Lily-Rose Depp as “Wildcat” in director Nathalie Biancheri’s “Wolf” Focus Features

Two years after making her narrative film debut with Nocturnal, Italian writer-director Nathalie Biancheri has returned to the independent film circuit with Wolf, a fascinating psychological study of a young man who is institutionalized after being diagnosed with species dysphoria.

Biancheri told Observer she’d first become intrigued with the phenomenon after reading an article about, and considered making a documentary: “But then I realized that I didn’t really want to explore species dysphoria as a condition in the real world, but rather take what I think is the core theme of Wolf—which is a question of identity and how we identify ourselves and what it means to not feel like who you are in your own skin—and explore that through a fictional lens.”

Believing he is a wolf trapped in a human body, Jacob (1917’s George MacKay) eats, sleeps and lives like a wolf—much to the dismay of his family. When he is sent to a clinic run by Dr. Mann (Paddy Considine), otherwise known as the Zookeeper, Jacob and his animal-bound peers—which include a duck, a squirrel, a horse, a parrot, a panda, a spider and a German Shepherd—are forced to undergo increasingly curel forms of “curative” therapies.

But once his friendship with the mysterious Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp) develops into an undeniable infatuation, Jacob is faced with difficult choices: Will he renounce his true self to remain with Wildcat? And will he ever be able to tame the animal inside?

“I see [Wolf] as very much as our world, but at the same time, we never really know where we are,” Biancheri said. “We never leave this clinic except to kind of meander through the woods, so I thought it was, for me, a more interesting way to just explore the themes that species identity disorder brought up rather than the syndrome itself.”

In an exclusive sit-down at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Biancheri and Depp spoke about their fateful first meeting, the unique preparation that went into this project on both sides of the camera, and the film’s idiosyncratic exploration of both humanistic and animalistic identities.

[Note: The following interview contains minor spoilers for Wolf.]

Observer: Lily-Rose, since bursting onto the scene seven years ago, you’ve starred in period pieces, crime thrillers and romantic dramedies. But when your agent called you up and said, “Listen, I have an audition for a girl who thinks she’s actually a wildcat,” what was it about this character and this world that Nathalie had created that immediately spoke to you?

Lily Rose-Depp: It’s like what you just said. (Rose-Depp and Biancheri laugh.) As soon as I heard about what the movie was about, I was like, “This is for me. This is right up my street.” And as soon as I read the script, I was just obsessed with the story and the character. I’d never read a character like that ever in my life or seen one on screen, and I was like, “This is just an opportunity to do something so, so unique and so creative and so challenging and so strange.” And I love strange things, and I love strange movies. I just love that this story seemed to exist in a parallel universe. It left me with so many questions. It made me cry. And then I met Nathalie and just fell completely in love with her as well. This woman is so fascinating and creative, and I felt like we could really form a collaboration and make something really special together. So I was just like, “I will do everything to make sure that it is me.”

Nathalie, you initially wrote the part of Jacob for a different actor, but scheduling conflicts came up and it took you a long time to find a new actor. What was it about George MacKay that made him the right person to lead this project, and what was Lily-Rose able to bring in her audition for Wildcat that elevated what was already on the page?

Nathalie Biancheri: So starting with Lils, I was looking at her Instagram, and it was just her and this cat, so I think that was just the first level. And then we had a coffee, and I thought, Oh, she’s super nice and chill and committed and really easy-going. And I was like, “Listen, I would like you to tape [yourself for an audition]. I’m getting tapes in.” And she’s like, “Yup, no problem. I’ll do it.” I was looking at loads and loads of tapes, and she really went for it. I did ask for a cat improvisation. (Laughs.) Her movement was really good, and she was really compelling. I think Lils has that duality that the character has, which is extreme seductiveness but also huge vulnerability.

Depp: Thanks for that. (Laughs and touches her on the shoulder.)

Biancheri: And then with George, it was a very different process. There was another actor attached, and he’d kind of been my muse for writing the film. So when that didn’t happen, it was just so hard, because every tape I would watch, it felt like: “It’s not that person. It’s not that actor.” And then, my casting director suggested George, and I had seen Bypass, and I thought he was amazing. Then, I watched everything that he did, and I was like, “Actually, he’s a super, super strong actor. He’s incredible.” So we had a coffee, and he was very, very committed to the role. And I thought, You know what? Because that character has been written with someone else in mind, probably doing the casting, the tapes, in a traditional sense, is just not going to work, because it will never match something that’s been written for someone else. So taking a leap of faith and going with an actor [that] I think is brilliant felt like the right decision. I think he knocks it out of the park and is just unbelievable.

