Hi Film Folk!
Today the Film Doctor team celebrate the UK release of Jocelyn Moorhouse‘s The Dressmaker (starring Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth and Hugo Weaving) by chatting to Actor, producer, writer and all round lovely person Caroline Goodall about her craft and career!
What was your upbringing like, when did your acting dream kick in and how did you go about achieving it?
I was born in London. I did not have a theatrical background in that neither of my parents and no one in my family were actors. However my father was a publisher and my mother was a journalist and it was normal to go to the theatre and discuss theatre.
The acting dream kicked in quite early. I remember I had a stutter and I discovered that if I learned lines, like a lot of stammerers, I wouldn’t stutter. So I think that gave me confidence and eventually the stutter went away when I learned to breathe properly for the stage.
When I was 18 I was in a school play and in the audience was Dorothea Brooking a female director (one of the few at the BBC at the time, she’d done ‘The Railway Children’) and she asked if I’d audition for a part in ‘The Moon Stallion’ – a Sunday teatime series. It was a period piece set in the turn of the century. I auditioned and got the part.
I ended up acting on film for the first time. It was a six part series shot on film. So I went to University in Bristol with some money in my pocket. I think I was paid £80 (approx £440 in current terms) a week.
Were you working through your Bristol University period as well?
Yes, I did actually – but only with local theatre and some BBC radio plays. In those days it was all about getting your equity card in order to work and you had to do all these weeks in order to get an equity card and you couldn’t get an equity card unless you’d worked. It was a closed shop, really.
Bristol was a revelation. I did English and Drama. It was the best course of its kind at the time. There were very few University drama departments. I made sure I did everything; performed constantly with the department, the University drama society and also with small companies around town as well.
My peers at the University became directors such as Greg Doran at the RSC, Simon Curtis, writers such as Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin. In the Summers I performed with the National Youth Theatre which prepped my Shakespeare skills. Bristol opened my eyes to 20th century European drama as well as the classics. A lot of companies toured to our theatre, there such as Dario Fo , 784 and Red Ladder.
I was just quietly obsessed, I think. I just wanted to act. The National Youth Theatre was exciting when Michael Croft was still alive and we toured – an amazing period, they had the money to tour abroad. All sorts of people were in the youth theatre at the time. Many went on to be stars like Tim Spall, Kate Buffery, Nat Parker, Mark Rylance.
I got lucky because I had my provisional equity card. I remember being in the professional company ran Michael Croft at The Shaw Theatre playing Lady McDuff and First Witch in Macbeth and it ran for some time so I was able to get my full 40 weeks. By the time I was 21 and coming out of Uni, I had my full professional equity card while many of my peers were struggling to get the provisional card.
And you were doing TV work around that time too? How did you get that work and how do you feel TV and film compare to act in – both then and now?
TV used to come in as a result of actors being seen on the London stage or in the provinces. Casting Directors would constantly get on a train and see a play, to see who’s up and coming, who’s new. If you were in the National Theatre or the RSC or the Royal Court, it was like a good housekeeping seal of approval and you would be seen for a quality TV series or film.
Generally, even though they would put you on tape, there was an understanding that you’d meet the director along with the Casting Director. You’d never be in a room with just a Casting Director and a camera pointed at you or be asked to self-tape. And you would always discuss the script.
The CDs would have weeded out the 10 candidates that the director might want to see. Because the profession was more heavily unionised there was a smaller pool of trained actors to choose from. You couldn’t just cast off the street or from YouTube like they do today.
At what point did an agent come in?
I got an agent quite early. I was actually rung up out of the blue by one, who had called Michael Croft at the National Youth Theatre asking ’is there anybody coming up who you think is worth meeting?’ His name was Michael Ladkin and he worked pretty hard for me for 5 years. I did a lot of theatre.
I remember he said to me “you’re not a juvenile lead, you probably won’t come into you own until your 30s” which, to say to a 22 year old, is depressing, [laughs] but, thankfully, I proved him wrong.
