Sarah J. Edwards invited Anne-Marie Duff to Momo's Tea Rooms for a shoot and conversation about life. In this feature, Anne-Marie discusses her upbringing, the delight of mastering accents, how we should learn to celebrate potential and much more.
The original story was first published in BLAG Vol. 2 Nø 6 print edition in 2006, this is an edited version.
Interview and Photography by Sarah J. Edwards
Styling by Polly Banks
Make Up by Lydia Johnson
Shot on location at Momo Restaurant and Mo Tea Room
Known and loved for her character, Fiona in the first run of British Channel 4 series ‘Shameless’, Anne-Marie Duff couldn’t be further away from ‘Fiona’ in real life. Arriving at Momo’s restaurant for our shoot, Anne-Marie is fresh faced, word smart – she put my use of the English language to shame – and cracks a good joke, which she closes with her warm, infectious laugh.
As well as Fiona, Anne-Marie has fantastically portrayed many strong women in her career so far, including; Joan of Arc at the National Theatre, Queen Elizabeth I in ‘The Virgin Queen’ for the BBC and as Margaret in Peter Mullan’s ‘The Magdalene Sisters’.
Anne-Marie has a trio of upcoming films, two Dramas ‘Garage,’ an Irish tragi-comedy and ‘The Waiting Room’, as well as ‘French Film’ a romantic comedy by ‘Scenes of a Sexual Nature’ writer Aschlin Ditta.
Can you describe yourself in three words?
“Sanguine, bookish and clumsy! I’m a seriously clumsy person.”
The first thing I wanted to talk about – and I know you’ve spoken about this quite a lot, is where you were born and raised. I was really interested in your quote about the suburbs. Just from my experience, because our family once lived on the edge of a tiny, tiny village, almost more of a hamlet.
And we gradually went to a market town and into the city, so I’ve had the experiences of all of them except the suburbs. I thought it was interesting what you said about how children aren’t really encouraged to follow their own path as much.
“No, it’s a kind of a no man’s land, because it’s not a small town, so nobody knows you or cares about you, but you’re not as anonymous as you are in the city. You’re not free to express yourself in a non- judged way, so I think it can become a bit of a bland zone, can’t it? I think, it’s also a safety net, isn’t it? I think it’s where people move to breed or they move to just feel safer and to commute into the danger zone and it’s just a weird kind of stasis. And so I think, whenever I hear about art centres or galleries that open in areas like that, I just think, good luck! I can’t imagine how they’d thrive. But, yeah, I didn’t find it very encouraging for me. It was quite a struggle to decide that I would be a creative person, I suppose.”
So what do you think it was that propelled you? Do you think there were any key things in your mind when you were young?
“It’s hard to know, isn’t it? Because quite often these things, unless you have a real Road to Damascus moment – which I don’t know that I did, I just always loved books and I always loved storytelling. I think it came out of that and I think probably the creative leap that I was forced to take because of living on a breeze-block, grey, council estate. Not only was there another world, but also that you could invent other worlds. In a way it’s quite freeing when you come from a very working class background, because you have nothing to lose. You’re not so defined in that way.”
Yes, I know. I thought that was really interesting, because there’s so much pressure these days. I always look at what’s going on now and think, I wouldn’t like to be in my situation in my teens or my decision-making stages now.
It would be an absolute nightmare!
“It’s just this weird pressure and that we don’t celebrate potential... interesting potential.”
“You have to have achieved everything by the time you’re a certain age, we don’t... there’s no encouragement. Nobody says, one day they’ll be a great musician, so you just keep them on your record label. One day that person’s going to be the most amazing poet, you just keep them in your publishing... you know? You have to have achieved so much. I went to see a play upstairs at The Royal Court the other day, which was written by a 19-year-old and it is brilliant. It’s a brilliant achievement, the actors, the design and the direction were all amazing, but there’s a bit of you that says please don’t expect too much of this young woman. Give her room to grow, it’s really important. I find that quite terrifying. We want Scarlett Johansson, we want somebody who’s really, really young, but looks like she’s 35 and behaves like a sexually mature woman. We don’t want the newbility, you don’t want that bit where you’re malleable, or anything can happen actually. It’s terribly sad really, we’re not interested in that.
“It’s like, I read the other day they’re remaking ‘Long Good Friday’, you think, well why are you not looking for a new young London film, that somebody young has written, that’s not bankable in that way and is more about today, you know?”
