Interview with ‘Robert’ Actress, Suzie Frances Garton
INTERVIEW WITH ACTRESS SUZIE FRANCES GARTON
IN AUGUST OF 2015, I watched a movie directed by Andrew Jones. It was Robert, a horror story centred on a haunted doll. I’m passionate about horror, in both film and literature, and I was intrigued by this release. I enjoyed it – however one thing that shone out to me from the film itself was the strong and captivating performances from the cast. As a whole, the cast were perfect for the roles they were playing, bringing about a tightness and authentic feel to the story. If a film about a possessed doll sounds unbelievable or far-fetched to you, then this is a testament to the acting within the film, because Suzie Francis Garton and the rest of the actors made this story feel all-too unsettlingly real.
Impressed and in awe of Garton’s acting in Robert, I watched A Haunting at the Rectory, a paranormal release also directed by Jones. Here, too, I found myself captivated by not only the story within the script, but at Garton’s performance. She breathed a life to her role, carrying the film with the cast to another level. This film was more than a ghost story – it was very character driven, and I couldn’t have imagined any other actor bringing these roles to life.
CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF, AND HOW YOU BECAME INVOLVED IN ACTING?
So I actually spent a long time in the TV industry. I worked in Children’s TV for a while, then ran a couple of studios. It was a wonderful, crazy time – but the acting bug never left me. The whole time I was juggling theatre groups, singing lessons, workshops. My singing teacher recommended a drama school that I could attend around work; it was there that I truly learnt about the process of acting and fell in love with it. I graduated from there with a distinction, and from there things sort of snowballed.
was working on a huge, high profile TV show when I got the call offering me the place at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. It meant training full time, so I had finally reached the fork in the road. There was only one decision to make of course: it’s immensely hard to get into Central, so I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It was awe-inspiringly tough there – drama school at that level tests you physically, personally and emotionally. But it was wonderful. I’ll never forget the pride I felt in the moment we all threw our caps into the air as we graduated. Then, of course, the hard work really begins!
WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECT OF ACTING IN THE FILM INDUSTRY? ANY SURPRISES?
I think my years in the TV industry prepared me for most aspects of a life in film. The hours are long, sometimes there are night shoots, the work is sporadic and most of the industry is self-employed – to people who have a regular job, this basically means you’re unemployed! – they just don’t understand it.
The level of physical discomfort is something to get used to – I didn’t see that coming! Performers often have to wear costumes which are completely inappropriate for the actual temperature – this actually happens more often than it doesn’t – largely due to pretending it’s a different time of year than it actually is, for continuity reasons and so on. Sometimes you can wear thermals under the costumes – often you can’t. Essentially an awful lot of it comes down to mind over matter – you have to zone it out, it can’t affect the performance. It’s still a ridiculously small price to pay for how wonderful the job is.
I’D LIKE TO TALK ABOUT YOUR ROLES. LET’S START WITH ROBERT. WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF WORKING ON THIS FILM?
I loved working with the team on ‘A Haunting at the Rectory’ so I was very excited to collaborate with them again. What especially drew me to ‘Robert’ was the fact that my character has Schizoaffective Disorder – it’s a little known illness, but for want of a better description it’s a cross between Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia: sufferers get the mood highs and lows, but also the auditory and visual hallucinations. Often they end up on a best-fit cocktail of medication for anxiety, mania and/or psychosis – it doesn’t always fit, and there are side effects – depression, lowered energy and sex drive.
Her illness means that Jenny can never be entirely sure whether what’s happening in the house is real or symptomatic – which begs the question, which is more frightening? This sort of challenge is a gift for an actor. With Jenny being an artist, I was able to explore the character through painting. I researched bipolar and schizophrenic art – there are common themes. All the artwork you see in the film was the work I produced during this preparatory period, and once I moved away from using existing ideas and just let ‘Jenny’ paint, I was shocked at what started to emerge. I haven’t been able to paint like that since, so that’s weird.
FIlming ‘Robert’ was a wonderful experience, despite a pretty grueling schedule of long days filled with high-energy scenes – exhausting stuff, but exhilarating. Flynn, who played our son in the film, was fantastic – a great little actor and he had the most impeccable manners. Due to the regulations about working with children, we had less time with him than the adults, so for many of the close ups of me talking to him, I’m actually having a rather intense conversation with an off-camera teddy bear!
We were in the most beautiful location in Saundersfoot, South Wales. There were some dream-like shots that we wanted to get around the coast to use the stunning landscape, but were prevented from doing so by time, permit restrictions, and weather. I would go for a walk along the beach every dawn, to clear my head and prepare for the day’s shooting. I love the ocean, I always find it sort of ‘resets’ me.
DID THE CHUCKY AND ANNABELLE FILMS INFLUENCE YOUR THINKING? WERE YOU CONSCIOUS OF THEM WHILST FILMING?
I think what those films tap into, really, is the childhood fantasy that our toys come alive when we’re not looking. It’s that, taken to its darkest extreme. It’s the killer you’ve invited into your home, and let your children cuddle as they fall asleep at night. When you think that through, it’s horrendous.
I purposefully avoided watching Annabelle and Chucky while I was working on Robert. You can’t compare projects like that (even though audiences inevitably will); we weren’t aiming to copy anything else. It is its own animal, and you have to work within the parameters you have – with budget, with time, all that. From my point of view, whatever the subject matter and whatever is already out there, it’s really best to just concentrate on the character. In this case, the point really was “what is real, and what is not?” – it became about perception.
During my prep, I mainly watched films in which creatives were navigating mental health issues and conflict in their marital relationships – The Hours, and Pollock were good. The only horror I watched during that time was The Babadook – which I felt had relevancy as they achieved so much on a relatively low budget, and – as with Robert – there is the question of whether the demons are within or without. Essie Davis is so wonderful in that, really inspirational. She definitely should have been Oscar nominated: it’s unbelievably tough to produce that kind of performance.