Then I joined another agency with Lindy King who is of course now with United Agents and I’ve been with her and her associate Olivia Homan for over 20 years.
I strongly believe, that you have to make your own opportunities and I do remember very clearly being in my mid-20s constantly looking for work, writing letters, being very proactive.
Did you start with writing or acting or have they been simultaneous endeavours?
I’ve always written. That’s been my secret love. I can’t help it – if you love writing you never stop writing. As I said, my mother was a journalist, my father published books and we are a family of barristers too. Words were what we did, whether it was writing, acting or public speaking.
Writing, to me, is the most naked of all professions. Acting, is a paradox – on one level, being an actor means a constant search for the truth but at the same time you are not revealing who you really are. Writing is you at your most naked, I think.
In 1986 you did your feature film ‘Everytime We Say Goodbye’ – this is before Tom Hanks was ‘Tom Hanks’ right? How was that first experience for you? How did it differ from what you’d previously done (both creatively, logistically/atmospherically?)
He’d done Splash. He was well known in the US but I didn’t have a clue who he was and it was my first proper feature film and it was unusual in that it was shot in Jerusalem, Israel. Tom had a three picture deal with TriStar. It was a World War II film, a love story about a US pilot and a Jewish girl from a strict sect. Tom’s always been fascinated by history – especially WW2 – and it’s interesting to see this early in his career.
I played his English girlfriend who is a nurse but they cut our romantic relationship because it made him look like a heel when he fell in love with this other girl, who was the real romantic interest. So you see me all efficient as a nurse taking his temperature – and not much else! [laughs] But all of my TV work around that time had been on film cameras anyway, so the leap to film wasn’t that daunting.
I realised that they had more time when they set up shots, they did more coverage and we had a starry actor and a director, Moshé Mizrahi, who’d won an Oscar but Tom was wonderful. He made me feel relaxed and I was fascinated by his technique. It was the first time I’d worked with an American actor, someone who did nothing, and I was amazed when I saw it later, how all those nuances registered on his face but also verbally, which you barely saw when you were working with him.
It was a great learning experience. The English can be quite formal in the way they work and here was someone improvising on camera who didn’t necessarily say the lines as they were written but was constantly spontaneous, always real, deeply rooted in the character. He was great, a really lovely guy.
Was that the first time you had to travel for work?
Out of the country? Yes. The TV and theatre stuff, I did a tour of England with Eric Sykes and Matthew Kelly. A lot of rep so got very used to travelling. It’s just what you do. Then things started to get very global and I found myself in the US in 1990.
I went with my ex-boyfriend who was an actor and he said he had to go back for pilot season. I was in a hiatus and took a Winter off and it felt like the perfect time to hit the sun, so I went out and hung in LA and really thought at the time that I’d probably just write and enjoy myself. I got 2 internship jobs in 2 production companies working in development.
In those days, every production company, whether independent or studio, had a development office. Eager young graduates read scripts endlessly and covered them. I learnt to write synopses and talk about whether I thought the script was worth making and I’d have to cut out reviews from Variety and stick them into various large books so that they knew what was going on. It was fun. It was my first experience on the production side. I just read tons and tons and tons of scripts.
And then I thought, well I might as well see if I can try and get an agent. I wasn’t able to work at first. They said ‘there’s nothing we can really do to help you but sure if you can get a work permit and have something to show us then come back.’
In those days it was very hard to get material for showreels. You’d have these big master tapes that were 3/4 inch and you went to editors to have them edited and then recorded onto 1/2 inch VHS and you’d post those around. It was very expensive.
Then I went back and I did get a job, but it was theatre. David Hare’s The Secret Rapture at the SCR which was The South Coast Repertory in Los Angeles. I think they were pleased to have an English woman to play the lead. I got great reviews and a nice write up in The Los Angeles Times. It coincided with Steven Spielberg looking for someone to play Moira Banning, Peter Pan’s wife in Hook, who didn’t need to be a name because he had all of these stars, but it was a big role and he wanted someone very English. In those days you didn’t cast globally in quite the same way and you’d have to fly and meet people.
