“I Want to Be Challenged Every Day”: Q&A with Poldark’s Heida Reed

 

Heida Reed as Elizabeth Chynoweth in the BBC series Poldark, wearing her favorite tricorn hat. Photo: Mammoth Screen Ltd.
Heida Reed as Elizabeth Chynoweth in the BBC series Poldark, wearing her favorite tricorn hat. Photo: Mammoth Screen Ltd.

If you watched the BBC show Poldark this year (which aired in the U.S. on PBS), you’re not alone; the 2015 remake of the 1970s hit series is attracted huge numbers of viewers around the world, all of whom are eagerly awaiting the second season of the show, set to air in 2016.

And, of course, one of the things we love most about Poldark is the abundance of strong female characters, including Elizabeth Chynoweth, who is portrayed in the new series with beauty, grace, and strength by actress Heida Reed.

I was delighted at the opportunity to interview Heida, but my interest in talking with her was even more greatly piqued when I found out she hails from Iceland, a spectacular country which I visited two years ago.

I’m so grateful Heida agreed to chat with me, especially considering she’s very hard at work these days filming Poldark season two. Below are some of Heida’s thoughts on Iceland, Poldark, acting, and life. Thank you, Heida!

See also my interviews with Aidan Turner (“Ross Poldark”) and Robin Ellis (the “original” “Ross Poldark” from the 1970s series).

Q: I visited Iceland in 2013 to write a book about it, so I’ve done a lot of research on the country. There are a lot of conflicting opinions concerning the lovability (or lack of lovability) of Iceland in winter. Give me your insider’s insight: Winter in Iceland is ________?

A: Winter in Iceland is harsh but beautiful. If you’re cold, all the houses are geothermally heated. So is the water and it is always warm and cosy inside. It’s the wind that’s the worst. If it’s calm, there’s nothing you won’t love.

Q: Would you recommend people visit in winter? 

A: Absolutely. Only way to see the northen lights properly. If it’s snowing, there’s nothing like it.

 

Poldark cast members Ruby Bentall, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jack Farthing, and Kyle Soller visited Heida in Iceland this summer. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter. All Heida's photos via Twitter used with permission.
Poldark cast members Ruby Bentall, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jack Farthing, and Kyle Soller visited Heida in Iceland this summer. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter. All Heida’s photos via Twitter used with permission.

Several Poldark cast members visited Heida in Iceland this summer. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter. All Heida’s photos via Twitter used with permission.

Q: What are some of your favorite destinations in Iceland that you would recommend?

A: I always go to the Blue Lagoon. Have lobster soup at this old bait shop “The Sea Baron” down by the harbour in Reykjavík. The Golden Circle which consists of the national park, a waterfall and the hot spring geysirs. The Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón) and the Westfjords.

Q: Iceland is now a hot travel destination, but that’s a fairly recent development. You grew up there (near Reykjavík) before Iceland was really “discovered” by the outside world. (Is that a fair assessment?) What was it like growing up in Iceland? Did it feel isolated? What made you want to leave?

A: It has definitely changed since I grew up there in terms of tourism. The places I’ve mentioned before were mostly just visited by natives and there wasn’t much structure around them. Now it’s a little different but still great. Iceland has never felt isolated to me. Due to the second world war and British and American soldiers stationing on the island, it has since been very Americanised when it comes to popular culture and the media. I loved growing up in Iceland. Nature is very important to us and we try our hardest to preserve it. Wherever you live on the island you’re always by the sea. No one really lives inland. There’s a feeling of infinity that comes with being by the sea. As soon as I’m by it, I feel I can breathe properly. I left because I wanted an international career and to study in English. Our language is only spoken by 300,000 people and therefore it is a bit tricky to approach a career abroad without expanding your language skills.

 

Eleanor Tomlinson ("Demelza Carne Poldark") and Aidan Turner ("Ross Poldark") at Heida's for dinner, not eating fermented shark. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Eleanor Tomlinson (“Demelza Carne Poldark”) and Aidan Turner (“Ross Poldark”) at Heida’s for dinner, not eating fermented shark. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: Hákarl (fermented shark): Yes or no?

A: I’ve never had it. I think it’s something they seem to force on tourists. Although eating it is an old Viking tradition.

Q: Your original name is Heiða Rún Sigurðardóttir. Can you explain the Icelandic last-name system? Does having the last name of Sigurðardóttir mean you are related to other Sigurðardóttirs? 

A: No! My dad’s name is Sigurðar, therefore I am the daughter of Sigurðar; Sigurðardóttir. My brother is the son of Sigurðar; Sigurðsson.

[Learn more about Icelandic names.]

Q: What made you want to change your last name, and how did you choose Reed? 

A: Well I think it’s obvious why I changed it. I’ve never met a person abroad who can actually pronounce it. My middle name is Rún. As in “rune” like the secret runes in ancient Icelandic magic. At first I changed it to Heida Rune, but was advised later on to just change it to something more English. A friend suggested Reed, and I thought it sounded nice. Sometimes I wish I’d given it more thought than that, but I quite like it most days.

 

Heida with Poldark cast members Ruby Bentall ("Verity Poldark") and Jack Farthing ("George Warleggan"). Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida with Poldark cast members Ruby Bentall (“Verity Poldark”) and Jack Farthing (“George Warleggan”). Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: How would you describe the character of Elizabeth Chynoweth, your role in Poldark? What are her best strengths, her most challenging weaknesses? 

A: Elizabeth is very much a girl of her time. Ross is right when he says, she was born to be admired. It’s not so much that that is what she lives for, but it’s all she knows. She has been taught from birth how to behave and act in polite society and to always do what is expected of her. I always say Elizabeth is cursed with doing the right and proper thing and seems to be continually punished for her decisions. She lacks the courage of her own convictions, as she says to Ross when Verity runs off to be with Blamey. Her biggest weakness would be the deep need she has for Ross’s admiration. She loves him, but even though she knows she can’t have him, she still needs to know that a part of his heart belongs to her.

Q: You’ve said that Debbie Horsfield‘s portrayal of Elizabeth is somewhat different than the Elizabeth created by Winston Graham in the original books. For those who haven’t read the books, tell us more about what you see as the differences? 

A: In the books Elizabeth is a lot colder and more matter of fact. It seems sometimes unfathomable why someone like Ross would hold such a big torch for someone so lacking in warmth. Debbie’s version of Elizabeth is just a lot more rounded. She’s not the warmest person in the world, but she is written with the idea in mind that you would at least understand why Ross could have loved her so. Also if she starts off hard and cold and stays that way throughout the story, that is very monotonous for an actor to perform. Then she has nowhere to go because, later on, she does have a reason to harden somewhat. At the beginning of the story, I don’t think she does.

 

Heida on location for Poldark, riding side saddle on her horse Dylan. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida on location for Poldark, riding side saddle on her horse Dylan. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: If Elizabeth were a modern-day woman, living in 2015, what would her life be? Would she be working? Married to a prince? A CEO of a company? Who would she be? 

A: To be honest I think is impossible to say how she would be if she didn’t have to live up to the standards she has to in the 18th century. But if I’d had to take a guess I don’t think she would be career driven. She would probably be married to a wealthy man who adores her. I think her focus would be family, children, and society.

Q: Through no fault of her own, Elizabeth has taken quite a fall in social standing by the end of the first season of Poldark. And, basically, she had no control over that, due simply to the fact of being a woman. Has your experience with Poldark given you pause to think about the state of womanhood throughout history, and how far we have–or haven’t–come? 

A: Absolutely. Having been raised in a modern, liberal society as an independent woman whose choices in life are limitless, it is actually incredibly hard to put yourself in the shoes and mindframe of a woman whose life is laid out for her and livelihood depends on the financial success of her husband. Of course we have come along way in the battle for gender equality but we have a lot more to achieve before we can count ourselves equal.

 

Heida in Iceland in autumn. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida in Iceland in autumn. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: Before you saw any Poldark season two scripts, you said you were looking forward to Elizabeth having a stronger character in season two than she did in season one. Now that you’ve seen the scripts, are you pleased with what you’re seeing? 

A: Very much so. There’s a much bigger journey she goes on in the second series. Mainly due to the fact that there is more to deal with. She is put in impossible situations and she has to either live or perish in those conditions.

Q: I saw in interviews somewhere that both you and Eleanor Tomlinson each think that your own character is best for Ross Poldark. (That is, you think Elizabeth is best for him, and Eleanor thinks Demelza is.) Why do you think Elizabeth would be best for him? Why not Demelza? 

A: I think I said, It would have worked out, had they ended up together. Whether she’s best for Ross or not, I can’t say. I’m not sure about that necessarily. I think the question should be Who’s best for Elizabeth? 😉

[Pam’s note: Indeed!!]

 

Heida on location filming Poldark with Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza). Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida on location filming Poldark with Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza). Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: I’ve heard actors say that when they take on a role, in order to convincingly play the character they have to love and believe in the character–even if, to the outside world, the character is an unlikeable villain. Do you agree? Tell me more. 

A: I agree. I think you need to believe in your character the way they would themselves if they were real. I try not to objectify them as one thing. That way they can’t breathe the way they deserve to. I’ve definitely taken it personally when I’ve seen comments about Elizabeth being a bitch or a wet blanket. But then so would she. Of course I’m able to separate myself from what is aimed at her and what is aimed at me, but I take it as a good thing when I take it personally. Because it means I am fighting for her. With her. I see things from her perspective no matter whether her intentions and actions are right or wrong. That is not up to me to judge. That’s the audience’s job.

Q: If you had to act in a different role on Poldark, which would you choose and why? Either male or female!

A: I think I’d like to be George. He has such a machiavellian mentality which is a joy to play as an actor.

Q: When you think about the huge success of Poldark, is that thrilling–as in, “finally, I’ve made it!”–or is it scary, as in, “what if this is the biggest role I’ll ever have?” Does it feel intimidating, like there’s no way anything else can match the success? Or does that knowledge offer a sort of solace, like the pressure is off? 

A: No the pressure I put on myself is never off. I don’t see this as the “I’ve made it” role, but then I don’t think I ever will with any of them. If you have that mentality I think you’re in danger of your work suffering once you think your “moment has arrived.” I’ll never think I’ve made it. I’ll always want to feel like I’m on my way rather than at some end post. Because what do you do once you’ve reached it?

 

Heida in Scarlett. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida in Scarlett. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: Earlier this year, you performed in Scarlet at London’s Southwark Playhouse, a play about a victim of revenge porn. You’ve said the play was about sexual identity, self acceptance, online bullying, and the expectations that people have of young women. That’s a very different role from Elizabeth in Poldark! Is it a goal/priority to choose a wide variety of roles to showcase different aspects of your talent or grow your own skills, or do you just take on what is interesting and available in the moment? 

A: I think it’s a combination of all of that. I certainly hope to get to play as many varied roles as possible during my career. It’s not so much about showcasing different aspects of my talent. It is more about telling different stories through different characters. Scarlet’s story is extremely important in the society we live in today and I am very proud to have been a part of that work.

Q: You love board games. Favorites? Why?

A: I love Pictionary, Actionary and Trivial Pursuit and I’m obsessed with Cards Against Humanity. We play it on set all the time! Board games and cards just make me laugh. The more serious people are with the rules the better. I just think it brings out the best and worst in people and it makes me laugh so much.

 

Heida and others from the cast and crew of Poldark, bowling. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida and others from the cast and crew of Poldark, bowling. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: You love traveling. Dream destinations? Why?

A: I want to go to Fiji and Bali and Nepal. I’m in love with the East. I love the mentality there and the landscape is so beautiful and different from Europe.

Q: You’re in your late 20s, which is generally a time of a lot of soul-searching and thinking. Has that been the case for you, as well? If so, what are the Big Issues you think about? What do you think matters; what is your Truth? 

A: The older I get, the more I realise that I know nothing. But that’s ok. There’s freedom in accepting that not everything is black and white and you can’t always define things. I think my truth lies somewhere in the acceptance of uncertainty and being able to put my ego aside in order to be honest with myself and others.

Q: What are your short- and long-term hopes, goals and dreams? What do you want?

A: I want to keep working, I want to work with my idols, I want my work to take me to all kinds of different places, I want to be challenged every day and with every new role and fellow actor, I want to challenge them back and create something that affects whoever’s watching. I want to share my life with amazing people who take me as I am, flawed in so many ways, but unapologetic.

Follow Heida on Twitter and Instagram.

Find Poldark on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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“Work Hard, Stay Humble, Be Kind”: Fashioning a Dream and a Positive Message

 

Britney Keeler in her North Hollywood studio. Photo: Love & Bambii

“Fashion doesn’t always have to scream. Sometimes it’s just a whisper, softly telling the world that I am here and I am beautiful.” ~ Love & Bambii

Britney Keeler thought she was going to be a physician. Instead she’s an entrepreneur of a fashion line with a message of kindness and a goal to make a positive impact on the world.

Sometimes we find our dreams; sometimes our dreams find us.

I first heard about Britney as a young entrepreneur with a company that promotes a positive image and message. “A beacon for young aspirational, female entrepreneurs who need a role model,” I was told.

With an introduction like that, how could I not be intrigued?

I reached out to Britney for a Q&A to find out more. Below, she shares her story, her mission, her challenges and her goals. After chatting with her, I agree. “Work hard, stay humble, be kind,” she says. With a life motto like that, I know she’ll go far.

 

Britney at work. Photo: Love & Bambii.
Britney at work. Photo: Love & Bambii.

