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Another Year - Ruth Sheen interview

Ruth Sheen in Another Year

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RUTH Sheen talks to us about creating the character of Gerri in Mike Leigh’s critically acclaimed Another Year and just how much hard work the process of working with the director really is.

She also talks about how he’s changed over the years and why being part of the Mike Leigh club of actors isn’t always conducive to getting different roles…

Q. The critical and audience reaction to Another Year so far must have made going back to the ‘Mike Leigh experience’ all the more worthwhile I’d imagine?
Ruth Sheen: Yeah, yeah, because it is such hard work when you do it. You never know what the project is going to turn out like, you never know what your part’s going to be, or how much of it you’re going to be in, or where you’re going to figure in it. You don’t even know what the story is going to be. So, it’s always quite a challenge and even when we finished this one I wasn’t really sure of the overall concept of it. I knew it was four seasons, but I didn’t know how it was going to look…

Q. How come?
Ruth Sheen: I don’t know! I guess because you’re totally wrapped up in your own character that I didn’t have an overview. When I finally saw it, I was like: “Oh right…” But I wasn’t even sure the first time I saw it because it’s so subjective because you’re so immersed in the character that you sort of go: “Oh!” You do expect your character to suddenly not even look like you because you feel like you’ve had this transition. I always go: “Oh, it’s just me… with more grey hair!” So, I wasn’t sure about it when I first saw it, but now that I’ve seen it a few times and listened to the audience reaction and stuff – because, to me, they’re the judges – I think it’s great.

Q. What did you want to bring to the role of Gerri once you got a handle on who she was going to be?
Ruth Sheen: Well, I never really thought I wanted to bring this to Gerri… because we start with nothing and then you work out what sort of character she’s going to be… and because Mike [Leigh] is always manoeuvring it along, so whatever you bring him through your research… for example, we did decide that she would study psychology and be a counsellor. So, that’s where we were going but what we found difficult was how we got there because in the ‘60s you didn’t have counsellors, so we had to find what she would do before she did that. We thought she would be a caring person and someone who wasn’t in it for money. It was because she cared about people and she wanted to work with them.

So, we had her work in various jobs like the citizens’ advice bureau and things where she would give people advice on quite a basic level: housing, finance and that sort of thing. Then gradually, when we got to a period where people were starting to have counsellors over here, we could move her into that field. So, we had to sort of do it as it would have happened. But what we wanted to bring in Gerry was a nurturing person… somebody very caring and a listener – somebody who would listen to other people. I mean, it’s a great thing if you listen to other people… I mean. I’ve got a terrible habit of interrupting people and I come from a big family, so we always interrupt. So, I had to sort of stop and go: “No, hang on… I’ve got to listen.”

And I think I’ve sort of kept a bit of that. But also listen and take it in, because you can listen and not hear anything, can’t you? [Laughs] So, we had all that going on and then obviously the character meets Jim [Broadbent]’s character Tom and we went through these 40 years of their relationship together, which was really painstaking.

Q. In what way?
Ruth Sheen: Well, we had to really go through their relationship, then getting married and having a son, where they lived, and their lives and how they inter-twined their friends We made up a whole host of friends who don’t appear in the film, but who are their friends, and we had to sort of talk about them and bring them to life – what they looked like, their children, where they went when they were on holiday with them… So, there’s all that back story in those characters to bring them to the point at which the film starts.

Q. So, at what point does a character like Mary [Lesley Manville] come into play? Will Mike let you know that she’s going to exist and that you have to factor her in?
Ruth Sheen: Well, Mary comes into Gerri’s life 20 years before [we see her in the film]. So, 20 years after she’s been married to Tom she goes to work at this doctor’s surgery and she meets Mary. They are work colleagues from that 20 years and their relationship grows from just saying “hello” to… and Gerri only works there two days a week, of course! But she occasionally went out with Mary over that time.

But one of the reasons why Mike did make the film take place over a year is because Mary didn’t come round every week. So, she came around four times that year. Normally, Mike’s films unfold over the space of a couple of weeks but he decided to do a longer thing because it was very important about Mary visiting. I think Mary pushes the film through her character and her journey. So, that’s why their relationship developed slowly and their friendship developed as a result. They started by just going out as office people do, as part of the group, but gradually you get to the point you see in the film – an accumulation of back story that Leslie and I did with those characters.

Another Year

Q. I’ve also read in interviews that you’re only allowed to meet your fellow actors in character. Do you ever break from that during the course of filming? Can you speak to Lesley as Lesley, rather than Mary?
Ruth Sheen: Oh yeah… at lunchtime. But what we weren’t allowed to do was talk about the characters on our own, independently, or discuss motivation or anything like that. So, we only discussed the work with Mike. So, say we did an improvisation, then we would both talk to Mike separately about what we thought and how it went… how the characters were feeling. But Lesley never knew how my character was feeling and I never knew how her character really felt, except through what I saw.

It’s the same as if I’m talking to you and you only know what I’m saying and I only know what you’re saying, so it keeps it real. Otherwise, if you know where they’re come from, or what they’re going to be feeling, it changes the dynamic. It’s just a rule that Mike does and he keeps to it. So, when you’re having lunch you talk about lunch or your phone not working or something like that!

