How do we sensitively engage in conversations that can make us feel uncomfortable? Ones where the media would rather give airtime to a dog that can drive over any vehicle to trauma?
With a catalogue full of scenes notorious for making people squirm — including subtitles at the bottom or the inside of Adam Sandler during a colonoscopy [Uncut Gems] — it seems maybe, independent cinema might have some answers.
An endoscopic light always spotlighted on the nitty-gritty, never shy nor overwhelmingly barest of topics to its audiences, the indie cinema scene is once again looking to add more ache and tragedy to its rolling titles, with its leading help from none other than English actor, Mark Stanley.
This Spring sees the release of Sulphur and White, a true account about the successful banker CEO of World Gold Council, David Tait, who was once a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Shifting back-and-forth between Tait’s youth in South Africa and the much older one [played by Stanley] within London’s Square Mile, the two-hour film is both a delicate and powerful retelling of surviving in the face of monstrous adversity, coaxing further conversations to confront the demons both on and off-the-screen around us.
Recently, 1883 sat down with Stanley at Soho’s 68 and Boston, to talk upcoming roles, The Sopranos, and his encounter with director Steven Spielberg, who he can now impersonate down to a tee.
What was it like getting into the character of Finnie in Run?
It was something that I absolutely worked for to get that part. As soon as I read the script, that social realism which really allows for a nuanced performance was a draw to me. I thought, if there’s something that I really want to move forward towards, it’d be that kind of character and to explore that.
So, to sort of get into Finnie, I didn’t feel like you could just turn up and ‘take off your Rolex watch’ and decide to be that kind of person. I made the decision to go up there and worked in the factory for two to three weeks before we turned over. And there was something about the mentality of the town that I didn’t feel like I was still connected to. I’ve become an actor that lives in London and lives in the bubble of the actor’s world — and this isn’t meant to be against other people — but I would’ve felt quite arrogant just turning up and believing that I could not only master this dialect but also understand who they were.
It was quite a daunting thing to begin with, because not only are you an Englishman turning up into the north-easterly parts of Scotland where as you can see from the film how at times these towns can become derelict, or how underfunded they are, or how lacking in pride they sometimes are. But because you’ve also got these fishing fleets that used to work offshore, earning a good amount of money though as they’ve diminished; those same people have been brought onto shore and now they’re working for 45 quid a day, skinning and gutting fish from seven in the morning to three in the afternoon.
I’d just go in and as time went on and other actors started coming up, I’d leave at lunchtime and go rehearse. And I’d always turn up in my fish stuff and my room just fucking stank, you know. It absolutely stank. But by doing that, you got to learn the kind of bludgeoned mentality of humdrum life. How they must feel, turning up and their Friday night highlight is four tins of beer and a packet of fajitas. I’m not pitiful of them. Not at all. It’s not something that I looked at, as if I needed to come down to; it’s something I knew I needed to rise to. They’re not people who pity themselves at all, and I didn’t pity them either. But there is definitely a difference to their way of thinking and my way of thinking, and I needed to come to terms with that and get under the skin of it.
How might we as a society be doing more to ‘lean in’ to these stories?
Scott Graham, who wrote it, knows that area and so I think that concept of writing what you know is absolutely applicable here. It’s a bit like underground reporters. Someone who lives in Baghdad will be able to report on it better than someone who’s just gotten a flight there. And in that respect, I think you need directors and writers who can focus in on an area of life that they know back to front.
I think the funding for these kinds of things is very fucking difficult, too. I mean, this was not greenlit before I signed up to do it. It was short of change and it needed help. It needed people. And I mean, you’ve really needed to prop up this independent film market at the minute because I think right now things are being pile-drived.
It’s like motorways and B roads. Everyone’s driving the motorways and some people are lucky enough to get to drive the B roads and see the scenery. And I think with something like Run, and getting into something like Finnie and Fraserburgh, you’re actually taking a B road. From my perspective, I get an insight into people’s lives and I think that’s the whole reason I do it — because I’m interested in people. So, getting that opportunity is amazing, but I do think… [pauses] I don’t know. How do you lean in on these stories?
It’s quite difficult with that male lead character. You know what that spiralling is like in his mind. It’s a lack of pride, a lack of significance, dwindling into what feels like an insubstantial life.
And I think the thing Scott did so well was how he colloquialised the whole thing. He didn’t apologise for the fact that you might not be able to understand all of it. He was just like, ‘Well, this is how they are’. When we went to TriBeCa, it was subtitled but I don’t think it will or should be.
I struggled a little without subtitles, though I liked how it forced me to try harder…
You had to lean in. We have to lean in. Ken Loach did it with Sweet Sixteenth, where he subtitled it until you were acclimatised, and then he just dropped the subtitles. And I thought that was a really clever way of doing it and I actually suggested that for Run, but he [Graham] said, ‘No, I don’t think we need it. Let’s get them to try, and sometimes it’s nice enough to just be invited in.’
Could you tell us about Sulphur and White?
I went on to that straight after Run which was difficult getting out of the headspace where I’d lived and breathed Scotland, and then knowing that you’re moving into something which is, well, daunting in a different way.