Q: Hi, Britney! Thanks so much for chatting with me! First, the name of your company: Love & Bambii. How did you decide on this name?

A: It sounds silly but my friends and I have always said that my “spirit-animal” is a deer or more specifically “Bambi,” so it was important for me to incorporate that into the name, henceforth… Love & Bambii was born! I added the extra “i” to avoid potential backlash from Disney for using a character’s name, better safe than sorry.

Q: You’re only 23 now, and already you have your own clothing line. Tell me how this happened! When did you first come up with the idea? What, exactly, was the initial idea, and what did it blossom into?

A: Honestly, I never really planned it; I’ve always loved fashion but I never really thought it was something that would end up as my career. It all started when I went to Coachella for the first time a few years back and decided to make an outfit for myself (a very colorful ensemble), and while wearing it I was stopped more times than I could count by people asking where I got it or if they could take a picture of me for their fashion blog. I was a bit surprised but more so intrigued by the fact that I had created something that a lot of people seemed to love. From there my mom suggested that I make a few more and to put them up on our favorite shopping website Etsy, and the outfits sold within a week. After that, it had a bit of a snowball effect and it all just fell together.

Q: Having an idea is one thing, but acting on that idea is a completely other thing—and, I’d guess, the part of the equation that stops a lot of people. After you thought, “I want to have my own online boutique,” what did you do next?

A: As I touched upon in the last question, it was never really something that I planned. I was actually aspiring to be a physician and had just gotten my EMT license to make sure I liked working in the medical field when this all happened. I just never thought I had the personality to be in fashion, by nature I am a very shy and introverted individual but once I started, I realized that didn’t matter and that there was a place for me in this industry that I have since fallen in love with. The beginning was a bit chaotic since I had very limited experience in fashion. I never went to fashion school or worked in retail so I truly had to learn on the job. My mom jumped on board with me early on and we have worked together ever since, building up our Etsy shop which has changed a lot over the years. We started out making costume pieces and slowly evolved into clothing. We now even have a children’s line that was launched just a few months ago.

BK4-good vibesQ: Did you find any mentors to help you? Who, if anyone, helped you take your idea and make it into a reality? How did you find them?

A:  Someone who really inspired me was a woman named Kimberly Gordon; she is the owner and co-founder of Wildfox. I came upon her Tumblr a few months into starting up and was incredibly inspired by her story as it was quite similar to my own; she and her friend started making tee shirts for themselves in her bedroom and it has turned into one of the world’s largest fashion labels. I only recently met her at a networking event, which only strengthened my respect for her.

All of this aside, my biggest mentor would definitely have to be my business partner, my mother. She is one of the most headstrong, albeit stubborn people I have ever met but she has always been my biggest supporter and would do anything to see me succeed. Being my mom, she isn’t afraid to give me her opinion and even though we butt heads sometimes, we are a great team. She has owned a business alongside my dad for 15 years so she’s better with numbers and the technical side of things than I am, which allows me the flexibility to focus predominately on the designing side. We’re a great team.

Q: Do you design all of the items yourself?

A: Yes, all of the designs are a collaboration between my mom and me. One of us will come up with a rough design and bring it to the other and we build it from there. We each have massive notebooks filled with jotted-down notes and seeds for ideas that we come up with while on the go or while working. Half of them never see the light of day, but it’s still fun to go over what we have come up with to see if any of them are viable designs.

BK3-chevron dressQ: Do you do the production of all the items yourself?

A: We do not make the base pieces ourselves but we hand decorate each piece from our studio in North Hollywood. We work with sequin fabric a lot so I love finding pretty new sequin colors to design with. Our studio literally looks like a unicorn exploded with sequins hiding in every nook and cranny; I oftentimes come home to find sequins stuck all over me. We only recently started working with printed designs but I especially love it as it allows me much more creative freedom than sequin patches do. My favorite new addition though is definitely the kids section, I feel like I am building my future child’s wardrobe and kids are much more fun to work with!

Q: How did you figure out who would be the right people to handle the production?

A: We always make sure that our base piece supplier’s use fair trade methods in their production and have ethics that align with our own. Our biggest supplier is Alternative Apparel who are a certified Green Business meaning they use sustainable methods to create their products.

Q: Do you have a personal or company mission statement or philosophy—an idea or set of ideas that drive how you run your company (and life)?

A: Our company’s philosophy is this: “Fashion doesn’t always have to scream, sometimes it is just a whisper, softly telling the world that I am here and I am beautiful.”

We believe that your clothing should be a compliment to you, not something that takes away from who you are and more importantly it should make you feel good about yourself. One of my biggest problems with current fashion is its obsession with negativity. It seems that teen culture is obsessed with slogans than demean one another, shirts that make young girls think it’s okay to be rude, self-absorbed individuals. I think that many people in the fashion industry don’t truly understand the impact they are having on girls’ lives and I want to turn the trend that seems to focus on the negative, to instead focus on the positive.

Personally, the number one quote that I live by is, “Work hard, stay humble, be kind.” I try to live my life by this and ever since I have, my life has changed for the better. I always look for the good in bad situations like yin and yang, and this has really helped me get through hard times both in life and work, and I try to exude this message in everything I do.

If you look at a Love & Bambii piece, you will find notes of positivity hidden everywhere. My personal favorite is our hangtag that reads, “Be kind. Work hard. Stay humble. Smile often. Stay loyal. Keep honest. Never stop learning. Be thankful always and love.” I hope my customers who who read it, will take it to heart.

 

Some products from Britney's boutique clothing line. Photos: Love & Bambii. Fashion photography by Ross Ferguson.
Some products from Britney’s boutique clothing line. Photos: Love & Bambii. Fashion photography by Ross Ferguson.

Q: What have been some of the greatest challenges in setting up your own business?

A: The list is truly never-ending, there are thousands of clothing designers out there, new ones popping up every day. With this constant influx of new faces, and it can be hard to be seen amongst the crowd. Fashion is a business of incessant ebbs and flows, one month I’m overwhelmed with the amount of orders coming in and the next, I find myself wondering where everyone has gone! This can be extremely disheartening especially since this is my sole form of income. It can be hard sometimes to resist throwing in the towel for a more reliable and consistent job but then I look at what I do, what I am trying to do, and realize how much I truly love it and know that I can’t give up. Running a small business requires a massive amount of responsibility to be put on a very small number of peoples’ shoulders and in my case, that means just my mom and me. It’s extremely hard work; I never get actual days off because even if I’m at the beach on a Sunday, I’m still answering dozens of questions and emails, helping my mom keep track of inventory or the thousand other things it takes to run a business without any employees to delegate to. Hopefully we will be able to bring on some full time assistants in the not-so-distant future.

 

Photo shoot with Ross Ferguson. Photo: Love & Bambii.
Photo shoot with Ross Ferguson. Photo: Love & Bambii.

Q: What aspects of your personality do you think have helped propel you to success?

A: Despite a few years in teenhood that we all go through at some point or another, I have always been an extremely optimistic and positive person. It takes a lot to upset me (I get this from my dad) and I handle stress extremely well. I’ve always believed in “killing people with kindness.” Nothing good ever comes from showing animosity; you may gain respect out of fear but people aren’t going to like you. This all has led me to gaining and keeping amazing connections with people I have met over the years as well as most importantly, enabled me to deal with stresses as they come and work through them calmly and professionally.

Q: What are your goals for this company?

A: My main goal is to make an impact on the fashion industry in a good way (however small this impact may be). I want girls to grow up believing they are beautiful and for people to be kinder to one another. I know this sounds a bit far-fetched for a clothing company but clothing is a lifestyle, you wear what you feel and this is especially true for young girls. You look at almost any clothing line and it will have a “vibe,” and I want Love & Bambii to radiate good vibes! I hope that one day I will have made an impact on at least a few people, whether it be bringing a smile to a person who needs it when they see my shirt on the street or by a teen girl who feels just a little bit better when she sees her shirt from Love & Bambii’s tag reading “You are beautiful in every single way” after she was just made fun of at school.
A goal that I only recently surpassed was selling to twenty-five countries. I just shipped out an order to Brazil, which marked number twenty-five!

 

Photo: Love & Bambii.
Photo: Love & Bambii.

Q: What have you learned about yourself in the process of bringing your own business to life?

A: One thing that really stands out is the day I realized that I needed to discipline myself into becoming more assertive. I was at a networking event and I was talking to a girl at my table that has been extremely successful in fashion blogging, it genuinely took me a good thirty minutes to work up the courage to hand her a business card just to ask her to check out my website. I was so intimidated by her success that I was actually afraid to just hand her a dang business card. It was after that event that I made a genuine effort to become bolder not only in my work but also in life.

Q: If you could go back and give yourself advice at the outset of your journey, what would you tell yourself?

A: I would tell myself “you can’t always make everyone happy.” I’ve always been a people pleaser and it was a rough road at the start when I would receive tough criticism in reviews or feedback. It took me a while to learn this, but if I had understood it a little better beforehand, it would have saved me long stressful hours and sleepless nights over issues that I would now be able to solve and put behind me in a heartbeat.

Thank you, Britney, for your time, and best wishes on your endeavors!

Britney Keeler, 23, is the founder of the boutique clothing line Love & Bambii, which she started in 2012 as a 20-year-old. The brand focuses on clothing and styles that promote a positive message for women, teen girls, and children.

Find Love & Bambii at loveandbambii.com, on EtsyFacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Britney also occasionally has a booth at the Melrose Trading Post in Hollywood, so to check her websites for updates on future events!

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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The Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution: Brené Brown’s Rising Strong

Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending–to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how the story ends.
Brené Brown, Rising Strong

Rising Strong by Brené Brown

“No one could see the color blue until modern times.”

That’s the title of an article that came out in Business Insider earlier this year. I saw the headline when the story came out, and of course I was intrigued. No one could see blue? How could that be?

The article states, “…ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue–not Greek, not Chinese, not Japanese, not Hebrew. And without a word for the color, there is evidence that they may not have seen it at all.”

And then, the article poses a question: “Do you really see something if you don’t have a word for it?”

When I read Brené Brown’s books, watch her videos, and witness how the people around me react to what Brené has to say, in some ways it feels like Brené has done the equivalent of introducing our modern society to the color blue. Her research and work have given us a new vocabulary, a way to talk with each other about the ideas and feelings and fears we’ve all had but haven’t quite known how to articulate. It’s like we’ve all had a sense of the concepts Brené studies–specifically shame, vulnerability, and courage–but never before have we had the words to fully express what we’ve been feeling, or to share with each other our experiences.

I should back up and start by saying that I love Brené and am intensely grateful for her work. I think it’s telling that my autocorrect/autosuggest knows by now to offer up “Brené”–complete with that accent mark over the e–when I’m texting someone. It is not unusual for me to quote or reference her ideas. I’ve read all her books, watched most of her videos, listened to her The Power of Vulnerability CDs more times than I can remember (and passed them on to a large handful of people), and I took Brené’s eCourse offered on Oprah.com back in 2014. (Brené also now offers courses through her new online learning community, COURAGEworks). I’ve heard the terms “Brené Brown junkie,” or “the cult of Brené Brown,” and while I understand what people mean, I think the phrases are a bit unfair. The fact that something resonates with a lot of people doesn’t make it invalid. Brené’s research resonates deeply with me, and the work is work I still need to do. It may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.

And so it was with eager anticipation that I awaited Rising Strong, Brené’s fourth book, released last week. (See the book’s beautiful video trailer at the end of this post.)

Rising Strong continues Brené’s research into the exploration of the wholehearted journey. As Brené says, her most recent three books can be summed up as:

“The thread that runs through all three of these books,” she says, “is our yearning to live a wholehearted life.”

Brené's past books.
Brené’s previous books.

“In the past two years [since the publication of Daring Greatly], my team and I have … received emails every week from people who write, ‘I dared greatly. I got my butt kicked and now I’m down for the count. How do I get back up?’ I knew when I was writing The Gifts and Daring Greatly that I would ultimately write a book about falling down. I’ve collected that data all along, and what I’ve learned about surviving hurt has saved me again and again. It saved me and, in the process, it changed me,” she says.

Thus comes Rising Strong, a road map for how to get back up when we fall.

The Rising Strong Process includes:

  • The Reckoning: walking into our story
  • The Rumble: owning our story
  • The Revolution: writing a new ending and changing how we engage with the world

To me, Rising Strong is largely a book about story.

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.
Brené Brown

We are wired for story, says Brené. (That is, in fact, Rule #4 in her Rules of Engagement for Rising Strong.) I couldn’t agree more. (Personally, I think storytelling, rather than prostitution, is likely the world’s oldest profession.)

When you think about it, practically everything we do is in some way related to the stories we tell ourselves. Whether the story is small–say, a reaction to someone who cut us off in traffic (are they a jerk? In a hurry to get to the hospital?)–or grand–such as our narratives of who we are, who we want to be, who we think we have to be–stories rule our lives.

“We feel the most alive when we’re connecting with others and being brave with our stories–it’s in our biology,” says Brené.

One of the most powerful practices I learned from Rising Strong is the idea of incorporating into our lives and communications the phrase, “the story I’m making up is….” That is, recognizing and acknowledging that the interpretations of events we’ve created in our heads–the stories from which our fears flow–are maybe, just maybe, not one hundred percent accurate.

I often think of myself as a jack of all trades, master of none. But the fact is, my brain is pretty much an admiral when it comes to making up stories. I’m a writer–of too-long emails and texts, of the occasional blog, of books of both fiction and non-fiction–so being able to make up stories comes in handy. For example, in the book I’m working on right now, I’m making up whole worlds, whole universes. Without the ability to make up stories, I’d be lost in my chosen career.