Q. How hard is it to then shake off a character like Gerri when you’ve been living with them for such a long period of time?
Ruth Sheen: I think it stays in your head a little bit. I don’t think it’s difficult to not be the character. You do try and give them slightly different rhythms. Gerri is a bit posher than me… just slightly. I’m more common. But I changed parts of me slightly, which means that when he says to come out of character – and I’ve done five films with him – you just go “OK”. It’s like a discipline, really… you just have to be really disciplined and focused, which is just tiring really, because you’ve got to be on the ball all the time.

Q. Do you ever feel a sense that you’re part of an elite club of actors that survive the Mike Leigh experience?
Ruth Sheen: [Laughs] I never thought it was an elite club but as I’m getting older perhaps it is!

Q. I know other actors, particularly American ones, have spoken in the past of their fascination with the Mike Leigh process…
Ruth Sheen: I think as an actor you’re so involved in the creative process of what he does, and in the character and building of it, you’re so much a part of it… he lets you have a say in everything: your costumes, your make-up, the house that you live in… all your bits and bobs. You’re a part of everything and that’s what I really like: your opinion counts. He listens. He knows what doesn’t work and he can ignore some of your suggestions because he knows what’s right for the film. And ultimately, it is his film. But you tend to have a short-hand where you know if you’re going the right way, and if you’re not he’ll tell you.

Q. He calls a spade a spade, doesn’t he?
Ruth Sheen: [Laughs] Oh yeah, he’s straight up front and you know where you are! I think you journalists get it in the neck occasionally. It’s very amusing… not if you’re at the end of it, I guess, because it can be painful.

Q. Does the fact you do all that for a Mike Leigh film, and that you are so well informed on a role and able to contribute, give you credit when working with other directors? Do other directors allow you to get more involved as a result?
Ruth Sheen: Well, I don’t know because I think some directors don’t like it at all. They just want you to stand there, walk there and say your line… and that’s it! Some shy away from Mike Leigh actors, actually, because they think we’re too sort of… you know! But we’re not actually. I think that, in a sense, when you’re allowed to do that it’s more hard work. Sometimes I would just like to be told: “Here’s a script, learn your lines, don’t bump into the furniture!” In fact, I’m looking forward to it. But what you do start doing [on other films] is that you do start working out what the character’s like and I’ll do a bit of back story if there’s nothing there… if they’re not going to do a rehearsal. You can always do that yourself. But I still try and do it from inside out if I can.

Mike Leigh directs Another Year

Q. How has Mike changed over the years? Does the process get harder?
Ruth Sheen: Well, I think we’ve all mellowed. I think Mike’s mellowed… definitely from when I first knew him. He was much more strident in some ways. But he still has that capacity to surprise me. I still go: “Oh, OK!” But the process has developed more. I think we have a bit more time to rehearse… although there never seems to be enough time or money, to be honest. I think he still has trouble. This film was the lowest budget of any of his movies for a long time. I suppose he hasn’t got a script, so people don’t just give him money to do it. The Film Council and organisations like that have really kept his films going.

Q. So, it must be quite a worrying time now?
Ruth Sheen: I guess so, for films like Mike’s and Film 4 type films, which do all have money from the Film Council.

Q. How do you find that you’ve changed as an actress during the time you’ve been working with Mike? Do you still learn something with each new job?
Ruth Sheen: I’ve got older [laughs]. But yes, I think you do. Definitely with this one! It’s still quite hard work to get jobs… for me it is anyway. I still struggle a bit. But I still love doing it and I think that’s stayed constant. Sometimes it’s harder than others. But overall, I’m not sure how I’ve changed. I hope I’ve maintained a level of experience that’s rubbing off on what I do. But I don’t think I’ve changed deep down at all, really. We all develop, but I don’t feel different.

Q. So, which are the roles you look back most fondly on?
Ruth Sheen: To be quite honest, my favourite part was my first Mike Leigh film, High Hopes, where I played a character called Shirley alongside Phil Davis. I had such a great time. It was my first Mike Leigh. I’d done mostly theatre before that, and one television job I think, and one walk on part in a film, so I didn’t have any experience in film. I did think my life would be in theatre at that point. So, it was a great experience for me, which has always stayed with me a bit. I just laughed the whole time we were doing it because we had such a great time, so it sticks in my mind. To me, it’s quite a political film – Mrs Thatcher, and the ‘80s, we were all quite dissatisfied back then without realising it would get much worse! But the whole period and the film, for me, was very much where I came from in a funny sort of way, so it was quite enjoyable.

Q. So I imagine it was quite nice to be reunited with Phil – albeit briefly – in Another Year?
Ruth Sheen: I loved it! I said to Mike: “Give us a bit with Phil in it.” So, he gave us that little bit sitting on a bench. We had to keep it down and keep in our characters. But Phil is great… he’s great to work with, a great guy and very talented.

Q. And likewise Imelda Staunton, who you get to share a great scene with at the beginning of the movie?
Ruth Sheen: Oh, I love Imelda. She’s fantastic. She’s brilliant in that scene.

Q. You kind of want to know what happens to her… I thought she might come back…
Ruth Sheen: Everyone says that! I almost wish that we’d seen her go home… even if you just saw her sitting at home with her husband and her son. You sort of want to know more about her. But that’s the secret of his stuff, really.

Read our review of Another Year

Read our interview with Mike Leigh

Another Year is released in UK cinemas on Friday, November 5, 2010.