Life of an actor by David Pearl
I have to confess to being a mix of flattered, intrigued, and a little nervous when Bazz and Mike approached me with a view for a role in Hate Little Rabbit.
On one hand, I like giallos and stylised horror; on the other, it would be my first feature film lead and the start of a process that would take at least six months (two major cast changes and a national lockdown were to extrude that timeframe somewhat). Furthermore, Bazz and Mike had no idea what I was like to work with other than a recommendation, had seen only one of the short films I’d appeared in, and knew nothing of my theatre work. And all I knew of White Raven Films was Leon’s Broken Mind and White Goods!
In a previous life, I’d made a modest living from theatre, having performed at the National Theatre in Simon Bent's 'Shelter', played the male lead of Thomas Conway-Quinn in Dave Morris's acclaimed play, 'Bilston Kate', done a stint with Theatre Lab in naturalistic productions of Desire Under The Elms, Of Mice And Men and other US plays, had a very successful tour in Bouncers with Nick Hennegan’s, Maverick Theatre Co, and generally been (halfway) round the block in various modest pro theatre productions.
I’d been out of the business quite a while (stressful day jobs that turned full time, and associated lifestyle and health issues, lol) and only got back into acting in 2017.
So, off I went to Kidderminster and met Bazz & Mike, who explained to me a little about their story and what they were trying to do, gave me a page of script and arranged a screen test, recommending a couple of films to watch for the acting style they wanted.
That done - they claimed to be impressed - we got down to a filming schedule.
So, how do you go about playing the likes of a character such as mine in this film? A guy with such a complicated past?
Well, like in every role, there is research, preparation, and listening to your director. Though with differences here.
I didn’t listen to Bazz.
I jest - I most certainly did listen; he and Mike are among the most passionate story tellers I’ve met. The differences here are twofold. First, nothing like my character’s experiences have ever happened to me, or to anyone I know, or to anyone whose first hand account I’ve ever read; and second, this is a stylised film.
As an actor though, you watch a lot of films, you see a lot of plays, you read a lot, you watch documentaries, and you talk to folks of their lives and the lives of those they know (it’s a habit; you’re just kind of curious) so you ‘sort of’ know how some sorts of folks behave. Some of that is caricature, some is following what others have done, but a great deal is still imagination - that and practice and training. I have never experienced the things that my character has, but I can relax and imagine, and talk with my director and fellow cast members, and try to be believable.
Then there is the stylisation. Were this a true story, I could spend months getting into the head of my character and still not get him perfect - but there is style here; it’s a giallo. We’re not caricatures, but are not quite natural either. It’s kind of a (very!) slightly exaggerated natural so that, with the lighting, the action, the dialogue, and the music score, it should create an atmosphere.
There's some tough subject matter here - but this film is telling a story; it’s not setting out to offend or shock. It’s just a very violent tale; by far the most violent and unusual story that I've been involved in. And this was good! It allowed me to experiment and stretch my wings a little.
We all however have our limitations – though there are some that don't believe that. True, actors ought to be able to have a go at anything, even if just for comedy value. One of my heroes is Ronnie Barker; a huge man with unique looks – but how he could change himself for different characters! The bloke was an artistic genius. We can learn so much from the great comic actors of the past. There aren't any truly great comic actors now; the big budget films, and TV for the most part, just cast them as their usual type, though Paul Whitehouse is one of the diamonds in the coalmine. But in telling a serious story though, there are limits. Limits to who should get cast based on looks, size and ability (and their ability to work with the director, crew, and the rest of the cast). And limits to what the actor can do, and what they feel, emotionally, that they can do. With enough preparation, research and support, an actor can have a good go at almost anything, but casting is still very important.
I hate it when people are miscast! In Red Dragon (another remake, yawn!) the character of Francis Dollarhyde should be very tall, blonde, and disfigured due to rather industrial and botched late 1950's cleft palate surgery – but in the new film (though the actor does a fine job) he is too short, too dark and too good looking. It kills the film.
I for example would never be able to realistically play a six foot Viking, a bare knuckle boxer, or native of another country south of about Italy or east of Poland. And there are personal limitations too – there are scenes and stories we just wouldn't feel comfortable with. The most skilled and beautiful artist I've ever met will, out of personal shyness, not appear nude. There are others who for personal or political beliefs will not portray for example, rapists, paedophiles, SS officers, or racists. This is silly, in my opinion. Sex and nudity I get (maybe) but character? Audiences are cleverer than many give them credit for, and know that we're only acting.
Then there is the bullshit. There are folks who will do – and get cast for – anything, even if they're not skilled/suited; and casting directors must take some blame for this. I had a walk on recently in a pilot for a BBC drama where the young lead actor who was playing a 17-year-old from Gloucestershire at the time of the English civil war, could not – or would not – get the old English twang, and spoke with the modern middle class college plum! At the other end of the scale, there are wannabes who'll tell a director, “I just can't portray this woman who is so evil, dear!”, when what they really mean is, “I can't do that sex scene”. I bet, in most cases, if Copola or Tarantino offered 'em three hundered grand, they'd have their kit off! I understand that, I really do. What I don't get is people not being honest.
About ten years ago, I directed To Kill A Mockingbird for a local college, and the young man playing Tom Robinson was very upset about the language and attitude to black people shown by some characters. He didn't think he could do it; but with support, coaching, research and some minor changes, he did a fine job and earned himself a distinction! That would not have been possible without his honesty regarding his limitations and emotions at that time in his life.
We have to grow up (while never losing that childlike curiosity), we have to be honest, and pragmatic, and never, never, be jealous!
Pragmatism is crucial! And not just for rejections. We cannot (and should not!) appear in everything anyone ever makes – if you want to do that, get in the TARDIS and join the Carry-On or Hammer cast, or in the present day, join an am-dram group or, if you're good enough, a pro rep company. Audiences will (and do) just get bored. Theatre is different, but modern film audiences tire very quickly of the same old faces. And directors/writers pick the people they think will do their story justice. There's a lovely indie film doing the rounds now in which I'd have loved the main support; I didn't get it, as the director picked someone whose looks and physique they thought suited the character better than mine. The director and I remain firm friends, and the actor? He's a nice bloke who nailed the part!
For me, it's just a case of if the story is good, if my scenes are integral to that story, if I trust the director, if I think I can do the writer and my character justice and – I'll be honest here – if the pay/conditions/cast/crew are right, (and if then I get offered me the job!) - then I'll give it a whirl. And for the record, I don't think my frog-like physique would be of any use in the nude outside of very stylised comedy, lol.
So, my character in HLR was someone I thought I could just about pull off, and I had a go.
There were practical mechanics too. We filmed this on and off over 11 months, and with no makeup and costume staff, it was hard to try and keep my hair, beard, clothes right between working days, since I played in four other small productions during this time. The action in the film takes place over about 3 weeks, so we had a little leeway, I guess. I do hope I got away with it.
I do hope too that I have come close to what the writer and director wanted here, because at the time of writing this, I’ve not seen