Dual: Riley Stearns on Karen Gillan's Roles & His Growth as Filmmaker
If there was anything, Riley Stearns learned as a filmmaker is that the fear never really goes away, but you end up more comfortable with it. Dual is his follow-up to his 2019 dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense, and the third film going towards more of a sci-fi spin. The film focuses on Sarah (Karen Gillan), who, upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, she opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail and lead to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now she has one year to train her body and mind for the fight of her life. I spoke to Stearns about the inspiration behind the film, working with the cast, and complications he ran into during filming.
Inspiration Behind Dual
"'Dual' for me was initially started with just the simple idea of wanting to see an actor act opposite themselves, but that ended up ballooning into this sort of more subtle science fiction film than it is today," Stearns said. "I really just wanted to see somebody training to better themselves after this big life change, but then also throw in the duel to the death element of it all. I felt like that was super normal to me. It turns out it's not as normal to everyone else, but hopefully, they can get on board for itself." When casting Gillan as Sarah, he wanted to break audiences in for those who are only used to her high-profile work.
"Karen's a fantastic actor but also tended to do bigger budget things. So I think people that only attended see her in things like 'Guardians of the Galaxy,' 'Doctor Who,' and 'Jumanji,'" Stearns said of The Bubble star. "So it was really exciting to me to work with her in the context of a smaller film and maybe introduce her to more art-house audience, but then also maybe introduce people who never would have been familiar with her work. Maybe they'll follow her future projects, go back and watch things that she was in. It felt like a mutually beneficial relationship. She really brought that for this film and just embraced the subtleties of the two different characters and trying to find those intricacies in the performance."
When distinguishing Karen's characters, it was important to distinguish them but not make dramatic changes. "We're a pretty low-budget film compared to like a studio movie, obviously," Stearns said. "So at the end of the day, you kind of have to just commit to things, and we did probably some hair and makeup tests that we were happy with. Wardrobe went through and tried to find what was right there. Her performance itself, though, a lot of that she just brought to set. I would kind of work with her at the moment. Karen came ready learning how to shoot them when they're on camera together was the challenge for me because anytime you cut to the other character, that's a whole 20 to 30 minutes of them in hair and makeup and going back to wardrobe and then they come back out of it. So you lose time every time you change angles. So really, pointing out the structure of how you shoot them was integral to the efficiency of the shoot."
Casting for the other roles, Stearns already had Aaron Paul penciled in for Sarah's boyfriend Peter before it was decided he play Trent, her trainer. "I've known Aaron since 2012 now; he was in a film with my ex-wife called 'Smashed,' and he's just a really great guy," he said. "He just brought so much of himself to it in a sense that he's such a likable guy who has everyone's best interests at heart. I think that that bled into Trent, too, and maybe on the page was written a little bit more dark and mysterious, and I really like that for him. I really like where it ends up, and then I had a call with Beulah [Koale], whose agent introduced me to him and talked for like 10 to 15 minutes, and we just hit it off. He boxes, and I do jujitsu. We talked about fighting, and I talked about his family and his kids. Yeah, I really, really love that guy, and I hope he does way more stuff because he deserves it. Theo came in and for two days of shooting, just like gave all of himself to those two days."
Filming had its share of complications, from actor Theo James' limited availability to shooting in Finland in August 2020 during the height of the COVID pandemic. Stearns came a long way since directing his first film, Faults, in 2014. "Into Duel, I think what I gained from doing those other projects and had learned from them is that I am capable of doing this," he said. "I'm never going to anything not nervous like you definitely have these nerves. You have this imposter syndrome that kicks in despite how much work you do and how much you believe in the project. But I knew that I had had those experiences before and was able to make movies that I was very proud of. So going into this, I just had the confidence that even if my brain was telling me it was going to be hard or challenging or scary and that I should just run. I knew that those were things that I shouldn't listen to. It really just I came in this time with confidence that maybe I hadn't had in the past." RLJE Films' Dual is in theaters on April 15.