Jamie Robson is an actor who has appeared in a number of excellent shorts in 2018, seen by many across the TAKE ONE team, resulting in us awarding those efforts in our annual awards.
MY LONELINESS IS KILLING ME recently won a BAFTA Scotland award. BLUE CHRISTMAS won Best Scottish Short at Edinburgh Short Film Festival, and Jamie has received other awards for his work in Charlotte Wells’s film. He has begun working with filmmakers on their first feature films, and he recently completed filming the feature SPIN STATE, with director Ross A Wilson. The film is due to appear at festivals this year. Jamie took the time to talk to me about these pieces of work, how he has worked with filmmakers, and the opinions and experiences that inform his approach to acting and filmmaking.
Jim: To start off with, I know you studied filmmaking, but you find yourself working as an actor now, so a bit of background might be good so we can get a feel for what path has taken you to where you are now.
Jamie: I didn’t have an easy childhood, for reasons we don’t need to go into, but one of my comforts was film. There was a shop in the village [in Thornhill, Dumfries & Galloway] called ‘Music & Movies’, and it was this really small place, wall-to-wall with cassettes and tapes. HELLRAISER, DAS BOOT, SOCIETY, THE EMERALD FOREST. It showed me the world, it was my internet then. Different countries, different cultures. I got a very sophisticated experience through film at a very young age. It was my comfort and my mentor, really. I left school and I was working on a building site, and one day I had an epiphany, whilst unscrewing a big diesel pipe or something, that the only thing I was really interested in was films. So I applied, and got in, to study filmmaking in Glasgow. It was a great time to study filmmaking in Glasgow. One of my mentors was involved in GREGORY’S GIRL – they were these mentors that were involved in the scene, you know? But moving to Glasgow from the village, and being that age, and meeting new people and stuff, was difficult. I had a lot of issues to address: social anxiety, self-acceptance, maybe some anger about my past, my youth. So I packed it in because I just couldn’t see myself making it. I’m quite an ambitious person but I would also think, “How am I going to make it in the film industry? I’m in Scotland!” It was really a disappointment. I remember one guy in particular being really disappointed, which was a nice feeling in a way because I think he saw potential.
“[Film] showed me the world, it was my internet then. Different countries, different cultures. I got a very sophisticated experience through film at a very young age.”
I went travelling all over Asia studying meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and other stuff just to try and find myself. Through that I met guys that were in the industry: music and music video guys. I got started in some music videos, did some commercials, and then we used to play with short films. After all that I thought, “I might give this a go,” and I did! I made Peter Marsden’s film, NOT REQUIRED BACK. I got an agent and did BLUE CHRISTMAS. I changed agent and went on to MY LONELINESS IS KILLING ME, and SPIN STATE.
Jim: You’re working as an actor, but you’ve got this love of film and making film, and therefore seem to have had quite a collaborative process with everybody you’ve worked with. So what stage of the creative process do you prefer to come in? I ask because in your role you could come in at any point potentially.
Jamie: Ideally as early as possible. It really depends on the relationship with the writer or director. If Scorsese was to say, “I want you to have a decent role,” then I would treat that as a job. But if I know the director, I meet him, and he’s no more famous or powerful than I am, it’s nice when we can literally start off at the development stage, and determine where the story is going. What do we want to explore, or if we can discuss the script before it gets finalised, and casting. So, as early as possible given the relationships.
Jim: So did you come on board very early in NOT REQUIRED BACK? In terms of dialogue it is very sparse. If you were involved early on it would make sense as you’d have a better idea of what the piece was aiming for.
Jamie: Yes, and it’s also improvised a lot. What I wanted to do is demonstrate that I could get into a state that didn’t require ‘acting’, it just required innocence, in a way. To be in front of a camera and be comfortable to reside within an emotion that the story required. I think it was Voltaire that said words were invented to hide emotions. Dialogue can be a benefit, sometimes it can be a hindrance. In lesser-written scripts there’s often dialogue that conveys the obvious emotion. If somebody’s obviously angry and they’re saying they’re angry, it’s like putting a horse costume on a horse.
“Dialogue can be a benefit, sometimes it can be a hindrance. […] If somebody’s obviously angry and they’re saying they’re angry, it’s like putting a horse costume on a horse.”
Whereas, if somebody’s struggling with an emotion and trying to suppress it, or use it to their advantage, or doesn’t even know how they feel and there’s that paradox between the physical language and the verbal language, that’s much more interesting. You then have drama within drama, inside this one person.
Jim: Really, it’s the acting part of the show-don’t-tell principle.
Jamie: Yeah, or ‘feel the most show the least’. When you show extreme emotion you put people in a very passive state because people just watch, and it’s done for them. It can be almost embarrassing. Whereas if you watch somebody in that period where their emotions have not kicked in, just the causal element has: something’s happened. A man’s dropped dead, or an old flame who broke my heart walked in, say. The period before the emotion fully develops? That’s interesting. Or perhaps trying to hide it after. That’s interesting. I make my life harder being collaborative because, obviously, it means sometimes that if I feel I can’t get involved, I don’t take a project. I don’t like feeling just employed, or if I’m scared about a film being bad.