But when it comes to real life, the ability to weave a hundred different stories from one event can be exhausting. Inside my brain, things can get messy.

Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts or happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever flowing through one’s head.
Mark Twain

While the reckoning, the rumble, and the revolution are all critical to the rising strong process, Brené says it’s the rumble that is the messiest. It’s the space where “you’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light.” It’s the place of the greatest struggle, and, says Brené, it’s a nonnegotiable part of the process.

“The rumble begins with turning up our curiosity level and becoming aware of the story we’re telling ourselves about our hurt, anger, frustration, or pain.”

Brené calls the initial story we tell ourselves the “sh*tty first draft” or “SFD” (a phrase she borrows from writer Anne Lamott). Writing down the unedited, unfiltered, unpolished stories we are hearing in our heads about the situations that are causing us to feel fear, hurt, pain, anger, shame, etc., allows us to investigate the tough questions about what’s really happening, to evaluate what we’re thinking, and to ask whether our stories are true, or a way to disengage and self-protect.

Rising Strong is rich with anecdotes from Brené’s own life. This, to me, is part of the strength of the book. Over and over as I read Brené’s books, I recognize the truth in the title of her first book: I Thought It Was Just Me. Any shame we may feel in seeing ourselves in these stories is moderated by the knowledge that Brené is right there with us. Our fears and shames can feel suffocating when we believe we are alone in them. Brené’s work reminds us: we are not alone.

Brené Brown
Brené Brown

In Rising Strong, Brené also addresses the complex nature of failure. We “gold-plate” failure and grit, she says, skipping over or sugar-coating the process and the pain involved in falling and in deciding to rise again.

“Rather than gold-plating grit and trying to make failure look fashionable, we’d be better off learning how to recognize the beauty in truth and tenacity,” she says.

Brené notes, “In her book The Rise, Sarah Lewis writes, ‘The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else–a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention–no longer the static concept of failure.’ Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.”

Brené also talks about the challenging idea that everyone is simply doing they best they can in any given moment. It’s a difficult concept to embrace when we’re dealing with people whose actions so very thoroughly conflict with our own needs and values. But personally, I think if more of us could embrace that belief in our day-to-day dealings (especially on the internet), it could have a profound impact on our interactions and our world.

And, following what she has said is one of the most profound findings of her research, Brené discusses boundaries and the idea that the most boundaried people she’s ever met are also the most compassionate. That one takes a while to digest, but it makes tremendous sense. “Compassionate people ask for what they need,” she says. “They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it.”

There’s far too much good stuff in Rising Strong for me to cover it all. Of course by now it’s obvious that I recommend it, and all Brené’s other work. We are story-full beings, and miscommunications can contribute to our greatest woes. Learning how better to communicate with each other, and how better to understand and manage the (not completely accurate) stories we tell ourselves can, in my opinion, only lead to greater connection. And, as I learned in another book released this summer, Michelle Gielan’s Broadcasting Happiness, social connection is the greatest predictor of happiness. The work is hard, but the journey is worthwhile.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
Winston Churchill

Of the ten Rules of Engagement for Rising Strong, I think one of the most powerful is Rule #9: Courage is contagious. Brené’s books are a tangible manifestation of this rule. Putting books out into the world, to be critiqued and criticized by potentially billions of people, is a vulnerable and courageous act. By sharing her own stories, sharing her own vulnerability with us, Brené empowers us each to be a little more courageous in our own lives. When reading Brené’s books, I always feel a little stronger, a little braver, a little more courageous. Not invincible; reading her books doesn’t make me suddenly feel like I will never fall. But definitely more resilient, like if I fall, I can pull myself back up again.

Says Brené, “In my work, I’ve found that moving out of powerlessness, and even despair, requires hope. Hope is not an emotion: It’s a cognitive process…. hope is learned.”

Rising Strong, like all Brené’s books, gives me hope.

We are the authors of our lives.
We write our own daring endings.

Brené Brown

Find Brené at her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
Learn more about the COURAGEworks online learning community.

Rising Strong Trailer from Brené Brown on Vimeo.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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“We Are All Broadcasters”: Q&A with Michelle Gielan on Her New Book, Broadcasting Happiness

Michelle Gielan, author of Broadcasting Happiness. Photo: Dartise Johnson.

Disclosure: BenBella Books, Inc. provided me with a copy of Broadcasting Happiness. No obligations were implied or inferred from this gift.

You’ve been there. You’re having a great day, and then you turn on the news and something horrible has happened: wildfires blazing across a drought-ravaged countryside, earthquakes toppling buildings and destroying lives, yet another mass shooting in yet another school, one more act of injustice leading to a week-long riot. Or maybe you turn on the computer and check Facebook, and somebody has posted a rant about their work or co-workers (and maybe we can relate). Or maybe it’s on Twitter. Or if it’s not Twitter or Facebook the news, maybe you’re in line at the grocery store, and the person in front of you is being rude to the clerk. Or the clerk is complaining about the working conditions or the customers. Or maybe the one complaining is you.

We all know the saying: happiness is an inside job. Each of us is responsible for our own emotions. And yet, the truth is, whether intentionally or not, every one of us influences others with our thoughts, our words, and our actions. Knowing this fact empowers us to consciously choose our interactions, and use our influence to make a positive impact on the world. This is the crux of Michelle Gielan’s new book Broadcasting Happiness, released August 11.

Most books about happiness (and I’ve read a lot, believe me) focus primarily on the self. What’s interesting about Broadcasting Happiness is that it acknowledges our greater role in the world, our power to affect change in our workplace, our communities, and our families, as well as ourselves. The ideas in Broadcasting Happiness are real-life applications of my strongly held belief that we all should “give what you need” (a tenet of my own personal manifesto).

Michelle’s introduction to her book could have been written by almost any of us. She tells of the time when, as a news reporter for CBS, she was covering the funeral of a ten-year-old child, a random victim of random violence.

“I was tired of it. As I sat in that church in Englewood … I was surrounded by a black congregation that was tired, too. Yet amidst the emotional exhaustion there were stories of hope, and those stories changed the trajectory of my life.”

Shortly after this experience, she left her job at CBS.

“It was not because we were telling negative stories or because of the long hours and early mornings,” she writes. “And it wasn’t lost on me what I would be giving up — broadcasting to millions of people every time that red light went on over the camera. I left because I had seen another light. This book is about that story.”

From the moment I started reading Broadcasting Happiness, I was filled with questions about the concepts and ideas Michelle was sharing. I was delighted to have the chance to ask her a few questions about new book, below. Thank you so much, Michelle, for your time!

Q: Let’s start by defining “happiness,” at least for the purposes of this interview.

A: In our work, we define happiness as “the joy we feel growing towards our potential.” This moves happiness beyond the momentary pleasure we get from a chocolate bar. We can grow in any domain of life from work to parenting to our tennis game, and find joy through the ups and downs along the way.

Q: You worked as a reporter many years ago in Chicago, and you say in your introduction in your book that attending the funeral of a ten-year-old child, yet another random victim of random violence, changed the trajectory of your life. Tell us about that briefly, and how that eventually led to your writing Broadcasting Happiness?

A: The funeral was for a 10-year-old girl struck by a stray bullet from gang gunfire while at her own birthday party at home. Sitting in the pews of the church, I saw another story unfolding beyond the violent, sensational one we reported the night of the shooting. That one centered on a strong community supporting the mother and a neighborhood becoming safer each day (by the stats) due to coordinated efforts by police and citizens. It was a story of progress and hope, and that story had the potential to spur even greater positive change, instead of leaving viewers feeling helpless and depressed. Seeing that, I knew there was a better way tell news stories so I traded in my anchor desk at CBS News for a research lab and to study under Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of the field of positive psychology.

But while there I had an epiphany. We are ALL broadcasters. As parents, friends, and colleagues, we all broadcast messages to people throughout the day, and that changes how others see life, not to mention a full range of business and educational measures including stress, profitability and intelligence.

Q: And that’s the core idea in your book. All of us — not just the traditional media — are “broadcasters” (“even if we don’t say a word”), and what we broadcast out into the world has an impact. Further, you say, “Our stories are predictive not only of happiness, but also of business, educational, and health outcomes”; that “small shifts in the way we communicate internally and with others can create big ripple effects.” Do you really believe that every person, regardless of title or role in society, has the ability to impact the world around them, for the negative or for the positive?

A: Too often we forget how powerful we are as individuals to shape how other people see the world. Each one of us constantly broadcasts to other people — whether consciously or unconsciously — verbally or non-verbally — and those messages influence their brain. Message such as “I am stressed,” or “I don’t deserve to be here,” are very different than “We can overcome this together,” and “I am grateful.” What’s your broadcast to your family, colleague or friends?

Our research shows that consciously changing those messages can raise business and educational outcomes, including sales, by 37%, productivity by 31%, and reduce the negative effects of stress by 23%. At one of our clients, Nationwide Brokerage Services, when employees changed the story from “If you’re having fun, you’re not working hard enough,” to “Broadcasting a positive mindset and prioritizing happiness fuels my success and connection with others,” the insurance agency tripled revenues from $350 million to more than $1 billion in just a few years. We’ve seen over and over that change like that can occur when people at any and all levels speak up and change their broadcast.

Michelle on "Over the Hump." Photo: Michelle Gielan.
Michelle on “Over the Hump.” Photo: Michelle Gielan.

Q: One strategy you talk about in your book is the concept of the “Power Lead,” which is starting a conversation or other moment of connection by saying something positive. Can you give an example, and why is that so effective in fueling happiness and performance?

A: We have a million chances a day to deepen connection with others or shortchange ourselves that chance. Each time we begin a new conversation, meeting, email or phone call, starting with a power lead — a small positive fact or story — positively changes the trajectory of the interaction. It primes other people to be positive, and often they match what you’re broadcasting by sharing something positive as well. The perfect time to use the power lead is the next time someone says “How are you?” Try skipping “fine” or “tired” and saying something meaningful and positive. If you asked me today I might say “I’m doing great! I had breakfast with my son, and he was being really funny.” One manager I worked with started off meetings with three things he was grateful for: one about life in general, one about the team, one about someone specific on the team. He said that 45-second habit changed the tone of the meeting and improved productivity dramatically. In a study[1] where a manager was asked to deliver one piece of praise to one person on the team each day for 21 days, that team’s entire productivity jumped by 31%! Moments of connection directly relate to many business outcomes.

Q: Most of us are not members of traditional media, but many of us are active on social media, thus making a greater case for your suggestion that we are all broadcasters. I do like the idea of posting positive stories, but what about the argument that social media isn’t representative of true life, that people are becoming more depressed because they are comparing the truth of their own lives with the filtered and polished versions of other people’s posted lives? Where is the balance between positivity and truth/reality?

A: Social comparison that leads to unhappiness is the downside of social media. In addition, surfing the web often comes at the cost of face-to-face time with friends and family. The upside is that it is possible to use social media in a way that increases happiness.

First, following celebrities or people you don’t regularly see in person often doesn’t add to our happiness. The best use of social media is to deepen existing close relationships or create new ones. Catching up on pictures of your good friend’s kids ahead of a visit across the country to see her is a great way to deepen your time together. Following near-strangers can leave us feeling detached and lonely.

Additionally, being choosy about our friends based on what they broadcast is very healthy. The reason is that your feed influences your brain. A study from Cornell University[2] found that when researchers manipulated the news feed of more than 689,000 Facebook users, those who saw positive stories were substantially more likely to share positive ones themselves. The same holds true for negative stories. That study and a number of others show how we are more interconnected that we often think, and what we consume fuels our broadcast.

Q: In our life offline, I say over and over that we need to release negative people from our lives, but the reality is, it’s not that easy. These people might be family, co-workers, or other people from whom it is difficult to extricate ourselves without challenging repercussions. Aside from ignoring or “muting” those people, what can we do?

A: Too often we work with those negative people or we might find ourselves married to them! (That second case is definitely more challenging!) No matter who they are, we don’t need to let them have power over our mindset. I advocate a strategic retreat in three-parts: Retreat, Regroup, and Renter. Just like you wouldn’t show up for battle in your bathing suit, you need to be battle ready when engaging with negative people.

Sometimes the most effective way to deepen a conversation is to retreat from it. If the conditions are not in your favor, for instance the person is riled up or you’re out in public, choose to pause the conversation and regroup.

You’ll continually be frustrated by negative people if you’re not practicing positive habits (quick behavioral changes you can make in your life to increase your levels of positivity and reduce stress) to buffer against the negative. The best way to mentally regroup is to refocus your attention on the life-giving parts of your reality by counting your gratitudes, praising or thanking someone special in your life, or reviewing positive pictures you might have shot recently. These simple acts buffer your brain against the effects of negativity and stress.

When you reenter, make sure conditions are in your favor and minimize the length of time you interact with that person until you establish a track record of positive encounters. Keep your communications short and sweet, and hopefully soon you’ll together start to rewrite the script of your encounters or at minimum protect yourself from the consequences of being exposed to someone else’s negativity.

Michelle as keynote speaker for Training magazine. Photo: Michelle Gielan.
Michelle as keynote speaker for Training magazine. Photo: Training magazine.

Q: Who is more powerful — negative people or positive people?

