BAFTA Masterclass: Samantha Morton
27th October 2020
Briony Hanson: Hello everybody. A very, very warm welcome to this Acting Masterclass from BAFTA. I’m Briony Hanson, my absolute pleasure to steer the conversation today. Before we begin just a couple of quick things. I want to say a very big thank you to our supporters for this event, they are Sea Containers London, the official hotel partner for the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards, so thank you to them. And also just a quick note that there are closed captions available so you just press the CC button at the bottom of your screen and the event will be captioned for you. So now it’s my huge pleasure to welcome Samantha Morton. Sam, hello. You’re very, very welcome here, we’re very grateful to you for spending this evening with us.
Samantha Morton: Hello.
BH: You’re no stranger to BAFTA: You’ve won one for the semi-autobiographical directorial debut that you did The Unloved, you’ve been BAFTA nominated for several performances, for Control for Longford and then very recently for I Am Kirsty. We were very sorry not to be able to talk to you during the nominee process for I Am Kirsty, so I’m so glad that we get to talk to you about it tonight. We’ve got a little bit over an hour, we’re going to jump around a little bit because we’ve got a huge back catalogue we can refer to—something like thirty features and over twenty TV series as an actor, plus several writer credits, plus your award-winning directorial debut. We’ve got all that to mine in order to get a little bit of a sense of your relationship to the roles that you choose, to the nature of your different collaborations and do your techniques as an actor. And you can be as detailed as you want.
I’m going to kick off with some questions but it is absolutely for the audience to ask their questions. Everybody should just note you click on the Q&A box and write in your questions and we’ll try to get to them as we go through, but I’ll certainly leave a good time at the end to get through to your questions. So let’s get to it. Sam how are you and where are you and how’s your lockdown been?
SM: I’m in the UK, which is lovely. I got back to the UK in November having just finished shooting The Walking Dead the TV series that I am a part of. Then kind of Christmas happened and sadly a global pandemic kicked in. There was the bit before the pandemic where we were all a bit like—the bit before lockdown where we knew it wasn’t good, but lockdown for me I was lucky because I have—where I used to live I had a big garden and it’s in the countryside and really beautiful lovely community of people, but ultimately I found it distressing personally, and you have to be very strong for your children and something kicks in in a way—I suppose survival, we are strong, but it wasn’t easy at all.
BH: What’s it done to your work? Have you been productive in this time?
SM: No, because—I was a bit but when you’ve got small children, young children and they’re not at school and you’re trying to navigate BBC Bitesize and—I can hardly do half the things my kids do at school. So it was really tricky actually, and trying to make sure that you’re exercising every day and you’re out and we’ve got animals and… It wasn’t as productive as a lot of other people’s. I tried to mix it up as much as I could and being creative with the children was really important to me.
BH: Well we can hear a bit more about what you’ve got coming up at the end, the temptation with these things is always to do them chronologically but actually I’d rather we started at the very end with the thing you did most recently, I Am Kirsty. It’s such a great piece and I really want us to have the time to talk about it. It was one part of an anthology series created by Dominic Savage and your part also created by you. Tell us what was there at the beginning: Did Kirsty exist? How much of a fleshed out person was she? How did you work on her?
SM: Dominic was meeting actresses—he knew that he wanted to make a series of films about women that women had a huge about of power in. I’d been talking about this—I’d been trying to get hold of various filmmakers, female filmmakers actually, in order to tell a version of this story. They never got back to me or they were just like ‘get in touch with my assistant.’ And I was like okay but I really wanted to talk to you personally about this and it was just tricky and I find it really tricky, I was finding it really tricky—things are different now I think because everyone's had a lot more time with lockdown to think about a different way of working. Certainly for many years, if you would approach people with a project, it wasn’t easy to get things off the ground. So I was a bit fed up with that, thinking I'd have these good ideas and I'd kind of approach people and nothing would really come of it. I'm like, well, I'm not a producer actually, I don't know how to produce, that's never gonna happen. A little bit like thinking back to The Unloved, is that for a while there I was trying to get other people to make that film because I just wanted to step back, I wanted to step away from it, have the idea and let someone else direct it and have fresh eyes on that subject matter. That's what I thought all those years ago. But this was different. This was Dominic sitting with me, taking the time to say as an actress, what do you want to do? What do you feel is being underrepresented or what roles do you think aren’t out there for you and I'm 43 and you literally have this situation where roles just disappear. All of a sudden—in my twenties, you've got scripts and scripts and script and I was really lucky, I am really lucky and I feel privileged about that, but it still is like you just suddenly noticed what roles are coming in and the right, a huge amount of male writers on these projects and what they're writing about and what people want. I suppose what people are commissioning and what they're wanting to be told. This was like what stories people want to tell.
Initially, I was like… I am a huge fan of Dominic and Dominic's work and I really always have been and he’s one of the ones that I’ve been like gosh if I was lucky enough to work with him kind of thing. So I didn't want to be rude to him or say anything inappropriate, but I was kind of like well, it's weird of you making female stories because you’re a male, you know. Do you know what I mean? But actually it became about equality and it became about the masculine and the feminine coming together in this beautiful thing, the facilitation of that. We talked and talked for hours and hours about different ideas and he had ideas and I had ideas and then eventually we came to this character Kirsty, who in my world is an amalgamation of people I’ve known incredibly well in my life. It's an incredibly personal, yet again, a personal story. He took, if you like, the seeds of truth and made a story. So I could therefore free, the trauma if you like and act in it rather than you know…
He was amazing, he is amazing and that's where that kind of—I hope that makes sense.
BH: Yeah, yeah definitely.
SM: That's definitely kind of how that happened.
BH: Tell us how the dynamic shifts between you as an actor, him as a director, but with something that you've already written or contributed to very heavily. How does that change things?
SM: I Am Kirsty was improvised, fully improvised from the moment you're on set to the minute the cameras turned off, the minute Stewart says the cameras are turned off. You're always in character so it isn't like writing dialogue, it's about writing… Dominic wrote the structure, the bones of it: This is what we're going to do, and then you go to—the way Dominic directs is really quite magical and quite liberating because it's about creating a near perfect environment for the performance to be free and safe and that's down to the crew having a very, small crew, the right energy or everybody having this vibe together, I suppose, and that's really hard to achieve. Chris, the producer would, if you were to speak to him, if ever, if you talked to him, they were trying to just create this perfect atmosphere in which we could perform. It didn't feel… it just felt, this word is a bit overused, but it was very organic, in a good way. Tiring, all those hours without a break was really tiring.
