A Quiet Passion, the latest film by Terrence Davies, is currently making its way round the various film festivals. It has already been screened at the London, Chicago, Vienna and Philadelphia film festivals, with Torino the next stop on its list. The film follows the life of nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson, from her school years to her death. We got the chance to talk to Catherine Bailey, who plays Vryling Buffam, Emily Dickinson’s close friend and mentor (of sorts) about the film, drama and the big topic of the day, Donald Trump.
Lets start at the beginning: how did you get into acting?
Well I went to a theatre school that was down the road from me that was called Italia Conti when I was about eleven. Then I got a job when I was about thirteen doing a kids TV series, so I guess that’s when I started acting professionally. It’s been a bit of a long haul really considering I’m thirty six, so yeah; I started when I was a kid. So from school I’d be going out for auditions and that became quite normalised really. You got very used to going out for auditions and then not getting them. And I think the older you get the harder it gets when you don’t get the audition. I think if you start young you just sort of accept it really.
Since then you’ve frequently jumped between film, television and stage. Do you have a preference of what medium you like to work on?
That’s a good question. It always seems to me like whenever I’m doing theatre I’m thinking ‘Oh this is great, but now I can’t wait to do a bit of screen stuff’ and vice versa. I think they do feed off each other. I feel like you get quite match-fit doing live stuff; doing theatre there’s nowhere to hide; you get the live feedback from the audience which makes you quite responsive.
I guess the same is true if you’re doing screen stuff; again, there’s nowhere to hide but it’s such a different discipline. So they do feed off of each other. I think theatre is my go-to, just because the physical requirements are such that you have to have- if you’re playing a big space like the Shakespeare’s globe- I’ve done that a couple of times; that’s a fifteen hundred capacity- you have to have that muscularity of thought and voice and fitness, just to be able to do eight shows a week. So I always think that’s where you come back to the craft of it. Theatre is like the gym, as it were.
It’s quite often British productions you star in, but in the film, you’re playing an American character and your American accent is very convincing.
Do you ever get a chance to practice that in theatre or is that the first time you’ve brought it out?
The American accent? I did a play at the Tricycle theatre called Walk Hard, Talk Loud, and that was set in the late thirties/early forties, and I was playing this great part called Dorothy. She was this New York ‘good time’ girl, and I remember working on that accent.
Though this is nineteenth-century Massachusetts; a very different kind of accent, there’s something about it that’s like an old-fashioned American accent. It’s not up to date, like the sort of things we hear on the TV at the moment. For playing Vryling Buffam in A Quiet Passion, I looked at The Heiress, which was a 1949 film. The director gave me that as a reference, he said ‘we don’t want anything modern about this accent’, so yeah going back, having played characters with vintage American accents in the past helped. And watching these old films helped as well. You know, Catherine Hepburn-type characters- they just had a different cadence in their voice. They seemed to have more time, there was something artful about the way they spoke back then, which is what I was trying to convey here.
You’ve done quite a lot of TV work, appearing in a lot of big British shows like EastEnders, The Bill and Holby City. What is it you think attracts audiences to shows like that, and you to those sort of roles?
The thing I remember hearing about EastEnders, I don’t know if it’s also true of Holby, but to keep writing those stories for years and years and years, they draw on the classics. So the basis for a story-line would be a Greek drama, apparently, so the reason I think they are so irresistible is because they have that robustness to them. I don’t think there’s been a Medea story-line recently but you sort of go ‘Well, there’s a reason why people are still performing those plays’ and a reason why the writers of EastEnders will draw on them; because they’re great stories.
And the other thing about them is that certainly working on a show like EastEnders (or The Bill when it was still going); I’ve never seen actors work so hard. Any stint I’ve done on a soap like that has been quite short. EastEnders was a run of about eight episodes. But the actors who have been doing it year upon year are really flexing a particular muscle. They’re having to learn scripts the night before, they’re getting script changes on the day sometimes… and it’s extraordinary. It’s not like doing eight shows a week on the West End where you’re doing the same thing every night, that’s another kind of demand, but just the notion of having to do something day-in day-out and having to keep that character continuity. I’ve got huge admiration for those kinds of shows and the ways the actors have to work, often with new directors coming in who have to adapt and change to a new style.