So there I was in LA and I went to meet Steven. Prior to this I had been to Australia with the RSC’s Richard III with Anthony Sher. While I was there I gained an Australian equity card and when I went back to the UK I was cast as an Anglo-Australian in the lead in a 4 part TV series, Cassidy. It was very well received and I was nominated for what was in those days an AFI (Australian Film Institute) Best Actress award which I think is now known as an ACTAA.
So I had some footage to show Steven as well as UK series After the War. I had a lovely meeting with him. Then they asked me to do an audition with Robin Williams and we did a fantastic audition where we had to improvise and they offered me the job on the spot. I remember going home and trying to ring people and all I got was answering machines! [laughs]
Hook was a revelation. We shot it on the old Columbia stages which had just been bought by Sony, on the same stages where they’d shot The Wizard of Oz. It went on for 6 months. Even when I wasn’t working I’d just pop down and sit and watch. I think that was when I fell in love with film, because to be able to sit with a master like Spielberg and watch him work was such a gift. It really was.
Presumably your years of experience kept you composed?
When you’re with people of that calibre, they’re very genuine and immediately put you at your ease. There’s no reason to try and make you go through any more hoops. They are very aware that you might be feeling a little nervous.
It’s interesting because I think a calm comes over me when I know that I’m right for a role. I get focused, concentrate on the job at hand and forget about everything else. I enjoy the process. I always think isn’t it nice to be rehearsing – which is what, in a way, an audition is – and working with these people. I don’t care if I don’t get it, it’s just great to have the experience.
Well you get on a list and if you keep working and do decent work and if you are in a film that grosses a lot of money (an A List film) then you’re likely to get more A List films and if you’re in a film that sneaks under the radar or doesn’t do well at all (or worse and has a big budget!) then you’re seen as being part of that failure, which is kind of unfair because ultimately an actor has no control over the end product. You only have control over how you perform on the day.
Hook, oddly enough, wasn’t seen as a huge hit at the time because they had such high expectations for it and it was the flagship movie for the new Sony studios but ironically Hook has made more money over the years than E.T.
It was enough to put me in a place where other work was offered. Cliffhanger followed. I was very keen to do a complete 360. I remember there was Cliffhanger and Basic Instinct casting at the same time. I actually went up for Basic Instinct (along with virtually everybody of a certain age) and obviously the rest is history with Sharon Stone [laughs] I did have to audition with that scene! [laughs]
I remember I read Cliffhanger and didn’t have that much to do in the film but I said to my agent ‘Look, she’s in it right up to page 90. She doesn’t get killed off and she’s there a lot and there are only 2 women in this movie’. So I went up for it (dressed as the part, which you have to do in America) in black leggings and boots and showing as much muscle as possible.
Cliffhanger was quite extreme filmmaking – I’d just done The Silver Brumby which was Russell Crowe‘s second movie (or thereabouts) and that had been up in the Australian Alps and so fortunately I was acclimatised, so I hopped on a plane to Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
It was gruelling but the fun thing was we could improvise and do things with our characters. My character turned into something a little more than she was on the page which was great.
It was so tough, we weathered everything, but it was fun – we skied and spent 3 months up in the mountains having a blast with stunt guys and helicopter units. There were times went you thought ‘what am I doing? this isn’t acting, this is just survival’ [laughs]
You then did White Squall…
Ridley Scott! Another extreme movie – this time it was tons and tons of water and there was a tall ship which we all had to learn to sail. I remember being at the helm and the DP asking me to make sure that the sun doesn’t come through the sails and we’re all trying to act and control the ship.
Obviously we don’t have time to go through every film ever that you’ve done but what was your life like on the ensuing projects?
It often depends on the role, the budget, the people. I was doing TV as well and using the big American movies as leverage to do UK TV and more Arty European films. I wanted to stir the spoon in the UK world because you can get forgotten very quickly. It has its own industry and audience which responds to certain types of projects and people.
I’d found myself in this sort of hybrid position of being in the US and having a little bit of a profile there and trying to maintain it elsewhere as well.
