Tuesday, 30 October 2007


When you are working on a film or television show, you are assigned a caravan (also known as a trailer or a Winnebago) to while away the time between when you are needed on set. This may sound grand but the reality is more likely to be a shabby room with muddy carpets, no running water and at least one other body and all your costumes to share with. Occasionally, they are more luxurious depending on budget and status, but even in the States your dressing room might be a giant lorry divided into sub-sections with room for a chair and table, really a cattle truck for actors. Because the one thing that you have to remember about the way you are looked after on a film is that if anyone is taking care of you it is because that is their job and it is only in order to make everyone's life easier. It is better if you are parked out of the way, not getting your costume creased/wet/dirty. It is better if you don't get sick - days off are expensive for a production. It is better if you are always somewhere that the assistant directors can find you, immediately. And it is better when you are not getting in the way of everyone else doing their job.

I think for some years my children were under the impression that I furnished caravans for a living; so much time did I spend in them. But I have enjoyed my caravan days. When I was 18 I worked on a Disney film called 'Return to Oz', based on the Frank L Baum 'Oz' books. I was playing Princess Mombi, a character who had to remove and change her head, so even though I was only in the film for a few minutes and most of those were headless, I had to be there waiting for all the different special effects departments. I had a dressing room about 12 by 8 feet and was in it, pretty much on my own, from 7 in the morning, after hair and make-up, until about 7 in the evening, for 6 weeks. When I was on set there were so many extraordinary sights; gymnasts working with wheels on their hands and feet, actors on stilts with pumpkin heads, electronic chickens, puppets. It was a beautiful circus. When I was waiting in my dressing room, it felt peaceful and I think I learned then how to occupy myself when on 'stand-by'. A book, some crosswords, music and a script and days can pass quite easily. I had a fantastic time.

So I had become somewhat spoiled by having a 'room of my own' on set when I started work on Zeffirelli's film of 'The Young Tosacanini'. Early filming took place in Portugal in the bowels of a large freighter, dressed to resemble the Third Class deck of an Eighteenth Century ship. There were no bathrooms at the docks, no changing rooms and nowhere to sit. As the star, C.Thomas Howell, who was playing Toscanini, had a room on the ship that had been prepared for him. Quite right, but I was kicking my heels harbour side. I had signed up to the film for a 6-month contract and in the first week of filming I was anxious about how the rest of the production was going to be. Hot and bothered in my nun's costume I worked myself up into a bit of a state and finally approached a producer and asked if I could have a caravan to wait in and change for the week's filming. "Absolutely," I was assured and filming continued. The following day, with no sign of any change in the facilities I enquired after the caravan. "Ah! There no caravans in Portugal, so sorry." I was told. I found it a little hard to believe that in the whole of Portugal, in 1987 and out of season, there was not a single portacabin, caravan or trailer for hire. I asked again and, I am ashamed to say, I was quite insistent. Even the great director became involved, taking me aside with a jovial wink and remarking on the justness of my cause.

I waited, messages came back from the caravan front line. Something had been arranged, something had been found. It was on its way, it would be there soon. Feeling triumphant, I looked forward to some shelter and a chair, maybe even a tap. When we next surfaced from shooting a long sequence with a dying passenger, some moments of despair and nuns praying, I was told my promised caravan was waiting. I tripped down the gangplank with a light heart; I had stood up for myself and earned the respect of the company. Searching along the dock, the object of my affection came slowly into focus. It was a little smaller than I hoped, but never mind. It had rather a large window along one side and some sort of decoration on top, how jolly. But was that writing along the side? Was there some sort of photograph or painting on the window? As I drew closer, I realised exactly what sort of accommodation my petulance had secured, a Hot Dog Stand. Complete with price list and buns and a deep freeze, my caravan was fully equipped to cater for a small crowd. With the briefest of hesitations, I pulled opened the door and jumped in. And there I sat for four busy days, declining all requests for snacks as the residents of Lisbon toured the set.

