Interviewing Felicity Dean could have been a slightly intimidating experience, not least due to her extensive portfolio of work in film, stage and TV, or for the impressive list of fine actors she has worked alongside; but also because my first encounter with Felicity was albeit with her looking amazing but also very naked.
Felicity had been taking part on a photo shoot whilst I was interviewing the founder of ‘Fishlove’ Greta Scacchi at the time as Felicity’s photo shoot taking place in the background. Trying to discuss Greta’s role in a new play was rather overshadowed by the chaos. The delightful Felicity was a pleasure to interview though and completely flattered, and not embarrassed with my accolade in the article.
From working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to performing on Broadway, and being nominated for ‘The Critics Guild Award’ for Best Actress alongside Charles Dance; Felicity has had an eclectic acting career. Felicity has done what many actors only aspire to and had success in popular television programs to acting with screen giants like, Oliver Reed, Peter Cushing, Joan Plowright, and Greta Scacchi.
Felicity is also one of the many stars that has given their time to be photographed for the ‘Fishlove’ campaigns that help raise awareness around sustainable fishing.
“I was delighted and very flattered to be part of the new campaign. Greta asked if I’d like to take part and as I have known Greta for some time now, she’s a good friend, and also a colleague, it felt great to be involved. Greta started ‘FishLove’ with co-founder Nick Röhl in 2009 and I think they have done an amazing job of raising the profile of a charity, which isn’t really renowned, to an elevated prominence with their photographic campaigns.
It’s a brilliant idea started by Greta who did the first campaign, shot by Rankin, and it has just developed from there.
Through her contacts, and the people she knows. Everybody has just wanted to step on board.
The photographer for the campaign this time round is, Jillian Edelstein. Jill is a wonderful, and talented photographer. I was absolutely thrilled to be part of this. I surprised myself as I thought it was going to take some bravery to actually stand up and pose naked. When I arrived on the day of the shoot, I was rather alarmed, because I looked in the box where the fish was kept and there were just a couple of little herrings left. I thought what do I do with that? Then Nick Röhl came in with this big cod” she laughs.
“All the pictures from the campaigns are beautiful and look like art. Sustainable fishing and giving support is a wonderful charity to be part of.”
What can the general public do to support this campaign?
Elle: We’re often told we need more fish in our diet, but determining which fish to eat is sometimes a minefield.
Felicity: “I think what everyone can do is to look out for the sustainable label markings on their fish packaging. The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is one of the names to look out for. If they are endorsed with those initials, you absolutely know they’re a company you can trust.
The picture promotes ethical fishing and can be found on fish products sold at Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, and also Marks & Spencer’s. There are various supermarkets that really do care. I think if everybody looks out for that we can make a solution.
Also broaden your fish base. Buy fish that you wouldn’t normally buy.
We concentrate on cod and salmon, so they then get over fished.
Try to avoid over buying deep fish, which are slow growing and not that productive. They take a long time to mature, and then the stocks get depleted which results in them being hard to be replaced.
My awareness has actually increased just by knowing Greta and talking to her and seeing the campaign. I have actually now made a point of buying fish that is ethically caught.
Due to ‘Fishlove’ the media coverage has been worldwide because of it. It’s fantastic what they’ve achieved.”
Social media and acting
“I think as an actor, and my generation, you have to keep up with what’s going on otherwise you just get left behind. If you don’t have a twitter account or all that stuff , it makes you inaccessible to fans.”
Elle: True. I feel twitter allows fans to support their favorite actors and feel they are connecting with you, but without compromising your privacy.
Felicity: “Yes, absolutely. I have one fan who has followed me since I was really young and from when I first started. He found me again on twitter, and so we have a kind of twitter relationship. Very, very sweet. I’m delighted.
“It’s funny, you always feel like you’re a beginner somehow.
From the beginning
“When I start a new job I still feel I sort of know nothing yet I then look back and realise I have achieved quite a lot.