BH: Did it make it--does it change the way you act because you've written it?
SM: Not at all. Because I haven't written those moments, those moments are organic and they're happening there. We have collectively decided we're going to make this story. We’ve spent days and days together building that structure back and forth in a writerly way. But when you there, it's about what feels right and if the camera's rolling Dominic could be directing the scene and it might say Kirsty goes into the flat. He might say let's not go into the flat on this one. I want you to just see what happens if you just sit or have this affect you more or that affect you more. It really is about trusting your director and when you're in those moments you're not Sam you're so in your character. And if you do trust your director you’re not feeling that you’re acting.
BH: It’s a really striking thing having looked at lots of your work recently, I've noticed that you play a mother very often and you did it again here. Can you talk a little bit about the building, the
Relationship with the 2 girls that play your daughters. What was the process that you used with them to get them to relax with you and to work brilliantly?
SM: I play a lot of mothers because I'm at that age and they’re the roles that are written for us. Men get to be heroes and victims and all the rest. We don’t get as many variations of the wrote written. I mean, I don’t mind playing mothers because I am a mother, that’s nature isn’t it. There are people I’ve played that haven’t been mothers. I think that depending on the script, you have a duty, a responsibility if you can to become friendly with whoever you're working with, if that's the vibe that the director wants or the actors you’re working with. Some actors just really need their own space and then it’s like I’ll see you there and let’s just get on with it. I find that really whether your child or a 50-year-old man or 80-year-old man, I think the stronger the relationship that we all have, the safer it is on set. Safe emotionally because you're being asked to do things all the time that, for children, it can be incredibly tiring. And it's often not a very fun place. For children, I've got a funny thing with kids on film sets because having been a child actor, all the way back on Soldier Soldier when I was 12 or 13, to watching children have to perform some pretty tough stuff in films I've done myself. I think that they need to feel safe with you as a friend. And that involves hopefully if the parents are willing to chat with the parents, spending time with them off set—obviously now with COVID that’s going to be hard. Listening, seeing what they like. And also I think it’s down to the director on how they direct. I think Jim Sheridan was extraordinary on because he'd rather just let them be and get the camera rolling rather than forcing them into certain situations where they’ve kind of they've learned their lines at home with their parents and so they only know one way to do it. And then when you’re on set what you're really trying to do is to get to hope that the child is going to listen and respond and still get lines right. Ultimately, as long as the writer’s comfortable, as long as the kids are being in character, and it’s all happening, we’re all good.
BH: You talked there about starting really young, and I know obviously you're famously connected with the central workshop and that sort of generation that came through. Can you remember back to the sort of techniques you learnt there that you use throughout and also maybe that you see in those girls that you worked with in I Am Kirsty. Can you remember specifics?
SM: I think the I Am Kirsty thing was very, very different if you could separate that for a second because the workshop thing is a little bit like—when I talk to actors that went to Brewford or Bristol or RADA, everyone has memories or a thing that they bring with them that they learn. Or it's a thing. I think once you’re from a workshop, and actually I’m a lot older than Vicky and those guys and Jack O’Connell, I'm a different generation. You know, I’ve often said to Ian Smith who used to run the workshop and he ran it after a woman called Sue Nott, that if they could bottle it and sell it or give it to, I don’t know, give it to the world, it would be an extraordinary thing even from situations to do with trauma or healing, kind of a workshop vibe. For me growing up and going to workshop was heavy on improvisation, really heavy on improvisation and character, finding characters and kind of… The workshop didn't have just like everybody the same. You'd have a funny kid, a loud kid, quiet shy child. You’d have a real mixed bag. People often say it's very similar to Anna Shares. People who went to Anna Shares in London the workshop had a similar thing going on, but Nottingham back then in the eighties and the seventies, you've also got the Nottingham Playhouse and you've got this kind of radical theatre happening and you’ve got radical… Certainly for me growing up with the socialist views that my family held. A lot of what Ian was doing was very, very political unbeknownst to us because it was pushing the boundaries of what kids were allowed to do. We had an edit suite down there with cameras where we could film each other. These are like almost art installations we were doing on a regular basis. He allowed us to write our own plays, direct our own plays, give us the space. You’ve got the under elevens, the eleven to sixteens and the over sixteens group and they're all meeting for free all the time. Then he would put on a play whether it's Our Day Out or Wind in the Willows, whatever it was we did plays and of course, Shakespeare. When I left back years ago it then went on to greater from greater things in regards to the level of performance and plays that they would put on. But it was just this fearless, and it still is a fearless, kind, loving safe space for young people to be. It’s like a mini drama school without knowing it.
BH: But actually with I Am Kirsty you left all that behind and it's something completely different.
SM: No. You were talking about the children, you never workshop behind Briony, you never that’s in your DNA—if that's how you learn, whether it's bad habits or good habits that’s always in you. It’s up to you as you get when you change when you get older to navigate that. I wouldn't leave who I am behind to become Kirsty, but those children aren’t acting in the same way as workshop children because they're not. I may have misunderstood your question I’m sorry.
BH: Not at all. With a project like that which is about such a kind of graphic social issue, it could easily have just the tone could've been too much, it could've been too brutal to hard to watch. How did you-what kind of discussions did you have about that? Having real impact, but also not having it as something that people couldn't turn on and watch?
SM: That's I think that's a Dominic question because he directed it. I think that we didn’t have those discussions at all
BH: Did you not?
BH: There’s never a time when you, even when you were kind of improvising and adding, adding depth to Kirsty, that you wanted to do something that you that he thought, you know that's just too much a turn-of, it won't work?
SM: No, that’s not how I work. That's a level of maybe that's for kind of film financiers and producers to think about when financing projects. My job is to always, always be in character, it's not to think about the manipulation of whether what we're doing is appropriate or not. That’s a different if you like layer to our industry.
BH: But you want people to watch what you do, you want people to take all the things that you're trying to tell them.
