrics while preparing for this role. It was interesting because it
made me relate to Jack that much more, as he's going through the same
In terms of trusting his director, Patel doesn't mince words. "Danny had so
much energy and enthusiasm on set, you couldn't help but be inspired by him,"
the actor says. "That fed into how I felt when I walked on set-completely
supported and able to talk to him about anything. I learned an awful lot from
him, not only as an actor, but as a person. Danny is a poet of cinema. He did
things with the camera that no one expected."
Likewise, the source of this material made quite the impact. "Richard's
movies celebrate love and everything that's good about the human spirit, which
is what this movie does as well," Patel says. "Working with him made me realize
where his stories came from because he's full of heart and generosity."
Accompanying Patel on his journey into the alternate world created by Boyle
and Curtis is Lily James, who plays schoolteacher/manager/long-suffering friend
Ellie. James first came to prominence on the small screen starring as Lady Rose
MacClare in Downton Abbey before making the leap into film with Wrath of the
Titans. Her career has continued to flourish, and with recent critically
acclaimed performances in Darkest Hour, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Baby
Driver, she was a canny choice to play Ellie.
"Lily James lights up the sky," Boyle says. "This was my first time working
with her. When she came in, we talked a bit and read a couple of scenes
together. I always like acting the scenes out with the actor. I would play her
with Himesh in his auditions, and then I'd play Himesh in hers. You could tell
straight away she's a fantastic actress. The part of Ellie is a friend who's
also his manager, in the sense of helping him move his gear around and get
bookings for gigs. She's such a contrast to the other manager, Debra. Both are
very funny actors, but Lily's Ellie has a grace about her as well, which
perseveres even if she doesn't realize it. That is gold."
Curtis was wowed by James, too. "It's the most gorgeous performance by her,"
Curtis says. "She's the only actress that we saw for the part of this normal,
lovely girl with messy hair and a slightly bad taste in clothes. She is the
heart and soul of the movie."
On set, the interaction between Patel and James somewhat mirrored the roles
they were playing: Patel stepping into an arena that's out of his comfort zone,
James ably abetting him. "Lily helped Himesh a lot because she has carried that
load [of being the lead in a film] herself," Boyle says. "There's something
about them. They got on very well and shared that responsibility in the film
It turns out that Patel and James have mutual friends, so it was easier to
connect on another level. "It was great to work with someone so professional but
also someone that I could have so much fun with," Patel says. "Lily was so
generous and supportive of my journey as an actor. This was not only a daunting
project, but it was my first film, so it was nice to have her support and to
watch how she carried herself on set."
The heart of Yesterday's narrative is the story of these two characters who
have grown up together-and who have an inseparable bond-but whose friendship
takes a different turn when the extraordinary happens. "Whether you're a huge
Beatles fan or not, this is the type of concept that anyone can enjoy," James
says. "The film is about friendship, romance, family, success and music, which
brings everyone together. It dives into what it really means to be successful
Introducing us to her character, James continues: "Ellie loves her vibrant,
busy and hectic life in Suffolk. She is basically Jack's manager, driver and
roadie, all in one whilst also being a teacher. They're inseparable; they've
been best friends for their whole lives, but Ellie is also very much in love
with him. So, when Jack becomes focused on his music, their romance is put on
To get into character, James spent a bit of time in Ellie's work shoes. "I
visited a school in Lowestoft and observed their teachers for a day," the
performer says. "It was incredible to see the amount of passion they feel for
For Jack, Ellie is the keystone to his own happiness, even if he's a little
slow to realize it. "Ellie is Jack's rock," Patel says. "They've been best
friends since they were kids, and she's believed in him from the moment she saw
him singing 'Wonderwall' at a school assembly. She knew he was special, not only
as a musician but as a person.
