Everybody wants to be famous. It’s certainly not a new phenomenon of human nature but not even Andy Warhol could have predicted just how all-consuming the pursuit of “15 minutes of fame” would become when he coined the phrase back in 1968. Back then he was opining on the fact that the kind of talent he had, and the fame that came as a result of it, was becoming so divorced from each other soon everybody would get their 15 minutes (or at least try to) regardless of whether it was justified or not.
This is the nature of the 21st century world we now live in. There are an infinite number of easy routes to notoriety and fortunes for the people who want it. But Emily Beecham is definitely not one of those people. Born in Manchester, England, to American and English parents, she decided she was going to be an actress just as she hit her teens after seeing a Michael Winterbottom film she was far too young to be watching at the time. Significantly, though, there was no desire to be famous for being an actress. She just wanted to tell great stories and her career to date has described exactly that ambition.
When she first started out it could have been very easy to trade on her combination of near flawless fair skin and spectacularly red hair and fall right into the creative ‘trap’ of taking the soap opera route. In the UK especially, it’s not uncommon to hear of actors and actresses playing the same character in the same soap day in, day out for 50 years or more. Because acting can be such a dauntingly fickle career there’s a lot to be said for settling for decades of guaranteed income and stability. But how long into a career revolving around one solitary character does one of the world’s oldest artistic and creative professions become just another job?
Of course, this isn’t to imply Emily hasn’t done any recurring roles on television during her time, but quality drama and TV soaps are two completely different animals. Her career to date shows a deliberate choice to be a working actress, taking on many different types of roles and projects to satisfy her obvious need for creative growth, and actively rejecting the opportunities to get pulled into the ‘safe’ but often inescapable gravity wells of British soaps when they came her way. The happy consequence of those early convictions is that she’s now one of the UK’s most talented and celebrated actresses, picking up multiple awards along the way which culminated in last year’s Palm d’Or prize for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her new film, Little Joe. Ahead of the film’s UK release it was only right that we found out from this original Northern Powerhouse herself just what it’s taken to actually earn that kind of fame and celebrity:
Hi Emily. Congratulations on the new film and the critical acclaim it’s picking up. It certainly seems as though you’ve built a career that was always destined to lead to moments like this, but tell us a little about who Emily Beecham was before the career?
Well, I moved around quite a lot, living in different places, because my dad was a pilot. So, I was already used to this kind of nomadic lifestyle, being exposed to different cultures and never having the same environment. I think that affected the arts for me. I never really saw art and drama as something that had to be ‘learned’ but something that you’re either drawn to instinctively or not. Academia kind of went out of the window for me when I was young so when I ‘accidentally’ saw Michael Winterbottom’s film, Wonderland, it had a massive impact on me. I’d never seen anything like it before.
When you say you ‘accidentally saw it,’ what do you mean?
I just randomly saw it on the television one day and was completely mesmerised by it because the acting was so incredible. It had an amazing cast including people like Gina McKee and Shirley Henderson, neither of which I knew at the time, and I was really drawn by how the film reflected reality. It was set in London and made with so much realism that I really related to a lot of it. It was amazing. I think that’s probably how I fell into it, really. My teachers actually tried to encourage me to go to art school but then I applied and got into LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) so I went there when I was 18.
You’ve picked up a lot of awards in your career thus far. Do you feel like this was something you were always destined for?
I was always really drawn to the more nuanced and idiosyncratic kinds of things. Those kinds of performances always turned me on – watching Shirley and Gina give performances that had such depth and were so unexpected. It wasn’t about vanity at all and I loved that, especially from female actresses. I admired the willingness to be ugly, rough and real and that was really exciting. I was lucky enough to get into that area of film – which is really hard to get into – but it’s been such an amazing gift. I feel much more comfortable in the kind of roles that require you to show those sides of yourself.
The early part of your career seems to show a lot of dues being paid. You worked on a lot of TV series’ but not for extended periods of time. Was that a deliberate choice?
I was presented a couple of [longer-term] options like that but I resisted them because I knew what interested me so there would be no point in me doing them. It’s already such a challenging and exposing job and I thought to myself: why do it unless you’re doing what inspired you to do it in the first place?
“I NEVER REALLY SAW ART AND DRAMA AS SOMETHING THAT HAD TO BE ‘LEARNED’ BUT SOMETHING THAT YOU’RE EITHER DRAWN TO INSTINCTIVELY OR NOT”
Coming out of drama school and starting your career did you not have that fear of not working that might have put those more creative ambitions on the back burner in favour of earning a wage?
