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Working Women

Lynda Steadman
Joss Barratt

College Days: Lynda Steadman crawls through a pub with Mark Benton in 'Career Girls.'

Performers Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steaadman talk about Mike Leigh's new film, 'Career Girls'

By Richard von Busack

In director Mike Leigh's newest film, Career Girls, Annie and Hannah are old friends who patch up their relationship over the course of a London weekend. It is Leigh's least angry film in years, made within sight of the recent Labor victory in England.

The focus is less on the depredations of the Tories than on the contrast between youth and maturity. The same concern about what happens to the dispossessed is as present here as it was in Leigh's High Hopes (1988), Naked (1993) and his monumental Secrets & Lies (1996).

One of the major themes in Leigh's work is how working-class people gravitating towad prosperity inadvertently cut themselves loose from still-impoverished friends and relations. In Career Girls, a character cut loose shows up more as a ghost from the past than as a present insoluble pain in the conscience.

Annie, the painfully shy girl from the north of England is played by Lynda Steadman. It's her first feature film, though she's well-known as a television actor in Britain. Cartlidge is one of the most distinctive performers in England, and certainly the fiercest British actress since Glenda Jackson. Cartlidge made a strong, even unforgettable impression in Naked (as one of the sparring partners of the antihero David Thewlis) and followed that with a gentler but still sharp part as the skeptical widow in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves.

Despite Cartlidge's intensity on screen and Steadman's painful shyness, both women were a pleasure to interview, especially when we found out we all shared the same childhood ambition to grow up to be hippies. (PS: Cartlidge wants me to mention her brother in Napa Valley, Tony Cartildge of Ehler's Grove Vineyard. Try the Zinfandel.)


Metro: Career Girls was made with the usual Leigh method. So, how long was the rehearsal period?

Steadman: Three months.

Cartlidge: It's really an investigation period. If you know anything about Leigh's method, you know he doesn't start with a script. He has some notion in his head of the territory he wants to explore, but he doesn't inform us of what it is. Our job really is just to build a character in collaboration with him. We're not given story lines. You build a character with him.

Once the character is ready, it starts to interact with the other characters, and all of these extensive improvisations/investigations are what Mike will take for the film.

Steadman: The story has emerged from these months of improvisation. Then, when you reinvestigate an improvisation; you do it several times. So, for example, Leigh would perhaps start where Hannah met Annie in the film. We would have to improvise where Hannah met Annie several times until it becomes crafted and honed and fixed. So Leigh will take the best elements from all of those improvisations and fix exactly what will be said and done in that scene--and then film it, immediately.

Metro: Those moments or reinvestigations before the filming starts--is any of that on paper?

Cartlidge: It's on paper only because the continuity woman needs to write it down. It's only literally minutes before filming that we've managed to fix the dialogue; at that stage, the continuity woman is writing it down, so if we deviate from that particular dialogue on another take, she can tell us, no, no, you said something different last time. At that stage, the dialogue becomes as fixed as the dialogue in any other script, ultimately. So there's no improvising on the big screen.

Metro: Aren't there a lot of takes using this method?

Steadman: No more so than any other film. But it does demand a lot of concentration, as you can imagine. We don't ever get to sit by and have chats or just be ourselves; we're in character all day, apart from when we go to have lunch.

Metro: Can you describe the back-stories of your characters?

Cartlidge: In a way no, because what Mike had chosen as a filmmaker to depict is Mike's film. In a way for us to give you information that isn't in the film is sort of irrelevant and also disrespectful to what Mike had decided to film. All one knows from the film is that Annie and Hannah come from very similar childhoods; they both come from broken homes. Hannah's mother is an alcoholic.

Steadman: Annie's mother on the other hand, is very close to her mother, and this deters her from moving on with her life.

Cartlidge: They both have very different relations with their mothers. Hannah has a sister who is preferred over her. They are both at the same college. Annie is studying psychology. Hannah is studying English.

Steadman: Our characters only know what other characters choose to tell us, very much like real life.

Katrin Cartlidge
Joss Barratt

Underground Performance: Katrin Cartlidge.

Metro (to Cartlidge): In Inside Stories, a book of essays compiled by the British Film Institute, you wrote that Sophie in Naked was like peeling yourself, and that Dodo in Breaking the Waves was like suffocating yourself. How would you describe playing Hannah?

Cartlidge: Like putting yourself into a cannonball. Oh, God, playing Hannah was like pulling myself through a hedge backwards. They're all driven by such different things, all those characters. The main difficulty with Hannah was her metabolic rate, both physical and mental. That speed, that adrenaline, was absolutely exhausting.

Steadman: On the other hand, playing Annie was like hurtling down a ski slope because you never looked up. Annie keeps bumping into lampposts, because she never looks up at people.

Metro (to Steadman): This is your first film, but on British TV, you're famous for the show Thief Takers. Did Mike Leigh hire you because of that show?

Steadman: Mike Leigh saw me on the TV show Rides, about a female-owned taxi firm. I've got about four or five TV series done, shown all over the world, except in America. I can understand why Thief Takers hasn't been sold to America, and that's because it is the U.K. version of NYPD Blue. My characters have one thing in common: they're all strong, independent women. To play someone like Annie was a complete departure.