I didn’t come from a theatrical family. When I was growing up, acting was a profession nobody in my realm did. My dad passed away when I was 12 and we moved to Sunnydale. I had a wonderful drama teacher at the school there.
Losing my dad that young was hard as we were very close. He was an artist, a wonderful painter, which he did as a hobby as he had grown up through the war and so never considered it as a ‘real’ job. But he was a real influence. I too, always had that artistic leaning.
After my dad died I found a refuge in drama through a wonderful drama teacher named Sue Marshall. Sue brought me out of myself and gave me a belief in myself.
I felt like I rediscovered a family. Although I had a really loving the tribe of actors and acting had become like a surrogate family and was very supportive.
I got headhunted while at school by a Pine studio scout, they would come and look at our school productions.
I felt very un-pretty, and very shy. Immensely shy. I was the kid at the back but acting was an escape.
I found that I could find attributes in myself by being somebody else.
This gave me a real confidence. I also found that I could hold an audience. My drama teacher encouraged me to work harder to develop these skills.
Through this, I had a newfound confidence and went to the school secretary to ask for an agent. The school secretary, who was wonderful, named Bunty Walsh suggested someone she knew.
I signed up with the agent for one year. She wanted to sign for 5, but for some reason I said no. I’ll just sign for a year, god knows where that came from.
Within that time she got me a job working on a major feature film The Prince and the Pauper’. Playing a character called Lady Jane who was a sort of cheery lead girl opposite Mark Lester who had starred as little ‘Oliver’ in the 1968 musical film version.
There I was, aged 18 going off to Hungary for 3 months to do my first job with Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch and Rex Harrison. These were just extraordinary people.
It was a wonderful experience. I have lots and lots of memories of those times Oliver Reed dropping his trousers on the dance floor.” she laughs mischievously. Then there would be fights breaking out in nightclubs. Really extraordinary off screen stuff happening.
The thing about Oliver Reed, was that he was brilliantly talented. He was a drunk, I mean he really was, and he had to be managed, but he was funny. I mean it was a nightmare for the producers I think, but he had a minder to keep him sober. There were some days he was turning up and he looked drunk yet he had no access to alcohol. He kept ordering oranges. He had piles of oranges, and he was peeling these oranges. What we didn’t realise until after, was that he was injecting the oranges with vodka.
When he was eating the oranges, he was absolutely getting sozzled.
From that experience I then got myself another agent, and I interviewed them. When I look back I think, ‘How the hell did I have the gall to do that?’ but I was very savvy. I got worse. I didn’t get any better.
Rehearsals | King Lear with Jonathan Miller, Michael York, Joss Ackland, John Nettles and Greta Scaachi
“I started out working in film and TV but I actually always wanted to work in theater. So I took a year out. My friend had a restaurant and I went and became a waitress for them for the next year. I then came back and auditioned for the Royal Shakespear company company, and something like 12 times.
You had to keep going back and keep seeing director after director. It was a golden age of the ‘RSC’ then, and all the young actors wanted to be there. I thankfully got in and worked for them. Then went back subsequently and did another few years with them at a later stage.
I did a lot of very interesting television. Television took over and it was becoming more the main stream medium at that point and brilliant TV. The days when the BBC was really an industry unto itself. They had their own designers, they had their own costume people, make-up, who went onto be Oscar winners.
I think it was the golden age of the BBC when we were all there. We used to go to what we called the North Acton Hilton, where they rehearsed, because you rehearsed almost 3 weeks for a television play. Then you’d go for lunch, and everybody was there. There would be John Cleese, doing Faulty Towers, Sir Ian McKellen would be doing Shakespeare.
Everyone in the business would meet on the top floor of what we called the Acton Hilton. Everyday if you were working there you would go, and you would meet old friends. It was like a club in a way.
Everyone worked very hard but it was less pressurised than it is now. I think people were less aware of a career strategy. It felt much more bohemian.