Yes, there was definitely a transition period in my mid-twenties where I had to question myself on what it was that I actually wanted. I was often going up for the role of ‘the girlfriend’ or something and it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I think I said to my agent at the time that I was maybe going to quit acting. He told me I was crazy because I was working when so many other actors weren’t. So, I took a different perspective on it all and started writing stuff, learning how to use a camera and learning how to edit because I really wanted to make my own films. I soon realised that it was really tricky if you don’t have a budget. It’s really hard! It’s still something I’d love to do but it has to be the right script because if you get funding and don’t do a good job you’ll never get funding again.
If you had quit your acting career who would Emily Beecham be today?
I wondered about going behind the camera. I even asked [film director] Andrea Arnold if I could do some running on her set once but she was shooting in Spain at the time so it was a bit far away. But I wanted to experience that atmosphere and see how it all worked. To me that was really interesting; her kind of raw, instinctive filmmaking.
Later in your career there seemed to be a definite shift in the roles you were playing. In 2016 you were Dierdre in Hail, Ceaser, your first real film in the Hollywood studio system that also happened to be about the Hollywood studio system. Then came the title role of Daphne, a small and introspective character piece set in the gritty realism of London that must have really invoked the realism you mentioned you were such a fan of. And then you played The Widow in the fantasy/sci-fi series Into the Badlands for three seasons, which became a huge cult hit with fans but was the complete opposite to Daphne. Was the shift deliberately planned or was it more organic?
It happened organically. They were different opportunities that came up at the time. My career changed and transitioned quite quickly and it overwhelmed me a little bit, in an amazing way. I almost can’t get my head around it. I was very grateful to Badlands, it bought me my flat!
Did you have any trepidation going into Badlands because of how very different it was creatively to what you had done prior?
It was very different. It was an entertainment show where the martial arts was the real star but it taught me so many things, like how to let go and to not be a perfectionist about it because it meant a lot to a lot of people. It also gave me a huge amount of experience because I had never done a role like that for that amount of time. So now I feel very comfortable in myself. Now I can do the sort of stuff I watch and the sort of stuff that turns my mind on. It’s such a joy to read scripts like that and meet filmmakers who are really intuitive and have really inspiring imaginations.
“IT WASN’T ABOUT VANITY AT ALL AND I LOVED THAT, ESPECIALLY FROM FEMALE ACTRESSES”
Around the time when your career started to really take off there was another dynamic that had just come into play around the world, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. It was also the period when you were picking up numerous awards for Daphne. Do you think those dynamics created the space for small, female-led, independent movies like that to be made and to succeed like it did?
Daphne came about in an unusual way. The director, Peter Mackie Burns, who I’d met a few years prior, wanted to make a short film and so he emailed me and described the character to me. So, we met and discussed everything about it then shot it. Then about a year later he told me it had been picked up by the BFI. They thought there was much more to this woman’s story and wanted to make it into a feature length project. That doesn’t often happen. I think that maybe there was a thirst for female characters at the time who represented real women people actually knew. I had so many people come up to me and tell me that Daphne was their sister or their friend. That meant so much because I also saw many of my friends and parts of myself in her. Characters like that were rarely shown on screen, which was frustrating. It’s so inspiring and brilliant and exciting and funny to see those types interesting, intelligent, messy, slightly acerbic female characters increase on screen. So, yes, perhaps the dynamic may have had an influence, in that people realised that there was something that was lacking in the industry.
Daphne was such an interesting, almost introverted film that finished in a very open-ended way. It felt like there was more of her story yet to be told. Do you think you’d ever revisit the character?
Well, Peter is actually developing the idea of a series from the film and I do love that character. She’s so vulnerable and interesting. You really care about her and just want to know what’s going to happen in her life.
Which brings us on to Little Joe, a really beautiful and studied, if slightly disturbing film. You play Alice, a driven and talented bio engineer who creates a new strain of plant that gives off a scent which makes their owners feel tranquil and happy – at an unseen cost. It does feel like this is the kind of space and creative work where you’re most comfortable, evidenced by the fact that you won the Palm d’Or for the role. So much of Alice’s story had to be told visually without words. Was that a challenge you looked forward to?
Yes, very much so. The director, Jessica Hunter, and I did a lot of rehearsals, particularly with the therapy scenes in the film because that was a lot about Alice’s inner thoughts – her ego, her insecurities and her guilt – being let loose. These were the things that were the massive driving forces behind the decisions she made. Jessica was very sure about her vision and what she wanted but it was always very collaborative. She’s also got this really unusual, incredible imagination so she always has these very unexpected ideas, which was great but it meant we always had to be on the same page. So there were constant discussions before and during production about Alice’s motivations during the silent dynamics between her and the other characters in the film – particularly with her colleague Chris, played by Ben Wishaw, and her son Joe.
The production design is so unusual and beautiful and there’s almost a ballet of movement between the actors and the camera throughout the film. How difficult was it to accomplish that level of technicality to make it look so seamless on-screen?
