Break a leg? A wrist will do just as well
With 2016 fast approaching and nothing to do but digest the usual Xmas bloat, it seems like a good time to look back on the year gone by.
Flown by, in truth.
2015 started in almost embarrassingly dramatic fashion. After booking a commercial shooting over ten days in breathtaking Cape Town, I managed to break my wrist. Three days before flying out. How? Skateboarding. Yes, I know... in fairness I was rehearsing for the ad. And I used to skate a fair bit when younger. And I was being chased by a dog (ok, it was very small). I turned around for a split second, rode into a pothole, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. With a chunk missing from the palm of my hand. As well as driving a car, I'm meant to be surfing in the not exactly smooth waters off the coast of South Africa. So if I was going to go through with the job (did I mention it was Cape Town!?) a cast would have been in shot and therefore not an option. With the help of some clever strapping and a(n un)healthy mix of painkillers the job was done, and a great time had. Wildlife sightings: Great Whites 0 - Penguins 8. Result.
The morning after I arrived back in London, not quite rid of jet lag and no long-term wrist solution sorted, I had an unexpected last minute audition with the wonderful team at Gail Stevens Casting. Lines quickly learned, scenes taped, I headed home. By the time I got off the tube in Hammersmith I had a message from my agent saying that the director was auditioning another role but would like to meet in person later in the day. I was to go to Spotlight in the afternoon and they would fit me in at some point - which was handy as it gave me a bit more time to prepare the scenes... Still in that slightly fuzzy post-long-haul-alter-reality, I found myself in a room with Gail Stevens, various producers and assistants, and the film's director, Brad Furman. Now I had never had a casting with quite so many people in the room before, but, with Brad's direction, playing around with the scenes felt more like a rehearsal than an audition.
Long story short, I got the part. And once I read the whole script I couldn't contain my excitement. The movie, INFILTRATOR, coming out in 2016, has so many talented actors in it, some of whom I've admired for a long time and grew up watching. The main character of the (true life) story is probably the hottest actor on the planet at the moment: Bryan Cranston. Once I realised that all of my scenes would be opposite him...well, to use the least colourful language possible...I almost shat myself. It turns out I needn't have been nervous. Bryan is one of the nicest, friendliest, professional and funny people I have met in this job. And generous in the extreme. Actually, as were all of the cast I had the immense pleasure of working with. Seeing how they conducted themselves during very long, technically tricky days would benefit any drama student and aspiring film actor. Between Bryan's generousity and Brad's consummate care for his actors it couldn't have been an easier, more fun experience. Before long it was my last day on set. As fate would have it, it was also my birthday. I found myself, just after midnight, in a Tampa tropical garden doubling as Nicaragua, with Bryan on one side, and the lovely Benjamin Bratt on the other, when the two of them broke into an impromptu 'Happy Birthday'. With all of the assembled crew joining in it was a true "pinch me" moment and one I'll treasure forever.
My work on Infiltrator had been strung out across a few months, and in the intervening time I shot a wonderful short film called Sunset Rose. The film's director, Zoe McCarthy, approached me with what was at the time an already great little script by Jack Westerman that immediately grabbed my attention. The project was conceived as a brilliant homage to the great detective films-noir, and along with Zoe's desire to shoot on black & white film stock played right into my weaknesses for the genre and medium. As if I needed an excuse to re-watch old favourites like Double Indemnity or Out Of The Past. The next few weeks were so much fun texting back and forth with Zoe about this scene or other, plot twist and camera angles.
As I'm writing this Sunset Rose has been accepted to its third festival. That is testament to Zoe's incredible talent and ability. Shooting on film presents unique challenges that are mainly due to technical issues and cost - which can be especially tricky on a low budget. Time was made for script work and rehearsals, and Suzanne Smith, the film's brilliant DOP, even shot a test version to have all the lighting requirements worked out beforehand in detail. All the more important as the set was a very narrow original US diner with limited room for all the crew and cast. It was more than worth it though as it oozed period feel and its location by the docks in East London worked perfectly to suggest the San Francisco of the 1940s. I'm sure she won't mind me saying this but despite her young age Zoe displayed a level of experience pre-shoot and unflappable maturity during it that is special. I have no doubt she will go on to have a remarkable and fulfilling career.