Playing someone who is real, playing someone who has managed to get this film off the ground — for what he’s been through, David Tait is for me one of life’s true heroes. I’ve got nothing but respect for him. He’s a better survivor than I ever could be and he’s just incredible. He was on set almost all day, every day. He was there and ready to answer anything, and he’ll talk to you about anything. He’ll be there, watching me depict him in the worst light on the monitor and he’s brave enough to watch it. And he’s going to be there at that premiere and watch it, too.
As much as I felt a responsibility in Run to Scott’s town and those people, there was an even greater responsibility to him [Tait] and all the other victims of childhood sexual abuse. There’s something about the responsibility of playing real people that tunes your instincts. David became a mountaineer, he’s climbed Mount Everest five times for charity; he’s raised over £1.5 million for NSPCC [National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children] — and he’s just made his voice heard and significant and into a channel for people who need reassurance, who’ve been through it.
This was a really difficult one to watch, yet so important and inspiring…
Who was I talking about it with the other day? It might have been the actress Lesley Manville… but anyway, we were talking about stories like this and she said, ‘Sometimes you want stories to linger with you rather than worry about your coffee and cake for after.’
So sometimes, things are meant to be a bit hard to deal with and the thing I love about Run and Sulphur and White is that we’re in an age now where we’re facing up to problems. We’re really trying to deal with issues of sexism, issues of racism, issues of sexual abuse. We’re honestly trying to deal with it all.
And it does feel like we now have the constitution to do so since we can stomach it more, and unlike before I think we might have shied away.
What was it like playing Grenn in Game of Thrones?
That was my first job out of drama school, and I loved it, I really loved it! But to be honest, everyone for the first few series only worked on it for about four weeks a year, because there were so many characters. So, for four weeks of the year you’d go, and you’d have the time of your life and you’d be turning up to these sets which were beautifully built. They had some of the most amazing art directors working on it, some of the most amazing crews that can build these amazing things and real artists taking stride in their form.
When I went in for it though, they called it something like a ‘swashbuckling-adventure’, and they said, ‘It’s a fantasy and we rarely do fantasies because they rarely work.’ But then it just snowballed. I remember the early reviews coming out and reading them and going, ‘Oh, they’re really good’. And that just continued to snowball and by the end, it had gathered so much gravity and momentum that it became something else. It made huge stars out of people.
It was absolutely amazing, but after four years you end up wanting more, you know. You crave more. So, when projects like this come up and you get that significant lead, it feels great. It feels like you’re finally being given a canvas to paint and to make your own picture with, rather than doing the odd little border here and there.
You were an extra on a Stephen Spielberg film once, what was that like?
Oh yeah! I knew I wouldn’t be featured in that, but it was nice to spend a few days on it! I walked into a room that was all motion capture and bright white, with about three-hundred cameras in the room. And he’s there, allowing the material to be shot and then going in and editing it straight away. For me, it was interesting but it was also just doing a bit of motion capture…
But he’s incredibly generous! Everyone calls him ‘The Governor’, because he’s the boss, obviously. But he’s also like a kid; he’s like a kid who’s been given all these toys and cameras and gadgets and things, and he still loves filmmaking. He’ll direct something and come out and be like [his voice here slips into a spot-on Spielberg impersonation],
‘Oh, oh. Oh my god, oh, my god… and then you’re gonna kinda run away.’ And these actors are going, ‘Yeah, I get it, I get it’. But he’s really demonstrative with his direction, whereas some people will be like, ‘Just do it a bit quicker’. Like, he’d come out and be like [Spielberg impersonation], ‘You’re gonna see it, and then you’re gonna be like, Oh, my God! And then, you’re gonna run away.’
And then he’ll actually show you, in a way. You can still see the child in him, the intrigue that he’s always had in this sort of medium. It was fascinating, but it was only for a few days.
Your Wikipedia page also lists Star Wars: The Force Awakens…
Again, I’ve never seen it! [Laughs] I’ve seen The Sopranos three times, but never a Star Wars film!
I’ve watched The Sopranos twice but am yet to see a single Star Wars film.
Oh, I love The Sopranos. It’s fucking fantastic! Uncle Jun is my favourite!
Any parting advice to young actors starting out?
For me, the variation I think is something that comes with tenacity. You’ll often get tape-throughs that are not applicable to you, but if you can make them applicable then you’ve done the best that you can. I think my advice to young actors would also be, play the game that’s in front of you. Don’t pretend that you’re an actor from the 1980s that can go to America and make one movie and that’s it. You’ve got to plug at it and don’t worry too much. Make sure that you’re adaptable and that you don’t just… if you’re out of work, go and get a fucking job!
Make sure you never lose interest in people. This whole thing is putting people under a microscope, so unless you’re in a room that’s padded with green screen walls, maybe you can forget that, but for the most part, you’re going to be studying people so try to learn about them. That would be my advice. I don’t know [laughs].
Sulphur and White hits theatres from tomorrow, 6th March!
Run in theatres from 13th March!