Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Shelley Conn, star of Terra Nova, Liar, Heartbeat and Mistresses, talks to us about embarking on her acting journey from our shared hometown, Basingstoke, and forging a prolific onscreen career from a foundation in theatre.
It's not often that I get the chance to interview someone from the Exit 6 hometown of Basingstoke, and even less often someone who went to the same college as me - hanging out on 'The Street' just a couple of years apart. While Shelley Conn is likely to be the sole owner of that accolade for some time to come, she has nothing but praise for Queen Mary's College, aka QMC, and the part it played in setting up her future career.
"My dad was in the army so I moved around a lot and only moved to Basingstoke when I was 10. I left when I went to university but until then I would say those were really crucial years in training and transitioning from the enjoyment of school plays into beginning to really study the craft. I would say that without a doubt began at QMC. Without really knowing it, I was starting some proper skills training in Basingstoke. The atmosphere and the sense of collaboration between the teaching staff and the students was second to none. I just got bitten and it just felt very professional, and I thought, 'Yes, this is what I want to do.'"
There's a point every actor's life, especially those growing up outside of London or other major cultural hubs, where the desire to become a professional actor is clear but the path to make that happen is anything but. As a fellow 'Basingstoker', I understand all too well how a career in theatre, film and television must have seemed a world away from a small market town an hour from London.
"I didn't know about drama school, I didn't know about the National Youth Theatre. I just didn't know. How do you do it? How do you get an agent? What is it to be a professional actor? When it came time to leave that familiar and safe nest I'd built at QMC on the foundation drama course, the staff were very helpful in where to go from there.
A few of the teachers on that course had been on a teacher training course at an arts college in West Yorkshire called Bretton Hall, which I looked into and thought, "If I go to this place, I'll still get to practice drama but I could have this fallback of being a teacher." I had no desire to be a teacher whatsoever, I think I'd be a really bad teacher! But I went to Bretton Hall and it was a real continuation of that physical and experimental side of performance. I always knew I wanted to go into more classical theatre. I never once dreamed of television and film.
Eventually I knew that I would need to be in London. Again, Basingstoke set that idea to begin with being a commuter town as I think we just always saw London as our Mecca. I always had my heart set on being in London, but I think Basingstoke absolutely played a part in that journey."
Shelley has carved out an incredibly successful screen career, despite those heavy leanings towards the theatre early on. What was it about the stage that called her to acting more than the camera?
"I just think that's how most British actors of my generation and before got into it. I was probably on the cuffs of a generation that didn't need to have an Equity card but it was important to have one. Before, you couldn't get an Equity card unless you did regional theatre, and you couldn't do regional theatre unless you had an Equity card! I didn't have to deal with that but I think it was just given that you would do theatre. It's where you're trained, it's your skill. If that can transpose somehow onto the screen, then that's great. I'm glad to have had that foundation. I always excelled in the naturalism of theatre."
Her first recurring role in a big television production was the BBC's Merseybeat playing PC Miriam Da Silva. What was it like to swap the naturalism of theatre and audience for the very technical and repetitive nature of acting for the camera?
"That was interesting, how at that time it felt so alien to be on camera every day. I feel like I grew up through the BBC in terms of screen training. They gave me opportunities to take a look at what I was doing in front of the camera. To do a series, it just means that you get practiced and you get to be comfortable, and you understand the machinations of it all, but being on the set is just different from being on a stage in many ways.
There's a certain energy that you have to tap in to when you're doing screen work. When you're performing on stage, you work through the various levels of energy. You have a crazy week of high energy where you're checking, rehearsing and you're in the theatre the whole time. You're figuring out your dressing room scenario, and your wardrobe, and all this stuff, all building to opening night, Then you can settle into an energy of the play, of course always looking for fresh energy, but you know the trajectory.
For screen work, and especially I think for series work, I hadn't anticipated how much waiting you have to do, and the breaks in between. Your energy has got to be ready right there and then. Yes, you can go again for another take, but they don't want to have to do that, because your energy's not there. It's finding a different type of professionalism, and how to harness your energy to fit that, so that you can still do your job in among everything else that's happening on a set. I don't think I fully appreciated it at the time, but I've said since, looking back, that Merseybeat was like a training ground for me."
A few years later, Shelley landed her first leading role in a feature in Nina's Heavenly Delights, directed by Pratibha Parmar and starring opposite Laura Fraser and Art Malik. With her screen training long complete thanks to her television work, how did that compare to fronting a feature film?
"I think film offers more artistic freedom for an actor. This is the golden age of television, and creatively it doesn't feel like it's ever been so creative, but I still think it's more of a writer's medium. Generally, I have found there's more artistic opportunity in film and it's a more collaborative experience. That would be the main difference for me.
In terms of time, I think that depends on the budget of the movie. If it's an independent film, then often it's still quick, quick, quick. I've had leading roles in small independent features, and then smaller roles in big-budget features but the big difference for me was time.