SM: Yeah but any movie you make or TV series you make, there might be seems that are on the cutting room floor. That's happened in all sorts of –I suppose if you’re a writer, your editor or… That’s down for the editor and the director to find out what they feel is the balance of that piece of art. At the end of the day if you're always thinking--you have to think about the audience because that's where you're making it for, but when you're in that moment, you think about the truth of that I think and I don’t ever come out of that world to think is this a bit too much? That's, the discretion of the filmmaker. It’s for the audience to decide if they want to carry on watching or turn off. It's interesting somebody said to me something about The Unloved, a film I made, I think the first however many minutes nothing is said. There's an ad break because it was Channel 4 and they didn't lose their audience after the ad break and I felt so proud of that because it was just very still at the beginning of that film and I thought, yeah, they really want to know what happens to this person. And I think that was the first time I'd ever really put that heart on and thought about that question.
BH: Tell us a little bit about getting into a character. How you get into the mind-set for filming? I wonder, like, probably everybody who's listening to you at the moment, I listened to your fantastic Desert Island Discs. When I say listen to, I mean wept throughout. Just absolutely brilliant. But I wondered, music is clearly hugely important to you, do you ever use it to get into the skin of a role?
SM: Always. I suppose it before acting I used it to get into the skin of Sam. To heal me, to provoke me, to get me up and about or to get my shit together or to dance to feel better. To me music is life. And when I started getting acting parts that meant I was in every day on the schedule, it became very apparent to me that I didn't cope very well with noise on busy, busy sets, on telly sets where back in the day, people are smoking and everyone’s just chatting about the weekend and I’d be like I’ve I got a really big scene to do in a minute, I've got to kill some guy, Band of Gold days and that’s when I first started having to use headphones to take me to a place of neutrality . And it wasn't so much about character, it started off as taking me out of someone talking about whether or not the potatoes were crunchy enough at lunchtime and me trying to, it’s not about learning my lines or remembering my lines but just staying in that moment because we might have done a scene and then go off for lunch—break for lunch!—and then we’re not going to do my close-up now or we’ve done the master… Alright stay in it, stay in it Sam. I’m not gonna eat lunch to stay in the moment and the music was just for that just to get me out of it. Then as the years went by, I think the first film I did a playlist for was, that I really remember actively going this is my playlist, was Jesus Sun. Before then I had a song that would get me into a scene but I didn't do a playlist for an entire movie. It was Kathy Burke who inspired me to do that because she did me a tape after we did Tom Jones this TV series. She did me this tape and I started using that tape for all these different performances. Back in the day it was tapes! That’s when it started I think that's been, that is now it. Once you do that, it becomes a bit of a crutch and I get a bit superstitious about it now.
BH: You have other things as well. I’ve seen you talking about how you have smell for each role?
SM: Yeah, everyone. That again goes back to Sam because that goes back to memories and triggers. So when I was directing The Unloved I was hiding Comfort fabric softener in the Mum's house because my mum's house was always really clean and nice and just kind of triggers me back in a good way to that space. And I think it was Tracy again in Band of Gold when this character started earning a bit more money—I didn’t like smelling like me at work I just felt like
I'm being a bit mean. I was always trying to--because I didn't learn how to act in traditional way. I was like anything that reminded me, I didn't want my stuff around me. I wanted to just get just get rid of all that and so I started not wearing any kind of in the morning not wearing any mascara or makeup to work, no perfume and all that and then when Tracy started earning more money, my character had gone to London, I remember buying some fancy perfume and only wearing it for Tracy. And that's when it started and I’ve done it ever since.
BH: I'm tempted to get you to list all the perfumes that you’ve worn. We’ll come back to that if we’ve got time. Let’s rewind a bit back to the beginning after the workshop. Your career trajectory was fast-track rise really, you did your smallish scale British TV, you did a couple of UK indies then you've crossed over to the States. Did a picture, got an Academy nomination. From doing Under the Skin through to Woody Allen in just a few years that seems like a really fast move. Did you realize the enormity of that at the time? Did this seem like a logical progression or did it take you by surprise?
SM: Not really because I think the thing that was really for me that was kind of like scary was doing my first play. So I left London at 16 sorry, left Nottingham at 16 to do this play at The Royal Court. I had nowhere to live, nowhere to stay, I was sleeping at that point I slept at St Pancras train station and a friend had given me the name of someone that she knew back in the day who lived in London and worked at Abbey Road, someone called D, an amazing woman. She lived in the Peabody Building, I called it Convent Garden but it was Covent Garden! I’d like phoned this woman, I couldn't get hold of her and I thought I can’t just turn up so I remember sleeping in—I mean it was really rough obviously back then—I wasn’t homeless but just didn't know where to go that night so I slept at the station. And I fibbed I said I’d got somewhere to stay because I eventually got this part in a play called Ashes in the Sand that Ian Rickson directed with Susan Lynch and Melissa Wilson and Ray Kiola and Nick Reading. Amazing cast and I was like a play! A proper play! I was absolutely petrified. Everything else after that was like just a doddle. You go in and audition. You’ve got to remember as well for every part you get all the diaries of going on the tube or going to New York, there’s a lot I didn’t get. There’s a lot of disappointment. I remember being like, there’s a group of us that I really, really adore and back then we were all the same parts and it's really amazing women like Anna Friel and Kelly MacDonald—really, really, good women who are brilliant. We’d all be up for the same parts, like she got that one, I got this one, she got that one, I got this one. I mean, looking back, it was a really beautiful time and so it wasn't just that you get everything you go for super successful. You were just lucky to be working, really lucky and you don't think at the time that it's success, you’re just working. And I'm happy to be working, I love traveling you see, say, if a part’s in Israel, or back in the day if the part’s in Bali… I'll go anywhere . I was like yeah, just get my backpack and go. Sorry if that sounds a bit weird but I think I'd had my first fear factor and everything else was a laugh after that.
BH: Back to that fear factor. You’re not known for doing theatre. You did it right at the beginning but you don't do it now. What’s that about?