"As they've grown up, Jack has always been ignorant about the fact that Ellie
has wanted more," Patel continues. "She supports him in the most brilliant way
and hopes he'll open his eyes and see that they're meant to be together. Ellie
is the complete antithesis to the world of popstars, record labels and
Hollywood. She's a humble school teacher from a sleepy town in the east of
England, and she's happy with that because she knows she loves Jack and that's
all she needs."
The actresses was inarguably impressed with her co-star. "Himesh performed
the songs of the film in such a pure and honest way," James says. "His voice is
incredible and resembles the early Beatles. It's very heartfelt." She was
inspired by Patel's progress through rehearsals and to the actual shoot. "Himesh
is so genuine that he makes you want to root for him from start to finish. His
performance is so natural and the confidence he had on stage as he became a rock
star made the audience love him."
For James, working from Curtis' script under Boyle's direction was a dream
come true "Danny was so good about capturing the feeling of the early Beatles,"
she says. "He brought back that spark in the music that the whole world fell in
love with. Danny was full of energy and passionate about the project. He's a
huge Beatles fan, so we all knew the story was in the perfect hands. Watching
him visualize the story and work alongside Chris Ross with the camera was
inspiring. I felt a lot of confidence in knowing that there were these magicians
behind the camera."
It is a case of two for the price of one when you throw Curtis into the
equation. There were only a handful of occasions Curtis was not able to be on
set because of his charitable Red Nose commitments. But when he was there, he
was an incredible support to the actors. "In true Richard Curtis form, the story
made my heart swell and was hilarious," James says. "He's a master at capturing
what's good and hopeful about life. I grew up watching his films; I know every
word in Love Actually. Notting Hill may be my favorite film of all time, so to
be in a film that Richard wrote and to be around him every day was a total
dream. He had an intoxicating charisma and energy on set."
As Himself (Sort of)
In an instance of art imitating life, the story for Yesterday was drawn, in
part, from superstar Ed Sheeran's rise to fame. "The film is vaguely based on Ed
because he's a friend of Richard's," producer Bevan says. So, it's odd that
Sheeran was not the first choice to play the role of a real-life star who, after
seeing Jack on a local TV show, gives Jack his first big break, hiring him to be
his opening act on an upcoming tour. "Originally that part was written for Chris
Martin of Coldplay, but he didn't want to do it," Bevan says. "So, we went to Ed
straight away." Sheeran luckily said, "yes." Still, during production he did
seize every opportunity to rib the filmmakers about picking him second.
"Ed's the son I never had," says Curtis. "I had orange hair when I was young,
and Ed's got orange hair. The truth is that in some ways this film was about
Ed-insofar as it's an Ed that hasn't succeeded, comes from Suffolk and is
engaged to a girl he was at school with, which is the same story as Jack.
They're all sorts of ingredients from Ed's life that were in my head because
we've known him for years. We were in Suffolk with Danny when Ed came over for
supper and Danny said, 'You should be in the film. You should be the famous
person who finds our not-famous person and helps him on his way.'"
Boyle remembers it well. "I went to a Hollywood-type dinner, I suppose, but
where Richard lives in Suffolk," Boyle says. "Ed lives locally. Himesh himself
was brought up in Cambridge, where his mum and dad run a shop, which is very
close by. You've got a lot of connections." The director loved his brief
anonymity at the party. "I don't think Ed knew who I was; I could see him
Googling me as the evening went on. Thankfully, I hadn't disappeared! I heard
him say, 'Is this the guy who's directing the movie?'"
This meal fell in the middle of the process of finding out whether Sheeran
would agree to play himself. "He does have another career, you know," Boyle says
wryly. "But it was like a skeleton or an X-ray of the idea. He's been through
that movement in his career-a singer-songwriter playing local pubs in Suffolk
and then being catapulted into unbelievable success and fame with a body of
songs that has taken him there. Nothing to do with celebrity in any sense of the
word, but actual songwriting graft and skill. It felt like a perfect way that
he's used in the film, just as he is."