But yeah, you certainly hit the ground running when you’re guesting on a show like that. It’s often a rather intense period of filming. You come in and get welcomed by the cast and then you’re off onto something else. But I love doing that, and of course on something like The Bill, back in the day, I think I did three characters in about three years. I think there was a six month turnaround time before you could come back and audition for something else.
So yeah, I love doing that. You’ve got to be very quick and very on your game for something like that. You’ have to be really ready- when they say action, ‘right, okay, great- now we’re doing another setup, another thing’ it was very fast indeed. But good training.
They’re all based on old dramas and a lot of your work has been drama based. Are there any other genres that you’re interested in trying out?
In the last couple of years, I seem to be cornering the market in period dramas, which is something, certainly on stage I often do. Corsets, wigs and parasols and things, which is great, there’s something extraordinary about being able to totally embroil yourself in another era and then hopefully make that story something relevant to today.
But I just got into Scandinavian Noir- all those ‘Scandi’ dramas. We’re just watching The Killing at the moment. And we’re just utterly wrapped in that. I’m not saying I want to be in a Scandanavian drama; I can’t speak Danish. But there’s something about the intricacy of the writing; there’s so many interwoven stories, and they’re female led; you just think ‘wow, I’d play a part like that’.
Or even Homeland, we got into Homeland as well, that’s sort of a thriller- I don’t know what you’d call it really… a thriller noir, I suppose. That genre’s very exciting. That’s not something I’ve done a huge amount of. I mean I have done quite a lot of comedy back in the day and I’d love to revisit that as well, but currently I’m really getting into police dramas- I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Happy Valley that was on earlier this year. That was extraordinary as well. I think Sally Wainwright wrote that; just the writing and the way that Sarah Lancashire portrays the lead character; that’s like watching a Greek tragedy. It’s so heavy but you get the everyday in it as well. For me, that would be really exciting. I seem to have named a load of police dramas, maybe that’s what I’m angling for.
Maybe you didn’t spend enough time on The Bill and now you’re craving more.
That’s it! It’s such a shame.
Watching A Quiet Passion, (in my opinion) you played the most interesting character, which was Ms Buffam, obviously.
Oh, thank you!
What drew you to the role?
Oh, wow, well it’s such a gift of a role. Because she has all this flamboyant style; there’s a lot of flair and wit; it’s a bit like Noël Coward really. And that’s direct from Terrence himself. Terrence Davies is super serious, meticulous and a genius. But he’s also hilarious; he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He’s so witty. And he’s a great raconteur. And I think a lot of that was channeled directly into the dialogue.
But the thing about that was that she’s not talking about frivolous subjects. She and Emily are talking about heavy stuff; they’re talking about religion and war and gender politics. And that’s quite rare for a female character to have that balance. To be such fun and have such fun witty dialogue; but to be talking about stuff that has real meat and substance to it. So that was a no-brainer. I read that and thought ‘right, well this has to happen’.
Also the fact that the subject matter itself; we’re talking about a genius, possibly the genius of 19th century American poetry who also happens to be a woman. I thought this was an important story that needed to be told. So it just made it a very obvious choice to get involved.
Do you think there’s any similarities between you and Ms Buffam?
I think we’re both feminisits. I don’t have the wit or the artful conversation that she has. I think the thing that speaks to me about ‘Ms VB’ as we called her on set, because Vryling Buffam is impossible to say.
I just decided I wouldn’t even try to say her first name.
It just got shortened all the time, ‘yeah, VB, let’s just call her VB’.
You get the impression that socialising was a bit of an art form back then. There wasn’t anything else to direct your attention to. There was no TV, no internet. So conversing with people, using that as a form of public display is something that marks her as separate to me. I hope I don’t just sit around and talk at people. But that was that character’s skill. And she totally loves it. And you think what an amazing unique skill. I suppose you could say stand-up comedy is the closest you get to that.
But sort of on a day-to-day basis, just going and visiting people and wowing them with conversation; I just think ‘wow, what an amazing thing that does delineate that character from what we have now. I think that art of conversation has been lost. You could say that people on Twitter do attempt that with 140 characters, but that just seems to be a lot of people shouting at the same time.
