Working with Actors, interview with Olivia Williams


I am super excited that Olivia Williams has agreed to come and talk at the London Screenwriters’ Festival this year.

I thought I would share this interview I did with her, from the Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook ahead of our chat at the festival (below).

I just got off the phone with her and she told me how she recently got a  job because the director had read the book and picked up on some advice I offered, about accessing the vast talent pool of female actors we have by rethinking the lead of your film as a female character (assuming the story began life with a male lead). The director did just that, rewrote the script with a female lead and Olivia ended up getting cast. Awesome!

Olivia is also in the West End right now starring in ‘Scenes from a Marriage’, a show that will be fascinating for writers and filmmakers as the source work by Ingmar Bergman has been a TV series, feature film and now stage play (adapted brilliantly by Joanna Murray Smith). Olivia will be talking about this show, and her work with filmmakers and writers such as Wes Anderson, M.Night Syamalan and Roman Polanski at the festival.

You can get a ticket to ‘Scenes From A Marriage’, directed by Trevor Nunn and Starring Olivia opposite Mark Bazeley HERE.

OK here is the interview.

olivia-williamsjpgQ – A director and actor can be alike, interested in telling stories through drama, almost as though they are different sides to the same coin. What makes a person want to be an actor?

Olivia – I think it begins with how you are as a child, and I wasn’t the one putting on the plays, I was the one with the hairbrush as the microphone. The desire to perform / show-off was very evident, and that absolutely does not make you an actor, and could probably make you a bad actor. I’m not saying it made me a good actor, or showed that I would be good at it, but it is what pushed me to that side of the camera or the curtain. I have subsequently thought a lot about directing and producing, partly from the sheer frustration of an actor, having no power or control over your final product, particularly in film. I think it is worse on film than it is on stage. At least once you are on stage, unless armed security come on stage, they can’t stop you doing it the way you think it is right, where, as you know producers and directors can change what you did on set through editing.

I think there is a need for a Director to have a kind of omniscience, to have an interest in every single detail of the entire story, you have to have a very holistic mind. I love picking a pathway through a script, and finding a character’s route, story and arc, though I find it very difficult to have an opinion about everything and everybody, which is perhaps another reason why I am an actor and not a director. When I read a script, I only ever see it from my character’s point of view.

Q – What attracts you to a project? Clearly there are two aspects to it. First of all is the money, but if you remove that from the equation, and say the money is nothing to do with the choice, what is it that attracts you to a part? Can Indie films  offer an actor something mainstream films can’t?

Olivia – I was faced with this the other day when I was asked to be involved with a very interesting script, written by an extremely bright and clever woman. The story was about a young girl, a coming of age story mixed with a psychologically messed up story about her brain at the time. They wanted me to play her mother. Now, there is the attraction of being involved in something because it is good, but what made me shy away from it in the end, was that no attention had been paid to making this mother character real, and to have a story of her own. My point was that the character was badly written, though the script was good, the idea was good, the role for the girl was good –  but the mother role was ill-conceived. I don’t mind being a minor character but I look to my character to have an arc of their own, something that happens to them that gives you something dramatic to do, that has an influence on the plot. One of the practical reasons, is so that you don’t end up on the cutting room floor, and secondly so that you are not being brought in as totty. I’m pretty well past the totty age, but there was a stage where I was just being brought on because the character needed to have a girlfriend so that they could have a nookie scene, and she could say ‘Don’t go!’ or ‘Don’t leave me!’, and you could cry. I think a mainstream actor who gets well-paid to play good roles will do a small movie, as long as you pay attention to their character. Give them an arc, give them a story, and try and read the script purely from that character’s point of view, but not from the actor’s point of view, don’t try to persuade the actor to do it. Having smoke blown up your arse is very irritating when you are trying to make an intelligent and valuable point.

Q – It is an interesting point, and I often suggest new filmmakers ought to write films with strong female leads, because you can access a greater talent pool.

Olivia – Absolutely. Don’t write it for females, write it for a male and just change the name to a girl. Why not? And it can be done so often. Also think about the peripheral characters, the doctors, the lawyers, the policeman, they don’t specify sex or for that matter race. Your lead does not have to be a good-looking bloke in his mid-twenties to thirties. He doesn’t have to be white, and he doesn’t have to be a he. There are a lot of established actors out there who can greatly enhance your film, once you move away from the stereotypes.

Q – The moment you embrace that philosophy, you start to get further away from convention and cliché. Everything that the audience expects is kind of there, but in a way that the audience doesn’t expect. That’s new and fresh and exciting for everyone.