I was in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for about 30 seconds, but that 30 seconds took a week to film because the sets were so big, and the turnaround time was like a day's work, and it was like, "Let's come back tomorrow". Or you arrive and it's like, "You know what? We're going to shoot something else right now and come back to this scene after lunch". The money that's available to big-budget features, because of the nature of special effects or the way that the directors work, means more time."
Going back to television, it's a medium in which Shelley has been hugely successful, both in the UK and the US. Are there many differences in how productions are approached either side of the Pond?
"I think, the gap is narrowing. Television is a global market now, and there's not so much of a difference. I think culturally it depends on where you are. My first big American TV show was Terra Nova and that was shot in Australia, funnily enough, so the cultural feel of this big American show was actually based in the roots of a mainly Aussie crew.
I'd say the biggest difference, in the US, generally, you get a stand-in. During the rehearsal, you'll get a stand-in while you go and get your make-up checked, or whatever. Whereas the UK, that's more rare, you would stand there for lights, for the positioning. Again, I feel like both are valid, you have to adapt. If I'm in the US, and I have a stand-in, then I try to make the most of that, in terms of reserving energy, or just focusing. In the UK I use the fact I'm on set all the time to just soak it up, and let that inform my performance."
With so much work coming from US productions, you'd forgive any British actor for upping sticks and making the move to LA. As a result her success and prolific work commitments, has the call of California ever swayed Shelley to make the move?
"To be honest with you, I've never shut up shop here and moved over there. My base has always been London, I just go where the work takes me. My motto has always been make it as comfortable and as homely as possible. I just do some research on how to live out there. I have a family, I bring my family with me. Where I'm staying needs to suit there needs as well, and I would say, I'm really lucky that I feel like I've got it right.
I've never owned a property out there, or I've never had a home. I just do Airbnb like everybody else. I think wherever you're filming, whether it's the back of beyond in some little town in England or a swanky place like LA, you've got to be able to live there, I think a lot of people who aren't in the business still think that it's just all glitzy, and it is. I mean, oh my God, I was working at Universal Studios! What a privilege to show my ID pass, drive right in, park outside my trailer, take a golf buggy around. When I remember doing the Universal Studios tour when my parents took me as a child, that is a massive privilege, and I don't pretend it's not, but at the same time, I'm living my life. This is my work. I'm just incredibly grateful. I know I'm lucky that what I wanted to do has become the reality of what I do."
We now share a nerdy moment to embrace how cool it is to have been on the Universal Studios tour as a child and then working on the lot later.
"Absolutely! I never once thought when I was on the street where Nightmare on Elm Street is filmed, or Desperate Housewives, or whatever. They used that street for so may sets, and there I was filming on it, on the backlot where they shot Back to the Future. It's historic, really, and it's stuff that inspires me. Maybe not Nightmare on Elm Street or Desperate Housewives so much [laughs], but I loved Back to the Future. So to be in the square where the clock tower was, it's just so cool."
It would be remiss of me as the director of a short film festival to not ask Shelley about her short film work, which include two titles Love Story written and directed by Amit Gupta, and Catalyst, written and directed by Matthew Losasso.
"Love Story was written and directed by a friend of mine who I had met because I had seen a play that he'd written. I think he's incredibly talented, and when I saw the script I thought it just makes sense to me. It was a no-brainer. Again, it was that idea of being offered a certain amount of artistic license. He wanted to see what I could bring. That's just a gift, as an actor, and it just turned out to be one of those lovely jobs. Where I'm really happy, it sits there on my IMBD pro-list. I loved that film.
Catalyst, again, I really loved the work of the director. He's done a lot of interesting things like he directing some BBC idents, which I'd always seen and thought they looked like little movies. So when he asked me to do this, again, it just felt, why would I not do this? It just felt natural to say yes, and that was one where I feel like maybe I just jumped into it not really knowing what I was doing. He has a really good visual eye, so you just felt like you could trust somebody and just let go.
That was a lesson to me, so from one short film where I felt like I could bring everything I want, to another where I was questioning things and needed to trust in his scenario. Again, I think it was the right thing to do.
Short films are really good, because they challenge you as an actor in different ways. You can ask yourself questions as a performer, and how you want to operate within the realms of that script. I just think it's a way to explore another element of your performance.
For many short filmmakers, it's difficult to know how to approach actors of a calibre and profile similar to Shelley. The assumption is that either they (or their agents) would have no interest in a short film project. I ask if short films are projects that such actors do consider when approaches are made.
"I can't speak for other actors, but for me a short film is just as valid as a feature, or a television series, or a play. It would depend on the material. I've been sent plenty of short film scripts that I have only passed on because they don't feel right. However, when it comes to genre, there's just as much range within the short film format as there is in features.
Any script, either the words from the character or the story, has got to speak to you. Or there's got to be somebody involved that you want to be working with, like the director or another actor. There's still got to be a draw, and usually it's the script. There's a classic saying which I think is true, that you can make a good script bad, but you can't, generally, make a bad script good. I think that is quite highlighted in shorts."
You can follow Shelley on Twitter: @Shelley_Conn