Once Sheeran came aboard, Boyle demanded the level of commitment he asks of
all his performers: "I said, 'Ed, you've got to spend time with us rehearsing,'"
Boyle says. "Knowing full well his success means his time is very precious. He
did the rehearsal and took it very seriously; he took notes very well. He knows
about songwriting, so when he says to Jack: 'How did you do that? I don't
believe you,' you think he would know better than anyone that you don't just
turn out a song like 'Yesterday' like that. Although apparently Paul McCartney
did, but these miracles don't happen just like that. There's a lot of graft
involved. Whereas for Jack the songs just seem to appear literally in 10
minutes. 'The Long and Winding Road' appears to take 10 or 15 minutes."
A major global music star himself, Sheeran identified with the challenges
Jack faces when he skyrockets to fame. "It's important to find a balance between
your career and personal life," Sheeran says. "It took me about eight years to
find that balance, and it's what Jack struggles with in the film." And he was
impressed with how Patel embodied Jack, and by Patel's musical talent. "I don't
think anyone besides Himesh could have played the role of Jack as well as he
did," Sheeran says. "I got goosebumps the first time I heard him sing 'The Long
and Winding Road' during our songwriting-competition scene. That's when I knew
it was going to be a truly special film. Himesh's voice is beautiful, and he did
wonders to the songs." He pauses, "I don't know what his plans for the future
are, but I think he should make an album."
Patel was just as dazzled by his co-star's acting ability. "Ed is incredibly
present and spontaneous as an actor," Patel provides. "Every take we had
together was different." In one pivotal scene, Sheeran challenges Jack to an
instant songwriting contest, while the other members of the tour look on. For
his song, Sheeran used one he wrote himself. "The song I sang in the competition
scene is called 'Penguins,'" Sheeran says. "I wrote it ages ago and it never
made it onto an album, so I thought it would be nice to use for the film." It's
a lovely song, but after he performs it, Jack performs "The Long and Winding
Road" as if he had written it in mere minutes. Sheeran, in the film, graciously
Although Sheeran had acted previously, notably in 2016's Bridget Jones's Baby
and in a 2017 episode of HBO's Game of Thrones, the musician is the first to
admit that the extent of his screen time in Yesterday is far greater than with
any project he's done before. "Working on this made me realize how much of a
longer and more-extensive process filmmaking is compared to making music," he
says. Admittedly, he was grateful for Boyle's guidance and general bonhomie.
"Danny had such a way of talking to everyone on set. Even if I made a mistake,
he would tell me what was wrong in such a friendly way and made me feel good
And, although Yesterday centers around the music of The Beatles, the
filmmakers thought they would be missing a major opportunity if they did not ask
Sheeran, one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, to write a song for
the final scenes of the film. But it almost didn't happen, and it took two
attempts, years apart. "When I started writing Yesterday, I thought it would be
a great idea to have, as well as all The Beatles' songs, one wonderfully
romantic song at the end, which is ostensibly written by Jack," says Curtis. "I
mentioned this to Ed, and he said, 'I'll write you one.' He came back two days
later with this song, and it was just perfect and we all got terribly excited."
The song was "How Would You Feel?" Unfortunately, Sheeran's record company
agreed that it was perfect, too, which is why it was featured on his album
"Divide" and not in the film. "That was disappointing," says Curtis.
But all was not lost. Two years later, with Sheeran cast in the film, Curtis'
dream to close Yesterday with a song by the artist became a reality. "I
originally wrote that the last song Jack performs would be on stage-but, as with
everything in the movie, things change," he says. Sheeran's beautiful song "One
Life" now plays nearly at the end of the film when at last Ellie and Jack's love
has a chance to blossom into reality, all barriers removed.