Olivia – Yes. You would just get an enormous amount of support from those of us who aren’t 25 to 35 good-looking blokes, and there are quite a lot of us out there. A good note for script writers and film makers generally is pay attention to your smaller characters. It doesn’t mean that they have to have a speech, but giving your smaller characters depth and an arc will greatly enhance your chances of getting better actors, and also improve your story and drama.

Q – You must read a lot of scripts and will have developed an eye for good material. For new film makers, your creative input into the screenplay could be very valuable?

Olivia – You’ve hit a real nerve with that, because very often a project is attractive, but not quite right. I keep on coming back to this recent project because it was nearly so good, that I nearly said ‘Yes’, on the basis that I thought we could sit down and tinker with this and make it right. I’ve done that before, and every time I have been wrong. You can’t tinker with it, there isn’t time when it comes to it.

I would say to everybody, make sure it is right before you go into production, and make sure you’ve done your changes. What I’ve found, and I can see why it happens, is that I’ve said in what I think are the clearest terms, what I think the problem is, and how it can be made better, and then the Writer or Writer / Director goes away, tinkers with it, comes back and in the process they have lost something and the screenplay is even weaker than before. So I would suggest you watch out for the amount of people giving you advice, because it can fuck with what was special. I shouldn’t say this about my fellow actors, but actors can muck it up, and can make it a lot worse. The reason I say sort it out before you go into production, because you don’t want this fight on set. If you have got an actor who is insisting on changes, lock down your changes before you go into shooting, because an actor can waste a lot of time by saying ‘I thought you were going to change this’, all while you are standing there with the lights on, the location booked and the clock ticking. Get all your changes agreed, to an almost legal level before you go on set. Particularly if you have a tricky actor who says they are unhappy with the script.

Q – It’s not always possible, but do you think the director and actors should spend time together, not just rehearsing, but also talking, perhaps more philosophically, about the project and themes it contains?

Olivia – I think it is very important. You have to be prepared though, as my foul language comes out (laughs), you have to be prepared for a lot of wank. I can’t think of another way of saying it. You have to be prepared for a lot of pretentious talking, and you need to put time aside for it.

Rehearsing can be difficult, because so often in a screenplay there is little dialogue. It is just one person saying ‘Hey’, and another person saying ‘Hey’, and then you go ‘let’s try that again’. It can be a bit painful, though if you ever hear something like ‘Oh yeah, we will sort that out on set’, ‘I’m not happy with that’ or ‘oh yeah we can improvise it’, I would suggest dealing with it before you get to set. Give the actor time to say what they are thinking, and check that you are on the same page.

During the shoot, directors often come in when you are in the make-up chair, and that is a very vulnerable place for an actor to be. You may already be feeling nervous as perhaps the person who is doing hair and make-up is heading down the wrong path, and then the Director comes in and says something. You can have a tremendous sense of falling down a black hole, that it is all going wrong. I would definitely have good chat beforehand, and it doesn’t have to be a formal rehearsal stage, maybe a quiet restaurant or by coming round to somebody’s house. Talk about your vision, and even how you are doing the shots. Not with a view to that being up for discussion, but just so that the actor knows what to expect. Often you just don’t have time on the day, so it can be very important. The actor might be expecting a big close-up of her own for some lines, but if you say ‘Oh yeah, we are going to do that with your back to the camera’, it can be surprising.

Q – On low budget films, actors can be often seen like props and denied some of the tools that will reward the film with better performances. Such as a place to prepare, not hair and make up, but mentally. Also, an actor fighting their way on the tube may not arrive in the best of emotional states…?

Olivia – I don’t think this is just about actors being needy and spoilt. When shooting a drama there is a co-ordination of an unbelievable number of people, with a staggering array of equipment, and you are trying to get them all to get to the same place, at the same time, doing the same but slightly different things. That is your biggest logistical problem, and at an early hour in the morning. It may seem that an actor asking to be driven somewhere is a lot, but actors are people who are not necessarily used to office hours or a 9-5 job. If you want them there on time, I’m afraid you are going to have to get them there. I really feel very strongly about this and believe it is worth the investment.

Q – Do you think that the problem can arise because we are all in the same boat, cast and crew, and we are all going down the same river together, but fundamentally, actors are a completely different breed of person to almost everyone else on the crew, and actors have very different needs. If you want to get the best out of an actor you need to treat them differently to the crew and give them the space they need?