At Pinewood Studios, they used to have a working bar at lunch time. People would come in, and sit working with their drinks. Nobody does that anymore. It’s too uptight. I mean obviously it’s probably for the best because I don’t know how much work people got done but the quality from the work was amazing. The risk takes were extraordinary, the actors were absolute legends, who I worked with.
One of the great experiences that I have was at the National Theatre doing Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman. It was the last play that Paul Scofield did and also starred Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave. It was a absolutely brilliant experience working with those giants, really.
Preparation for a role
“The first thing is to look at the text, look at the story, the characters within the story to gain clues. Clues as to the person, what is their psychological profile. Then keep going back to the text, re-reading scenes to discover more and more. It doesn’t matter if that’s film, TV or stage.
With stage parts, I would make sure if there’s physical characteristics, I’ll find the character with physicality which aligns with their psychological profile. If you start to align physicality and how you’re going to approach your character physically, psychological profile, then you start to have something that you feel you can work with. I always look for that.
A lot of it comes down to mechanicals, who you’re working with and what you’re hearing back. Really working out the art of the story, an illustration of the people. It’s particularly relevant in Shakespeare.
With theater especially, there is a huge amount of learning.
I will usually go through a script or the book and brake it down.Then I brake it down again. I keep working through in pieces. I will then go for a walk, somewhere I know will be peaceful and quiet, like a forest perhaps, and then read the lines out loud.
Talk to the trees, say it out loud. Just somewhere you feel you can be free. I always do that. I’ve always done that. I go for a walk, somewhere you can feel not so locked up. Then I try and find a voice for the character because that’s important. You find that through the text, within Shakespeare.
Shakespeare you actually find the character through the language because the punctuation is the thing that gives you speech pattens. You know from certain clues in Shakespeare where there’s a pause and actually if you look at it in the context of the play, you think ‘oh I understand why there’s a pause there’ because she’s actually drawing the sword from her hilt. There’s a natural pause.
With Shakespeare it’s slightly different because that gives you, the punctuation gives you the rhythm and also gives you the indication of the narrative and the emotional state of the character. It’s very, very close punctuation. You know that the character is taking breaths, so they’re agitated state. You can apply that to any text. You look at the rhythm of the text. You find the character through the language rather than the other way around. I see a lot of actors which I don’t like, try and fit the text to the character they’ve decided on. They don’t try and find the character. The writing is the key. We are interpreters. You get a great writer and it just translates. Its giving the writer their voice. I have a great respect for writers and also how they phrase is very particular. They write very particularly.
Also I would say that when you go on set, you look at it like a room. How familiar are you with that room. I got this from Vanessa Redgrave when I first worked with Vanessa on a film we did named Steaming. She went around the whole set, she touched everything. She picked up the cups, she drank, she sat down, she felt, she had a sense of spacial dynamic. I do that whenever I go on set. If it’s supposed to be my sitting room, I make myself familiar in that room, so I can cross the room blindfolded.
It’s about taking in everything.”
What advice would you give to anyone new coming into acting?
“Well, I’d say not mine, but a great phrase from Constantin Stanislavski, the great acting teacher and stage actor and director; ‘Love the art in yourself and not yourself in the art’. To me that says it all.
You’re not there to self-grandiose you’re there to work and interpret and be an artist.
Just do everything you can. Also I really, really believe in testing yourself with a live audience. Keep practising. If you want to just do movies, they are great to do but don’t get a feel, you get a barometer. Who you are, what you’re putting out. Is it connecting an audience, is it real? You don’t know that when you are doing film. Does it connect with an audience? You don’t know that until you have a live audience.
Is it believable yeah? Do you have an audience? Can you work with the energy of the audience know how to develop your craft. Just keep developing your craft I think. I would say that to all kids coming in.”
Special thanks to Felicity Dean for her interview with Public Description.