Victoria Emslie, an Actress who has appeared in TV hits Downton Abbey and 12 Monkeys, feature films The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl, and a number of short films - including one of her own - tells us about moving between projects, the importance of being kind to yourself, and addressing gender imbalance in the industry with ERA 50:50.
You’ve had experience working on short films, feature films and high-end television series. What’s it like for you moving between projects of such widely differing scales?
Peter O’Toole once said, “as I totter into antiquity, movie magic enraptures me still”, and although far from my golden years, I definitely share his sentiment. Watching that chaotic but mesmeric behind the scenes dance of the crew through to seeing the final product onscreen is nothing short of magic, regardless of the size or type of production. The amount of expertise, care and craft that goes into every aspect of a project leaves me in a state of wonder whenever I have the fortune of working on set. For a fleeting and intense moment you create these bonds with others working alongside you which can never be recreated. They know a side of you which you rarely reveal to others, it is a truly special dynamic. Moving from one project to another you know that you leave something special behind but another unique adventure awaits you.
Lauburu is a short film that you performed in, produced and directed a few years ago. Can you tell us about your experience making that film and the biggest lessons you learned?
Lauburu was my graduate film at RCSSD. We had a few weeks to write and put together an entire short film project alongside other academic work. I was in a group of four and for some reason we decided we would give ourselves the added challenge of shooting abroad. We raised enough money to transport ourselves down to the south of France where my co-director’s grandmother lived (you can never thank your open-minded and forgiving family enough when you are starting out!) We were the first group in the history of Central’s MA Acting for Screen students who shot their graduate film outside of the UK, and even though at the time there were so many things that could and did go wrong, there was a huge sense of achievement looking back on it. I guess what I learnt from it was to always keep pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, challenge ideas and never take the easy option just for the sake of it.
What experiences have you taken from Lauburu when approaching any short film as an actor since?
If you are planning on getting your hands dirty with any other aspect of the production apart from Acting, I cannot recommend giving yourself the time you need to prepare and get into character enough. With our tight shooting schedule and being in charge of art direction, costume and other aspects, the performance may have taken a hit. It was definitely a baptism by fire.
What advice would you give an actor shooting a short film one day and then arriving on the set of a Downton Abbey the next?
Ever since Downton first aired, every year I would sit watching the Christmas special with my family, and say to myself, next year, that will be the year! When the news was released that there was only going to be one more series, being a part of the show became my sole focus and I remember the moment my agent phoned me to tell me I got the part, I sat on my stairs in complete darkness and cried for an hour. I couldn’t even phone my family to tell them the news I was so happy. Total weirdo. Anyway, it was a dream come true.
The sets were magnificent, the clothes transported you to another era and being the sixth series, the Downton family was well and truly established and so it was a joy being on set with many of the cast and crew who had been working on the series since the beginning. As it had been my dream for half a decade to by this point to work on Downton, I think deep down I was prepared for it. I believe there is no point having dreams that you cannot visualise coming true. So whereas there may have been a difference in the scale of the production, my actual job was still very much the same. Advice I’d give? Enjoy every second and every step along your journey as you never know where it will take you. Also never compare yourself to anyone else. The journey you are on is yours and yours alone, it is as unique as you are and there is endless value in that.
Equally, what advice would you give actors coming out of the other side of working on a big series/feature film?
Every Actor is well aware of the power of the post production blues. You wrap on a project and leave on such a high there is almost nothing that can pull you down. Then in the days afterwards, when you return to normality, whatever that is for you, you feel a gap and the hankering for the rush of being on set and with those people you have these formed bonds with.
Just be kind to yourself. You know it might not be easy, but you were just one of the 10% of Actors working at that moment; you were living your dream. And as there was this moment when you were working, there will come a time when this will happen again, such is the cycle of life. So don’t fight it. Reconnect with good friends who you might not have seen for a while, enjoy watching an entire series on Netflix in your pug onesie, celebrate the successes of others around you as they did when you were working. Your friends successes are your successes and they lift you up in your moments of stillness. If you surround yourself with successful, happy people, you are by association successful and happy.
What’s been your toughest challenge as an actor so far, and what’s been your biggest highlight?
Sanity. Good mental health. No amount of training can teach you about the realities of working and living as an Actor. In fact, perhaps it should be part of Drama School education, like how we should teach children to be happy and how to do their taxes. Real life problems and solutions, I’m yet to find a use for Pythagorus and his theorems.
One of my highlights was having the opportunity to perform in another language. I was one of these teenagers that wanted to go straight to Drama School but instead I studied Arabic and French at University of St. Andrews for four years. I was endlessly impatient to start what I considered to be my life, which I believed to be in London, performing. Even with the extensive theatre opportunities at university, I still felt trapped and somehow on diversion. However, fast forward a few years and I was on set in Prague shooting my first Guest Lead role in the TV show 12 Monkeys, almost entirely in French and I suddenly had a great appreciation for my education and every choice I had made up until that point. Life has a funny way of working out and I have learn to not fight it; regret nothing
You’ve been involved in a number of short films, have you travelled to many of the film festivals they’ve appeared in? If so, what were your highlights? If not, we can recommend a great festival coming up in September...
It’s always exciting when filming a short film to know that there are such a wealth of incredible short film festivals out there now which allows you to share your work all around the world. Short film festival audiences are very discerning and so it is always a massive compliment to have your work shown. A highlight for me is always hearing the reactions from the people sitting around you. Especially if it’s laughter. Especially during a comedy.
Do you have plans to direct again? If so, what is the kind of project you’d like to sink your teeth in to?
I am writing a few projects at the moment and yes absolutely, I think as a creative you always have a strong vision for your work. I believe I sit between two very disparate genres; I love the whimsical, Wes Anderson-esque perfectionist heightened reality where everything is symmetrical and meticulously thought out and a very real desire for the gritty truth. I can imagine directing something very otherworldly, or a documentary about one of the issues I care about very much rooted in reality.
Is producing and directing a short film something you would encourage other actors to do?
Absolutely. It is the age old saying that “if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain." I have always felt a great sense of achievement whenever I create something myself, it is a feeling that nothing else can compare to and I am sure this sense of self worth translates to the rest of my life. It feels very empowering to bring something else to the table. I am currently starting up a new business called Primetime to try and readdress the gender imbalance within the Film and TV Industry and I am excited to announce that we will be launching in a few months time. Watch this space!
Speaking of the gender imbalance within the film and TV industry, you're an ambassador for ERA 50:50. Can you tell us about the work you do, plus how – and why - you got involved?
Right now, for every woman you see onscreen there are two men, and in some genres, three. I was shocked to learn that a girl's confidence actually peaks at 8 years old and this is a direct impact of the stories we are telling. ERA50:50 campaigns for Equal Representation for Actresses, meaning that we would like to see as many women as men across the board if you were to take an average of onscreen and onstage projects. Not only this, but if you took a cross section of the highest grossing films of the last few decades, female characters are mostly mute in comparison to their male counterparts.
It is important that we change the stories we are telling and paint more interesting and realistic female characters that women can relate to and be inspired by, not just those of "victim", "femme fatale" and "Mistress". These tropes are boring and out of date. I started going to meetings, and, like my Times Up UK group, found a very supportive and welcoming group of women who want to make real change. There are many exciting proposals in the pipeline and it is empowering to stand together and fight for what really is basic common sense. We also have some wonderful male allies too, and our work couldn't be done without them. At the end of the day, equality is not such an intimidating idea.
You can follow Victoria on Twitter: @MonHublot
You can follow ERA 50:50: @ERA50_50