If there was a theme to this year's work it was probably that most of it came out of the blue. My next job was a case in point. Despite being bilingual and having family in Germany I've never actually worked there as an actor. One of my resolutions for next year is to try and change that by looking into joining an agency there. On the other hand, the entertainment industry is really embracing the interconnectivity of the 21st century. I personally think this is overall a good thing and a democratising force. The producers for KU'DAMM '56 saw my profile online and cast me from tape for my part in this German mini series about female emancipation set before the back drop of German post war society. When I got the script I wasn't sure what to expect, but once I started it I couldn't put it down. It's a wonderful piece of writing by Annette Hess.
Working in Berlin was a wonderful experience thanks to the really friendly people at UFA and I would have loved to stay longer, but my scenes were wrapped. This was no time for sadness though as it happened to be the first anniversary of The Hope Theatre under the auspices of the uniquely talented Matthew Parker. I had worked with him a few times over the years and was honoured that he should ask me to join the new board of trustees when he took over the reins. It's been wonderful to be able to look back on the year and see all that has been achieved. From renovations to rebranding to programming everything seems to have happened so quickly. Something that has always been close to my heart is the issue of artist's pay in unsubsidised theatre and I'm therefore particularly proud that The Hope Theatre was one of the first to sign up to Equity's "Professionally Made, Professionally Paid" campaign. And to top it off our first in-house show, the premiere of Snoo Wilson's LOVESONG OF THE ELECTRIC BEAR, transferred to the West End. Exciting times!
A few years ago I shot a docudrama for National Geographic entitled NAZI MEGASTRUCTURES, where I portrayed the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who went on to found NASA's space program after the war. This year the producers, DarlowSmithson, cast me in a new episode to play Martin Bormann in which his planning and construction of the Eagle's Nest is described. I have now played historical figures from the period a few times and it's always an emotionally tricky affair. Sometimes more than others. You feel a professional responsibility to do justice to the writing and the director's vision, and oddly also to the character; even when their actions are reprehensible. The way I've reconciled this is to tell myself that it's my small contribution to making sure that the atrocities aren't forgotten. The most gruelling such role was that of Joseph Mengele. It's a topic for another time, but I have never felt so thoroughly sick to my stomach at the end of every shoot day as during that production.
There was a connection between that last mentioned part and my final job of 2015. So much of an actor's job is out of their control; writing to people isn't. I'm incredibly bad at networking, I'm under no illusions about that. It's a discussion with infinite scope as to whether it's (and always has been) an integral part of the job's requirements, so I won't go into it here. What I do is write letters to people in the industry, but only if I believe there is a real reason to do so that might also be helpful to the recipient. If I hear of a promising project I'll do what I can to find out whether there might be parts for which I'm suitable. Wasting someone's time with a cold-calling Hail Mary is only counterproductive. My final production of the year, SS-GB, is a case in point. The story is based on a widely available novel, and after a bit of research I realised that the producer also worked on the Mengele episode of Waking The Dead. I felt it was conceivable that given my language skills I would be a viable candidate for the casting director to call in and got in touch with the producer to that effect. I was seen for it and it led to me booking another job, when I had actually thought that I would be done for the year. One of the most over-used phrases in this business also happens to be one of the truest: You just never know. Never know what's around the corner, or in a year. If you can live with the not knowing, all the while continuing to believe in yourself, you'll have a chance to carve out a career. So I like to think.
Drawing from those last remarks, I want to finish this post by going back in time to the end of 2014. I know it's not strictly part of the last year, but an intense conversation at that time laid the foundation for much of what I've described here. As important as it is to motivate and re-motivate oneself, sometimes only a very good friend can hold up an unbiased mirror for us to see ourselves in clearly. When I needed such a person to cut through all of the excuses I had been making for myself, a chance meeting abroad with an old friend dislodged something and heralded in a moment of clarity. We've come a long way (even before attending drama school together) and it couldn't make me more happy to see that his already impressive career is currently kicking on nicely as he films a major new series.
In that spirit, I wish you all the best of health and happiness for 2016!