I think there’s way less risk to do that. It’s like you say, there’s not as much longevity with things.
“No, people aren’t interested in the marathon of anybody’s creativity.”
Do you think there’s anything you’ve done consciously to have longevity?
“I don’t know. I don’t think that you can ever be a strategist in that way. Mmm, it’s interesting. It’s not something I’ve consciously been aware of because I don’t know that you can take care of that in a way.”
I think it’s probably integrity.
“I guess. You just try to do work that you think means something to you. Or there’s a story that you’d like to tell, or it’s interesting, or it’s something you’ve never done before. That probably helps doesn’t it? If you’re always trying to challenge yourself in different ways. I think that’s important for anyone, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing.”
Can you tell us about your first acting job, I saw that you said your friends weren’t really that encouraging of your ambitions to be an actress?
“At school they weren’t, no not really. Why would they be? It was a completely different world to them. A slightly suspicious world, you know? When I was in my late teens it was the late eighties, it wasn’t a time when people were interested in celebrity or the notion of it anyway. There was no worship of that, it was just this kind of weird world and I wasn’t interested in becoming famous, so I think they understood it even less. If you go, ‘I’m going to be a rock star’, ‘I’m going to be a footballer’, people can kind of understand that. My first job, I went off to drama school, that’s what I did. I went off to a drama centre.”
You applied didn’t you and you didn’t get in straight away?
“First year... I looked about 12 I think, when I was about 18! I was ridiculously inexperienced, I was a virgin, I’d never lived away from home, and I hadn’t travelled on my own. I’d never... I’d had lots of other life experiences that weren’t entirely pleasant, but in other areas, I was very naive. It took me a year.”
How did you spend your time during that year?
“Well, I studied film for a year and also, I looked after a little girl who was part of our family who needed to be taken care of. So, I did a bit of growing up, I suppose. It just happened that way. I just started to open up a bit probably. I was out of school as well, so I was out of that bullying horrible environment, it can be quite startling, can’t it? So, that’s what I did, I went to drama school from there and I went to a really difficult school at the time. I loved of course being the masochist that you are when you’re very young, you know? You love it! You can’t get enough of it! And then I worked with David Glass who’s a Theatre Director. [He] is real physical theatre, he’s very, very respected here within a certain group of theatre practitioners. That was very freeing too, as I was having to do lots of movement, sort of Lecoq exercises. It was quite tough, but it was good for me. The projectory of my work has been quite old-fashioned really; I started off in theatre work. Worked my way up from tiny parts and then I got in front of the camera.”
That’s probably what gives you the longevity too.
“Perhaps it is, perhaps it is! And also that you don’t... yeah, you’re life doesn’t turn on sixpence. I mean, when we were doing ‘The Magdalene Sisters,’ there were girls in that, that had just been plucked from the middle of nowhere and dropped into this crazy circus and you think, ‘Well what does that do to you, after?’ Not doing, the doing is amazing, but after?”
I think sometimes it’s really good. I had a PR job, the first PR job I had. I was helping look after a rock band and it was all pretty localised. They were English, I was looking after the press and I’d maybe take a few trips with journalists. Then, I started a new job at 22 and within weeks, I had to take The Face magazine out to feature the Beastie Boys for a cover and I knew the band which was great, but suddenly going to New York on my own, with The Face! I think sometimes, those sorts of things, it’s the only way to do it, to suddenly go, take a leap.
“Yeah, that’s true. But when you’re starting out, you think you’re invincible. You have to! That’s the reason you leave home, that’s the reason you go off and start your life. You know, you feel capable of anything and it’s an amazing time. It’s an annoying time if you’re around people at that time, because they know everything, but that’s great. That’s your job, you know! That’s it, you’ve got to celebrate moments in people’s lives.”
Exactly and it’s what you really want and when you get it, if you’re sort of dropped in it, it’s really nerve wracking!
But I think it’s a necessary hurdle to get over.
Can you pick three main things that you really took from drama school? Thinking about the experiences, because it’s quite a condensed amount of time, isn’t it?
“I think probably just do your homework, it taught me how to do my mine. It taught me, how to think; because I really just thought everything was about how you felt. I thought it’s all about feeling, surely if you feel something, you know? Which isn’t the case at all! So, I suppose I learnt to think there. And I began to learn how to listen to people, because you never learn anything while you’re talking, you know?”
And you worked as a waitress during that time?
