Interview #24: Lucy Russell

Lucy Russell

Lucy is a multi-talented actress with a wealth of credits to her name. For film, Lucy made her breakthrough in Christopher Nolan’s debut feature Following. She starred in the Oscar nominated film TONI ERDMANN and JUDY with Renee Zellweger. She recently shot a role in Ben Wheatley’s REBECCA, and also starred in WHERE HANDS TOUCH.

For television, Lucy played a regular role in both GENIUS:EINSTEIN and GENIUS: PICASSO for Fox21. She also starred in CHERNOBYL, DARK MONEY, TOP BOY and STRIKE BACK. Most recently she shot ATLANTIC CROSSING for Cinenord, THE IRREGULARS for Netflix and JANUARY 22ND for the BBC.

Who or what was it that inspired you to become an actor? Do you have a personal philosophy towards your work?

I was fascinated by Tony Sher as a teenager and his book ‘Year of the King’, about when he played Richard III on crutches for the RSC and his descriptions of the performance mesmerised me.  As I’m writing this, I’m honestly not sure if I saw it or I just think that I read so much about it, I feel like I saw it!  Actually, I think I must have seen it as I have such a strong impression of his movement. He scuttled like a huge, mesmerising spider and he was so funny and so evil. It was astounding. However, I had no idea at that stage that being an actor could actually be a career choice. It wasn’t until about 15 years later that I started my first year of drama school and I’d cut a tendon on my toe just beforehand and had the best time going around London on my crutches, mimicking his movements. In the end I was faster on them than I was on foot. Probably a bit scary as well.

Another influence was my maternal grandmother because I always remember her saying, ‘I could have been on the stage…’ and I became determined that I would never say that to my grandchildren.  I might say that I tried and it didn’t work, but I was determined never to say those words to them.

Personal philosophy towards my work? There’s only one of me, so why not just let my freak flag fly?!  No-one will ever do it like me (or like you, or like anyone else), so I just want to allow myself to express me as fully as possible through my work. I kind of feel that’s why I’m here. By being as fully expressed as possible (always a work in progress) and finding the aspects of me that could be in the different roles I play, hopefully that showcase something with real humanity, which allows the storytelling to be real, and relevant, and human. You hope to affect people through great storytelling as well as sometimes giving insight into the humanity of others. There’s no short philosophy phrase, I’m afraid.  It’s about life, humanity and emotion and you being enough and all that stuff jumbled up. Mostly, it’s about loving what I do.

How did Following come about and what attracted you to taking on a lead role, in a zero budget feature film?

Following was all Chris, Emma and Jerry (Theobald): I was very much a late addition. Chris was very methodical about writing and making a film within budget and time constraints. There was no money and only weekends to film in. I’d known Jeremy through drama society at UCL and bumped into him in the uni bar. I asked him what he was up to and he not-so-casually dropped that he was playing the lead in an independent film, so I asked straight out, ‘Can I be in it?’ and he told me I’d have to audition. I had no idea what I was auditioning for or what the role was, really, which was when I met Chris and Emma, but that was how I booked my first film job. As to what attracted me … did I mention it was my first film job?!  I wasn’t an actor at this point – I’d just got a degree from UCL in Italian and Business and the plan was to go and work in finance in Paris (yes, at this point I had some really strange ideas about who I was and who I should be in the world and very little self-knowledge). The zero budget was a non-issue. Making the film meant that I could continue to act, to practise something that I’d put 90% more passion into than anything I’d studied for my degree. Also, we were filming on weekends, so I wasn’t losing work days.

Lucy Russell in Following
Lucy Russell in Following
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Having worked across both large-scale productions and independent cinema, how would you contrast the two? How have you personally benefited from both experiences?

Large-scale productions tend to mean a much juicier pay packet, a not-inconsiderable thing when you have a family. They have lots of toys for production to play with and SO MANY PEOPLE! Independent cinema you can end up in super-weird locations, with amazing people – actually there tend to be amazing people on any given set, to be honest. To work in film, you need to be easy to get on with. A film set is such a beautiful, complex machine with so many moving parts and each one is vital for the whole production so they have to be in sync. Everyone is nice to the actors in any case: we REALLY get the easy ride. Everyone laughs at our jokes. Really. They do. Which makes it weird when you get home and your family still thinks you’re just not funny.

Pretty much all film sets I’ve been on have taken their lead from their director: if they are laid back, so is the crew. Each set for me is a new adventure. I aim to have a blast, whatever I work on, because, otherwise, what’s the point?  I’ve had my most interesting film roles from independent cinema, that is for sure.  And from continental independent cinema, at that. I think they see me differently. I’m a foreigner, which means I can be anything. I’m really glad you’ve asked me this, because you’re firing me up to go back to Paris and network my arse off.

How would you position the zero budget experience in the film industry? Is it important and could/ should it be helped to thrive?

I absolutely think there’s a place for it, but I do also think that it behoves producers and filmmakers to be aiming to pay their cast and crew eventually a fair wage. So, I guess that means for the first film, it’s ok, but we are in the film ‘business’, and we all want to earn our livings doing what we love. For all of us, I think that to do zero-budget work, we need a hook to pull us into the project: whether it’s script, director, role, other actors, genre, but it needs to be there. I suppose it’s about respect, in a way, and respecting other’s work and the effort put in. Zero-budget can be an amazing experience, but I don’t know that it should be a destination, per se, it should be viewed as a stepping stone and a valuable place to hone your craft, but with that knowledge that your work and your experience are worth being paid for, so ensure that you’re happy that your chosen ‘hook’ is a good and fair exchange for your work.

What was it like working with Christopher Nolan and Eric Rohmer? How did their styles work with your approach to acting?