Tell us a bit about your casting experience. What’s the strangest or longest casting process you’ve been through? Or has there been a casting for a project that you realised you didn’t actually want to be involved in?
Probably to my detriment I see things as a two-way street. Producers assume an actor is desperate for work but the only power we have is the power to choose wisely since every choice has consequences for a career.
In the USA, Network Tv shows demand fixed remuneration contracts for up to seven years from their leads,( though cable and New Media TV shows such as HBO, Starz, Amazon, Netflix are changing that paradigm which is why film actors have moved into TV) to prevent actors renegotiating better pay if it becomes a success.
Actors can audition over and over for pilots, starting with the casting director, then producers and on up the food chain to network executives and then head of the network, each time reading from the same few pages of material with no idea how that character may develop and finally being asked to sign a contract before knowing they have the job.
So, yes, a couple of times I ended up in hot water when producers wanted to take me to the Network and I backed out. That’s when a manager or agent you trust comes in as they are skilled in protecting their clients. That said, the producers got my home number, called me late at night and laid on the pressure. I personally believe that if you want to have a long career, you need a sense of who you are and that you can walk away, just as in any other job, if your gut screams ‘No!’
I think not feeling desperate is an important weapon in your arsenal as an artist. The show was not good and would do no one any favours, so I guess I was justified. And I honestly can’t recall what I did next but it was something I wanted to do!
I once auditioned for a Vampire film and said ‘no’. Three days later I got the call from Steven Spielberg saying ‘will you come and do Schindler’s List’? “ Imagine! That was a life-changing experience! We must believe there is something around the corner if we are are committed to our craft, and if it feels wrong, no matter how much money they’re offering (for the Vampire one it was a lot more than Spielberg) don’t do it!
When I was starting out, we used to talk about personal contingency funds for lean times. If we were out of work, we’d joke, “you living off your f…k you fund?”
There are, of course, things you may kick yourself about later. I said no to an audition for Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. It was soon after my daughter was born and I was in a general muddle, but ultimately you can only ever go off the script and the people involved and knowing you’ve saved enough to cover expenses for 6 months provides a real mental freedom. That or go on holiday. You can be guaranteed the day you book a holiday you’ll get a job offer!
How do you approach your work? Does it vary depending on the role or is there a springboard you always start off with regardless?
It’s research – always. I had a great learning experience in London in my early twenties at just about the right time, with Mike Bradwell at The Royal Court Theatre. I played the lead in a Jonathan Gems play, Susan’s Breasts which was a bit of a hit. Mike is from the same school as Mike Leigh – research, improvisation, character work, detailed backstory down to your grandparents names and personal habits – so you’re completely immersed in the world of that person and can answer any question in character.
I remember visiting Ralph Fiennes when he was playing Hamlet on Broadway. He had a large New York loft apartment and on a long wooden table were photographs of planes and deserts. Months ahead of shooting he was getting his head around his character in The English Patient. That is the luxury of course, to be able to choose up to a year ahead what you may be doing. That is true career control and it happens to men more than women. There are very few women in that position. You can probably count them on one hand, even today.
It was amusing, when we were preparing for Schindler’s List, Ralph and I had this serious conversation about our characters. He said “My character is an Austrian-German and your character is a Czech-German and they have very different accents,” and I said “You’re right, but hang on a second, who did we learn our English from, because that changes everything!“ [laughs] Those are the kind of mad conversations that only actors understand!
Olivier said he liked to start with the shoes, which is brilliant. Once he knew what shoes his character liked, he built from there. I tend to start with the background and research (almost like a diary) but there have been times when I think “I don’t know who this person, is until I get a sense of what she looks like.”
The last film I shot, The Dressmaker (which just had a Gala premiere at TIFF in Toronto), Shane Thomas, the inspired make up and hair designer, said ‘I think she’s a red head’ and he pulled all these pictures from the late 1940s/early 50s and he was absolutely right. Suddenly I had these mad red eyebrows and red hair and I realised that the character should be a cross between Lucille Ball and Joan Crawford because she’s both funny and evil. We sat in front of the mirror and did the big lips for Crawford and I said “I know who she is now.” Then the voice with snobby, strangulated 1950’s Australian vowels came and with it the feeling of freedom every actor yearns for in order to “live” in front of the camera.