SM: I did two, I did a couple of plays and I used to do like rehearsed readings and again, remember doing one for I think it was Patrick Marber, but then I didn't get the part and I was really gutted. Anna Friel got that part and she was amazing. In Closer, she was extraordinary. It wasn’t that I didn't want to but I had a child quite young and then if I was going to be a single mum working I had to pay for childcare and I got a mortgage really young and I had no support or back up with the bank of mum and dad. I had to stay where I was going to get a bit of money.
BH: Would you think about going back to it?
SM: Absolutely and even more so when lockdown happened, I suddenly got this big--because I've moved back to the UK, properly back to the UK, and I don’t know there was this… Because it didn't go away. When you love something like that, it never goes from you. I’ve still got my script from Ian Rickson and he taught me a huge amount that I’ve kept on with and I think stuff from Max Stafford Clark, I didn’t ever work with him, but every script I get, I use things that Ian taught me back then, Ian Smith and Ian Rickson, and then obviously filmmaker teacher things, different people that you work with and you just always get more if you like tools for your tool bag as an actor. I hope if I can afford to, but now I just pray and hope and pray that we have theatre to go back to. More than ever I just had this heart-breaking moment in a way that maybe older actors might have thinking will I ever do a play again? Will I ever do that again? I hope so.
BH: Don’t bring it down right now!
SM: No, no, no.
BH: It’s all going to be fine! It's interesting looking at your filmography, you more than any other actor I can think of seem to really be able to balance big scale Hollywood Academy Award nominations with very small, very, very independent pieces. So for example you did Minority Report, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, in the same period, a year or two that you did Morvern Callar. Were you ever counselled against that kind of veering back and forth? I mean are the people around you…
SM: No, no, but what did happen was very, very early on living in New York, back in the day there’s a lot of interest in you and you get a lot of offers. You get incredibly lucrative offers but nothing comes for free in this world. Some of these meetings back then were about me and I would be given a part that was a huge part opposite a huge Hollywood actor as the leading lady. And they were all excited and I think I'm gonna do this one and this is gonna be great. And there would be suggestion of me wearing a skirt to the dinner with the be studio execs that evening. And I wasn’t told to wear a skirt but it was a gentle, subtle suggestion. Because back then, we’re talking late ‘90s, ’97, ‘98m I’d be wearing jeans and a little jacket and I was very no make-up and I was just like—I would literally just tell people to fuck off because I’d rather go back to Nottingham and maybe devise a play or go and write poetry and live in Bali for a bit. Fuck it. I didn’t want that, I knew very early on that wasn't OK, that they were compromises that were weird. It was just weird. It was like if the character needed to wear a skirt yeah let’s put a skirt on, that’s right, but for Sammy going to dinner to seal the deal or have chat about those things with the leading man that’s not cool. I had a few incidents like that and I also had a few incidents where friends of mine were very successful, I’d made friends in Hollywood and they were really successful, are really successful, and I looked at elements of their life and I thought I don’t know if I could do that. I really don’t know if I could compromise so many aspects of being me. And that's what I thought there was a payoff, not a payoff, something just didn’t feel right. And then I had my daughter Esme really young and then that was more, there was more of an impetus for me to be true to myself if that makes sense. Scripts came through regardless of their budget if I didn't understand the script I’m not gonna do it regardless of who the director is. If I can’t read the script and get a sense of it. Even if they’re not offers, when I say I’m not going to do it, these things might not be offers or even auditions. If they’ve been sent to me and I don’t want to pursue this particular role because I don’t understand A) why they're making it, B) the role, what is this all about. Then these films go on to make millions at the box office. And my agent’s like you could have played that role! But I’m like well it wasn’t meant to be. But the reason why I think even now I said to my agent the other day, I said I just I'm desperate to do another little film, an independent film because they're few and far between. And I get the privilege and the honour of working with a director that’s making their vision, being supported by a producer that’s supporting that vision. That type of cinema I think is getting rarer and rarer and you have brilliant Hollywood actresses and actors that are moving into that. They often did a bit of both, but now they're just totally doing those films. So they're few and far between, A) getting financed and B) being available to me. It’s just my dream and I had a conversation with an actress from a TV series not that long ago, we were having a really tough day and it was one of those turn up, get on your mark, we've got five pages to shoot today and I was like argh. She was like that’s why I do theatre because I get my weeks of rehearsal then every night we can just play. And I was like, I love what I do and I love being on set I love the magic of watching how the camera works, of understanding how to perform for the camera. The magic it's just movie magic, I love it.
BH: To go back to Morvern Callar,
Tell us about the relationship--I remember seeing you at that time actually in a rehearsed reading with Lynn and the late Liana Dognini, and you read a section from the book and you and Liana and Lynne seemed a really tight unit just seemed to be your happy place and you were all anarchic and anti-establishment doing things your way. Presumably that was the spirit when you took on that project. Tell us about making that if you can remember the experience of making that.
SM: I can remember, it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, it was beautiful. In a similar way to making Under the Skin with Karen Adler, I had a thing that it was just so exciting to be in a room with a woman, to see what she was…And I loved Ratcatcher, I loved her shorts and Gas Man, and also she's from Glasgow, my step dad is from Glasgow, it was just something it was like something about how she communicated. She spoke to me like I was clever. Nobody at all, had spoken to me like I was clever in regards to directors. No one was rude to me, but they were just busy doing their thing and then I was busy doing the acting. Lynne spoke to me like a collaborator. And I was really young but she spoke to me like I had a brain. And I liked that. She would explain to me composition and she said I want you to see this film and this film. So she educated me as well. So rather than keeping her talents herself it was like I want you to be good for me and it was this empowering thing, a woman empowering another woman, young woman, to be good. And I just, that was liberating because she didn’t just have a secret it was like I’m going to share with you. She’d do things like come and look at this and come and look at the monitor. And she'd go and be Morvern and go look at this, isn't this beautiful? And then she'd get so excited about light and I was just salivating at this human being taking such joy in their craft that it was just intoxicating. And so it wasn’t that we were anti-establishment at all. We were just doing our thing. And then in the same way, Lynn hadn’t worked with like—she’d worked with non-actors and even though I’d done a lot of acting since I was 12, I wasn't from a traditionally trained acting background as well so I just thought it was perfect. It was—I’ll treasure those memories because they’re and far between.