A: I love this question because the answer is surprising! This is by far the most asked question when I give talks at companies. The answer is: It is not that either negative people or positive people are more powerful when it comes to setting culture at our companies and influencing the happiness levels of our families — it is the most expressive person that wins. Often the most expressive person on our team at work for instance, is the most anxious or negative person, and they bring everyone down. Instead of trying to change their minds, focusing on being more expressive about the positive or getting others to speak up can drown out the influence these Negative Norms have on everyone.

Q: You mention in the book that you suffered from depression for a year. I know that’s a fact that will resonate with so many readers, many of whom are looking for a way out. What were the first steps you took to start turning that around?

A: It was one of the hardest years of my life, but I am so thankful for it. Two things: Exercise daily and constantly doing what I call fact-checking. Every time my brain served up a story that was leading to unhappiness, I fact-checked it to find an equally true set of facts that illuminated a new story. For instance when I started stressing about how my job as a software developer was going nowhere, I uncovered new facts including that I had written a few lines of code that made it into the next project build or how no one at the company got a promotion in the first year so it was unreasonable for me to expect one. That helped change my thinking and the associated feelings. In my book I present fact-checking as a strategy you can use with other people if they are holding on to negative or stressful thoughts, but I first came to understand how powerful fact-checking can be by doing it with myself. After a while my brain became better at automatically seeing the positive side of life, the meaning embedded in every moment, and the things to feel grateful for, and I could more easily rewrite the thoughts that were at the root of the depression.

Q: You say several times in the book that social connection is the greatest predictor of happiness. Do you think much of society’s collective unhappiness is more about disconnection? Is one of our greatest problems simply that we are not connecting?

A: There is no greater prediction in the research of our levels of happiness than the breadth and depth of our relationships. You don’t need a ton of friends, just a few deep and meaningful relationships with others. These days with technology and over-scheduling, we are forgetting to invest time in simple connective moments with others. Even five minute meaningful conversations with other people not only fuel us in the moment but also build up a reserve of social capital so that when hard times strike, we can draw down on that bank account.

Overall, it is about being intentional about your broadcast choices. Choose not to engage in negative, gossipy conversations. Focus less on the problem and more on what can be done to solve it. When others come to you to complain, fact-check the story with them or use your leading questions to shift the focus of the conversation. Set the tone of conversations to positive using a power lead. Teach your kids an optimistic explanatory style. Continually build social capital with others through connective experiences. And turn off the radio or TV when all that is being transmitted is garbage. The clearer you are about your intentions and how you will connect with others, the more you’ll reap the advantages of broadcasting happiness.

[1] “Increase Your Team’s Productivity–It’s FRE(E),” Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin, Positive Psychology News Daily, last modified October 4, 2008, http://positivepsychologynews.com/ news/margaret-greenberg-and-senia-maymin/200810141081.

[2] Kramer, A. D. I., Guillory, J. E., and Hancock, J. T. “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111, no. 24 (2014): 8788-90.

Michelle Gielan, Founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and an Executive Producer of The Happiness Advantage special on PBS, is an expert on the science of positive communication and how to use it to fuel success. To find out more about Michelle’s book, visit the Broadcasting Happiness website (while there you can also take a test to determine your personal Success Scale score). You can also find out more about Michelle at GoodThink, and find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Michelle with Arianna Huffington. Photo: Michelle Gielan.
Michelle with Arianna Huffington. Photo: Michelle Gielan.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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“Epic and Far Reaching”: Australia’s Marta Dusseldorp on the Post-War Drama A Place To Call Home

 

Marta Dusseldorp. Photo: Ellis Parrinder.
Marta Dusseldorp. Photo: Ellis Parrinder.

“So,” I asked the woman with the Australian accent on the other end of the telephone line, “when did you find out your show has become a hit in the U.S.?”

“When I got a call saying an American girl wanted to interview me!” she laughed.

For my part, I was surprised. “She” is Marta Dusseldorp, star of A Place to Call Home, a period drama out of Australia, the first season of which aired on several PBS stations this year. And the American girl who wanted to interview her, well, that’s me. Frankly, I feel a bit like an explorer who has landed upon something special. If you haven’t yet heard of either Marta Dusseldorp or A Place to Call Home, you’re in for a treat.

Let’s start with a show primer. A Place to Call Home, or APTCH, the brain child of creator Bevan Lee, first aired in Australia on the Seven Network in 2013. Audiences around the country flocked to the show, and its ratings were high — the top-rated Australian drama of 2013. Even so, love is not money and the ratings waned, and in June 2014, in the middle of season two, the Seven Network cancelled the show for “programming reasons.” Word on the street is that the audience skewed too old (less appealing to advertisers), and the show was too expensive to produce. The network aired the remaining episodes of season two, and the show was over.

Knowing there was a possibility that the show would not have a third season, Marta told me, the producers filmed both a season two finale with twists and turns leading into season three, and a series finale, which would wrap up all storylines as best they could. With the cancellation of the show, the series finale was aired, and that was that.

Or so they thought. The fans, however, would have none of this cancellation. Online petitions were drawn up, Facebook pages were formed. An uproar was roared. The fans demanded to be heard.

And, the fans were heard. Seven Network did not come to the rescue, but another station did. In October 2014, “Foxtel came in and said, we love it, we’ll order two more seasons,” explained Marta (Foxtel is a “subscription television platform,” like cable TV; the show will be aired on its SoHo channel). Eighteen months after filming ended on season two, filming on season three began.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the U.S., someone at PBS heard about the show and was intrigued. I don’t know the ins and outs of the wheelings and dealings, but just a few months later, in April 2015, APTCH had made the leap across the Pacific Ocean and was airing in eight PBS markets across the U.S., with the three primary markets being Seattle, Atlanta, and Indianapolis.

Seattle! I’ll tell you, I love my PBS station, KCTS 9, and can always count on them to bring fantastic programming to my TV. They didn’t let me down this time, either. I saw the new show mentioned in a KCTS tweet in late March or early April, a few days before it aired. I watched, and was instantly hooked.

Wanting to find out more about Marta and the show, I reached out to Marta’s people. Much to my delight, Marta agreed to an interview. After some navigation around her intense filming schedule and the seventeen-hour time difference between her home in Sydney and mine in Seattle, I finally had the chance to chat with Marta last weekend.

 

Marta. Photo: Jason Ierace.
Marta. Photo: Jason Ierace.

I was won over from the moment we began talking. Life can be chaotic, but Marta’s smooth, low voice is reassuring, soothing. She was warm, friendly, and welcoming, and I was instantly at ease. She comes across as a woman who is at peace, content, strong, happy with her life. She’s the kind of person who, when you talk with her, makes you feel like everything is good, everything is going to be okay. Talking with her makes you want to be her BFF and have her call, every now and then, and remind you of just that: everything is good, everything is going to be okay. Have her come visit you in Seattle, and you’ll go visit her in Sydney … wait, am I projecting? Well, I’ve had a desire to go back since I visited Australia in 1989. (“1989!” exclaimed Marta when I told her that’s when I was last in her home country. “Things have changed a lot since then!”)

Anyway. Since American audiences aren’t as familiar with Marta, I asked her to take us back to the beginning.

“I was a ballet dancer from the age of four,” she told me. Even in her childhood years, she was fully immersed in her craft. “That’s all I did. I didn’t go to parties or anything.” Somewhere around age ten or eleven, she acted in a school play. At some point during the play, the audience, about 300 strong, all burst into laughter as a single entity, and she realized she had the power to bring joy. She was hooked.

“I knew from a very young age,” she said. “I thought, this is amazing, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Marta lost her brother at a very young age, as well, and acting provided an escape. “I found a great peace in pretending, and being someone else, to deal with that grief and trauma,” she said.

She went on to major in theater and film at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Immediately after leaving school she began work in her chosen field, and she’s been at it ever since.

Initially, Marta worked in theater, thrilling to the organic experience shared with a room full of strangers. “An audience is like a singular beast, it becomes one persona,” she said. “There’s nothing like a whole room, when they erupt into one huge roar, I guess it’s as close as you get to a sporting event. There’s this incredible moment when people come together as one.”

In a 2013 interview with Alexandra Spring of Vogue Australia, Marta said, “I’m a sucker for that live thing. And I’m more courageous on stage … more daring. I’m starting to try to do that more in TV. And theatre’s much bigger so it can afford bigger choices, and I miss those outrageous choices I used to try and make, and sometimes pull off.”

I asked her about that: what did she mean by “outrageous choices,” and what is it about TV that prevents her from making those choices?

“I think I used to want to shake off any kind of image people might have of me,” she said. “My father’s Dutch, I have a European look, so I always felt like I didn’t belong in Australia, didn’t look Australian.”

She explained that many Australian women are quite petite, and she is not. “So I tried to be the opposite, bold and brash.” For example, when she did the play War of the Roses, she had a scene with the man playing her lover in the play, and they decided to do it as dogs, rolling and crawling around on the ground, the audience screaming with delight.

 

Marta. Photo: Jason Ierace.
Marta. Photo: Jason Ierace.

Marta moved into TV a few years back to give her greater flexibility in being home with her family — husband and fellow actor Ben Winspear, and their young daughters Grace and Maggie. Since working more in TV, she now believes TV offers plenty of opportunity for daring moves, too.

“Television is incredibly impulsive,” she said. “You have to come up with choices really quickly. There’s not the luxury you have in theater of mulling it all over.”

Her time in TV has been busy, now more than ever. Before A Place to Call Home, she starred in a legal drama called Crownies in 2011. In early 2014, her character in the show, Janet King, got a spin-off show by the name of Janet King, with Marta as the main character. At the same time, she’s starring alongside Guy Pearce in Jack Irish, a series of television movies adapted from the detective novels by Peter Temple. All of this while also acting in A Place to Call Home — putting Marta in three shows on two different networks at the same time.

Researching Marta’s other shows, which all look great but aren’t aired in the U.S., I pondered the fact that not a lot of Australian shows make the jump across that very big Pacific pond. Marta isn’t surprised that APTCH did, though. “I always thought [the story] was universal,” she said. “The things it explores are much more than just downtown Australia.”

I offered up to Marta my description of A Place to Call Home, and asked her for hers. First, I said, of course, it’s a period drama, as it takes place in 1950s, post-war Australia. Beyond that, I see it as the story of how the shame of our secrets and desires and the mistakes we make when we’re just trying to do the right thing can tear our relationships apart, and how love and forgiveness can redeem us. It’s about the idea that we are all doing the best we can, with the best of intentions, but our paths and our choices divide us.

From Marta’s perspective, APTCH is “about identity, and feeling at home culturally, about a woman who is seeking a silence, a peace, but it’s not possible. She’s like an albatross that can’t ever land. Finally she comes home to her mother who rejects her outright because she’s converted to Judaism…. It’s about people’s inability to accept people who they are.” And, on a deeper level, said Marta, “It’s about a time that was bourgeoning in Australia, but also had a disrespectful, righteous, nasty strain running through it … it’s about how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.”

Largely billed in the U.S. as “Downton Abbey Down Under,” A Place to Call Home has much greater depth than the comparison suggests.

“It wasn’t a Downton Abbey ripoff,” said Marta. “It’s about who we [Australians] are post-war, the secrets and lies that come with that, that still need to be negotiated.” Australians are proud of who they are, and how far they’ve come, she said, but people are aware that, “That conversation needs to keep going. People want that, grander looks at our cultural voice.” As such, Marta said, the show has opened up a space for conversations.

The show is “epic and far reaching,” she said, in a way Australian audiences aren’t as used to. In the U.S., she said, “Your shows really reach quite big and grand. We’re not so used to that in our storytelling.” The challenge of the APTCH production, therefore, lies in “teaching Australian audiences about big and grand storytelling, epic storytelling,” at the same time as they’re enjoying it.

Since many haven’t seen the show I won’t go into any spoilers, but the basic premise, from Amazon is:

In 1950s Australian society, sex, death and secrets are never far below the surface in A Place to Call Home. Marta Dusseldorp leads the cast as Sarah Adams, a woman with a mysterious past who returned to Australia after twenty years abroad. The idyllic way of life in Inverness continues to work its magic on Sarah, enabling her to heal from the horrors of World War II and find love again and A Place to Call Home.

“It’s such a privilege to be central to a story,” said Marta, “because you get to show different sides with different characters.” None of us, she pointed out, is single-sided. We all have multiple aspects to who we are; we all shade our interactions based on whom we’re with. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to portray such depth in a character.

One of the many reasons I love the show is the strong female characters. I mentioned that there’s so much discussion in Hollywood these days about the need for strong female roles; A Place to Call Home has several. In fact, Marta told me, the first two roles cast were the matriarch, Elizabeth Bligh (Noni Hazlehurst), and then Sarah Adams (Marta). All other roles waited until those key roles were in place.

“The creator [Bevan Lee] loves women, loves women who are strong and complicated and compassionate,” said Marta. In creating the character of Sarah Adams, he could only have hoped for someone like Marta for the part. Marta’s portrayal of Sarah can be mesmerizing. Again without spoiling anything, Marta faced the challenge of playing a character who has faced hardships most of us have not endured. In this, she succeeds, coming across the screen with a quiet but deep infusion of strength and calm. You get the sense that there is nothing Sarah Adams can’t handle, that she goes through life with the attitude that she’s survived the worst; now she can survive anything. Sarah is at the same time rock-hard and private, yet willing to be open; she carries a confidence that if something is going to kill her, being open with her emotions isn’t it.