I used to be terribly frightened of accents but I found in the USA that either you do a range of accents or you don’t get the opportunities to do the kind of roles you want. The first time I did a proper American accent was on Disclosure and I had a fantastic accent coach – Jess Platt, who had trained as a remedial voice therapist for medical conditions – who really understood vowel placement. He coaches Hugh Jackman and a host of stars now. I often look back on Disclosure as the best standard American accent I have ever done.
There’s one other thing that I ask myself when prepping a character – and you don’t often see it in a script – Does this person have a religion? What’s their moral code? Often when you’re stuck it’s a good place to go to. To get that spiritual dimension, since most of us in the real world have a set of ethics that rule our behaviour, even unconsciously.
It’s also important, especially with TV, if you check out the style of the show in advance and try to accommodate and understand that style. Some are naturalistic, some are free-wheeling documentary. Where will the camera be in relation to you? Some shots are locked-off and some contain a lot of movement. Some TV shows are multi-camera, others single camera. I also research the directors, producers and writers’ previous work to see their style, habits and obsessions. Imagine auditioning for the Wachowski siblings and not knowing their work?
The average person has no idea how much homework an actor does before he steps on set or stage. I am always bemused by the question, “how do you learn your lines?” Learning lines is the least important part. If you know your character, the lines come by osmosis.
Which practitioners do you find yourself revisiting a lot?
I kind of go in waves. Sometimes I realise I know absolutely nothing and I think everybody believes they’re starting all over again every time they do a job.
Peter Brook I’ll go back to. Stuff that inspired me when I was a student. “Voice and the Actor” by Cicely Berry. It’s not just about voice, she’s got so much good advice. It’s classic now. I picked up a great book recently about ‘Actions’ – it’s like an A-Z of words for actions – and it was terrific. It’s something we learned at the RSC – asking yourself ‘what am I doing to the other person?’. ‘I plead’, ‘I ignore’, ‘I implore’ etc. It makes the work active. You’re then connecting not just constantly reacting. I always learn a lot when I teach. It’s like starting all over again. I do get frustrated though at lazy actors who think that it’s all luck. It’s 90% preparation in order to find the elusive luck.
There are many actors I admire, but it can be dangerous to emulate other actors as everyone is an individual. You need to find your own way of approaching something.That doesn’t mean to say you don’t watch to get ideas. We should be magpies. If someone does something inspired, take it for your own acting toolbag but make it authentically your own version. That’s why we should be seeing as much stage and screen work as we can – to stay current, to inspire ourselves even further.
What are the most challenging shots/scenarios for an actor to work in (for example where the shot might favour the camera’s positioning more and make it physically difficult to perform)?
Try manoeuvring a boat down a grand canal with a mad German director telling you to hurry up and you’ve got 4 upset gondoliers with boatloads of Japanese tourists coming towards you and you’ve got no permits whatsoever to shoot there and the police are chasing you [laughs]!
Or when you’re on top of a mountain. On Cliffhanger all of it was challenging. White Squall, hanging off the side of a ship, and they’re saying ‘don’t throw yourself off yet because we need to see your face for another 3 seconds’ and there are wind machines trained on you and gallons of water being poured on you to make it look like a storm.
Or you’ve got lights in your eyes and you can’t even keep them open and you’re meant to be saying something loving to someone [laughs]. The hilarious thing is there’s never a time when it’s completely comfortable and you have to sort of put that aside and be totally in the moment. Inevitably you’re going to have to stare at a little red cross on the matte box on the side of the camera because that’s your eye-line and maybe, because the actors had to go and get changed and there might be a continuity girl who’s reading the other person’s lines rather badly [laughs].