Lily-Rose, every project has its own unique type of preparation, but I think it’s safe to say that this will be one of the most unique of your career. What was your entry point into understanding Wildcat’s psyche, and how did learning how to move like a wildcat help you develop a better understanding of her character?

Depp: Definitely, this will be one of the most unique film preparations that I’ve ever done and probably will ever do. (Laughs.) It was all the more special for that reason. I knew that this was going to be a project that was going to be very physical—and that’s something that really excited me. I’d never done something that involved so much physical movement and preparation, and I was watching videos of cats and wildcats all the time. (Laughs.) Even observing my own cat at home and trying to mimic him, though he’s more of a house cat than a wildcat.

We had an amazing movement coach, Terry Notary. It was way more emotional work than I’d expected it to be, and that preparation with Terry is one that I will carry on to every project ever. It was, of course, about the movement and the technicality of the movement and how to get as close to a cat’s movement as possible and for George to get to a wolf’s movement, but so much of it was about presence, letting your guard down, having no insecurity about anything that you’re doing, really letting go and being free. It taught me so much about freedom and letting everything go when you’re stepping into somebody else’s shoes, whether it’s an animal or a person. (Laughs.) That, above all, was what helped me connect to the character, just having absolutely no fear with it—but that is only really possible when you’re surrounded by people who make you feel super safe and that you trust not only emotionally but [also] creatively. We had such a sense of trust and safety with each other that it was really, really easy to fall into.

But a lot of the prep for the character was not just the movement. It was connecting to her human side, because I think, in the end, Wildcat is one of the most human characters in the story. It was figuring out really who she is and where this projection of the wildcat even came from, why she feels the need to put on this persona, and diving into all the things that you normally think about: what her days look like, what she thinks about, how she relates to the people around her.

Nathalie, you were supposed to shoot this project last spring, but a little thing called a pandemic foiled those plans, and you were one of the first productions to safely resume under new protocols in Ireland. How long did you let your actors crawl around at home or in hotels?

Biancheri: If someone found my phone at any point, I would look like I have a fetish for young people behaving like animals! (They both laugh.) It was outrageous, especially because George would do all of his movements topless, so I have so many videos of this guy crawling and howling. (Laughs, covers her eyes.)

Retrospectively, you always say, “Oh, that was a blessing.” [But] it didn’t feel like it at the time. Our shoot was pushed, and we didn’t know when we would shoot—if we would shoot. And obviously, it’s such a small film, and there were different public funding entities and actors—so many actors—whom we could have lost at any moment. But I do think it had huge benefits. All of them really had the chance over those months to prepare, and we were always in touch. Even with the DP, every day during lockdown, we Zoomed for a couple hours and went through all the sets and how we might block, and then I would speak to Lily and then I would speak to George.

Depp: And we were just about to shoot when everything shut down, so we were all kind of revved up and excited, but we couldn’t. And when we could, we were just so excited to be there and so happy. Everyone had been locked up for months, so when we all got there, we were all just so ready to do it. (Laughs.)

There’s a scene midway through the film where Wildcat and Jacob are engaged in their animal states and begin sniffing and batting at each other. Given that you need to truly believe that your characters are suffering from species dysphoria before you can try to convey that to an audience, how difficult was it to shoot that? 

Depp: That scene was one of the ones that we rehearsed the most. There’s parts of our animals that come through when we’re just talking or being our human selves, but it was really important to get to know each other as animals as well—not just the people that we have to be in front of the others at the clinic, but as the selves that we really believe ourselves to be on the inside. Obviously, this isn’t a documentary. This isn’t a factual representation of what it means to have species dysphoria. But when you watch videos of people who feel this way, they talk about how it’s important for them to have these moments of freedom—there’s a word to describe these things that they do where they go into their animal selves and just exist at that. It’s a really cathartic, joyful experience for them, and it was important for us to have that as well.

Biancheri: It also encapsulates a lot of their relationship. I’ve always seen them as these two parallel lines that come very, very close without being able to really connect, to really touch, because what they connect on is shared loneliness as opposed to a real understanding of the other person. (Looks at Depp.) You guys did a lot of dancing together without touching and circling each other and getting closer and coming back. I was constantly, like, “Get closer, get closer, get closer! Pull back!” The rhythm of what really symbolizes the relationship between those two characters, ultimately, is a bit of a tragic love story.

Depp: But I think you’re right, honestly. That is representative of the larger theme of the relationship. They get so, so, so close, and it’s always this heartbreaking and push-and-pull.

Biancheri: And she’s afraid! She’s such a fragile creature. It always felt like they connected in this almost sensual, animalistic way. But then, [they’re] also breaking away and finding those moments of fear. That’s when it felt like we were touching on the kernels of truth of those two characters.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Wolf is in theaters now.

Lily-Rose Depp Walks on the Wild Side in ‘Wolf’