Hahahaha!  With Chris I had no approach to acting!!! I was flying by the seat of my pants, just doing my thang, whatever the hell that was. I went to drama school afterwards because I thought I’d just about got away with what I did, but I knew that anything more complex in the role would have ended up with egg on my face as well as a hammer in the head. Chris was really easy, really focused. We rehearsed a lot beforehand, so I knew what was coming (which was lucky for me as I’d only done theatre up to then and relied on rehearsal to get me anywhere). His crew was really tight, friends who’d worked together a lot and knew and trusted each other.

Lucy Russell in The Lady and the Duke
Dir: Éric Rohmer

That was also true of Eric Rohmer, he worked with the core crew and producer that he’d had for years, so that was very similar. However, Eric was like your very elderly grandfather, fundamentally kind, but also strangely obtuse at times: I’d ask him things and feel that he was answering a totally different question. Chris was at the beginning of his career, Eric at the end, one had a knowledge based on love, obsession, Super 8 film and drive, the other had a knowledge based on a lifetime in film; various department heads remarked that he seemed to know more about their departments than they did. I was fresh out of drama school, had no fear and thought I had it going on. He barely directed me (compared to what I was used to), so I just had to take that no comment was a good sign. However, what I began to realise was that his direction had different forms – he recommended that I watch certain films, he referenced paintings to me, spoke about the clothes of the period, the gestures. His direction was more in creating a world for me to inhabit and he actually gave me enormous freedom, confidence and was happy for me to just be me (an acting lesson it’s taken me years to take on board).

How did the opportunity to work on Toni Erdmann arise? Do you consciously seek to work in other filmmaking cultures and how would you contrast the experience to working in the UK and US?

I was super lucky in that the casting director knew my work and asked to see me for the job. My agent asked if I’d like to fly to Berlin for an audition, and my response was, “Hell, yes!”. We had a ball being filmed improvising around an apartment in Berlin with Sandra and Peter. I don’t consciously seek out other filmmaking cultures, but it is something that I absolutely love. I speak fluent Italian and have yet to work there, but it’s on my list and don’t get me started on Spanish-speaking cinema…that is on my vision board, my bucket list, up there in my list of things that get me really excited. I haven’t actually worked in the US yet, although I got tantalising close just before Christmas. However, I have worked on a number of US projects that have filmed this side of the Atlantic. When I try and think about the differences between the working cultures, what comes to me is that the US ones are all a bit more serious about it. I don’t mean that in the sense of being more professional, but that the jobs I’ve been on don’t have sheer moments of just being silly. I’ve had insane giggles on French sets, German ones (Toni Erdmann with Sandra wearing elf ears, oh my god), in studios in Czech and Hungary, covered in blood in Zagreb, but the US productions are just more serious, somehow.

Lucy Russell in Toni Erdmann
Lucy Russell in Toni Erdmann
Dir: Maren Ade
What do you look for in a director?

For me the best directors are ones who allow you to play and even better is when that excites them! I would hear Maren Ade laughing behind the monitor as she particularly enjoyed a take, Francois Ozon hums as he DOPs, and spending time on set with Terry Gilliam was so amazing I didn’t want to go home at all. I look for people who are excited and passionate about their stories, films are hard enough to make, so I love to have joy in the process.

What advice would you provide to filmmakers working with actors on zero budgets?

Learn how to work with actors. Go and either take classes yourself as an actor, to get an idea of what it involves, or audit good acting classes. Find out what direction is helpful and can be actioned and what direction is intellectual and hard to translate for actors. “Make it more blue” isn’t always helpful. Watch actors’ roundtable discussions, watch interviews with brilliant actors and listen to what they say about their craft. Know that actors are as varied as civilians and work best in different ways: some love rehearsal and some hate it, for example. If you can learn to work well with your actors, you will start to appreciate what an extraordinary level we can bring to your storytelling. You need to know how to work with us as much as you know how to work your camera. And on a zero budget, from my experience with Chris, putting the time into rehearsal can only save you time and money in the actual filming and the edit.

Lucy Russel in Daisy
Lucy Russell in Daisy
Dir: Nancy Paton
Is there anything you’d change about the film industry?

Do something to make cinema tickets cheaper and more accessible – we’re moving into watching film as being a more and more solitary experience, but I think by doing that we’re really cheating ourselves of the full cinematic experience and I think we need to get our arses into the cinema more often. Shared human experiences are what bind us together. Watching movies on our phone in bed doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong – I love doing that as well, but we’re fundamentally a species that needs connection and cinema provides that. I’d also have automatic ‘creep-o-meters’ over every production doorway that would beep anytime a creep who’s in this game for their ego walks through it so they could be weeded out early. There are way more good guys than bad ones in this business, but it would be a really easy way of cleaning house. Maybe with a light electric shock attached?

What advice would you give to anyone starting out as an actor?

It’s a vocation. You have to really love it and your inner work is as important as your outer work. What I mean by that is, you need to be in class and practise your craft (yes, even if you’ve already finished drama school, you should be in class. We need to practise as much as dancers and musicians or we get rusty), but you also need to work on your mindset. One of the hardest parts of acting can be not acting, not doing enough of the work you love. We need to feed our creativity, honour it and watch our mindset. As an actor, you are running a small business. Your agent works for your business, so needs to be on your team. Your agent gets 10 to 20 per cent of your wage and you get 80 to 90 per cent, so don’t fall in the trap of expecting them to do 80 to 90 percent of the work for your small business…most startups expect to make a profit after around 5 years in business, so go easy on yourself. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, you are unique and that’s your strength, that’s what you bring to the world. Don’t go to an audition to book the job, go to practise what you love doing, to have fun, to fully express yourself through story and to book the room. I could go on …

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