On Being a Film Star
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I’m an improbable film actor. But I played Tony Blair’s secretary in The Queen and I loved it. I met Stephen Frears’s casting director, Leo Davis, at a party where I blushed and shuffled while a friend talked up my student acting. I hadn’t even been a student at the time – I’d been the tutor talked into playing Lady Bracknell. Leo put me in front of Stephen Frears – a ‘meeting’ it is called, nothing as infra dig as an audition, and indeed it wasn’t an audition: we talked about my day job in Westminster think-tanks, he said I’d do, I wandered off into a hot day in Soho in June and heard nothing further at all until the last Thursday in August. The read-through was on Monday and I was in the Mixteca, the indigenous area of high mountain which rises quickly and very soon remotely behind the Mexican city of Oaxaca. I spent all but 50 pounds of my fee for the film getting myself back to Mexico City and then to London on a club class ticket.

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I’d probably have been more nervous if Montezuma hadn’t been threatening a postponed revenge: as it was, I popped fistfuls of kaolin and morphine and sat round the table in the Ealing Studios with the entire cast for the only time. Helen Mirren had the Queen’s voice, and Sylvia Syms the Queen Mum’s; some were working on impersonations, everybody was polite, hot, barely tense. The Royals went off to location in Scotland and I never saw them again. I went back to my day job and to Labour politics and occasional visits to the real Number Ten while I waited for my scenes in the fictional one. Changes to the script arrived every day, colour-coded by date, so every day I came home from work and took out a few more white, pink, green sheets and added more abstruse colours: mauve, Indian yellow. There was the visit, by limo, to the production doctor off Sloane Square, who listened to my heart, looked in my ears and then spent 40 minutes complaining of the burden the Government put on private doctors like him. He didn’t strike me as particularly heavy-laden. 

I learned my lines and thought very hard about whom to ask for advice. I rang my friend and ex-pupil Simon Woods – the one who’d persuaded me to play Lady Bracknell – who was already in the movies. He’s good. How to look as if I knew what I was doing? Hit your marks, he said, those bits of gaffer tape on the floor which tell you where the camera expects you to arrive when you walk across the room; ask for props – a pen, a coffee mug – if you don’t have them already, but then don’t fiddle with them because you’ll never manage to sip from the coffee cup at exactly the same moment from shot to shot. Know exactly what your character is thinking about and concentrate like mad.

And then there was the day I really started acting: the day I met The Trailer. The crew was back from Scotland and filming church scenes out beyond Kingston. The same limo picked me up and took me for a costume fitting and for the first time I realised I would be in a real trailer with steps up to it and ‘Blair Sec’ on the door, just like in the movies. Stars have a whole trailer to themselves: it is still pretty grand to dress in half a trailer; my third of a trailer went straight to my head and knees while I was pretending to a cool and actorly worldliness. The trailer had the naff ingenuity of smart chemical toilets at an outdoor concert: a beige couch, zig-zag patterned cushions, little cupboards with plastic hessian fronts and gold knobs, fake candle wall lights with little shades, vaguely art deco patterned carpet everywhere. There was a loo and a shower and, later, the costume for that day all hung up with the shoes (too large) and the jewellery. And, always, a big black puffa jacket to keep you warm between scenes. Young women in more puffa jackets bring you tea and coffee and offer you bacon sandwiches. You pay visits to the third of a trailer next door; you read, listen to tapes, check over your next scene, get bored enough to notice how grand you feel. It occurred to me only rather late that the real point of the trailer is to keep your actors where you have your eye on them, so they can’t run off and spoil their hair and make-up. It makes for infantile and transgressive pleasures: running off to get a takeaway cappucino, walking round a block away from the trailers.

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Is acting an advanced form of showing off? I suspect my mother thinks so. It may be showing off writ the size of sky-writing, but also spun out, refined, nuanced; it may be the generous form of showing off, which puts itself out, which gets itself out there and speaks up to entertain you: these are my skills, look what I can do, look at the expressiveness, the subtlety, the intensity or just the sheer glorious versatility of it. In German-speaking Europe in the Seventeenth Century, ‘English’ actors weren’t defined by nationality; they were the players who could do comedy and tragedy, who could sing and dance and do sword-fights, perform in a couple of languages and strut the hand-me-down fashions of the nearest court. That’s worth showing off. Or might acting be the refuge of an irremediably dissociated psyche? I can’t call together a solid sense of self so I inhabit possible selves one after the other, lending not just my body but my psyche to a series of ghostly collaborations between a writer and a director. Is a resting actor precisely a restless actor, not just unemployed but wandering, unable to settle into a self when there isn’t one given them?

The questions of self-display and dissociation had always struck me as plain silly when I’d considered the actors I know: more are, perhaps, shy than are boastful; we’re a vain lot but not more than commonly so; and though some are wandering ghosts in search of an identity, there are plenty of deeply rooted people who dig gardens in Putney and read the Sunday papers. But on set myself I found that was not quite the end of the matter. I found film acting deeply satisfying for two reasons which did have to do with attention-seeking on the one hand and unstable identity on the other. When you are in a scene, the attention on you is absolute. The scene is called, make up and costume tweak you, pat you, pick invisible fluff off your jacket, adjust your buttons, crowd round like helpful elves in a fairy tale – little cobweb touches and nudges, pleasurable and very slightly creepy at the same time. And then it’s close-ups – a moment not to snigger. ‘Miss Hitch’s close-up’: who, me? More elves, more patting and paintbrushes.