“Urgh! I was singularly the worst waitress in London. I really was, because I am so clumsy. Like, joke clumsy and because I’m really clumsy, I really relax into it, so I don’t really hurt myself. I’m so used to falling over, ha ha, that I just fall and go with it!”
That’s got to be a bonus for acting though, hasn’t it?
“Ha ha, that’s true! But, umm, yeah, anyone who knows me will tell you, be careful just putting any glasses down around me, or anything that might spill on anything.”
Can you choose two early jobs and tell us about stories from the set. Particularly the difference for you between stage and film. You know, your experiences?
“There are obvious differences, between film or television and theatre, because of the chronology. The really incredible thing about theatre is the rehearsal room, I mean it’s brilliant standing and performing in front of the audience and having the journey every night, but the rehearsal process is so specific. You really don’t ever have anything like that in film. Just when you’re on set, it’s so behavioural, you’re so much about how we really exist. “I remember when I was working on ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ and Peter Mullan said this amazing thing one day, which I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘Stop judging yourself, you’re fascinating. Just watching somebody breath is fascinating.’ And that’s a brilliant way to film and you can relax into it. Whereas when you’re working on stage you have to be a bit more generous... you have to work for it a bit more. And then, it’s electrifying when that really works. I’m trying to think of a really lovely play, even the rehearsals on Joan, [right away you’re] really close. You have to feel like you really trust each other, you know? It’s a bit like living with people. That‘s the weird thing about actors’ lives; you have these concentrated periods of times with other people. It can be three months, it can be six months. It’s almost like having a three-year relationship, because you see each other all the time, if you’re away filming... When we filmed ‘Shameless’ we all lived in the same apartment block, so it was like having those boys as my bloody brothers, living next door, you know? It accelerated the whole rate of acquaintance. It becomes really intense and you care a lot about each other. I can’t think of a good story about theatre...”
This might be good, I heard that you really love Meryl Streep and that she and Glenn Close came to see you perform ‘King Lear.’
“Yes, because it was Ian Holm, we had the most ridiculous amount of movie stars in all the time. I remember the night Tony Blair was in, and what’s his face? Gene Hackman was in! I couldn’t give a monkeys about Tony Blair. Ha ha! I had one of the weird crushes on [Gene Hackman], you know you get those weird crushes?”
Yes. Ha ha.
“Gene Hackman was one of mine, ha ha! But it’s so strange when you meet people that you absolutely idolise! Who’s work has influenced you. You must find it with the magazine; you just don’t feel worthy and you think, please don’t be an arsehole. You can’t have your heroes be arseholes! But yeah, it’s terribly exciting, isn’t it? I’m trying to think, who did I meet recently who I got really giddy about? Even someone like Michael Palin, ha ha, you know what I mean? I remember we met him once and the two of us were like, ‘Ohh! Ha ha!’ Like a couple of grinning goons. Just people you really respect.”
I know! So, I wanted you to chat about the diversity with your characters. I wondered if you could talk about two who are the most extreme to each other. It’s not even just eras is it; it’s the sort of characters you’ve taken on.
“Yeah, they’re different types of women aren’t they? Because in a way someone like Elizabeth I, is not so different to Fiona. They’re these women, running their little worlds, so they’re quite similar. I’ve been quite lucky because I’ve tended to play women with a great drive and kind of ferocity about them and a commitment to something. It’s interesting the last job I worked on was a romantic comedy. And I’d never worked on anything like that and I found it quite weird.”
Was that ‘French Film’, the one about the differences in culture?
“Yeah, exactly. It’s a really funny, sweet film. It’s so strange to be able to go to work and not have a nervous breakdown, you know? Ha ha. So you just have a really nice day and it’s kind of an odd contrast, suddenly for me to try and work that one out.
I was also keen to talk to you about the diversity of costume and accents and how you can completely transform into certain characters. Obviously there was the famous head shaving! (In The Virgin Queen, Anne-Marie had her hairline shaved back to emulate her character.)
“You don’t get the chance as a woman, to make extreme alterations to your physical appearance.”
You didn’t bring that look back in fashion, did you?
“Funnily enough, no! Although, I did have a funny little Hoxton hair do for a while, which a few people were like, ‘Do you know what, it’s kind of weirdly cool!’ Ha ha. I mean it really is dress-up, as soon as you put on certain kinds of costumes, it completely alters everything and it really helps. It just helps you immediately. It constricts you or it frees you, makes you feel self-aware and that’s as much as a tracksuit or a corset. It does help you sometimes forget that you’re you and you’ve got to be Irish or you’ve got to be, American or something like that. You can just forget you’re you for a bit and the taste of dialects, it affects you’re whole, because costume is one thing, it‘s great fun to play around.”