BH: Can you talk a little bit about that character because she's a really interesting character because she's sort of, in a way she should be very hard for an audience to kind of grasp hold of her. She makes choices that we might not make. You had to bring an audience with you. Was she hard to play?
SM: No. I don’t think anyone’s hard to play. You just play them. You just literally get on with it like washing the pots. You’ve got something to do, you just do it. Days are hard when we're tired, Days are hard when you might have lost the light or you lose a location, but playing a character, for me, I don’t really think of them as characters when I'm in it. It's in hindsight, you go that was that person and that person and that was that. But I don’t psychoanalyze them, I just be. It’s hard to describe.
BH: Are you confident in your performance? At the time or afterwards. Do you watch back what you've done?
SM: No, no, not for years. I didn't watch anything and I can't watch myself at work which was really hard, when Lynne was like come look at this playback and stuff like that. I don't do that because for one I don’t like the sound of my own voice, or I don't like my big forehead or I’ve got problems with my teeth, bla, bla, bla. I actually like myself more now I'm older because I’m getting to look more like my mum. It’s weird as you get older I look and I go that’s not bad I look like my mum, Hello Pam. Looking at my face. Being other people is really weird. And then my husband said to me, have you ever seen any of these things and I said sometimes you have to see stuff because you have to see yourself in ADR and you have to do your voice stuff and sometimes you have to sit through a screening at a festival. It’s hell, it’s just hell. But what I wanted to do with certain filmmakers is watched their work after we’d done it. So I’d give it space and time and then I’d watch Michael Winterbottom’s film or Lynne Ramsay’s film or Charlie Kaufman’s film or Spielberg’s film, and I’d watch their film, not my performance but their film and I’d go that was a good one. I was in that good film!
BH: We can tell you they were all good, it’s fine! Talk to me about Charlie Kaufman and Lynn, and Harmony Korine and David Cronenberg. There’s a sort of throughline in some of those directors, I suppose you might call them kind of extreme auteurs. There's a very specific thing you get with those directors. To what extent did those projects just come to you accidentally--It's another good script, that's another good project—or were you seeking out working with a particular kind of identity in your directors?
SM: I'm just really lucky if I get to work with directors like that. I remember writing to a director once. Just once. And I heard nothing back. That was David Lynch. My agent, my amazing agent—I’ve had two agents for many, many years—and she said hey why don’t you try it? And I did and I heard nothing. I was mortified and I was like, thank goodness, I didn't write to Jim Jarmusch or all these people because hopefully one day they might think ooh I’ve got a part for this person, is she busy? But I think it’s casting directors doing a good job if they’re allowed to. You’ve got all these things about box office and who's a name and who's not. Sometimes people that aren't right for roles play roles that they’re not right for. That could be said of me, I don't know, but I think that I don’t seek that out I just want to work and want to work with people that have got good stuff and hopefully we have a chat and we get on. My agents are really good, they know what I like and they know I’m looking to work with filmmakers all over the world, male, female, low budget, big budget. I’ve just done American television which was amazing, which I was petrified of and that was life changing. And I'm really glad I did that because everyone said it was the hardest, and if you can do that—if I can do this I can do anything, it’s another string to my bow.
BH: When you’re thinking back on working with those particular directors, when you then came to be a director yourself with your debut The Unloved, did you—were you conscious of bringing particular things from particular directors to yourself on set? What kind of director were you?
SM: It’s interesting you asked that because one of—I loved and have had loads of different incredible experiences on set, but one of my favourite . things about being on set sometimes it's when directors like it very quiet and they don't want too many people about, almost like it was like a closed set, like when you have a nookie scene, there's no one about. I like rehearsal, I like to sit in the space with the director and the writer potentially and the cinematographer and go what are we doing here? What’s going on? And have time with the other actor before and just talk through the scene and if we're lucky enough to have that time because time is money and all that. That’s my joy. When I approached it as a director. I just said to the crew, listen. I want everybody to be able to do their job. I don't want anyone to feel that they’re in the way and not allowed to do their job. However this is going to be really intimate and really, really just very small, quiet. Not always quiet because I play music a lot in-between takes and I did that to make sure the kids were relaxed and stuff like that and it was fun for them. And all I could do is bring my sensibility as an actor because I’d not directed before. The other stuff, when you’re in the moment you can't think what would Steven Spielberg do? Steven Spielberg's got money for a 60-foot technocrane. And I've not got the money for a 60-foot technocrane. So I've got to try and improvise a bit and think how am I going to get that shot. To me, the prep was the most important. Making sure I had enough prep for all of the crew and myself and spending the time and the money there and learning after all these years that what makes the production go smoothly and sometimes what sadly makes production have a hiccup and trying my best, as much as you can, to learn from that. And a lot of rehearsal for the actors if they had time to give me.
BH: When you’re an actor, do you like rehearsal?
SM: Yes. A lot. Doesn’t always have to be the scene to be rehearsed, but I like the idea of a huge amount of discussion prior to setting foot on that set
BH: Again, you found an incredible young girl to work with, Molly Windsor, who’s just so like—
SM: Well Shaheen found her really. Got to put that one out there.
BH: Fair dos, but you got the best out of her! Can you talk a little bit--that's a really difficult role that she had to play. You talked about the total silence at the beginning of the film. Can you talk a little bit about how you as a director, thinking back to you as an actor, had a kind of duty of care to your young performer. I mean what kind of conversations did you have with her.
SM: She was a child, so conversations with her mum, with Beth. Molly was really young then and there was one scene she did with Robert Carlisle, where it was kind of a very wide shot and he comes in, he interrogating her, throws on the sofa and she was in bits. So we got it, we don't need to go again. In my version of the storyboard, I had various shots and I had angles and this is what I wanted to do but there in that moment I got it. That's trusting because I don’t like watching a monitor. Because it messes with my head. So I'm always watching. I'm always watching the actors, as opposed to sitting in a room watching the monitor of what the camera’s doing. And I just like to look in the camera and I like to trust the operator and feel that. And I think in regards to Molly and Lauren Soccer as well. I have to say that she was extraordinary and is extraordinary. Listening: Did you like that? Do you want to go again? You can feel truth. Do you know what I mean? When you're in that room, you can feel when, you know… I was lucky enough to have rushes on the film, which was extraordinary. And I was able to look at all the rushes--because when you shoot on film as well, it's very expensive, so you’re not going to shoot too much . I was lucky enough to watch and learn a little bit as I went along and go oh I did too much there, that’s too much. Next time I’m doing a scene similar to that I know really what’s important.