Olivia – Yes, though I don’t want to sound precious about this. Remember, the crew probably all know each other, and know how to get to location, and they have bonded as a group. And it can be a very lonely thing as an actor as you turn up into that environment – we all want to be wanted, we want to be loved, and it can be quite isolating. If you want an actor to be in the best state of mind, when they turn up for makeup and hair at 5am, at least get them a minicab. If the director is your mate, and you’ve been part of the process, and everyone is easy going, and can prepare by having a cigarette and a coffee, that is fine, but if you don’t know the people, it helps when people try hard to make you feel welcome.

Q – Actors are as human as everybody else, even though there is almost like a veil between you and everybody else. It is not a real veil, but it is perceived?

Olivia – We are like normal human beings, just quadruple the insecurity and the vanity. If you absolutely exponentially multiply those two, and then you’ve got your average actor.

Q – What do you think independent filmmakers, as storytellers can offer you, that you don’t get from the bigger projects?

Olivia – I would say a character with an arc, something transforming that happens to a 37 year old woman, that doesn’t involve her husband leaving her or losing a child. Things that are thrilling to act, a dramatic event, or more off-beat plot stories. Something that I find depressing to read is when a character’s appearance is described in too much detail, because when I read it, I think I can’t do that. If she is supposed to be luscious, with a gorgeous waist and a fabulous pair of legs, I would think ‘alright, they are going to need someone else then’. Take care when writing, and if you go into too much pervy detail about what you are looking for, a lot of actors and actresses just go, ‘I can’t live up to that’.

Q – In terms of ‘on set’, the way it is run, what do you think are the common mistakes that you see, that make it harder for you to be the best that you can possibly be?

Olivia – Squabbling. Get your chain of command right, establish it before you ever go out there. Everybody should know what the 1st AD said, and the 1st AD should be making it possible for the Director to direct. Have your rows in private, before you get out there, do not do it in front of other people.

Q – A film should be almost militaristic in the way it is run?

Olivia – If you think it is going to be cool and laid back, or that you can just breeze in and do it, you are absolutely wrong. You will earn my undying hate, if I have to get up early, and look good, and be ready to go on camera, my lines learnt by 8am, and then some fuckwit is late. There are no excuses.

Q – I agree. The logistics of a well run set create the opportunity to be creative. If you don’t create that opportunity, you just end up with the mechanics or covering the scene, which rarely results in a great piece of drama.

Olivia – Work it all out with your AD – they are the most amazing people who are so organised. You want all the actors going through make-up, while you are setting up the set and shot. It is like school where you have a timetable. In order to get a shot on camera by 9 o’clock, you probably start at 5am.

Q – One of the things that is often overlooked in terms of importance, especially on low budget films, is costume, props and make-up. How important is the authenticity of those things to you as an actor?

Olivia – I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem with dodgy props, though I would say that with costume, I’d prefer to provide my own than wear a poor one, and I have worn my own clothes in movies. I don’t think that is unreasonable to ask actors to do. You feel more comfortable if you know if it looks right on you. If you have a costume budget, pay them a tenner for their dry cleaning bill, but let them use their clothes.

Hair and make-up can set things off on a really bad footing. I don’t wear make-up on a daily basis, I use it purely for purposes of filming. There are many make-up artists who are moving from music video or fashion into film making and their idea is to try out the latest make-up product… Sometimes, having the wrong makeup artist can be worse than having nobody.

Q – Of course you would be an ideal person to ask, about good make-up artists.

Olivia – Absolutely. Come to me first, because the point about make-up in film is that you are not trying to make someone look like Kylie Minogue. A film may need children, men, black people, old people etc., and someone who has come from music videos may not know how to deal with a wrinkled face or a child’s face, or how to do a decent bullet wound in 5 minutes. The greatest make-up artist I know can cover up your spots if they need covering, or can make a pimple in 30 seconds if you need to be more spotty. You are not looking for someone to make you beautiful, you want someone who can make you ugly, who can make someone look tired and look like they’ve just been born. You really have to think very carefully because sitting in a make-up chair, watching someone fuck up your face, sets you up on a very bad foot for the day.

Q – Inexperienced filmmakers can see actors as a bit of a problem, because they can come with an amount of baggage, like being picked up in the morning, fussy about how they look and what they wear… It is a seen as a problem, therefore the actor is a problem. Yet fundamentally the relationship between the screenplay, the Director and the Actor is the core creative relationship. Actors are probably the most important collaborator in the process. People can get fixated on the Camera, the Sound, the effects, when it is your eyes that they are looking into, not at the great set behind you. What would you say to that new filmmaker?