Ellie isn't the only manager in Jack's life. The second, and inarguably
crazier, of the pair is Debra, Jack's Hollywood agent. "Ellie is the one that
has that endless patience and devotion that is beyond the call of duty," Boyle
says. "Debra represents all the bad side of the business. They are a wonderful
For the performer, the gig was an easy one to accept. "This was the greatest
script I had ever read," McKinnon says. "I knew right away that I wanted to be
part of it." It didn't hurt that it was a dream part for her. "I'd always wanted
to play an agent," she says. "It's a fascinating job. The second I heard the
role, I said 'yes.'
"Debra is Jack's agent who embodies all of the worst nightmares about
Hollywood," McKinnon continues. "While Jack is trying to keep his life together,
Debra sweeps in and takes over, creating all the chaos that comes along with
being a musician. When Debra hears Jack playing The Beatles' music, she believes
he's produced the greatest compilation of music of all time. She immediately
sees dollar signs and tries to milk him for all he's worth."
She is, in other words, not a nurturer. "Debra is a terrible human being,"
Patel reveals. "Kate made her character terrifying, hilarious and utterly
beautiful. It was exciting to watch her improvise each scene a little
For Curtis, the character was particularly fun to write. "She's a greedy
blonde," he says, laughing. "There is, as it were, the devil in the movie. She
kept saying, 'I'm the villain.' I loved writing that part. I traditionally don't
have villainous people in my films, but the first thing I ever wrote, which was
Blackadder, was only villains so it was quite nice to once again get my teeth
into a character who's rude almost all the time. As my sons call it, 'roasting.'
She's a roaster."
Boyle was thrilled with McKinnon's deft ability to bring Debra to life. "Kate
is one of the ace comedians," Boyle says. "She's also proof that if they get the
opportunity, often they're amazing actors as well. She's not denying her comic
ability, but she'd do improvs where we'd set up a scene with a particular
purpose that Richard had written and then she would go off on one. She would
just chuck out these comic ideas, but keep the essence rooted in the character,
which is an extreme one she based on her own agent apparently. It allowed us to
bounce off, without it feeling like a sketch show or stretching the plausibility
within the story. She takes it very seriously, as comedians often do off camera;
Kate's a serious professional. She focuses that skill, energy and talent.
Off-camera, she's preparing, working at getting it as best as possible. It was a
great pleasure to have her."
The feeling was mutual. "The way Danny chose the different camera angles for
various shots was incredible," McKinnon says. "He developed a visual language
that elevated the story. He had such a unique way of seeing the scenes and added
a whole new dimension to the story." And working with a Richard Curtis script
was everything she hoped and more. "Richard's way of telling this story was not
only hilarious, but also grounded in so much heart, romanticism and kindness,"
she says. "His stories all represent the celebration of human joy and
Most of McKinnon's scenes are with Patel, and just as Debra is in awe of
Jack's talents, McKinnon found herself wowed by her co-star's. "I would not have
wanted to be Himesh," she says. "He had to carry the weight of the legacy of The
Beatles on his shoulders. Himesh not only memorized every line of every scene,
but he also taught himself how to play two instruments beautifully. He breathed
new life into the songs and made them his own. The fact that he managed to do
that within the span of shooting the movie says so much about how focused,
hardworking and even-keeled he is."
McKinnon also has a special connection to the Fab Four. "When I was young, I
learned to play the piano by playing The Beatles' catalogue with my dad," she
says. "'In My Life' was our mutual favorite and is still my favorite today.
Their music has some sort of significance in everyone's lives." Discussing the
premise of Yesterday, she reflects: "As a lifelong Beatles fan, I think it's a
poignant notion that the world would be a worse place without their music.
Imagining a world without The Beatles' catalogue is like imagining a world
without peacocks or rainbows. We would survive, but it would be a whole lot less
No lead singer is worth his salt without his road crew, and no better roadie
exists than Rocky. Well, some better ones, but none as charming. In the
tradition of brutally honest best friends in Curtis' films-from Rhys Ifans'
Spike in Notting Hill and Charlotte Coleman's Scarlett in Four Weddings and a
Funeral to Gregor Fisher's Joe in Love Actually-Game of Thrones' Joel Fry brings
to Yesterday a Rocky that is equal parts daft and delight. "Rocky is an old
friend of Jack's who resurfaces and becomes Jack's road manager," Patel says. "Rocky's
completely carefree, hedonistic and hilarious. He ends up becoming Jack's
right-hand man on his journey."