There is the camera, right on me, lights on me, everybody looking at me, absolute, concentrated attention, all the attention I could possibly want and of course I do want it, all on me. But not as me. The me who’s getting all the attention is Blair’s secretary. It’s not dissociation exactly, but displacement, just enough displacement for me to find all that attention pure pleasure: I sidestep my self-consciousness because, for the time being, it just isn’t my own self I’m conscious of. I’m acting, I’m another self. There’s more to love: the take ends, it’s in the can and the actors back off while the camera angles are worked out for the next scene, lights are rigged, mikes are placed and checked. And nobody sees us at all. The other side of absolute attention, the other half of the release from self-consciousness, is complete invisibility, absolute absence of attention, the freedom to be eyes and ears observing and completely unobserved. Bliss.

And there was the sheer efficiency of it all. Twenty and more people milling around a core of director and DOP – Director of Photography – in more or less distant and eccentric orbits. Some are obvious – the focus puller with a tape measure working out focal lengths, a skittle-shaped boom operator hoisting a long pole with a mike on it, huge arm and shoulder muscles tapering down to little feet, Sparks with a roll of gaffer tape sticking wires to the floor, Continuity with scatty hair and gimlet eyes taking actors aside and pointing out the gestures we’ve varied. But most people are just sort of fiddling around. And then a scene is called and suddenly everyone has a place and a job: the focus puller and the cameraman wrap themselves round each other, the four arms and eyes of a single lens, a take, silence, the clapperboard and off we go, and again and again, five times, eight times, until Stephen calls Check the Gate! – did any stray hairs or bits of fluff worm their way onto the camera frame for that last take? – and then there’s one more for luck and it’s in the can. I imagine it might be like watching a brigade of sappers in time of war, a crawling preparatory wait and then a call and everybody knowing what to do: a pontoon bridge, a necessary tunnel. Or I expect that’s what is meant to happen. Films really do work like that. 

Presumably that’s why film hierarchies are rigorous. On set the Director is ‘Sir’ even in Stephen Frears’s team which had worked together from movie to movie. Hierarchy dictates whether you share a car and who with, your place in the morning queue for hair and make up, informally at least who you speak to on set: don’t speak to the stars unless you’re spoken to. Even the fleas have little fleas of their own: I was an actor, not an extra, and there was a world of difference. We had two cohorts of extras: the first, for the main filming, were ordinary looking, plausible human furniture for a government office. But then there were the reshoots, a few months later, which happened over a weekend. Perhaps the original agency was booked up, because the reshoot extras were quite different: young, gleaming of hair, dazzling of tooth, hardly a one of them under six foot, none of them English; they included an Italian women’s water-skiing champion and several beautiful Brazilians. They didn’t look like actors and they bore no resemblance whatsoever to the back office of Downing Street. I spent take after take standing by a Brazilian on the staircase and started talking to him. Afterwards one of the other actors reproved me: you don’t talk to extras. I pointed out that he was a Guardian-reading Labour voter, rather to the egalitarian left of me: Oh, that’s quite different. 

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 After a week it was hard to remember I ever did anything else. Up for 5.30 to be taken from Camden to the trailers in Berkeley Square, hair and make-up, builders’ tea, then to the Downing Street set in Mayfair. Actors are travelled: it’s a transitive verb, used between walkie-talkies by the puffa jacket girls: I’m travelling Mr Blair to set now, there in five. Green room, good morning, this morning’s scenes. Five minutes with Frears on the Downing Street sofa: how’s the set? Fine, I say – it is, too, just the right combination of elegance and tat – but you need a few more coffee cups around. The drills are on the go in the building site next door, so it will be another day of trying to time takes in the lulls. Lunch back by the trailers, in the old Routemaster bus that set catering uses as a dining room. Back to the green room, more waiting, more scenes. Michael Sheen has Blair’s energy and concentration; Mark Bazeley has Alastair Campbell’s physical mannerisms so exactly he makes me jump. I’m no longer a curiosity to the other actors, I can wander around and ask nosy questions. When did Stephen realise he could make the aftermath of Diana’s death work as a film? When he got Adam Curtis on board to do the archive film, he says. It’s all about craft, it’s all in the making.

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I spent the remaining 50 pounds of my fee on drinks at the Wolseley with Kananu and Julian, the other two thirds-of-a-trailer, and I waited to see the film. Strictly speaking I haven’t, yet, because I still hide my face when I see myself on screen so I’ve missed those bits entirely. The Queen opened in London a couple of weeks before last year’s Labour Party Conference. Good film, they said, and do you know, there’s someone who looks just like you? It gave me a mild dose of temporary celebrity, but an oddly paradoxical one, as one of my friends from Number Ten pointed out: I was being noticed for pretending to do what he and his colleagues actually did.

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