I mentioned that one of my favorite relationships in APTCH is that of Sarah and Roy Biggs, a rough and rugged farmer in whom Sarah finds a true friend. Marta agreed. “Frankie J. Holden [who plays Roy] is the most beautiful man you’ll ever meet. He’s funny and sincere and has a weight of experience in his life that he brings to the show,” she said. “He’s the first one on the set to ask you if you need a cup of tea, to crack a joke if you need it.” As for the Sarah/Roy connection, Marta said, “To Sarah it’s a father figure.” Things happen [no spoilers!] in season two that bond them, and, Marta said, this continues in season three, which will air in Australia starting in September.

With the renewal of APTCH for two more seasons, Marta’s schedule is packed. The day we talked, she had about a week left of APTCH filming, then was going to move straight into filming Jack Irish the next week, then on to Janet King again. Marta takes this busy-ness in stride. “A year ago I didn’t work for a while. It all averages out,” she said.

Marta claims not to be ambitious, “but I’m incredibly serious about what I do.” In her off-time, she’s started developing her own projects. “It’s all in very infant stages,” she said. “It’s an idea I had. Why not? I went to a writer, we’re working on it, we’re going to keep going with it. I also pitched some other people’s ideas to networks…. I’m feeling like I have enough experience now to help seed ideas. I like the idea of getting into a producing role and being up front with projects. I’m happy to fail,” she explained; she’s happy to take on that burden on the road to success. “I’d like to generate my own work. I could do without an audition ever again in my life!” she laughed.

 

Marta with her daughters Maggie and Grace. Photo: Luc Rémond.
Marta with her daughters Maggie and Grace. Photo: Luc Rémond.

In a recent Vogue Australia interview, Marta commented that, “The last year, I guess I was developing an identity: Who is Marta?” I asked her what she has discovered in her soul-searching. Who is Marta?

“I’m a mum of two beautiful girls, they’re very present children. They don’t think very much about anything that’s not happening right now,” she said. (Whether they learned that from their mother, or she learned that from them, I don’t know, but Marta has an aura of being decidedly present.) “I’m someone who likes to be in the present very much, likes to be surrounded with good conversation, good friends and family. I like other human beings and I think we can learn all the time. I try to surround myself with people who are smarter and better. I have a very open, loving family, and I’ve been blessed, really, so much strength. I like being a grown up. I like being a mentor to my children.”

And, I asked her, what is success?

“I think success is respect,” she said. “When I feel I’m amongst peers and they’re all respectful, I feel successful. When I can make an offer that in some way makes it better, that feels successful. The smiles I see coming toward me in the supermarket and on the street because you’re bringing joy to people’s lives, and they’re recognizing something in themselves in your work, that feels successful.”

I get the sense that Marta’s life is exactly as she wants it right now, and she expresses deep gratitude for that. “I’ve gotten to do what I want to do my whole adult life. It’s not always been hunky dory, but when I go to work I still can’t believe it.”

As for her hopes and dreams, “I would love to make my own show, I would love to work in America or England or Prague, a different country, and work with people who have seen and done more than I have, I’d love to travel with my kids, and keep at this level, where you work hard most of the time.”

Thank you so much to Marta for your time! I could have talked to her for hours, but felt that the forty-five minutes she gave me was more than generous of her. But I do hope to interview Marta again one day! And, there’s a possibility I’ll be chatting with others from A Place to Call Home, so watch this space!

If your PBS station isn’t already airing the show, give them a call and let them know you’re interested!

A Place to Call Home also stars Noni Hazlehurst, Brett Climo, Craig Hall, David Berry, Abby Earl, Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood, Aldo Mignone, Frankie J. Holden, Sara Wiseman, Deborah Kennedy, and Jenni Baird.

Find Marta on Twitter.

My deep gratitude to the photographers who gave me permission to use their photos! Check out their sites to see more of their stunning work.

Jason Ireace can be found at his website and on Instagram.

Luc Rémond can be found at his website and on Instagram. Also, see more of Luc’s beautiful photo shoot with Marta and her girls in this article.

Ellis Parrinder can be found at his website, and on Twitter and Instagram.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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Join Pam’s mailing list!

“Follow the good work”: Aidan Turner on Poldark, Acting, and Happiness

Photo: Mammoth Screen Ltd.
Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark. Photo: Mammoth Screen Ltd.

I have to say, PBS has a way of bringing us some handsome and talented Irishmen. My proof? A few years back, it was Northern Ireland’s fabulous singer and actor Damian McGinty, whom I love (and whose mailing list you should join, so you don’t miss out on future news of his tours and CDs, I’m just saying). And now, Masterpiece Theatre and PBS (and the BBC, which, by the way, #savetheBBC and #backtheBBC!) have blessed us again with another talented actor from the Emerald Isle.

This time, it’s Dublin’s Aidan Turner in Poldark, a 2015 revival of an old PBS favorite: in the 1970s, Masterpiece produced the Winston Graham books into a much beloved series starring Robin Ellis in the title role (see my recent interview with Robin here).

I was delighted to have the chance to chat with Aidan earlier this week, just in time for the Poldark season one finale episodes airing on PBS this Sunday. Handsome but humble, gracious and grateful, from all appearances, in the twenty minutes we had together, he’s everything you’d hope he would be.

Here’s the transcript of our chat. My heartfelt thanks to Aidan for his time!

Photo: BBC
Photo: BBC

Q: As an author, I found this assessment in an LA Times article on Poldark interesting: “It’s a story in which character, more than chance or fate, drives the narrative.” I know that in preparing for the role of Ross Poldark, you studied art, read about iron mines, did online research that led you from interest to interest. Is all that reading studying for character purposes or are you also a curious person who loves learning?

A: It’s everything, really. I’m interested in what I do in every capacity and if it’s studying for the character or the times, or reading about the author, or other books that maybe Winston has written, or, just everything is, everything helps for me in preparation, do you know. But I think every actor’s the same. They tend to put a lot of work in. You tend to take your inspiration from as many places as possible. With preparation for Poldark, it was just trying to absorb as much as I could in as many different ways as I could, like reading the novels, reading the scripts again, even if it’s physical stuff like making sure my horse riding technique was really good. It’s all the little things that matter, you know, for me, getting in shape was a thing, working on the accent was a thing. Yes, just all those things matter a great deal to me when preparing for the role and then doing it, because you obviously want to do a good job. And when the camera turns over and you start shooting, there isn’t time to do those things. You need to have all that homework done. So for me, that’s always been a thing.

Aidan as Poldark. Photo: Andy Rose.
Aidan as Poldark. Photo: Andy Rose.

Q: What is it about acting that you love? Is it the chance to be someone else?

A: Well, I love it sort of in every capacity. I love going to theater, I love seeing plays, I love storytelling, I love the movies, and I love what I do. I find it challenging, and exciting when you read a script that you have an interest in, you attach yourself to, it’s interesting to find out what you come up with, with the character and the role. I don’t know, the whole world just kind of excites me a little bit, do you know. It’s challenging, you don’t always get it right, and you learn, you know, there’s a lot of learning, too. You mess things up or you don’t hit the mark on certain things, and then six months down the road you realize why that happened, if you review things. I don’t know. I just like everything that kind of goes along with it. A lot of stuff I don’t like as well, but for right now, I’m enjoying myself.

Q: You have an energy about you that suggests you don’t like to be bored, that you like new challenges. With that in mind, is it hard to keep a character fresh and interesting (for yourself) over multiple seasons of a show?

A: I think it’s always down to the story and the writing, and it’s a testament to Winston Graham; he writes really good characters. Debbie Horsfield is a fantastic writer, and her screenplays are really well constructed, well written, well thought-out. So it’s easier with a show like this, because there’s just so much there, all the time, you know, you’re being challenged and offered new ideas and new journeys to go on with your character all the time. So it doesn’t become staid, and it doesn’t become boring at all, or any of those things, and you don’t feel you have to fight too hard to stay on the journey, you know, and stay true to the show. That’s why, as an actor, you try to follow the good work and the good writing all the time, because that tends not to happen that that’s the case, where you’re in a show that maybe has a weak premise, or doesn’t have all those important faculties, all those really important parts behind it, it might be a bit more difficult. But with a show like Poldark, I think we’re lucky, because we have a great team in place.

Aidan on the set of Poldark, with his horse, Seamus. Photo: Andy Rose.
Aidan on the set of Poldark, with his horse, Seamus. Photo: Andy Rose.

Q: Earlier this year you filmed the screen adaptation of Sebastian Barry’s novel The Secret Scripture [with director Jim Sheridan, and alongside Rooney Mara (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Theo James (Divergent, Insurgent, Downton Abbey), Eric Bana (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Star Trek), Jack Reynor (Transformers: Age of Extinction), and of course Vanessa Redgrave (too many films to mention!)]. You’ve said you would take any job on The Secret Scripture just to work with Jim Sheridan. What was it about Jim that made you want to work with him? Did the reality of it live up to your hopes and expectations?

A: Yeah, he’s always been a huge hero of mine. I mean, he’s obviously a very acclaimed and very successful Irish director, but he’s an international director. I mean, he’s been nominated for Oscars, and his movies are, all of them I think, are massive pieces. You know, he’s an incredible person. So I think just to witness what he’s like on set as a director was something I wanted to do. Even if my friend was in something and I could just tag along for a day I’d be happy enough doing that, but to be offered a part in one of his movies was a huge thing for me. And I was a fan of Sebastian Barry, the playwright and screenwriter who wrote The Secret Scripture also, so it’s one of those jobs that just was very very easy to agree to do. And yes, he did, he lived up to all the expectations. He’s … I think he’s a genius, to be honest, and one of the greatest directors I’ve ever worked with. And he’s a great man, and he’s funny as hell, and the best storyteller I think I’ve ever met.

Q: How did his directing help you improve as an actor?

A: It’s kind of hard to know … you’re put in a place, you know, you meet the director, and you’re just inspired differently, sometimes you’re forced to think differently about things, and feel things in different ways and … I don’t know. Some people are very talented and know how to work with actors really well and they know what makes them tick, and they know how to bring out great performances. I think Jim is one of those very special directors that just really knows actors, and he knows the game, you know, he’s just one of those people who’s got it all, you know, he’s multi-talented.

Aidan behind the scenes on the set of Poldark. Photo: Andy Rose.
Aidan behind the scenes on the set of Poldark. Photo: Andy Rose.

Q: And now you’re working on the BBC One three-part series TV adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic, And Then There Were None, in the role of Philip Lombard, a military man and world traveler with a mysterious past. Are you still in progress with that, or is that done?

A: We’ve only just begun, really. We’re about two weeks down, and about six to go. So yeah, it’s going very well. It’s going really well. Great cast, you know, Sam Neill and Charles Dance, and Miranda Richardson is in it, we have a really strong, strong cast. It’s a great story, it’s one of Agatha Christie’s most famous stories. Yeah, and it’s fun to do it. It’s fun to work with a big cast, a big ensemble, and there’s a lot of talent, a lot of lovely people, and we’re having a great time.

Q: How did you get involved with And Then There Were None?

A: It’s just one of those things that comes along, you’re sent the script, and you’re asked if you want to respond, if you want to be in it, and when I read it, I thought, “Yeah, this is great, it’s a great adaptation.”

Q: So you didn’t have to audition for this one?

A: Yeah, I didn’t have to audition for this one, but you know, I don’t get offered a lot of things. A lot of things, I do have to audition for, and like to audition for, too, you know. It’s nice to be offered things. But at the same time, when you audition, it’s nice, too, because you show them what you can do, and if they don’t want to be a part of that, then you all know where you stand. Whereas sometimes you’re offered something and then you go to the first day of shooting and it’s like, “Oh, God, now [this is] the first time they’re going to see this character; I hope they like it.” So it’s kind of bittersweet sometimes, being offered something.

Q: You narrated for BBC Radio 4’s A History of Ideas series, the podcasts about “How Should We Live Together?” Did any of the ideas in that series particularly resonate with your own views on life?

A: Yeah. There were a lot of interesting ideas. I haven’t listened back, it’s been a while since I revisited that at all but, again, just so well written and it was a real honor to be asked to do them. Steven Fry had done some, and Gillian Anderson was a part of it too. Yeah, just very interesting, well written, funny, witty pieces of prose that I was delighted to be a part of. They’re the fun jobs when they come along, you know, and they happen so fast sometimes. I think it was two days before I got asked to do it, and a day later it’s all done, it’s one of those kind of things. It’s interesting work. All the interesting stuff is fun.

Aidan Turner models a Vivienne Westwood-designed t-shirt for the Save the Arctic collection, shot by celebrity photographer Andy Gotts MBE.
Aidan models a Vivienne Westwood-designed t-shirt for the Save the Arctic collection, shot by celebrity photographer Andy Gotts MBE.

Q: And you’re also involved with Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign. How did you get involved in that, what’s your interest in that particular cause?

A: Yeah, it just sounded really interesting. They approached me in Iceland. Vivienne [Westwood] had written a letter to some people that she wanted to be involved in the campaign, and it made a lot of sense, and it seemed like something that I wanted to be a part of, and represent the cause in any way and help out. It was something I felt like I wanted to do. And I know the photographer, and we just sort of got it done, really. It’s a really worthwhile thing. I’m glad I did it.

Q: Is the environment one of your pet causes?

A: I mean, I think everyone should care.

Q: They should.

A: I think so.

Q: You mentioned in your Irishman Abroad interview that it’s not going to be like this forever; in a few years you’ll settle. What does that mean? What does the future look like?

