In the new film, The Silent Twins, Letitia Wright plays June Gibbons, one half of a pair of the real-life identical twins who made headlines in the 1980s for having ceased all communication with the outside world. Growing up as the daughters of the only Black family in a small town in Wales, June and her sister Jennifer coped with fierce bullying and an acute sense of isolation by turning inward, creating their own made-up language and a rich fantasy life which they documented in their prolific diaries. An obsession with romance novels would lead them to write pages upon pages of prose and complete multiple novels, hundreds of poems and short stories. After years of not speaking to their parents, teachers, or social workers they would ultimately be admitted to Broadmoor Hospital, a high-security psychiatric facility. The Gibbons’ stranger-than-fiction story is the subject of Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book The Silent Twins from which the film, directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska, is adapted.
Wright, who’s gearing up for the November release of Black Panther 2, signed onto the project as a producer after delving into the lives of June and Jennifer via YouTube documentaries. “I find them so astonishing,” she says, and points to a pivotal scene in the film in which the girls discuss having a crush on the same boy as being particularly poignant. “You can’t have a life without romance,” June says to Jennifer, played by Tamara Lawrance. Here, the 28-year-old actress discusses bringing the sisters’ heart wrenching story to life.
There are hundreds of videos on TikTok with people telling the story of these twins. Have you seen them?
I saw a couple. I try not to dive into it because I’m always hesitant that it has a negative spin on the twins, which is not really what I think is the truth. It’s much deeper. Our film breaks the perception that they were weird or strange. They were just misunderstood by society and failed by the system, and they protested with silence.
The lack of communication in the film, with June and Jennifer completely shutting down every time anyone tries to speak to them, feels distinctly nonhuman. But at the same time, the movie humanizes the two sisters in a very real way.
The twins not talking was just their reaction to the circumstances of their environment. From the beginning, they were bullied, they were ostracized in their community. They were two Black girls in an all-white school. And they didn’t want to communicate because, from research, we found out they had a speech impediment. Being bullied, I feel like, was a big reason why they went inwards and why they tried to protect themselves. In the BBC documentary about June, she says that, due to their speech impediment, people would ask again and again, What are you saying? And she said, If you can’t hear us now, you can’t hear us, never. I think our film tries to show that: with the younger twins who go to school and they’re not getting interactions of love from other kids. That messes with your psyche in a deep way.
How did you approach the character of June? Her way of speaking, moving, and sticking alongside her sister was so unique.
We wanted to find an understanding of why they moved and chose to communicate the way they did. They kept silent and moved in a synchronized way to stay one.
The world these twins created in their minds is so full of fun, excitement, wonder, and creativity. which is illustrated in the film through stop-motion animations. What was the purpose of those interludes with the stories they’d made up?
The animation is a great way of showcasing their writing and what was inside their minds—that’s something the public didn’t have access to, especially in the ’80s, when their story was being broadcast. Nobody knew that they spent hours and hours in their room, learning different words in the dictionary to put it into a piece of writing, to make you feel something, because they were hopeful that, one day, their book was going to be a bestseller. We didn’t want their art, their creativity, and their writings to die. We wanted to give you the adventure of their minds.
I also wanted to ask you about the dance scene with Tamara. Was that improvised or choreographed?
Definitely choreographed, by Kaya Kolodziejczyk, our movement director. The twins danced in their rooms often, nobody knows this! They danced when they made friends, friends that they could trust. They loved Blondie. They loved disco music.
When you met with Marjorie, what were your initial conversations like?
Marjorie knows the twins very well. She is still in close contact with June. We sat together, and she opened up to us and allowed us access to archived images, memories, cards, and writings from the twins. I remember one of the things that she said before we left was, “Be careful: the twins have a way of taking over.” And she was right: Tamara and I had this crazy bond that we couldn’t understand. It was like, I love you, but sometimes you’re annoying. What’s going on here?
How did you and Tamara set out to forge that kind of connection?
Method acting, if you call it that. Tamara and I had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That meant we had to be in each other’s spaces, immediately. At first, it was awkward, carving out “us” time in our personal lives. Every day, we would come on set together, leave the trailer together, go to dinner together, everything. Then people got sick of us. Like, there they are again, the twins. We formed a friendship and a sisterhood that was really special.
Marjorie once described the twins’ writings as “dark.” After having read their diaries, would you characterize their work that way?
It’s hard to just box it in as “dark.” What they were writing was from their imagination. And I guess some of that leaned on the mysterious side or on a type of genre that was like a thriller, or suspense. It is probably a reflection of what they were facing in their own life. What feeds art? Life feeds art. So if the life around you is quite daunting or dull and you feel marginalized, your characters in your project will become marginalized. Their writing also showed the broadness of their minds, the depth of their imagination. I think they would be amazing writers of today, and that you would be obsessed with their stories.