Because Jack has no connection to the music industry and relies on his tight
cluster of friends in a village in Suffolk for everything, he's in a bit of
quandary when he's approached by Ed Sheeran to become Sheeran's opening act on
tour. Jack finds himself in desperate need of a road manager, fast. And Ellie,
sadly, is not available. "There's literally nobody free to work for him as his
roadie...other than the most irresponsible and disastrous choice," Curtis says.
"His friend Rocky is a semi-reformed drug addict. That part is played by Joel
Fry with such glee and idiosyncrasy and height. That's a joy."
Fry initially tried out for the role of Jack and then, in a stroke of bad
luck, ended up having to audition while seriously ill. "Joel is a fantastic
musician," Boyle says. "The casting director said, 'You should see this guy.
He's not very well at the moment, and we recommended he doesn't come in...he's so
sick.' Joel came in, and he literally had the plague. He played some songs, did
the best he could. The casting director had said she knew we weren't going to
cast him as Jack, but we should see him for Rocky and get him in the film. What
a call that was because he was beautiful, both funny and noble. It's that thing
about comic characters; he's playing what my mum used to call an 'eejit.' But he
is a wonderful, special guy as well. That Rocky was a lovely discovery and a
lovely bit of comic writing. Really beautiful."
Fry found a certain philosophical wisdom in his character. "Rocky is a
carefree person who thinks it's more important to enjoy life and see the world
than worry about the small things," Fry says. "He doesn't stress about much, and
I think a lot of people could use a bit of that mentality. As Richard put it,
Rocky is 'dangerously relaxed.'"
Playing Himself (Sort of)
In one crucial scene that illuminates Jack's guilt about claiming The
Beatles' songs as his own, he's scheduled to appear on The Late Late Show,
hosted by James Corden-but before his appearance he has an anxiety dream where
Corden confronts him about it. Corden, it turns out, is a friend of Boyle's and
was game to do it. "I met James before he went off after Gavin & Stacey," Boyle
says. "I was getting a stage award in London for directing Frankenstein at The
National, and he was getting one for One Man, Two Guvnors. We were backstage,
and I said, 'Enjoy your work very much. What you going to do next?' He said,
'I'm going to go to America and give it a go there.' And there you go. He went
off, but he's retained this appetite for this work."
Although Corden has been in several Curtis' scripts, this is the only one in
which he has survived the edit. This made Curtis a little nervous. "Rich said,
'You've got to keep James in the film because if I cut him out, he'll never
speak to me again!'" Boyle says, laughing. Corden even let the film use all the
elements from his show and set for the shoot. "We wouldn't have been able to
afford to set up the scale of that show," Boyle says. "They staged this version
of his show for us on a Saturday. It was all their infrastructure and team, and
it's the only way that we could do it. We had to fly to L.A. the night before,
shoot it and then fly back. It was our first day, and it was a tremendous
performance by Himesh of 'Something.' James is terrific, incredibly skilled at
that extraordinary, constant turnaround you have on these shows during a week.
He's very quick at working and a good actor. He asks you what you want and gives
it to you, no messing."
Corden was also, it turns out, hiding a little secret from the filmmakers.
"James gives the impression of being so indiscrete in his garrulous chat show
manner," Boyle says, "but he was very discrete because he was planning the trip
with Paul McCartney around his home town of Liverpool for the 'Carpool Karaoke'
thing. He never gave us clue. He didn't tell us that he was off. So, when I saw
it I thought, 'Yeah, you were planning that as well, but you didn't let on.'"
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