Katie McGuinness spoke to The Natural Aristocrat about Snowpiercer’s Tailie heroine, Josie Wellstead, and the show’s allegorical, Orwellian representation of class divide.
Josie Wellstead’s resilience in the face of certain demise is at the heart of Snowpiercer’s revolution. Her sacrifice acting as a powder keg to Layton moving forward with an uprising against a rigged system. One that had lost its humanity long ago, entrenching its population with zero social mobility or basic rights. Stripping away and commodifying even the fundamental human right to day light, the sun, exclusively to those with means.
Snowpiercer star Katie McGuinness discussed the experience of bringing Josie Wellstead to life on-screen, the final tussle between Josie & Melanie Cavill, and the resonating theme of class division on the series with The Natural Aristocrat®.
This interview contains spoilers for TNT’s Snowpiercer.
The Natural Aristocrat [Nir Regev]: How surprised were you when you received the script for your final scene on Snowpiercer? I mean, I’m sure there could be flashbacks with Josie but still. What was it like having that last showdown fight with Melanie Cavill?
Katie McGuinness: I was excited! I’m really glad that those two characters have that kind of face-off. It’s a really satisfying end to the series. It’s good to go out with a bang, right?
There’s a line Layton says in Episode 8, “We need to make the train work for all of us!” Do you feel what’s made Snowpiercer so topical and universally relatable for any time period is its Orwellian allegory to class division?
Yeah, when I first saw the film, I was really struck about it being an allegory for class division. It’s sort of what humans naturally create for themselves anyway, wherever they are. There’s always some kind of system we try to live by and put into place. Of course, it also brings up that feeling of “Look what can happen!” under a microscope.
It’s a distilled version of what lots of people can relate to feeling… But it also shows the capability of humans to survive and adapt. To find pockets of light and love and joy even in the most extreme of circumstances. And for me personally as well, I think it’s that nothing is clearcut or straightforward. You can see that with Melanie.
From Josie’s point of view, Melanie’s dangerous and threatens her people. But at the same time, from Melanie’s side of it, you can see the difficult decisions she has to make. Decisions, she doesn’t necessarily like making. So, I like that that it deals with the gray areas of humanity. No one is good or bad, no one is right or wrong, or perfect. Everyone holds all of that, and we’re all trying to sort of muddle along.
If Josie & Layton had been offered the same kind of deal as Pike, with Miles’ wellbeing and even seeing him being further incentive… Is there any chance she would have accepted it and lived with the decision? Family over all, so-to-speak. Or is there no circumstance in which Josie betrays the Tail and the revolution?
I think with anything bigger in scale like a revolution, it always starts from a personal place. Josie’s able to really galvanize behind the idea of a revolution and change. Yes of course, partly because of her own fears, her own need to be useful, and to hang onto the people & the family that she’s made. She’s already lost everything else in the world and sacrificed so much. But Josie has such a strong, fiery sense of justice as well and doing right by people. She can’t bear the abuse of that.
So, there’s just no question in my mind, that if Josie had been put in the same position as Pike, she would have never have done it. She would definitely never believe that Layton would either. That’s the thing that really links them. It’s why they’re these great warrior leaders together. They both have that strong, ingrained, primal sense of justice.
When Tailies get a taste of real food as opposed to their fly-filled protein bars, it looks like instant euphoria on their faces. Especially Pike eating the chocolate cake. What did you personally imagine eating when you were first passed a meal in that ‘diner’ by a former Tailie?
Yeah, I didn’t imagine eating something like delicious or anything! I think it’s more kind of the weirdness of it. There’s a really strange sensation in your mouth like if you’ve ever been ailing and you’re just on liquids or something. It just feels odd. Like that x 1000! (laughs) Kind of like all your taste buds sort of exploded.
It was more like a feeling of, “I’m not sure I can keep this down” rather than “Oh my God! This is so delicious!” I think that probably comes a bit afterwards, once your body realizes it’s alright to eat solid, normal stuff again.
Do you generally utilize emotional recall or consider yourself a method actor in any way?
I mean, not specifically. I do. Of course, it’s helpful to put yourself in a situation where you remember feeling a certain way or some situation that you can relate to the scene… But also I try and use different ways of working because it can be tempting to find something that works and get stuck in it. And I’m interested in sort of stretching my muscles as much as I can in that way. So, I don’t think about it that much when I’m actually filming.
I feel like for me, I want to give myself the freedom because surprising things can happen. You can think that something is upsetting & sad and that you might you might feel upset by it… But actually in the moment, you could end up laughing because humans are idiosyncratic. You don’t always react to things that way you think you might.
I do pull in emotional recall sometimes and I try to do other stuff. I really like working physically, I quite often listen to music or distract myself with something else, completely not having to do with the scene before I go into it. There’s a lot of different ways in I think, and the interesting thing is to keep trying stuff out.
It’s interesting you mentioned music because my mind immediately went to the scene where Old Ivan requests to listen to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2”… Then proceeds to hang himself. Josie’s facial expression right after really stands out. How do you reflect on that brutal scene?