Especially today! Exactly. And then you find that maybe the art of listening is a bit lost. I get the impression that back in the day people use to listen more. If you go back to Shakespeare, people went to hear a play, not see a play. That’s how they described it. And people could maybe retain stuff in a different way. So that’s the difference between me and VB I think. The art of speaking and listening is very different, if that answers your question.
Speaking of Twitter, you talk quite a lot about big issues; today, you’ve shared a few things about the election, and as you say, Ms Buffam talks a lot about serious issues.
So I would be a fool not to ask; what do you think about today’s results?
Well, it’s quite shocking really. I didn’t have a vote in it because I’m not from America, obviously. But everything seems to be building up to- not necessarily an apocalypse- but there’s sort of this cycle, if you like, and we’re in that, whatever that is.
We’re getting to the end of something, but also getting something new. And yes it is alarming that someone who maybe wasn’t particularly qualified for it, shall we say, beat a woman that was very qualified for the job.
Makes me go ‘wow, people still don’t trust women in positions of authority’. That’s one of the big things that I take from this, that I will talk about publicly. There are a lot of other things that perhaps I’d only say over a glass of wine. But that’s a big thing for me. We didn’t trust- no matter what you think of Hilary Clinton- no matter what her policies were, she was clearly much more qualified for this role than Donald Trump. I don’t think he’s qualified at all.
A reality-TV star (and businessman).
Exactly, and I guess the population and the vote, is saying what they think about of politics.
The same way we had the Brexit vote. There’s something protest-y about it, there’s something quite angry about it. But I don’t think people are getting the right information. I think that’s often the problem; that people are dissatisfied, and they’re making choices based, a lot of the time, on slightly faulty information. I don’t know. Everything’s come to a head. It feels like it’s the end of something and potentially the beginning of something new.
Certainly for me, it feels quite destabilising. But you’ve got to have hope. If you despair, then that’s the end. And certainly being on Twitter can be a bit much. And I thought, ‘hang on, am I just in an echo chamber of people who think the same thing as me?’ and I thought maybe I should just turn that off for a while, and maybe there’s something more organised that needs to happen. You know, there’s that 1970s rally ‘don’t mourn, organise’, and on Twitter there’s an awful lot of mourning. And I think if there are people who are feeling aggrieved, to do something about it. To be hopeful and organised and active.
Is that a safe way of answering the question?
It is. You don’t want President Trump coming after you, after all.
No, definitely. It’s mad.
In the film, they talk about the problems surrounding issues of race and gender, etc. and now we’re hundreds of years on, and we’ve got a President that embodies all the things Ms Buffam is talking about trying to escape/end.
If Ms. Buffam was alive today, what do you think she’d have to say about the President-elect?
It’s remarkable, that, isn’t it?
There’s that quote: ‘history is like a raw onion sandwich, it repeats’ and you’re so right. There’s a real cycle going on there. I think she would be very vocal and very active and upfront.
However, without giving too many spoilers, she does inspire Emily with these forward thinking views- feminist views, really- but then says ‘don’t be too radical’ and becomes a wife herself. And Emily really mourns that loss, when Ms VB says she’s going off to become part of the convention and I like to think her thinking behind that is that she’ll change things from within.
I think Ms VB is a very wry commentator; on the side-lines making very acerbic, very well-judged comments, maybe without her head about the parapet; but maybe in a more stealthy fashion, in a more witty way?
I mean who knows what 2016 would do to Ms VB, she might just lose her mind and think ‘I have to go out, I have to be active’ out in the streets. And I do think we’re in an environment where it is very volatile and I don’t know how people will react, whether they will sort of shrug and say ‘oh well’ or whether there will be a revolution of sorts. I like to think Ms VB would stealthily try to affect change. I think she’d have a very artful way of keeping herself protected and powerful but also trying to cause some sort of change.
It’s good to be able to speak about it in the context of today ‘cause it’s on everyone’s minds at the moment, and in the coming weeks there’ll be so much comment on it. But I suppose that’s what art’s for, isn’t it? It’s to try and make sense of what’s going on. Try and put the characters and the stories in that context and maybe get some sense from it.
Although there is currently no set release date, A Quiet Passion can next be seen at the Torino Film Festival on November 19th