Metro: Katrin, in Inside Stories, you wrote that you need a great deal of reassurance when you're acting, which has to surprise anyone who has seen you on screen. Is that still true two years later?

Cartlidge: Yes, I hate looking at my own work, which I think motivates me to do the next one. It's getting to the point where I just want to do the film and not watch it afterwards.

Metro: Did you worry about the style of the acting in the flashbacks in Career Girls was too theatrical?

Steadman: No, I wasn't aware of looking theatrical. Mike's not interested in the plastic veneer that you see on screen. He wants to see people with warts and all. The thing is, you create the character, and the actor's sole responsibility is to be truthful to that character at all times. And when you've been creating this intensity, you're just being this human being, you're not thinking, Oh, right, I'm going to be big here or small there. Perhaps these characters appear to be larger than life, but I don't think they are. I know people loads of people with as many nervous tics as Annie.

I know that Mike has been accused over the years of creating characters that do seem exaggerated, but I do think that when reality is held up as a mirror, people don't recognize it. I keep using this analogy: When Samuel Beckett started writing his plays, that was heightened language; it wasn't real, it was looked at as surreal. But in actual fact, if you take a conversation between two people on a bus, in a parked car, the conversation is completely disconnected. Scriptwriters are supposed to be writing natural speech, but it's not natural at all.

Cartlidge: Another thing, the film is about memory as much as anything else. It's not as if the audience is invited to be in the past with the characters. You are seeing them through the filter of both their memories. There's something about youth that isn't comfortable with itself, there's a slight self-consciousness to the behavior. I think the whole point of contrasting the early years with their later years is to see that process in action.

Metro: What's your opinion of your earlier films Breaking the Waves and Naked?

Cartlidge: I still feel that Naked is some kind of masterpiece.

Steadman: Naked is my all-time favorite film. What does that say about me as a person?

Cartlidge: I think Breaking the Waves is a fairy story, a David Lynch or Ken Loach fairy story. There's a princess and a prince, and they get married, and then there's a wicked stepmother. Lars von Trier's whole way of working, and his whole ethos, is summed up by these huge signs he has on the walls of his sets saying "Make Mistakes." This was one of the reason I wanted to work with him. All I want to do is make mistakes.

The antithesis of that is a normal film, where there's pressure on you, time is money and money's time. And here's this guy who making mistakes, who urges you to do it different every time, to not remember your lines. And, of course, the reverse psychology helps, because if you're allowed to make mistakes, you get it more right than you ever got it before.

Metro: Von Trier's quirks are legendary. He absolutely refuses to fly; supposedly he had to drive the long way around to Scotland from his native Denmark.

Cartlidge: The ferry on the way back got grounded. Supposedly the worst experience of his life.

Steadman: On a different note, I wonder if he chose to film in Scotland because there's a deep affinity between Scotland, Denmark and Northern Ireland. Many of the colloquialisms are shared. We have this word for little child, "bairn"; in Danish, it's the same word, with a different pronunciation.

Cartlidge: In Swedish, the word for the verb "to tell" is "to berate." I know because I had a Swedish boyfriend.

Metro: Lynda, where are you from? Are you related to Alison Steadman, Mike Leigh's ex-wife and frequent star?

Steadman: No. Everybody asks me that, though. I'm actually from Belfast, my dad's side of the family is Scottish, and my mom's side is from northern England, from Newcastle.

Metro: What has your stage work been like?

Steadman: Most of my stage work is from Ireland. I played Peggy in Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. I made an independent film of Medea. I also wrote and directed a play called From Angel to Old Street. These are two underground stops in London, on the Northern Line, that are five minutes apart. The play delved into the world of fantasy, of the human subconscious and childhood memories. All of these people get out at Angel, and this woman is left in this carriage with this man--and of course there's this fear.

I didn't know if I had a disaster on my hand or it was actually going to be success. I knew it would be one or the other because it was so extreme. Luckily, it was a big success. Everyone laughed all the way through with it, I couldn't believe it, because everyone identified with some part of it. I put a lot of myself into it, I really did. I felt really naked putting it on because there were a lot of my own fears in it.

Metro: Katrin, can you talk about your next film?

Cartlidge: I made an independent movie with Lodge Kerrigan. I saw his first film, Clean, Shaven, which blew my head off. It's about a schizophrenic, and it gets under your skin in a way I haven't experienced before. You observe someone who is a schizophrenic from the outside. He's in search of his daughter, and for most of the film, you're worried about this guy finding his daughter, but suddenly the film switches, and you're inside his head instead of outside.

Metro: Katrin, in Inside Stories, you wrote that anyone who is familiar with your work would be surprised at how little money you're making. Is that still the case?

Cartlidge: (Nods.) Slightly more.

Steadman: I actually said to somebody yesterday, if we'd done all of the work we'd done in America we'd be millionairesses. And the person I was talking to came out with a great phrase about actors: "The British breed 'em and we feed 'em."

Cartlidge: I think it's a case of "The British breed 'em and we chew 'em up and spit 'em out into the Betty Ford clinic, and then they emerge back to England after a few years."

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