Thursday, 18 October 2007


Film sets and theatres are great places to hang out as a child. Everyone is basically playing the same games you play at home, but with better props. And since most of the people working on a film or play become a version of a family, children are easily absorbed into the mix. I have worked on plays with babies asleep under the stage and children doing their homework in the wardrobe department. My parents tell me I sat in a wastepaper basket in their dressing room as a baby while they were both on stage. When I thought about having my own children, I imagined we would travel around together and things would work out somehow. There is a tradition of the travelling troupe and in many ways, we did become an itinerant family. “Still loading the children on to the back of the cart?” asked Leonard Kavanagh when we were rehearsing ‘Venice Preserved’.
When I was pregnant with my first child, and before I discovered some of the difficulties of locations and children, I was asked to do a film in Italy. My filming would take place after the baby was born. Six weeks after, actually, and in my enthusiasm to get back to work, I accepted the part(s). I was to be playing twins in a fantastical recreation of the life of Benvenuto Cellini, a sixteenth century Italian sculptor and goldsmith. The costumes were to be elaborate but they couldn't be made for me until after the birth as, hopefully, my figure was going to change a bit. Once the baby was born the Italian designer, Nana Cecchi, would fly over and get the necessary measurements and then we would go to Rome for the month I was shooting.
In retrospect I can see that this wasn't altogether a foolproof plan, but I was so blithely confident that I must have infected everyone else. The due date grew closer, filming started in Italy, phone calls to my agent from the production office became a weekly, then a daily event as Christmas and my due date passed. Still, I wasn't worried. First babies are famously tardy, I felt fine, all would be well. Reassured, the production company stopped calling until after New Year. By the time my son was born, on the 11th January, the poor costume designer was on the verge of a breakdown. With only 3 weeks until I was due on set, she raced over to London, got the measurements and constructed the costumes. And constructions they were. All hand stitched, embroidered, corseted and petticoated, each costume was a work of art. By the time filming started, I had an entire wardrobe and was settled into the location with my baby, ready to work.
I was breastfeeding on demand, so in between scenes I would go back to my caravan, to feed and play with the baby, and if I looked a little different every time; new wig, strange make-up, he didn't seem to mind too much. Even the costume department was happy with my embonpoint.
The day came in which I was to film a seduction scene with Wadek Stanczak, who was playing Cellini. It was to be fairly raw and emotional and the twin I was playing needed to have her shirt torn. After rehearsal I was duly sewn in to the shirt so that the stitching would rip in an aesthetically pleasing manner and we waited to film the first set up. It was a complicated piece, and like most love scenes, it required some choreography. The lighting took time to adjust and an hour or so passed. The shirt grew tighter. Finally, we were ready to shoot. I strode into the room and Wadek pushed me against the wall. We kissed, he reached down and ripped open my shirt. And with the cameras still rolling, my breast milk shot across the set. It soaked Wadek and myself and poured all over the floor. I hadn't done many love scenes but I knew that exploding breasts weren't usually part of the deal. Wadek looked pained and I flushed redder than my scarlet jacket. But the Italian crew were amazing. "Mama!" they cried and got the mops out.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Blue Screen

Acting with blue screen mattes is a part of filming that is thought to be especially difficult, since the thing that you are looking at is just a cross on a wall or a stick with a blob on top. Whether you are supposed to be reacting to the majesty of a nineteenth century Brazilian opera house or your beloved being thrown from a parapet, an alien making pancakes in your parent's kitchen or a unicorn guiding you through an enchanted forest, the blue screen stays pretty much the same; a big blue backdrop, just hanging there. Lately it is more likely to be green, but still, it doesn't emote much. Of course, neither does the camera lens or the theatrical backcloth, but you will still spend many hours staring at bits of Gaffa tape stuck to the inside of a lens hood or gazing out of a window frame at a third of a tree stump stuck in a bucket in front of a painting of a forest. (On one film I was in the director was so in love with the other actress that he couldn't bear to have a shot without her in it. Thus, all my close-ups were organised with her reflection over my shoulder while I would talk to a light stand. As she was both incredibly beautiful and disconcertingly lovely, I only minded a bit.)
When we were filming 'Dinotopia', there was an enormous amount of green screen work, and one of the sound stages was entirely painted the requisite shade of green. There were flight sequences and mountain top scenes and machines developed to simulate the stride of different dinosaurs, so that when you sat in the saddle (very high up) and the right programme was set, you could be on a larger or smaller dinosaur, walking or running. If the wrong programme was set it was not unlike riding a mechanical bull. (Yes, I have, once with a lot of tequila.) A great deal of thought had gone into the dinosaur-riding machine, but you couldn't stay on it for very long without throwing up, dinosaurs are an awkward taxi. But the main problem with dinosaur filming was the great variety of heights. In a scene with a triceratops, a couple of diplodocus (diplodoci?) and some veloceraptors, there were only so many sticks with blobs on that could be set up. The amazing special effects team at Framestore must have had a terrible time fixing the eye lines in editing.
My earliest memory of filming with blue screen was the 'Chester Mystery Cycle Plays' for the BBC. I was 10 and playing a type of seraph and spent some days milling around the studio at Woodlane with a pair of wings and a halo. As I remember there were a lot of set pieces and plenty of time to observe the surroundings. When I came home my parents asked how it was all going. "God was lovely." I said, "And Mary gave me a cup of tea. But I don't like the Devil much." "No" said my dad, "I know what you mean."