A: (Laughs.) I don’t know. It’s so funny when you have these, you do interviews and stuff, and things are said, and then you’re questioned on it again. I don’t really know. I guess during the course of that interview in particular, it’s an Irishman Abroad, is a whole sense of being an Irish man away from home, living and working out of the country. I don’t know, maybe everyone’s the same, you sort of feel when you’re a person who travels a lot and works a lot in different countries and bases yourself in different places that there is always this yearning and this kind of feeling that one day you’ll get home and sort of settle, and this will all be fleeting and over. But the fact is, as an actor, by definition, what we do, we’re just always around at different places, in different countries, with different people, and that’s just the way it is. But, I guess, I don’t know, there is that feeling that you’ll settle down one day, but probably, it probably may never happen. The funny thing is, it’s difficult as it seems like it’s probably the end of your career. You know, you have to keep working, you have to keep traveling. I guess what I kind of meant was just missing home is something that I have from time to time. You miss friends, you miss family, you want to get home, and you want to have your roots somewhere. But at the same time, I’m very happy doing what I’m doing, and I feel very privileged to work, and to travel, and to do all those things.

Aidan on the set of Poldark.
Aidan on the set of Poldark. Photo: Andy Rose.

Q: So at this point in your life, you’re 32, what do you think success looks like, what is happiness, what is a well-lived life?

A: I don’t know. I mean, it’s hard to answer for anybody else. I’m happy with what I’m doing now, I’m happy with where I’m at and where I’m going, and I’m generally quite a happy person. That’s a difficult question, really. I don’t know what happiness is. I feel I have great friends around me, I have a strong family unit, and I feel very privileged and lucky to have all that. So I don’t really question it. I just kind of feel grateful for it all.

Q: An easier question, then: Have you conferred with Martin Freeman about getting yourself on an episode of Sherlock[Martin was Aidan’s co-star in The Hobbit movies, of course, and also stars as Dr. Watson on Sherlock.]

A: (Laughs.) I don’t think I’ve ever asked Martin to get me on Sherlock. Probably should have done because I love the show, but maybe that time has passed now. I might throw him an email.

Q: Yes, tell him Pam said you should be on Sherlock.

A: (Laughs.)

Aidan as Poldark. Photo: Andy Rose.
Aidan as Poldark. Photo: Andy Rose.

Q: Do you feel like you’re at a point in your career where you can afford to be a little more picky about the roles you take on?

A: I don’t know if anything changes that, necessarily, I’ve said kind of the same thing all the time, it’s just about the good work. The scripts come in, and if they’re well written and the ideas are good, and the people involved are people I’d like to work with, and all those little things are in place, then I’ll consider putting myself up for it, and if not, I won’t. You know, every six months, things sort of change, and you do a job, and you feel different about the next job you want to do, whether you want time off, or whatever. So it’s kind of too hard to say, really. Nothing has really changed for me. I still meet for jobs, and I still audition for things, like every other actor. I’m just a working actor, that’s all.

Q: I’m going to quote you back to you again. You said: “The longer I am away from home, the more proud I am of being Irish.” Tell me about that?

A: I guess you think about it more. When you’re away from home, it’s just something that’s more present, because you just have to talk to a stranger in the street, and in seconds they know you’re Irish, and it comes back around again, and then you think about stuff like that. So, I don’t know. It’s just something I am proud of. It’s hard to get into, to be honest, over the phone.

Aidan as Poldark. Photo: Mammoth Screen Ltd.
Aidan as Poldark. Photo: Mammoth Screen Ltd.

Q: One last question, about Poldark. You’re starting filming again in September, is that correct? How long will you film?

A: Yeah, it’s going to be longer than it was last year. We’re going to start September, I think first week of September, something like that, or second week of September. I think we run until … I think we go until like the first week in April. We’ve two extra episodes this season, which is amazing. The shoot is probably seven and a half months or something like that. A bit longer than last year. But looking forward to it, can’t wait to get back there. I love shooting the show, I love Cornwall, and adore everyone in the show, so it’ll be fun.

… And that was the end of our chat! Thank you again, Aidan, I really enjoyed chatting with you. My best wishes to you for much success — keep following the good work and the good writing! And when you get that role on Sherlock, give me a call.

Everyone in the U.S., don’t forget to watch Poldark episodes 7 and 8, the season finale, this Sunday on PBS! (And send your local PBS station a donation while you’re at it, if you’re so inclined!)

Aidan mostly eschews social media, but does have an official Twitter account.

Find Poldark on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

My deep thanks to all who supplied photos for this article. Find Andy Rose, photographer, on Facebook and Twitter, and check out his Poldark-themed wares at his website and on Etsy.

Also published on my Huffington Post blog.


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“One Day At A Time”: Q&A with Robin Ellis, the “Original Ross Poldark,” on Poldark, Cooking, and Life

Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark (center), with Angharad Rees as Demelza Carne (left) and Judy Geeson as Caroline Penvenen (right) in the original Poldark series, c. 1975. Photo credit: BBC
Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark (center), with Angharad Rees as Demelza Carne (left) and Judy Geeson as Caroline Penvenen (right) in the original Poldark series, c. 1975. Photo credit: BBC

Masterpiece Theatre has done it again — literally. Since early March, millions of people around the world have been captivated by the story of Ross Poldark in Poldark, Masterpiece’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s series, set in Cornwall in the late 18th century. Smoldering Ross Poldark, born a rebel in his elite world, has returned from the American Revolutionary war to find his fiancée, thinking him dead, has become engaged to his cousin. The country and its people face severe hardships; Poldark’s father has died and left his estate and mine in ruins. The story is captivating, the acting mesmerizing. And the breathtaking landscape of Cornwall is a character unto itself.

But this new telling of the Poldark saga stands on the shoulders of the original series, which forty years ago also enchanted the world, led by the “original Poldark,” Robin Ellis.

When my local PBS station, KCTS 9, announced the imminent airing of the new series, I borrowed the DVDs of the original series from a Poldark-loving friend. I hadn’t seen the show when it first aired, but instantly I could see why the world had been so enthralled by Robin and Masterpiece’s original version of Poldark. After watching a few episodes of the new series, in which Robin has a cameo as Reverend Halse in episodes 3 and 6, I knew I wanted to chat with him. Robin graciously agreed to answer my many questions, and his wife, Meredith Wheeler, sent me a plethora of gorgeous photos. My tremendous thanks and best wishes to both Robin and Meredith!

Meredith Wheeler & Robin Ellis on their terrace. Photo courtesy Meredith Wheeler & Robin Ellis
Meredith Wheeler & Robin Ellis on their terrace. Photo courtesy Meredith Wheeler & Robin Ellis

Q: Forty years ago, you were the swoon-worthy Ross Poldark in Masterpiece Theatre’s original series, Poldark, based on the novels by Winston Graham. I’ve read that it was so big, you had some “Beatle-esque” moments. What was it like, going from being a relatively “regular” guy to being an instant star? Was it challenging?

A: The world was a bit different forty years ago. There wasn’t as intense a celebrity culture as there is today. It was like the difference between enjoying a warm summer’s day and enduring a heatwave. I enjoyed the attention (I’m an actor!) which only occasionally got too hot.

Robin with Poldark author Winston Graham in Robin and Meredith's back garden in London, c. 1990. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler
Robin with Poldark author Winston Graham in Robin and Meredith’s back garden in London, c. 1990. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: The original Poldark had an immense following. You’ve said that part of the appeal in, for example, Spain was that the country had two TV channels at the time it was aired, one of which was a government channel. Obviously you were joking (in part). But even today, with hundreds of channels available to people on TV and online, the new series is capturing audiences’ attention worldwide. What do you think it is about the Poldark stories that has such enduring appeal? 

A: People love to be told good stories (I do). These stories endure because they feel authentic. People can identify with them regardless of the fact they take place in a different era. And Winston Graham’s characters don’t come over as manipulated by the puppet master. You feel they have a say in how they run their lives —for better or worse. It helps that the well researched setting happens to be extraordinarily beautiful and cinematically ravishing.

Aidan Turner, the "new Poldark," with Robin, the "original Poldark." Photo credit: Nick Kenyon. Poldark fans, see Nick's website for tons more fabulous Poldark photos!
Aidan Turner, the “new Poldark,” with Robin, the “original Poldark.” Photo credit: Nick Kenyon. Poldark fans, see Nick’s website for tons more fabulous Poldark photos!

Q: I understand that neither Debbie Horsfield (the writer who adapted Graham’s books for the new series) nor Aidan Turner (the “new Ross Poldark”) watched the original series before creating their own interpretations of Graham’s stories. In some cases the end results are quite different, both from Horsfield’s/Turner’s new interpretations, as well as from the fact that four decades have passed and times have changed. What are your thoughts on the new series? 

A: It’s big, it’s beautiful and it’s terrifically acted.

Aidan Turner and Robin Ellis. Photo credit: Nick Kenyon
Aidan Turner and Robin Ellis. Photo credit: Nick Kenyon

Q: Along those lines, in my opinion the new Ross Poldark has in some ways a different personality/characterization than the original Ross Poldark. I don’t want to lead the witness here by telling you the differences I see — what differences do you see?

A: Ross Poldark is a wonderful character to play. He was born an elite but he hates elites and gets into fights with his own kind, sometimes with dire results. He’s bold but sometimes his choices of action get him into trouble and threaten his family and loved ones. In other words, he’s flawed. Like all great characters, there is never a definitive way to play them — no two Hamlets are alike — they reflect the people who play them. Aidan Turner is giving a tremendous and committed performance as Ross. I tried to do the same forty years ago. Ross is that kind of character. You go for it — it allows you to!

Director Ed Bazalgette (crouching with glasses) confers with Robin before the scene is filmed. Photo credit: Nick Kenyon
Director Ed Bazalgette (crouching with glasses) confers with Robin before the scene is filmed. Photo credit: Nick Kenyon

Q: How was it, revisiting Poldark for the new series, this time as Reverend Halse? Did you come at it with a different perspective on acting and life?

A: Not really, it still made me nervous and it still gave me delight. At the end of the day you have to come up with the goods. That hasn’t changed. I found I still cared about coming up with the goods!

Left: Robin and Alexander Arnold who plays Jim Carter in the new series. Middle: Sitting in his trailer awaiting the call. Right: The end of the first day's shoot at Horton Court near Bristol (where some of Wolf Hall was filmed, too!). Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler
Left: Robin and Alexander Arnold who plays Jim Carter in the new series. Middle: Sitting in his trailer awaiting the call. Right: The end of the first day’s shoot at Horton Court near Bristol (where some of Wolf Hall was filmed, too!). Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: It’s been nearly a decade since your last role (as Tom Lyell on Wallander). Did acting in the new series give you a craving to do more acting again?

A: I wouldn’t describe it as a craving but it whetted my appetite!

Left: Robin's first cookbook. Right: Cooking in his own kitchen. Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler
Left: Robin’s first cookbook. Right: Cooking in his own kitchen. Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: Speaking of whetted appetites, I was so delighted to learn that these days, your work revolves around the culinary arts! I understand you’ve loved cooking since you were a child, but a medical diagnosis about fifteen years ago gave new life to your passion for the art form. Tell us more about that? 

A: Sixteen years ago I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. I have collected recipes for years — I learned that from my mother. I started writing up the recipes I cooked every day. Like characters in plays no two versions of a recipe are the same. I found a voice in the writing of them and enjoyed it. People had said to me, “You must write cookbook.” “But there are too many cookbooks,” I thought, “I’m an actor anyway, not a cook.” After I was diagnosed, it felt different. Perhaps a cookbook of recipes describing the way we eat, suggested Meredith, might be a little different and useful to people. Now it made more sense and we presented the idea to a publisher who agreed to run with it.

Left: Robin in his red apron. Right: Robin's second cookbook. Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler
Left: Robin in his red apron. Right: Robin’s second cookbook. Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: What is it about cooking that you love?

A: The dailyness of it. I cook twice a day for us and it keeps me on my toes, so to speak.

Q: As you noted above, you’ve built on that love of cooking by writing some cookbooks! You have two books out, and a third in the works, is that right? Tell me a bit about each? How did you decide on the recipes to include? Where can people buy them?

A: Meredith eats what I cook each day, though she’s not diabetic. Delicious Dishes for Diabetics, the first, describes the way we eat chez nous every day. It attempts to demonstrate that a diagnosis of diabetes doesn’t mean the end of enjoying your food. The recipes in the book can be enjoyed by everyone — it is not exclusively for diabetics. Healthy Eating for Life is an extension of the first. Mediterranean Cooking for Diabetics is a combination of the two plus new stuff and photos in a bigger paperback format.

Robin with students from a cooking workshop. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler
Robin with students from a cooking workshop. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: Not one to let any grass grow under your feet, you lead cooking workshops too! Who are the classes for (is it only for diabetics?), where do they take place, how long do they last, what do people learn? What made you want to lead these workshops?

A: They are open to all. They take place in a beautiful B&B in our village. There is a demo kitchen in an annex. They last four days and we all cook together and then eat what we cook. It’s a hands-on affair. No lecturing. I met the owner one day at the market and she told me about the new kitchen and I heard myself saying, “Well one day maybe I could run a workshop there….” Voila! That’ll teach me!

Q: Don’t you think Poldark would have been the kind of man who would have liked to cook? He can do pretty much everything else!

A: He’d have to choose time when Prudie was in town — she’d have been shocked to find him at the stove. Did men cook in those days? Very doubtful but if you think of him as I did, as a man out of his time, then anything is possible.

Robin's memoir, reissued with a new chapter in April 2015 -- just released as an audio book, too!
Robin’s memoir, reissued with a new chapter in April 2015 — just released as an audio book, too!