Everything was very choreographed. We did 20 or more takes for each set up. The choreography of movements had really specific timings – things were timed to happen the second the camera focuses or pans or when an extra walks past. Alice also had to talk to her son in this really high, slightly artificial and wooden register to convey the kind of ‘artificial mother’ role that she’s playing to her son. It was a real challenge and a different way to how I’m used to working but it’s all part of the experience, really, and what keeps things interesting. It was really amazing watching Jessica work.
Given the reception the film has received, and your work in it, would you say it’s your best role to date?
Hah! Gosh, I can’t really judge the things that I’m in like that! They’re all different. I also love Daphne but for different reasons, for example.
“I WAS ALWAYS REALLY DRAWN TO THE MORE NUANCED AND IDIOSYNCRATIC KINDS OF THINGS.”
Another film you have coming out soon that also tackles some disturbing but more realistic themes is Sulphur and White, based on the real-life story of former London City banker David Tait who had to overcome years of childhood sexual and psychological abuse as an adult to be able to be a functioning father to his children and husband to his wife Vanessa, played by you. Tait went on to become well known for his charity work, raising millions for the NSPCC by climbing Mount Everest five times. How much did you know about that story before becoming involved with the project and how do you prepare for a role based on a real person?
I didn’t know much about the story beforehand but I found the script incredibly moving and also uplifting because David did eventually pull through. It’s such an important story because it’s not something that’s talked about enough, especially among men. I actually got to meet the real-life Vanessa for the project and she’s a very bright, understanding person and what I got from her was how good she makes you feel. I think that’s what really pulled David through his horrific experience. We were always really aware of the responsibilities of playing real human beings and depicting their lives. David’s life was so difficult and heart-wrenching so we focused on the love they had for each other and the fear that he would go under. We had a lot of discussions about that between myself, [the director] Julian Jarrold and Mark Stanley [who plays David] and I hope it gets the exposure it deserves because Mark’s performance is so incredible. The film is being supported by the NSPCC and we have a royal premiere coming up soon so hopefully people will see it.
You’ve also just finished filming Cruella with Emma Stone and Emma Thompson which is due for release next year. There’s perhaps no bigger studio in the Hollywood studio system than Disney. Do you see yourself continuing with the bigger projects like that as you move forward or was this something that was just a one-off for now?
Well, it’s hard to say what’s going to crop up, really. That’s what’s so exciting about it, you don’t know what’s going pop into your inbox. I loved working on Cruella. It was directed by Craig Gillespie who also directed I, Tonya [for which Margot Robbie received an Oscar nomination] and Lars and the Real Girl [for which Ryan Gosling received a Golden Globe nomination] and I think he brought a really interesting twist to this story. Visually it’s pretty amazing. The costumes are jaw-dropping, Vivienne Westwood inspired creations. Craig wanted the whole thing to be really natural so the film has this really beautiful quality on screen.
How do you compare the independent movie dynamic with the large Hollywood studio system projects and which one serves your creative interests better?
They’re super different. With my studio projects I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve worked with Craig and the Cohen Brothers [for Hail, Ceaser] and they are both quite idiosyncratic filmmakers and garnered a lot of respect already. I think the studios probably give them a lot of freedom for that reason so I feel like I’ve still yet to really experience the ‘big studio’ thing with 20 or more producers.
Is that something you’d regard with a bit of worry?
It depends on what project it is. Also, because those big films generate a lot of exposure it does enable you to do a lot more perhaps smaller projects and get others funded.
And finally, what does the near to medium term look like for Emily Beecham? What else do you have coming up that you’re really looking forward to?
I’m not sure yet but I’m reading some really good scripts. I’m also developing something with the writer of Daphne, Nico Mensinga, and a friend of mine that will be a sibling story.
We’ll be looking forward to everything you have coming up. Thank you, Emily Beecham!
Little Joe will be on theatrical release in the UK from February 21st.
Sulphur and White will be on theatrical release in the UK from March 6th.
Emily also has another new release coming to Netflix this summer, the sci-fi action thriller Outside the Wire also starring Mr Avenger himself, Anthony Mackie. Look out for the Emily Beecham feature in the new issue of THE FALL on sale in April to find out more about it.
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All jewellery throughout by ADLER
Photography and image post-production: Fenton Bailey
Photography Assistant: Charlie Stanbury
Stylist: Josefine Englund
Film director: James Beattie
Camera assistant: George Beattie
Film post-production: Nigel Tadyanehondo
Music and sound design: Felix Morgan
Make-up artist: Justine Jenkins
Hair stylist: Sven Bayerbach
With thanks to Beaumont Communications, Freyja Communications and Tonic Reps.