Sunday, 7 October 2007


It is an uncomfortable truth that most stage managers and assistant directors do not like actors. This is because a) they spend a lot of time with them and b) they are human opposites. SMs and ADs are efficient, hard working, well adjusted individuals who look around a room/set, see what needs to be done and get on with it. They don't get any glory, I don't believe there are any SM/AD award ceremonies, they get responsibility and a pint of lager.
It is not that all actors are hazy, lazy and crazy, exactly, more that they have to live in a slightly parallel world. During the rehearsal period for a play, a stage management team organises everything from call times and coffee to the buying of props and the building of rehearsal sets. Actors will spend a lot of time having cups of tea and cigarettes/herbal lozenges. They will discuss the merits of various agents/producers/casting directors at length. They will lose their scripts/reading glasses/plastic bag with a banana in it. They will leave the rehearsal room at the end of the day without a thought about all the detritus that will magically disappear by the morning. This is because they are going home to not learn their lines and then to worry about not learning their lines. In the morning they will have to miss the bus/train/plane or have their car stolen or broken into. They will have a mysterious back injury or throat complaint. They will be depressed/anxious/neurotic/paranoid. Some of them will already be sleeping with each other. After lunch they will run through the whole play and it will be like having a kindergarten class perform 'Les Sylphides' on ice. People will crash into each other, fall over, appear in scenes they were never in, fail to appear in scenes they were always part of. The director will cry. On the inside. On the outside they will smile and say either "That was a great start but we have a way to go." Or "That was shit. I hate you all." depending on their temperament. The actor will cry. On the inside. On the outside they will say, "I'm going to the pub".
Last year I took a production of a play to New York. I co-produced with one of the other actors and although we had done the show before, in Glasgow, it was a different production that required a whole new rehearsal period, set and costumes. The original cast of 7 was re-assembled and we had to ship the entire thing to Manhattan. As a producer with my own money as the budget, I was part of the stage management team, getting the coffee, putting out the set in the morning, booking flights, hiring costumes, renting containers. I saw the actors from the other side of the sticky green tape that marks out the set on the floor. I still loved them but for the first time I saw how sometimes, they might not be that lovable. Not that I was any great shakes, bossing everyone around, freaking out about visas and still not remembering my lines even though I knew the play backwards.
The play opened well in New York, we got good reviews, good bookings and after the nervous breakdown of the first week, things settled down. Happy days. The World Cup had started and we could watch matches in the afternoon and get in to the theatre for the evening show. The closest call was the day of the England-Portugal Quarter Final, but it seemed that even with extra time we could still squeak into the dressing rooms if we watched the match in the Italian restaurant opposite the theatre, which was playing it all on a big screen behind the bar.
And that was where the American stage manager found me, 10 minutes before the curtain was due to go up, make-up in my lap, feverishly glued to the penalty shoot out. I don't care about football. I was producing my first play. In New York. I had worked on the show flat out for 6 months of my life and given up a TV series to do it. I had learned how to put a contract together, how to set up a non-profit company, what fire permits I needed for the set fabric and what the royalties were for an author's estate. But at that moment, I looked at the stage manager's face and knew on which side of the green marking tape I stood. I had forgotten everything. And I was in the pub.