Q: Speaking again of Poldark and of books, you have a memoir out, as well, Making Poldark, with a new expanded version out this year. Am I correct that you first wrote it in 1978, updated it once in 2012 and then it again this year? In the process of going back to update the original text, did you feel you had new perspectives on your time as Poldark and the pivotal role it played in your life? What did you see or understand now, that you might not have seen forty years ago?

A: It has been updated and added to four times I think. It now has a chapter explaining how I became involved in the new go-around of Poldark. I have always felt indebted to Poldark and recognised the large part it has played in my life professionally and personally. I call them “Poldark Perks” and there are many. Appearing in the new version and the revival of interest in me and the first Poldark is yet another “Poldark Perk.” It goes on!

The best "Poldark Perk" -- Robin's wife Meredith! In another interview, Robin told The Express: "I met my wife, Meredith, when she interviewed me in New York in 1986 as part of a trip to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Masterpiece Theatre. I looked into Meredith's eyes and there you go. It was love at first sight."
The best “Poldark Perk” — Robin’s wife Meredith! In another interview, Robin told The Express: “I met my wife, Meredith, when she interviewed me in New York in 1986 as part of a trip to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Masterpiece Theatre. I looked into Meredith’s eyes and there you go. It was love at first sight.”

Q: What’s next? What are you looking forward to?

A: One day at a time — I am looking forward to tomorrow, while inhabiting today.

Q: Finally, some questions I like to ask people, starting with: What is success?

A: I don’t find questions like these easy! Success might be the feeling I had about supper tonight. I made a curry sauce for left-over guinea fowl. In fact I didn’t like the first sauce, so I tried a tomato based one. I was still doubtful about it. In the end I liked it and so did Meredith — success?! One day at a time.

Robin at home in his kitchen, writing his blog. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler
Robin at home in his kitchen, writing his blog. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: What is happiness?

A: Waking up…phew!

Q: What are the elements of a life well-lived?

A: Too early to say — I am still living it!

My thanks again to Robin and Meredith for their time! It was a delight chatting with you! I wish you both continued success, happiness, and lives well-lived.

Find out more about Robin, his life, his books, and his cooking workshops at his website, and follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Also published on my Huffington Post blog.


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Q&A: Halfway Star Quinton Aaron on the Film, Acting, James Bond, and His Foundation

Quinton Aaron as Byron in Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton Aaron as Byron in Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

The past three weeks I’ve been interviewing key players in the upcoming film Halfway, written and directed by Ben Caird and produced by Jonny Paterson. Today, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with the film’s star, Quinton Aaron!

Many will remember Quinton from his lead role in The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock, for which he received several nominations including Black Reel Award, Best Breakthrough Performance; Teen Choice Awards 2010, Breakout Male Actor; and MTV Movie Awards 2010, Best Breakout Star. Quinton has also appeared on shows such as Law & Order and One Tree Hill, as well as a smattering of others.

In Halfway, Quinton plays the role of Byron, a recently released convict who finds himself caught between two worlds. Byron’s urban criminal past haunts his new life as the only black man in a predominantly white, conservative Wisconsin farming town. The film chronicles Byron’s struggles as he adapts to his new life on probation, while trying to elude the very real threat of falling back into his old life of crime.

Quinton on the set of Halfway with writer/director Ben Caird. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton on the set of Halfway with writer/director Ben Caird. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: How long have you been acting? What made you want to be an actor? How did you get started?

A: I’ve been acting for as long as I can remember. I grew up on the stage when I was in high school in New York and have just always wanted to be an actor. I’ve been imitating actors from my favorite movies ever since I could talk. I remember being a kid and loving the James Bond movies, I think because I wanted to be a secret agent at that time as well as an actor (and I looked great in a tux!). As I got older, I started to realize that I enjoyed the discipline associated with performance, and that led me to start acting more and more. I joined an organization for teenagers called Teens in Motion, and was lucky enough to be afforded some opportunities to develop that love for acting with them.

Q: What was your first reaction to this script, when Jonny [Paterson, the producer] approached you with it? 

A: As soon as I heard about the story and got the gist of what it was and who the character was, I felt it was a project I could really get behind. One of the cool and defining things about the movie is that is has a strong causal message that resonated with me when I read the script. It’s about a young man who has just been released from prison and finds himself up against a very real set of circumstances: does he take the second chance that has been afforded to him, or does he take the easier route and revert back to a life of crime?

When I observe some of the problems that we create for ourselves in our communities I have felt in the past that we, in a sense, imprison ourselves by feeling a sense of duty to stay committed to the world that we come from, instead of being brave enough to branch out and recognize that that might not be what is best for us. In Halfway, my character Byron maintains ties with his best friend, Paulie (played by Marcus Henderson), and finds it incredibly difficult to make that decision to move on with his life, because he’s a loyal guy but also because it’s how society has sort of trained young men like my character to behave.

Quinton as Byron on the set of Halfway, waiting at Mills Market in Montfort, Wisconsin. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton as Byron on the set of Halfway, waiting at Mills Market in Montfort, Wisconsin. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What were some of the challenges in taking on this role?

A: We shot the movie over four weeks on the Lepeska family farm in Montfort, WI — a part of the world I had never been to before! So the biggest challenges for me on this project were to try and learn about farm life, manual labour, how to feed calves while adjusting to the smell of being around animals all day and other things of that ilk. It was a very unique experience in that sense and I owe a great deal of thanks to the Lepeska family who went out of their way to show me the ropes. Also, working with the director, Ben Caird, to understand how my character would maneuver in this very alien environment was challenging, but for all the right reasons. Ultimately, I love what I do and am very grateful for the opportunity to grow as a person as well as a performer in each role that I take on.

Q: What did you love about this role?

A: Not only the story that is being told through my character’s eyes, but the message that I hope he can deliver to folks who watch it. If an audience can resonate with Byron, like I did in many ways, they might make better decisions under difficult circumstances. As our producer, Jonny Paterson, said in his interview a few weeks ago, a great outcome for us would be for young men and women who are about to be released from prison to watch the film and resonate with Byron and thus make better decisions when they find themselves released back in to their community. Do they want to be another statistic and fall back into their old ways, or do they want to be stronger and braver and take on the second chance that is afforded to them?

Quinton on the set of Halfway with writer/director Ben Caird and producer Jonny Paterson. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton on the set of Halfway with writer/director Ben Caird and producer Jonny Paterson. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Did this story impact you personally? If so, how?

A: I haven’t actually seen the movie as of yet, as I’ve asked to wait until it’s finished before I do and so it’s tough for me to answer the question from that perspective. However, from the perspective of having lived as Byron for four weeks in rural Wisconsin and speaking the words that Ben Caird scripted for me, certainly the story impacted me personally. I have a deeper appreciation for how lucky I am to be in this fotunate position to do what I love. To have seen the world through the eyes of Byron was an incredibly sobering experience at times. I’d also say that I have a new found respect for farmers and those hard working Americans who live in rural communities and do an amazing job of farming the food we eat and the milk we drink! I think before I made Halfway that I took certain things for granted in my own life that now, in hindsight, I am more grateful for.

Q: What message do you hope viewers come away with?

A: Everyone has made mistakes in their past, but when life gives you a second chance, take it and move forward with a positive perspective!

Q: How have your past successes changed how you approach a movie and a role?

A: Not too much. I’m the same person, very appreciative of opportunities that I’m afforded and I always approach roles in the same way; not taking anything for granted. The Blind Side was a wonderful opportunity for me, which opened many doors and allowed for me to collaborate with Academy Award winners. It has given me the chance to pursue a career that I’d always dreamed of, since those days watching James Bond and for that I will always be truly thankful. But, while it was a great start for me it definitely isn’t my ending. There’s a lot more to come and I hope that with Halfway audiences are able to see that there is much more to me than just Big Mike.

Quinton on the set of Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton on the set of Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: You have a foundation, The Quinton Aaron Foundation, with a mission “to provide hope, encouragement, confidence and resources to children on the brink of suicide or battling the damaging effects on self-esteem and confidence caused by the actions or words of others.” When did you form this foundation, what inspired you to tackle that mission, and what are your goals for the foundation?

A: I formed the foundation in 2012 with a mission inspired by own experiences. I was bullied as a child for my size, crooked teeth, awkwardness etc. After working on The Blind Side, I found myself speaking to a lot of kids for a lot of different organizations, trying to inspire them to follow their dreams, and the majority of kids who came to talk to me wanted to know about how they should deal with bullying. Many of them were going through the same sorts of things that I went through and as a result I felt I had a duty to try and use my experiences to help them. So, The Quinton Aaron Foundation was formed and we continue to go from strength to stregth with a very clear focus on this mission.

Quinton on the set of Halfway with cinematographer Benjamin Thomas. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton on the set of Halfway with cinematographer Benjamin Thomas. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What are your career goals? Would you like to try writing, directing, producing as well, or is acting your primary passion?

A: Acting is definitely my primary focus, but I’m certainly interested in producing as well. I like being creative and although I don’t consider myself a writer, I do enjoy coming up with ideas and developing them with writers who I like and want to work with. On the producing side, with Halfway my first experience of working more in that capacity (albeit in an executive producorial capacity) I’ve really embraced it. It’s been awesome to work closely with Jonny on this film and I think I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to actually get a movie made. It’s an experience I’ll always carry with me.

Q: What types of roles or movies would you love to be in?

A: Well as I mentioned earlier, I’d love to be James Bond one day!

007, are you listening?!? Thank you so much, Quinton, for your time!

Read the rest of the interviews in this series:

Find Halfway on Facebook and Twitter.
Find Quinton Aaron on Twitter and Facebook.
Find out more about The Quinton Aaron Foundation here.

Q&A with Writer/Director Ben Caird on Writing and His Inspiration for His New Film, Halfway

Ben Caird. Photo by Ben Montemayor. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben Caird. Photo by Ben Montemayor. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Tell us a little about your background — where did you grow up, where did you go to school, what inspired your writing and your love of film?

A: I’m half British (father) and half American (mother) and I grew up in London. My father is a writer and director of theatre, opera and pretty much anything else that can be staged. My mother also worked in theatre through which she met my father in New York.

My brothers and sisters (the ones of working age) all work in the arts. One sister is an art, culture and travel journalist, the other a musician. One brother is a theatre director and AD, the other a fine artist and graphic designer. We were encouraged to get stuck into whatever industry we wanted to; it just so happened that we all ended up in artistic pursuits. There aren’t really any individual seminal moments I can think of that drove me to what I do; rather I don’t really know what else I would do. When your family and so many close friends have careers in the arts, you do have some examples around that make it seem a tangible dream, however crazy it truly is.

My technical training ground was starting a small video production company with a friend that saw us produce music videos, short films and other viral media for tiny budgets where we performed almost every role ourselves. This really allowed us to experiment with cameras, lighting, editing, and the host of other jobs required. However, I knew I wanted to get more into narrative work so I decided to go to film school which is really where I kicked on my storytelling.

Once at The London Film School I really became a full-time student of cinema, an education ever ongoing. Every film I watch, script or story I read or set I work on, whether the experience is positive or negative, I learn a little more about what I think I can offer in my own work.

Ben writing in the shed on the set of Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Is Halfway your first feature-length script?

A: Halfway is certainly my first completed feature-length script. I have other pieces in various stages of development, some as far along as redrafted full scripts, but given that the writing, especially when writing for yourself as a director, is never truly over until the scene is shot (and then even sometimes dialogue is rewritten and rerecorded whilst in post-production) Halfway probably must therefore be considered my first.

Q: Is this the first time you’ve been both writer and director?

A: I wrote [and directed] all of the short films that I’ve made that preceded Halfway. As a new director I think it’s invaluable being able to write for yourself. This is not to say you’re the best writer in the world, simply that, as a director, without being able to write for yourself, you’re relying on good writers letting you cut your teeth on their work. Then, if you do find a great script you want to make, be it short or feature, you have two egos you have to massage through the process.

The most important thing I’ve learned in my young career is not to be too precious about what you’re doing because things change very quickly and you have to be able to react to that. That becomes harder if you’re not just “killing your own babies,” but someone else’s too. This often plays into director’s careers later, when they’re perhaps better equipped to deal with it (or not as the case may be), but I think mitigating that in your first works is rather more liberating.

Ben directing on the set of Halfway
Ben directing on the set of Halfway

Q: Does directing change how you write? In what way?

A: I think knowing you’re going to be the one that directs the script can change the way you write, though it shouldn’t. I know in the beginning it did for me. I think it’s fine if a director’s voice is known. A PT Anderson or Coen Brothers script can be read by financiers, actors, all the key players and know what the deal is. I’m not saying their scripts won’t be complete, just that the bits left out can be filled in by the reader knowing what has come before so what is likely to be filled in.

As a first timer, it’s no good me giving a draft to my producer, who knows my work/style from my shorts, and expecting them to have all the time to make everyone watch my shorts and mood reels to get the tone/content. The script needs to stand-alone as a good piece of writing. Then, if drawn in by it, our collaborators will still want to see what I’ve done before and if I’m someone that has enough of a voice to carry the script.

Ben on the set of Halfway with the film's star, Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of Halfway with the film’s star, Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What inspired Halfway?

A: Although I was born and raised in London, UK, my mother is from Wisconsin, USA, so as a child I would spend summers in the States seeing family. With fond memories of playing on my family’s Wisconsin dairy farm, I always felt like an outsider in my inability, even as a child, to do the things my farm-raised cousin could.