Yeah, it was… It was brutal and just at the beginning as well. I was helped by the surroundings of course because the Tail’s carriage is quite small. We were shooting in the summer, it was really hot, and it’s easy to feel kind of crushed and oppressed in that environment. So, that kind of all added to it.
The building sense of that was around me… But at the same time also, I think that anyone who’s experienced loss in their life and especially if you’ve experienced anyone committing suicide then… That’s a really brutal thing to happen. I’ve had experience of that in my life with people I’ve known who’ve taken their life. So, it kind of wasn’t too far a stretch to embrace the despair of it.
There’s a moment where Josie walks down a corridor, disguised as Third Class, and Miles is walking from the opposite side with his teacher. Josie’s pretty much frozen in silence, desperately wanting to say something but not allowing herself to. I was wondering what you drew on as inspiration to express the subtitles of that scene?
I think it’s partly that feeling when you’re on a mission to get something done, and you’re thinking about the practicalities of something. In that scene, I had to get to Astrid, I had to give her the information, I had to get back quickly. There’s a time pressure on it all.
You’re thinking in terms of those small steps of what practically do I need to do. I was focused in that way, so it felt like a massive splash of cold water. You know, when you catch someone out of the corner of your eye who you think already died. Suddenly you’re like, “Oh my God is that them?” And the world flips around for a second.
It’s one of those moments where I felt as Josie, I’d been really focused on the mission & the plan, and seeing Miles was like this stark reminder of what it was really all about. A bit of a free fall moment of, “Oh my God!” and remembering the loss of it.
Why do you feel Josie was so quick to trust Zarah Ferami after recovering Layton from the Drawers? You almost get the impression Josie knew something had reignited between Layton & Zarah but it doesn’t impact her decision. Is it just pure desperation?
I think there’s some hope in it. Of course, she’s backed into a corner and has to make a decision. But she also knows how much Zarah & Layton meant to each other. Perhaps, at that point, she suspects that they still do… Josie felt Zarah would stay true to her roots and where she came from. She just has to take the risk and believe that it will all be okay.
Maybe, knowing how much Zarah & Layton meant to each other, Josie sort of doesn’t want to give him up. But deep down, she knows that’s the only person that can help him.
The Wilford Industries logo represents a post-modern Corporatocracy, a dictatorship-like autocrat, oppression and yet a lone symbol of survival all in one. After all, no one lives without the ‘eternal engine.’ What do you think Josie feels when seeing that symbolic ‘W’ everywhere? Is it a bittersweet relationship?
I think it’s really complicated. With anything like that, any system set up by humans often has really good intentions when they start. If you think about The Beach or Lord of the Flies or that documentary, Wild Wild Country. Which is about Osho, a guru that came from India to America. It started off with amazing intentions and it turned into this huge beast of a thing that you wouldn’t expect it to. So, I think It’s difficult because you’re reliant on Wilford’s train and you know there’s good in it… And also, you have no choice! (laughs) But at the same time it’s destructive as well.
I think that Wilford logo holds both those things at the same time. That’s why it implodes on itself because there’s such restriction in it. But you can’t fight too hard against it. It’s a bit of a mess. Josie does see it as dangerous, restrictive, unjust, and cruel, for sure. She’s lived in the back where she’s seen the worst of the worst, of the worst. It’s particularly difficult to be seeing that stuff but also knowing that you’re reliant on the system as well. I think that’s kind of where the tension lies.
Episode 3, “Access is Power”, has an intro that delves into the commodification of everything on Snowpiercer. How do you feel about the concept of sunlight itself becoming a commodity that only First Class passengers get to experience?
I feel like it’s not too many steps removed from stuff that’s going now. I know it’s an extreme example of it but the idea that a company today can own a tomato seed and only certain people can grow those crops, it’s just… Everything seems to be kind of going that way in the western world. It’s frightening! Of course, it is ridiculous to think that only certain people get to see the sun… But is it really miles away from what’s going on? (laughs)
Do you think Snowpiercer fans might get a scene down the line where we learn more about Josie’s past and how she came to be Miles’ Tailie mother?
I don’t know but I would love that! That would be nice… (laughs) They did touch on their past really briefly in the first episode when it’s revealed that Miles’ mother died while getting on the train. And so, Josie & Layton took Miles on to become his surrogate parents.
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Did You Know?
– Katie McGuinness was nominated alongside her co-stars in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for a 2016 BTVA Video Game Voice Acting Award – ‘Best Vocal Ensemble in a Video Game’. Katie voiced the role of Keira.
Be sure to Read/Watch:
Relive Josie Wellstead’s journey by purchasing Snowpiercer Season 1 on Amazon! Remember to watch Snowpiercer’s Season 1 Finale on TNT or via fuboTV live this Sunday, July 12th with a double-header (two episodes) starting at 9 pm EST.
Check out more Snowpiercer coverage on The Natural Aristocrat® over in the Snowpiercer articles section!