And how do you get on with accents, do you find that quite easy to do yourself or do you have a coach?
“It depends on different projects. Working on Irish projects, I haven’t always had a coach because of my background. I did a play with Helen Mirren a few years ago, it was all set in New York, so the dialect coach had to come in and do it and that was quite good fun, actually! Because it’s such an extreme dialect, but at the same time, all our points of reference, entertainment-wise were all American, so it’s quite close to hand. Yeah, there’s something about it that just affects everything, because, I’m always so worried about what’s going on in here, I think it’s quite nice to have to forget about that for a bit. It’s a release that stops you beating yourself up for not being quite as good and worrying. You think, ‘Well, stop worrying about that, you’ve got to make sure you sound like you come from Glasgow.’ I loved it in ‘Shameless’ and because my teens were all wrapped around that Manchester stuff. [There’s a] very, very specific peacockery, it’s all so much to do with the dialect. I loved it! It’s really good fun and just being able to go for it aswell, if you play a really working class character, they really fulfil a dialect! There’s no half-way measure, so it’s brilliant.”
Yes and some certain words just sound so much better in an accent.
“They do! Bastard never sounds as good down south as it does up north, ha ha! It just doesn’t. We say fuck quite well though, hahaha!”
Can you give us your own breakdown of your most recent films, ‘The Waiting Room’, ‘French Film’ and ‘Garage’?
“‘Waiting Room’ is this movie that we did last autumn and it’s a really, really low budget film that the director had written years ago. It’s his baby and he just wanted to make it so much, that he raised the funds himself. It’s just this kind of odd little story about six or seven people and the space in between them. So, it’s all about the relationships that they have and how messy that gets and I play a young woman who has a child... Hello!? Once again, ha ha! And she has to deal with that and has to work out who she is and she’s just broken up with her father, so it’s all about being in a state of flux and change. Do we move forward or do we just pretend?
“‘French Film!’ [laughs] Is a romantic comedy that is brilliantly funny and it’s written by Aschlin Ditta who’s fuckin’ genius. It’s a film that parodies and pastiches French film, so it’s about this journalist who has to interview a sort of [auteur and self-appointed expert on the nature of love] figure and he starts to see love in a completely different way. Either that or he’s a cynic, when he falls in love with somebody they turn into a scene from ‘Three Colours Blue’, ha ha! So it was really good fun and it gave Asch a really great opportunity, because he’s so witty, to take the piss out of the English taking the piss out of the French. And then, vice-versa, you know? So there are some brilliant moments in there and I think, it’s got that light thing that comedy has. “It’s like an old fashioned comedy, you know, like ‘50’s romantic comedies, which were amazing! So there’s a lot of banter and it moves really quickly and it doesn’t try and be ‘Four Weddings.’ It’s not trying to be anything else and it’s made by this incredible production company ‘Slingshot,’ who are so interesting and they’re very keen to get over the nonsense of film being governed by bank ability, like we talked about earlier on. So, they’re making all these projects for £2.50 or whatever, but that’s the way it starts, I guess. And they’re just going, ‘No, these are the actors that are right for it, this is where to shoot it and this is a young director who’s not directed a feature before, but is amazingly full of potential.’ It’s directed by Jackie Oudney and I think she’s only really done commercials before, she’s incredibly poetic and she has a great sense of romance. She gets it. So, they all seem really pleased with it, so hopefully it’ll be good!
“‘Garage’ is the other film that I can talk about. It’s an Irish film that I worked on last summer. It’s about a small town, in Ireland and this one guy, who’s played by Pat Shortt – who is very famous in Ireland, he’s a comedian and actor – and it’s on of those... ha ha, tragi-comedies! It’s really sad and heartbreaking, but very funny. He’s kind of the victim of his town, because he’s not very bright, all these satellites around use him and abuse him and it has quite a sad ending. And I play... she’s a bit like Fiona I guess, a bit of a town tramp, you know? So that was a laugh! In a nasty little tight denim mini-skirt, ha ha! All the man-made fibres again, ha ha! My old friends, ha ha! When will I get to do one of these jobs where you get to wear designer labels all day? When, oh Lord?”
You didn’t in ‘French Film’?
“Oh yeah, I did! That’s a lie! I did, I had some nice clothes in that.”