BH: It’s interesting because you had a lovely co-writing relationship with Tony Grissoni for that one. One of the things that struck me about the character of Molly as you've written her was that she was quiet. Dialogue is very minimal. She doesn't say that much and I was struck because actually, you've often performed in roles where you don't say much. Famously you got an Oscar nomination for one of them where you literally are a mute person. And the beginning of Morvern Callar there's no dialogue, nothing, you don't say anything. So it’s almost like you trust…
SM: I just want to interrupt you there because I think the idea of mute is fascinating. On stage you’re talking about words but on film, you need to be silent. And so you can say huge amount with your body language, your eyes, music, the soundscape the director might choose to use. So actually Hattie in Sweet and Lowdown was a right chatterbox, she was just mute. She was so animated. She wasn’t a still person at all, she wasn’t quiet. She was pretty out there. She did have a scene where she was playing a silent movie star, but Hattie as a person, and I find it fascinating thinking about the senses, and I find it fascinating thinking about the fact that I don't say very much. There's a lot going on, it’s whether the camera is capturing the thoughts and music and the atmosphere if it’s all coming across. I hope that makes sense. I'm saying that not all these people are quiet. Molly’s character Lucy in The Unloved is obviously experiencing a huge amount, she’s just not vocalising it with words. She’s saying a huge amount but not ‘I am in pain’ or ‘fuck off you bastard,’ or whatever it is. There's so much going on but you can’t write words for those scenes and sometimes the joy in that is that what isn’t said is just as important as what is said. And having a shot of an actor listening to another person is sometimes just as important as the shot of the actor talking.
BH: I want to talk about telly quickly before we get to some audience questions. Just going to cut straight to The Walking Dead because I can't resist not doing that. Tell us about this, you play another mother slightly different on this time. How seriously did you take on this character? I mean, how--in one sense she's kind of a cartoon of horror, ripping people's skin off and rubbing blood in her hands and behaving like such a horror character. How much—
SM: She’s not—she doesn’t have grand gestures though. She was putting blood on her hands so the zombies can’t smell her.
BH: Absolutely. But how much—when you got offered that part, how much did you think of her as a character as opposed to just another kind of horror action silliness. Because, you know—
SM: I don’t think it’s silly at all. I think The Walking Dead is an incredibly serious piece of… It’s all shot on film. And if you go back to the season, I started in season nine and season one started off and people that may have started with the show and then didn't continue because it just goes on and on and on, they should, I’m not just saying they should pick it up again. I first of all read the scripts and thought gosh, these are like a movie. Growing up in the eighties
I loved George Romero films like The Omen or The Entity or The Exorcist. All the zombie films of that time, there’s a time and that—The Walking Dead is like classic American cinema and it’s shot incredibly beautifully and I hate to say this but they do spend lots of money on it, and not everything is CGI so you have Greg, who is a director and special effects person but the makeup is extraordinary. Talking the most extraordinary makeup, and as an artist that is brilliant. It isn’t comic book like… How can I describe it, it doesn’t feel camp when you’re there. I think Alpha is one of the greatest roles I've ever played, not only the writers that wrote her, you have Angela who’s the showrunner, you have a lot of female directors on the show and a lot of female writers. I was so proud that the main central villain if you like for such a show, was a woman. Because whenever growing up I watched the Bond films I wouldn't want to be a Bond girl. I always wanted to be the villain. And then obviously as an actor you hope one day script's gonna come in where you get to play that villain. It just isn't there. So when this came through, I mean, I’d been offered American television before, but you look at the expectations of you as a human being, no time with your family for seven years and you’re not guaranteed the episodes and there’s a lot of things that if any actors are watching this out, there, you'll know about… It’s a risk and I’ve always kind of been scared of getting it wrong. And this was like just a role of a lifetime. I’m like hold on a minute I'm just so proud and I do take it very seriously and I think she's actually a very still character. If you’ve ever seen any of it or if you’re ever interested it is a different genre for a lot of people, they might not be interested in it but you'd be really, really surprised. I’m incredibly proud of it.
BH: I’d agree with that completely. Did you have anxiety about going into something—that show’s been going for 150 episodes or something. Did you have—and some of the original characters are still in it, one or two of the original characters are still in it. Did you—how did it feel, presumably it’s like a family of some description. Did you feel anxious about going into that world? Going into that dynamic?
SM: I felt that anxious that how long they take to shoot an episode
BH: How long do they take?
SM: I think it’s like nine days, between 5 and 9 days. And that's film that's a lot of coverage, a lot of actors, a lot of stuff. But then like an incredibly well oiled machine. So long as you know your stuff and you're ready to rock and roll, it's like you know the missing piece makes the big O, the Shel Silverstein, I arrived there and I just felt amazing, I felt supported. I miss them all terribly, actually, I get emotional thinking about it because they do become a family. And maybe that's what it's like being on a soap, I’ve never been on a soap.
BH: Did you know at the point when you took this on how long the arc was supposed to be?
SM: Yeah. They told me she’s not going to live very long. In a way that was like a liberating thing that you’re not kind of… Because what if I have hated it. I didn't I loved it, but what if I didn't enjoy it? And I'm saying to my family like, sorry, guys were here for a few more years. I loved it. So actually I was sad when she had her head chopped off. But then I was a ghost in a couple of episodes so you never know it was all a bit like… And also I was doing Harlots at the time so I was back and forth playing Margaret Wells in Harlots, so it was like… I feel so blessed because what great characters to be getting your teeth into.
BH: Was that an acute exercise in the demonstration between the UK industry in the US TV industry?
SM: No at that point, Harlots was made by Monumental, a lovely group of women—we’ve got Alison Carpenter the producer on the ground who’s amazing and then you’ve got Maura Depheney, Alison Newman and then you’ve got the writers there and the female directors and a brilliant cast, Leslie Manville, Liv Tyler, just an amazing cast and then—I was like the cat that got the cream I have to say because then I’m off. That was Hulu, sorry Briony that was my point that Hulu were funding that, so it was an American show and it was huge in America. I’d be going down the street in Georgia and my husband would make me laugh and I've got a bit of a cackle and somebody would go ‘is that Margaret Wells?’ and it’s like oh my gosh how did you know? They are fans of the show whereas in the UK people hadn’t seen it sadly until the BBC bought it and put it on and I think season three is on now. so I was very lucky to do them both.