As an adult revisiting my family’s farm, I found the chores performed incredibly hypnotic and calming to watch. Farms are a place of tremendous upheaval and mechanical power, but also of baseness, of simplistic physical duty.

Farms are so little understood by the urban dweller, of which our societies are increasingly more becoming. By in essence, sending my protagonist to a farm to cleanse him, I want to show an American Dream story, of social movement and rejection of his past transgressions through physical hard work in a new frontier.

The outsider element at the core of the film is race. I find perception and discrimination due to race fascinating. Clearly the United States still has a problem with race relations in many parts of the country and whilst I cannot try to tackle everything in this film, I certainly wish to pose some social questions.

I’m very much drawn to rite-of-passage stories as I find tremendous drama in looking through a microscope at an individual’s life at certain stages of change, of challenge.

In this film I wish to take my certainly less-than-perfect protagonist and make his battle the audience’s battle.

Q: Did you do research while you were writing to help you understand the story?

A: I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years in Wisconsin, so my understanding of the setting and people was pretty good. I’ve also kept a keen eye on race relations (as I’m sure many do), and the systemic incarceration flaws over the last years, too, so thinking about the sort of a voice I might be able add to the conversation was key. As a white Brit writing a story dealing with American race issues I thought a good way in for me was by making my protagonist an outsider, as that is where my experience comes from (though of course in very different ways).

Ben on the set of Halfway with producer Jonny Paterson. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of Halfway with producer Jonny Paterson. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Do you remember the first thing you wrote? What was it?

A: The first story I really remember writing was at twelve years old in an entrance exam to my middle school (secondary school in the UK). I was given a series of titles to select from and I chose “No Man’s Land.” The story involved an island a ship wrecks off of, and the protagonist swimming ashore to find only Amazonian women. I was very proud of my punny take on the title.

Q: When did you write your first script?

A: I wasn’t a filmmaker that started at eight with a video camera telling stories with my friends; far from it. In the last few years of high school I got into reading literature, mainly our course materials, and started to quite enjoy the required essay writing that went along with it. When I left school I took a “gap-year” (a pretty standard break from education in the UK where teenagers work and travel before starting further education).

Having lost my school writing to deadline, I started to really miss the process of writing. I started, like I’m sure many teenagers do, writing what I thought was a novel or a novella, a short semi-autobiographical piece based on a particular experience of mine and some friends. I gave a first pass to my father and he suggested that my writing felt like it had elements of screen/stage direction accidentally incorporated in it. He showed me a basic script structure and I started reworking it in that form. I never made that piece but it was certainly the first actual script I wrote.

Ben on the set of his London Film School MA graduation film Drift. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of his London Film School MA graduation film Drift. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What else have you written?

A: I have written numerous shorts. During my MA course at the London Film School I wrote many different pieces, some of which materialized as films, many of which hit the script graveyard. I wrote and directed two traditionally narrative shorts during my time there, one set entirely in a prison cell that we built on a school soundstage, The Castle, and my graduation film entitled Drift.

Q: What role do you think film has in our social awareness and in driving our discussions about culture and humanity?

A: I don’t think that filmmakers, or anyone in fact, has a responsibility to drive awareness or discussion of anything. However, clearly there are enough people that take it on themselves to do just that, and, for me, that’s vitally important. Any art form that has an audience, a reader or a listener has the opportunity to evoke some human emotion. Since its genesis film has been used as a platform to engage and inform its viewer, be that for social good or bad. I can’t see this changing. I certainly hope to be able to continue making films with themes I see as important to discuss.

Ben on the set of Halfway with star Quinton Aaron, who plays Byron in the film, and Linda Bright Clay, who plays Byron’s parole officer. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What are your short- and long-term goals as a writer and director?

A: I hope that Halfway is received well and that I get to follow it up with another in the coming years. I have lots of stories I’d like to tell so hopefully this is the first of many.

Q: Do you hope to branch out even further, or is writer/director your niche?

A: I also produce. I’ve just finished a small film set in the countryside in the UK, a dark love story, entitled Long Forgotten Fields. We’re just taking that film out to the market now so hopefully there will be some positive news on that front in the coming months. I also have some other projects of varying scopes in the works, some other US, that we’ll hopefully have some exciting announcements about soon.

Two weeks ago: Halfway: the movie

Last week: Q&A with Halfway Producer Jonny Paterson.

Coming next week: Q&A with Halfway star Quinton Aaron.

Find Halfway on Facebook and Twitter. Find Ben Caird at his website.

Ben on the set of Halfway with Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of Halfway with Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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Q&A with the Mayor of Akureyri, Iceland, One of Lonely Planet’s “Best Places in Europe 2015”

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

iceland map small
In 2013, I visited the town of Akureyri in Iceland’s far north, and had the honor of chatting with the town’s Mayor Eiríkur Björn Björgvinsson for the travelogue I was writing at the time. When I saw that Lonely Planet recently named Akureyri as one of its “Best Places in Europe 2015,” I wrote the mayor again to ask him to share more thoughts about his fabulous town, and he graciously agreed.

From my own experience, I agree that the north is a gorgeous place, and largely under-visited, as many people stick closer to Reykjavík on their travels. But getting to Akureyri is easy (see below), and it’s a fantastic base for a longer visit in the north. You can read even more about Akureyri and the surrounding area in my book, Pam on the Map: Iceland.

2015-06-29-1435605828-3735212-EirikurBjornBjorgvinsson175.jpg
Eiríkur Björn Björgvinsson / image via akureyri.net

Thank you again, Mayor, for your time!

Q: What is Akureyri’s population? General location? Demographics?

A: The population is about 18,200 people and the municipality stretches over the Arctic circle, because the island of Grímsey (population of about 100) is a part of the municipality and so is the island Hrísey (with a population of about 150). Akureyri lies at the bottom of the longest fjord in Iceland in the north part of the country. We put high emphasis on family values, since we have lots of young couples with children and also many students who move to our town from the neighbouring municipalities to get education — Akureyri is sometimes referred to as “the school town” in Iceland.

Q: I had a heck of a time learning to pronounce Akureyri. Can you give us some tips? How is it pronounced?

A: Maybe it is easiest for you to think of the words “accurate,” “ray” and “riff” and put them together like this: accu-ray-ri. 🙂

Q: Do people who want to visit need to worry if they can’t speak Icelandic?

A: Certainly not. Almost everyone in Akureyri speaks English and many also other Scandinavian languages, plus German and French.

View image | gettyimages.com | Akureyri city at dawn

 

Q: When I visited, I took the long way there, driving the Ring Road counter-clockwise through the south and east before cutting over to Akureyri. I know there are faster ways to get there! How can people get to Akureyri?

A: Yes, you probably took the longest way to Akureyri! If you drive through the west of Iceland from Reykjavík, the trip will take you about four to five hours, depending on how many times you stop to stretch your legs. It’s about 380-kilometer drive. Then we have scheduled buses driving from Reykjavík to Akureyri two times a day and that trip takes a bit longer, since the bus stops in a few villages on the way. The domestic airline Flugfélag Íslands has scheduled flights from Reykjavík to Akureyri six or seven times a day and the flight takes 45 minutes. [See also this page for more transportation/travel info.]

View image | gettyimages.com | Road 1 (the Ring Road), near Akureyri

 

Q: If a person flies in from Reykjavik, are car rentals available in Akureyri?

A: Yes, all the biggest car rentals in Iceland operate in Akureyri the biggest one in Iceland is Bílaleiga Akureyrar (Akureyri Car Rental) — Europcar.

Q: Are there any companies that offer day trips from Akureyri?

A: Yes, there are a few of them and more are coming into business every year. Of course, you understand that I can’t mention any of them because then I would have to mention all, but you can find information about companies offering day trips on our web page.

View image | gettyimages.com | Goðafoss waterfall (Waterfall of the Gods) near Akureyri

 

Q: Akureyri is pretty far north — just a little farther north than Fairbanks, Alaska, and even farther north than Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. Tell me about the weather? What can a person expect in summer? In winter? Is Akureyri accessible in winter?

A: Akureyri is accessible all year round. We have long dark winters and short bright summers, truly an Arctic kind of atmosphere. The summer is rather short, maybe about three or four months, and then you can expect temperatures from maybe 12 to 24 degrees Celsius [53 to 75 Fahrenheit], and often we have sunny days. But you should note that the Icelandic weather can be pretty unpredictable. Icelanders tend to believe that Akureyri is one of the best places in Iceland during summer to enjoy camping and the nice weather. We have fairly harsh winters. Then the weather can be very cold and every winter we have a few beautiful snow storms. That’s just positive since Akureyri is the ski capital of Iceland with a magnificent ski resort in Mt. Hlíðarfjall just ten minutes drive from the city centre.

View image | gettyimages.com | Street in Akureyri

 

Q: What are some of the top highlights of Akureyri for visitors?

A: Like I mentioned above, during winter it’s the ski resort in Mt. Hlíðarfjall, but all year we have many interesting museums, a folk museum, a renowned art museum, aviation museum, museums commemorating famous Icelandic poets and so on. The botanical gardens are always a great attraction for foreigners visiting our town and so is our beautiful church on the hill above the city centre, designed by one of Iceland’s most famous architects. Our geothermal swimming pool is one of the best in Iceland, with hot tubs and sauna, and then you can take short trips to watch the sunset, enjoy the bright summer nights, see the northern lights during winter, go hiking in the steep mountains, or take a trip to Hrísey Island to see he shark museum and Grímsey Island to see the puffins during high summer. We have a lot of great restaurants and eat delicatessen from the Icelandic nature. I could go on and on, but for visitors it’s best to visit our Tourist Information Centre which is open every day to get some tips and what to do and what to see. You’ll find information on opening hours of the Tourist Centre on our site and there you can also read about the many attractions in town and some fun things to do.

museums
Q: Are there annual festivals in Akureyri (or nearby) that people might enjoy? What are they?

A: We have many annual festivals, some say too many! You can read about them on the web page I’ve mentioned, but the biggest festivals are probably the family festival held on “Verslunarmannahelgi” (Commercial Workers’ Weekend) when there’s a general holiday the first Monday in August and then there is the Akureyri Wake at the end of August, on the weekend closest to the day the municipality was founded in 1862, which is the 29th of August. Both of these festivals put strong emphasis on the family, music, dancing and outdoor fun.

View image | gettyimages.com | Geothermal activity near Akureyri

 

Q: Akureyri is not just a great city, but also a great hub for people who want to visit the area for a few days. What are some other points of interest?

A: Akureyri is like a “little big city” with many museums and all the service you need, for example, international hospital service. For that reason and because of its location in the middle of north Iceland, it is a great base for those wanting to see all the natural gems in the close vicinity. It takes you about an hour to drive to the beautiful Lake Mývatn with all its diverse bird life and hot springs and lava. Then you can go to Húsavík which has become a kind of capital for whale watching in Iceland (although you can also go whale watching from the docks in Akureyri). I could mention the old turf house in Laufás twenty minutes or so from Akureyri and to the west, the Icelandic Emigration Centre in the village of Hofsós and the very popular little fishing village of Siglufjörður. And you can also go horsebackriding on different farms in the neighbourhood.

View image | gettyimages.com | Old Rectory and Farmhouse Laufas (1866-70) near Akureyri

 

Q: What are some hidden gems of Akureyri or surrounding areas that you think visitors too often miss?

A: In town I could mention the geothermal swimming pool because I think tourists are not well enough aware of its healing powers and the cleanness of the geothermal water and the hot tubs. It is very popular with the locals, but visitors often seem to miss it, although that has been slowly changing. Also I could mention the river Glerá which runs through town and has beautiful gorges to explore. I would like to mention the reserve area at Krossanesborgir which consists of many rock formations made of basalt which is about five to ten million years old. And don’t forget our beautiful islands of Hrísey and Grímsey. Then I would also recommend that our visitors try to stay up all night (at least for one night) to experience the bright Icelandic summer nights.

View image | gettyimages.com | Bridge in Akureyri

 

Q: How many days do you think a person needs to really get the full measure of Akureyri and the north?

A: To really get the full measure of Akureyri you would have to move there! But for a person visiting I would recommend four to five days, one or two days exploring our sights and then taking trips to the natural treasures nearby. Once again I point you to our official visitors home page.

light
Akureyri traffic light by Matito is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Q: When we spoke before, we talked about the heart-shaped stoplights in Akureyri. Can you tell me the story again about the origin of these hearts? And there was a heart on the hill, too?

A: The hearts appeared as a consequence of the financial crash in Iceland in 2008, when there was a need for some positive thinking and to put emphasis on what really matters. Since then the red hearts in the traffic lights are visible, as well as plenty of red hearts made of the flower “forget me not” decorating windows, cars and signs throughout the town. The huge heart that “pounded” in Mt.Vaðlaheiði opposite the town on the other side of the fjord was made by a private initiative of an electrical company in town together with other supporters. The heart was the size of a football field and was made of about four hundred bulbs.

Q: Why do you think Akureyri is a “can’t miss” destination in Iceland?

A: Akureyri is an easy-going town with a very friendly atmosphere. It is relaxed and in that way very different from the hustle and bustle in Reykjavík. Almost everyone in Iceland thinks Akureyri is one of the most beautiful towns in this country and I think visitors can agree with that. Some say the capital has become overcrowded with tourists and so Akureyri is a great option for those wishing to visit a friendly place which offers everything you need and is a great base if you want to explore the wonders of the north.

View image | gettyimages.com | Mývatn nature baths near Akureyri

 


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