‘The Elevator‘ I shot recently, (Caroline just received a Best Actress Award from the Rome Independent Film Festival) is a two-hander all in English but we had an Italian director and a translation from an Italian script, an italian crew and my wonderful co-star could not speak any Italian. I speak Italian but it’s difficult to receive directions in Italian, give them to your co-star in English, then ask questions in Italian and zip back into English. It’s a real challenge. There were 2 of us and his character is gagged most of the time, so I had to do most of the talking [laughs]!
In terms of a challenge that was really quite something as I had a lot of things on my shoulders.
Curiosity about everyone and everything around them. They have no sense of hierarchy, the great ones, because they believe everybody can teach them something.
An extraordinary attention to detail magnified by a thousand and a work ethic that is just 24/7. They love it, they live it, they breathe it – they could not exist in any other way, shape or form.
What’s one piece of advice you could give to an aspiring actor ?
Keep your receipts and do your taxes. [laughs] That was the most boring but best piece of advice I was given by one of my lecturers Dave Machin, at Bristol Uni. He looked at me askance and said, ‘I’ve got one piece of advice for you. Get a big safety pin and put every single receipt that you can deduct onto that safety pin and then put them into an envelope’.
I never forgot that piece of advice. So I always say “do as much work as you can on the creative side but get proactive on the business and financial side as well”. And I don’t mean Social Media which masquerades as “business”. That’s self promotion.
The business is more global than ever. Learn about withholding tax, estimate expenses prior to a foreign job and submit them to the tax man in the relevant country prior to or while you’re working; what’s the threshold earnings before you’re taxed? Can you bifurcate your earnings over tax years?; check that social security payments ( i.e.: NI) that you self pay in the UK aren’t deducted abroad. It makes a difference to that paycheck. It’s in production’s interests to treat everyone as an Above-The-Line lump but actors have different personal financial circumstances depending on where they are resident etc.
What’s one piece of advice you can give to a director/writer/producer to entice actors to their projects? What makes a great director? What makes a great writer?
Pay them! [Laughs] A great script, obviously!
If you’re a first time director, don’t be scared. It’s amazing how many really, really good actors have worked with first time directors and it’s amazing how many really, really good actors have worked with third time directors who wish that they hadn’t.
So, if you’re a first time director, don’t be frightened of approaching people but be really up front about what you don’t know. Ask them for advice – just as an actor has to ask a director for advice, don’t be afraid of asking the actors as well. They may really help improve the script and the project.
Directors so often feel like they don’t appear to be in total control and that their authority may be undermined but I have always seen it as the opposite. The more collaborative the director, the more authority he has.
Stay curious and stay collaborative.
What’s next for you? Producing anything?
Also, pushing my writing/producing projects to shoot in Europe next year, and another in Australia in 2017/18. We just announced The Bay of Silence starring Uma Thurman, Toby Stephens and Brian Cox at AFM. I have a lot of respect for producers now and how hard they work. It’s really tough but I also look at the new generation of artists coming up and marvel at how they turn their hand to everything, in the old actor/manager sense. I think Social media helps and the fact that budgets and work is tight, which means people get proactive. But it also can pay dividends.
Shows are moving into the West End that were devised shows amongst a group of actor/writers such as 2015 Olivier award winner The Play That Goes Wrong. In the independent film world, sales agents are keen to get in on the ground floor with talent as ultimately it’s the talent that can help put a project together. The bottle neck is always in attaching cast, who then trigger the financing.
IMHO the artistic and finance sides need to be less suspicious and more collaborative. If that happens it could be a great time for innovation and a shaking up of the industry in a positive way.
Time for the “slashies” as my director friend Elissa Down says. Director slash/actor -slash-writer/producer/ etc… George Clooney is the God of Slashies – who sashays slashily down red carpets … now if he would only run for president…
Ok that’s enough. Go see The Dressmaker – starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Liam Hemsworth and a host of the most talented Ozzie actors you’ve ever seen. I was honored to be a part of it. With Jocelyn Moorhouse directing and PJ Hogan co-writing the script and a great producing team who worked miracles with a tight budget.
Thank you, Caroline!