BH: We’ve got some good questions coming, can we get to those? OK so Amy Forrest wants to know—it’s probably quite a broad question, she says, but how do you prepare for an audition? What’s your process?
SM: I used to—I’m rubbish at auditions if I’m honest and I tend not to do that. But when I was younger and I would edition, I’d just try—I think it’s harder for people now with having to put themselves on tape all the time and then you don't hear back and you don't know. You're not getting any feedback from somebody directing you saying ‘Can you be more this, more that?’ And I come from a time where luckily for me, a casting director or director would be directing me in the auditions. And I was always I suppose for me auditioning was always about being completely off the page. Never not knowing my lines unless obviously I’d just been given them for whatever reason because sometimes people were quite secretive about the pages and just being comfortable in my own skin and my own ability to have a take on it because ultimately sometimes I think that's what directors want. They want you to have a sense of what you're going to do rather than just going ‘what do you want?’ it’s what are you going to bring to this?
BH: Adam Frith wants to know, he says he's a recent drama school graduate and he’s interested in how conscious you are, if at all, about the technical aspects of acting on camera when the director calls action.
SM: So it used to be that I would try to shut all that off and actually sometimes I have my fingers in my ears when they're doing the clapperboard because I hear it ringing for a very long time afterwards. I ask for a quiet clap. The more you do, the more aware you are if something's gone wrong and you need to redo it or the director what the director needs or performing and then in the corner of your eye somebody would be saying, or you’ll know that something's gone wrong… I suppose it's time and experience, but I don't know at drama school if they do enough on film acting because it is entirely different. I believe, television actin, to kind of what people do on stage in a way, but that's my opinion.
BH: Question from Nick Schonberg: How do you feel about the editing process in the sense that it can affect your performance on screen. Do you ever think about it when you act?
SM: Yes I do now. I didn't used to and I certainly don't on film. I think in television, you know a lot of the time there's a formulaic approach to how things need to be edited to get a story across and how that's going to work and whether it's gonna come together or not. So I'm always aware of it, but not so much that it bothers me. I'll be watching how a director might set up a shot and thinking ‘is this gonna come together?’ And the director might be asking the Script Supervisor . And I'm like, yeah OK. I think when you’ve been doing it as long as I have those things are just second nature but on a film you hope that the editor… Gosh they can manipulate your performance to something absolutely extraordinary or they cannot understand what you are trying to do and you're like oh that silence was there for a reason and you've just got it out but you have to let go of that. When you’ve done your performance then it belongs to the post-production process of the director and the editor and then it belongs to the audience
BH: Somebody who hasn’t put their name says how does working on a Long-Form TV series like Harlots or The Walking Dead differ from working on a film? Is having to build a character over a longer period of screen time more difficult?
SM: No. It is the same thing and I really mean this, as long as you know your character, as long as you’ve got the essence of that person, whatever they write for you, whatever, you can be that. Unless somebody's written something that you so fundamentally think is bizarre. And then you might be in a position if you're lucky enough to have a really respectful conversation with the creatives and say, are we sure about this? In long-form television, the people making the show have a lot of storylines and threads that they need to balance and they will also have a lot of things that aren’t related to your character so they need the right things to go on and sometimes it's not personal, but they might need to happen in order to balance something out here and you just have to, so long as you've got your character, you just go with the flow. In film, you’re in the fortunate position to have your script, hopefully, well in advance. And if you're shooting out of sequence you’ll have prepared your script enough to be OK with that. You know where you're going to be any point because they might drop you in this scene and that's going after that… So it is different in regards to the practicalities and logistical process of filmmaking, that fundamentally here it is exactly the same
BH: Emily Bennett wants to know what's the most helpful piece of advice or note a director has ever given you?
SM: A director? I was going to say another actor.
BH: You can give us the actor one as well.
SM: Crissy Rock, don't let the bastards grind you down. Because sometimes a director will be telling you to do something and you’re doing it, you’re like I’m actually doing it. They’re just looking at a monitor that big and they can't see what I'm doing and I'd be thinking wait till you get home and you're looking at it like that. I’m giving you pain, I’m giving you sadness and you just live and learn through that. But the best advice? I don’t think anyone really gave me advice, it was just Crissy Rock that gave me that advice.
BH: Live by that advice! Michael Cannon wants to know when working with a director you haven’t worked with before, what does the process of building trust look like between you and them and how does that change once you work with them again?
SM: Well in television, you’re working with a lot of people that come and direct an episode. And I think in those scenarios my job is to play either Margaret Wells or Alpha, just talking about two recent performances, to the best of my ability. And sometimes in those scenarios the directors really are directing camera and directing a scene and the story. And I think directing episodic television is slightly different to say, what Lynne Ramsey might do where she's directing her movie, her film, her actor and you just have to be supportive. For someone like me at my age now, I just want to be there to be helpful and supportive because it's really hard coming in on a TV show and going right all these people know each other they’ve been working together for ages. I've got this idea, this is what I want to do and you just need to be as supportive as you can really. In those scenarios. I just have to trust that I know and my character enough to just get on with it for want of a better word. But if I'm lucky enough to be on, let's say Tom Beard when I did Two For Joy which was his first feature film. That trust had to be there when we first met, and that will decide if I'm gonna do that job. And when we meet and I feel safe that he has got the right instincts and he comes from a good place, then you have to trust. You just have to give it a 100, 150% even if that person's never directed a movie. Because that's what's going to, that togetherness is what that process is about.
BH: Martin Vaughn wants to know—says Sam you’ve done Nottingham proud. He says Sam you’ve done some groundbreaking TV over the years both as an actor and as a director. What was the TV that inspired you growing up?.