YOUR CENTRAL CHARACTER IN ROBERT EXPERIENCED SOME EXTREMELY UPSETTING MENTAL AND PHYSICAL ISSUES. HOW DID YOU FIND EXPLORING THIS IN YOUR ROLES?
Sometimes it’s a real adrenaline rush. The scene in which I’m screaming at the doll, for instance, was wonderful. It felt quite animalistic, somehow. The worst one by far was the argument in the hallway – I hated filming that. I had to be so angry and frightened, and that’s a revolting combination to have pulsing through the body. Andrew gave Lee and I individual direction so we couldn’t be sure what the other was going to do, to make it raw and real. I trust them both implicitly, and I knew the results would be worth the pain – and they are – but I really didn’t enjoy that one at all, it was dreadfully upsetting.
You have to keep an incredibly level head – in this work you’re digging around in some very complicated emotional places. Once all those feelings have served their purpose, we have to be able to discard them fairly quickly; to move onto a completely different scene, or just back into real life. That can be tough, depending on what you’ve just put yourself through. I’m usually OK after about five minutes, but I did a rape scene once and had to remove myself from society for about thirty minutes afterwards. You hear stories of actors flipping out, screaming at crew – I understand how that happens, but it’s no good. It’s imperative to keep an element of self-control; to stay grounded.
It’s something I’ve learned to cope with – and sort of love. There’s a certain beauty in exploring the human condition that way. To be honest, that’s why most of us do it; it’s fascinating work. It comes down to absolute empathy. You HAVE to put yourself there, as an actor – it’s absolutely vital that you do.
They don’t really teach you how to deal with that at drama school. They teach you to manifest, but they don’t prepare you for the aftermath – you learn that on the job; find your own coping mechanisms.
IN A HAUNTING AT THE RECTORY, THIS FILM EXPLORES NOT ONLY THE PARANORMAL ASPECT OF THE STORY, BUT IT IS ALSO HEAVILY CHARACTER LED, SOMETHING THAT I ENJOYED, AND FOUND A PLEASING CONTRAST. WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE LIKE STARRING IN THIS FILM?
I’m so pleased you liked that aspect. I think it has upset some hardcore horror fans, that it’s so character-led.. but actually, I think that’s part of its beauty. It was the first film I did with Andrew Jones, and I loved the script right from the initial approach. It has the kind of scenes actors kill for. By all accounts the real Marianne was a handful. Of course it could have been a harsh 1930’s judgement on a passionate woman – nevertheless, I was intrigued by this person who was described as a sexual maniac, a vivacious hostess prone to melodrama – how and why she chose to marry a vicar, substantially older than herself, and how she functioned in that relationship; compounded by the social confines of her time.
At a table read before filming started, between Andrew, Tom (Lionel), Lee (Frank) and myself, we agreed there was a real danger that audiences wouldn’t like any of the characters, and therefore not care about what happens to them. It was essential that people could relate to them. We agreed to be very open and vulnerable with each other, on and off set. The three of us met every night after filming to work on our scenes for the next day, sometimes giving each other backrubs as we ran lines. The whole film is so intimate, we had to build that very quickly.
The production team were all completely delightful, actually. We all lived and worked in the house during shooting, and that could have gone horribly with the wrong personalities! – but you couldn’t wish for a nicer group of people.
I adore the end result. I’m immensely proud of it. I do understand that it’s not your average horror – but I love it, I think it’s a really original, special film. I’ve never seen anything like it, anyway. And it’s so beautifully shot – really visually lovely.
ARE YOU A FAN OF THE HORROR GENRE?
I worked at a large film studio for a time, and I was surrounded by special effects departments and workshops – I became very numb to all that: I’d watch a film and just see the special effects – the models, the fake blood, the prosthetics. What fascinates me more in the horror genre is when this really happened – the most terrifying stories are the ones founded in truth. Often the blood-and-guts effects in those films are fairly minimal, actually, and it becomes something more psychological. I watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and for several nights afterwards I was terrified if I was awake at 3am! – it really got into my head. It’s the what-if-it-happened-to-me, isn’t it? Facing our darkest fears – that’s where horror films hook you in. We laugh at stories of ghosts and demon dolls because the possibility of their existence is something we’re too frightened to give consideration to. But I’ve had some pretty extreme paranormal experiences myself over the years and, actually, anything is possible in this crazy world. Literally, anything. The truth is that our day to day experience is such a small part of the story.
That’s partly why working with Andrew is such a joy – both projects I have done with him have been based on true events. I mean – check out the real Robert the Doll. It’s horrific. And it’s not just Robert – there’s a bunch of the little critters, in little glass cases in museums all over the place. When I researched it was I shocked – I was like “This is a thing? -this is an actual thing?” I had a puppet hanging in my kitchen and it got unceremoniously dumped outside immediately. And that, in a nutshell, is why horror films work!
WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
I recently finished narrating a documentary TV series called “Half My Faith, All My Struggle”, about dating in the British Muslim community. As for what’s next – I’ve just been sent a feature film script to read, and I’m also working on an arthouse feature called ‘The Smiling Man’ – I am involved in the production side of this one, as well as performing in it. It’s essentially about depression, but told via a fable – it’s visually stunning, wonderfully written, and I’m very excited about it. I have to drown – slowly, through the course of an intense dialogue scene – so that’s a first! I’m hoping I can hide a wetsuit under my costume to fend off the hypothermia.. otherwise it’s back to the mind-over-matter trick
Thank you to Suzie for taking the time to answer my questions.
Photographs of Suzie Frances Garton are copyright of the photographer, Tony Hamilton.