Olivia – Involve the actor in the process. You are very often the last person on board, and nobody tells you what is going on. Talk to them, tell them what your vision is, how you want it to look, what atmosphere you want to create. That is a personal view and there might be some actors who don’t want to know what you are doing, who want to try and pretend that there is no camera there. The De Niro or Day-Lewis school of acting, where the actor is ‘the person, and it is your job to capture me being that person at that moment’. You will encounter an entirely different set of problems with that approach and you had better make sure that they have the space to do that.

Q – Do you think it would be a good idea for Directors, perhaps even Writers, to do a 3-week acting course, so they know who Stanislavski and Brecht are, to just experience being an actor, so that when they come to set, they are not just fixating on camera?

Olivia – Yes, I think that would be a good idea. I think many people don’t understand what is possible, what an actor can do for you. I don’t mind saying ‘Do you want me to cry? Do you want there to be tears? Do you want me to gasp, do you want me to sob? Do you want me to be hysterical? What do you want?’ Watch performances on film, and watch nothing else, don’t look at the lighting, don’t look at the lens, don’t think about what the f-stop is. Watch the actor and think about what choices they have made, and what they are capable of. If you have hired an actor because you liked their performance, watch the performance, and tell them what it is that you like about it. From that they will be able to extrapolate what it is you want from them. Some actors aren’t like this, but I particularly, I see myself as a sort of conduit for the Director’s vision, and it can be very depressing if you are saying ‘I am your conduit’, and they’ve got nothing to say to you. Tell me what you want.

Q – What advice would you offer a new actor, going into a low budget film?

Olivia – I’d give them a list of things they need to pack into their bag. Several books and a newspaper, your own towel, lavatory paper, your favourite teabag or coffee. Go incredibly well prepared to be entirely self-sufficient. Put your armour on, because your ego may well get bruised on the day. I would say this to everybody starting out, do what you are told. Which is not a popular piece of advice, but while I was a fighting and embattled actor, I was a very unhappy one, while I was constantly saying ‘my character wouldn’t do that, this isn’t right for my journey, what if, what if’, I was in a state of conflict, and I didn’t act well, because I was not thinking about the character. I would say try and relax and have a calm about you, where you greet everyone, you say ‘hello’ to everyone, call everyone ‘darling’, if you can’t remember their name. Try and stay calm and polite in your exterior, while the chaos goes on, so that when the camera rolls you are thinking about nothing but your character. I find if I am worrying about hopeless transportation arrangements, I’m worrying about the row going on between sound and costume on site, because sound want to put a mic on you, and costume say they can see the mic…. You just have to stand and breathe, and exempt yourself. Try not to be part of the row, try not to be part of the crisis.

Q – That is also one of those areas I guess where often the filmmaker forgets that you are a person.

Olivia – Everybody does. The filmmaker is not so bad, it is usually Sound and Costume particularly. Sound asks ridiculous things like ‘Can you walk across the room without making any sound with your feet?’, or you are having a row and the script says ‘Slam your glass down on the table’, but you can’t slam the glass down on the table when you are saying a line, so you have to shout, then slam the glass down with silence and then carry on speaking. And you are having a row, but you are not supposed to overlap the dialogue, because it makes it difficult for the editor.

Q – I find that really tragic, because anything that inhibits the performance will removing a layer or quality, empathy, energy…

Olivia – It is absurd. Another great tip I had from Bill Murray… He said ‘If you’ve got a funny line, make sure it is recorded properly on set, go to the Sound guy and say, is the sound good on this, as you will never get a laugh on a dubbed line, never ever.’, he always made sure if he was saying something funny, that there were no aeroplanes, no barking dogs… Know what you are doing. I’ve been on set on huge movies, and even then, I have experienced the film makers turning up and saying ‘OK, let’s see how we are going to do this’. If you are making a movie where the entire thing is in a room with 2 people fighting and it has got to be very organic, then you can do that. But most of the time, when you have locations for a short period of time, you’ve hired a bus or a horse and carriage or something, you cannot do that.

Q – What advice would you offer a new filmmaker?

Olivia – Become a lawyer. That is what I should have done. The advice to follow your dreams is extremely dangerous, and not all dreams come true. I think that is when my blood would boil is when I saw a documentary about Britney Spears and her Redneck roots, and there are so many people peddling ‘Follow your dream, because if you work hard enough, and you want it enough, your dream will come true’. They usually don’t. They might, but just work your arse off, do your very best. Follow your dream and if it doesn’t work out do something else.

GREAT! Remember, you can get a ticket to ‘Scenes From A Marriage’ HERE.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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