SM: I watched, growing up I've watched a lot of like Neighbours and Home and Away when I got home from school. But if we're talking about things that made me it was Ken Loach, it was seeing Abigail’s Party, Play for Today, but words like inspire we knock them around now. We live in a woke society and all that. Back in ’86, ’87, no one’s asking, you’re not being inspired you just know what you like, what you don’t like. And I was never one for enjoying when I was younger, musical theatre. I really liked Annie, the John Houston film, but then I’d watch another musical and not like them, I didn’t know why I but I was always funny about if things were fake. I knew from a very young age I didn't like phoney. Not that phoney’s bad, but I didn’t like that world. I liked the Alan Clarke world. I liked the Ken Loach world. It seemed to make sense to me because it was truth.
BH: Oliver Scott Gleber wants to know how you work on your accents, especially Alpha’s American accent, she’s got a lovely Southern accent.
SM: Accent work I find really hard. I have to do a lot of work on it and I have to put in practice. And I have to put the time in. I work with different accent coaches. If I'm lucky and that might be just to do a session before a movie where I go I’m playing this part, can you work with me for a bit? I will just get voice exercises and they help me out with taping it. I'm not very good at understanding what they talk about and how you do things with vowels and all that. I'm like I have to listen. Luckily I've got an ear, but that doesn't mean it's easy. I need to know it where I don't just know the lines, I know the character, I know the voice because you've got to know who the person is before you can do the voice because the person is about breath, how that person breathes and size or walks and moves, it’s all connected to them. Then it goes back to the voice, it's not just about, hey, I'm doing a Geordie accent, whatever stupid thing like that. It's bigger than and it takes a huge amount of commitment and dedication and hard work. Can you hear me?
I think you cut off there…
BH: Yes, yes. Marley Johnson wants to know how you get over stage fright—
SM: Sorry one last point on the voice, I worked with a woman called Lileen Lansell when I was young, my first American accent, and up until then I'd always just gone to a place with a little Dictaphone and recorded how they sound, whether it was Bradford in Band of Gold or I went to County Anterim for my first film, This is the Sea. And I would just listen copy and I was I was so scared to work with a voice coach in case something changed in me that I wasn't real , but actually getting the right voice coach and doing all that work is—I can’t recommend it highly enough. It's, it's brilliant.
OK, stage fright
BH: Stage fright. Right. So how do you get over stage fright, nervousness before filming? Do you have stage fright?
SM: Once. I had it really badly once and it was horrific and that was actually anxiety and panic attacks. I do suffer with panic attacks and anxiety and I think that's kind of my stuff. That's my own stuff I can bring to my work environment. I ask myself questions: Am I sleeping enough? Am I my healthy? What stresses have I got in my own life I just need to deal with because having to turn something on quite quickly all the time—that’s hard. I was doing the Cronenberg film and I was in this limousine doing this monologue, I think it was like a 20 page monologue my character had and it was bizarre. The crew were having to shake the car because there was a riot going on outside and I literally just kept forgetting my lines. But that was also the first time I worked for digital camera and what happened was, the camera kept jarring before I forgot my lines. And so it was just suddenly I was watching little pieces of my world kind of fall apart where the camera went and then they’re shaking the car and it was just an awful experience and I took some herbal thing quickly, it’s called Pasiflora, and I started to meditate and I kind of found it again. That was the one and only time touch wood, but I think it was me. I think it was where I was at in my life. And I deal with PTSD to do with my childhood. That was interesting because that never happens when I’m acting, acting had always been my safe space. And all of a sudden, I was like, well that was weird. I think it's because I didn't trust the camera. It was a new energy because the film camera makes a noise and even though that's annoying to people and they’re putting coats on it sometimes and bashing it, I love the camera. It’s my friend. All of a sudden it’s this little thing and we’re doing take after take after take because they could. I was like this is just weird.
BH: It’s learning whole new way of working. Here’s a challenging one: James Hughes says the versatility of your credits is so impressive and you’re only halfway through your career. What are your aspirations for the industry as we move forward into new times, and the roles you hope to play next? Bit broad, but give it a go.
SM: I think it's a good question. I hope that I can direct more, that people will be kind enough to fund some of the things I have to say. I hope I get to play, for want of a better word, juicy roles, and I hope they’re written by women as well as men. I hope that we see more women—I want it to be 50:50, to everyone out there who is watching. I just want it to be 50:50 if possible. The right people at the right times, but that would be great. And I think in these times certainly the times of COVID and moving forward, I just want everybody to be safe, as safe as we possibly can be, but we need we need to survive we need more funding from the government. It’s outrageous what they’re doing and not understanding—what are they all doing, they’re sitting at home watching their Netflix and their BBC iPlayer in the evening, whether it’s Bake Off or another series or something, they’re watching, they’re watching us, they’re watching cameramen who have done their work, editors have done their work, actors have done their work, directors are directing. People have done post. I just pray and hope we get to keep doing this. You’ve cut again, you went all still.
BH: We’ve just completely run out of time! I’m still here, can you hear me now? We are in fact out of time. But I just want to say one thing—you sound in one way so joyful about your craft. I think you love being an actor.
SM: Oh my God it’s a dream come true.
BH: Your daughter is an actor, when she first started acting, I know she was acting in a film with you, but when she first sort of headed into your world, did you have any reservation? Did you, or is it such a joyful experience that you're very happy with that her having that experience too?
SM: It’s a really long answer that and you said we'd run out of time. So that's a whole separate thing, but I will say to you, acting has saved me. I feel fortunate privileged that I was able to do it coming from a working class background. And we need drama teachers in schools, we need that to be respected and understood. We need more funding in that way. We need more diversity I mean, across the board in regards to this amazing industry that we're all lucky enough to be part of. But I do have joy. And I count my blessings and I still love it. I still get butterflies even talking to you now, the BAFTA audience, I feel privileged—even the word BAFTA there on my bloody thing. Unbelievably privileged. We need to take care of it and take care of each other.
BH: That's perfect. Perfect way to end. Samantha Morton it has been so wonderful to hear you talk about what you do. And congratulations on your BAFTA nomination most recently and we look forward to many, many more. Thank you to everybody who joined us tonight, thank you for your questions, and I’m so sorry we didn’t get to them all. Thank you again to Sea Containers for supporting this event. It’s been a real pleasure and see you again on screen soon.
SM: Thank you. Than you Briony, take care. Bye! God bless, bye.