It’s not easy to tell if a film’s going to be bad. A script might be good, but maybe the director’s got different ideas. Maybe the way the edit goes, or the money people try to save. I do have that fear, so I end up being drawn towards work that’s driven by a lower budget, more independent, newer talent. I know that they’ll be more open to collaboration. I think them knowing that I studied filmmaking and that I’m a cinephile with cinephile friends, like Charlie [Charlotte Wells], or Mark [Cousins]. That legitimises it a bit, otherwise they could easily say, “What the fuck? This mother fucker isn’t acting.” A lot of actors don’t know anything about directing, but there’s a lot of directors who don’t know anything about acting.
Jim: Do you think it can often put people at ease that you have an interest in the final piece of work, as a whole, rather than just your presence in it?
Jamie: I think so: for me, it’s the art. I want to be attached to good art because in time that will pay me ten fold. If I wanted to make money I’d sell drugs, and if I wanted to be famous I’d commit a massacre. I’d be in the papers tomorrow. If I can have any influence that I think is a benefit to the project, that’s where my passion lies. I’m deeply committed to the projects that I do. I mean, look at actors like Daniel Day-Lewis: he’s only done about ten feature films in recent memory. I’m not saying I’m going to be that extreme. I like to work, so I’d like to shoot a feature maybe once or twice a year. I’m not one of these actors that can do six a year or something, or back to back. I don’t know how you can do that. You really then just end up cutting up the same lines.
Jim: If you were to work with somebody who was very established, would you have more of a reticence to change the character, or change what they’ve envisaged?
Jamie: It really depends on the circumstance. If it was a superstar director that I really admire I’d just be grateful to be working with them and I’d just keep my mouth shut – as long as the script was good. If Stanley Kubrick rose from the grave and asked me to be his lead and the script is bad?…Hand to heart, I really don’t think I’d do it, because I don’t care what the media say. I care what film people say. Hello magazine might say, “Jamie Robson starring in great new film”, but if somebody like you, or Mark Cousins, or Amanda [Rogers, of Cinetopia], or Paul [Bruce, of Edinburgh Short Film Festival], any film people whose opinions I respect, say, “This is bad shit,” that is what upsets me.
I would want film people to like it, because my friends are film people. Mark Cousins is a very good friend and a freaking oracle of filmmaking. Imagine if he told me he thought the film was shit? God. I pick my work very carefully, and it’s served me well because it’s immediately developed a reputation of quality. It’s a risk, and it might be a mistake. I don’t know yet, but so far it’s gone well.
Jim: You would avoid putting yourself in the situation where you’d feel the need to suggest changes that might not be welcome?
Jamie: Yeah. If you’re saying a big director casts me, and the script is good, I’d be happy just to turn up and do my job. I know my place in the world. It’s different if I was Daniel Day-Lewis, but I’m not. When the situation permits me involvement, I just enjoy that. I even enjoy the production element. Where are we going to shoot it? Do we need to pay for this expensive equipment? What’s the poster design? What festival will we submit to?
Jim: How do you go about getting into character, from a theoretical standpoint? The films you’ve done so far can be quite sparse on dialogue. The extreme case of that is NOT REQUIRED BACK, but even BLUE CHRISTMAS is hardly verbose. What is the process you go though to get a feel for how these people should act? There are many different ways and therefore a big difference between what is on paper and what can actually end up on screen.
Jamie: I think there’s a three-step process. You begin with finding interest, then sympathy, then empathy. Read the script and really meditate upon the descriptions of the character’s behaviour. Do the maths in regards to how that behaviour corresponds to others, the film, and the outcome. Source interest in the character. Consider why they make those decisions, and why they’ve ended up in this circumstance. You can arrive at a state of sympathy with them by observing those things.
If they are a bad person, you can examine why they think they are doing the right thing, because his reasons are X, Y, Z. You really start to compare those elements with your own life, and your own history. Maybe how they feel, regardless of how you judge them. Hopefully, you eventually arrive at a place of empathy. That’s really when you start to be able to really be that person.
“Hopefully, you eventually arrive at a place of empathy. That’s really when you start to be able to really be that person.”
Jim: On that note of bringing some of yourself to the character…do you think that is a conscious necessity for a truthful-feeling performance, or just an inevitability?
Jamie: It’s both. There’s a massive industry-wide misunderstanding of what method acting is. There’s this idealist conception that people can ‘transform’, but we can’t. Take two actors that are well-known for massive transformations: Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale. They can look very different, have a moustache, say, or the 6 stone weight gain, or whatever. You can still tell immediately it’s Christian Bale or Daniel Day-Lewis. The techniques they use for acting matter and are still consistent. Daniel Day-Lewis bases his very much in his mouth. Christian Bale is very postural and a very physical actor, and his silhouette is very important. Those elements remain the same. Take Philip Seymour Hoffman, who arguably was even better than those two at transforming. That’s still Philip Seymour Hoffman.
When you cast somebody you’re casting a soul, and that particular soul illuminates the character. Every actor is infinitely more interesting than every character. You are more interesting than the greatest character ever written.
Jim: Because by necessity they only exist on paper?
Jamie: Even with an incredibly well-written character, for whom you can see and feel the backstory and the future. We don’t know how his last relationship was, and we don’t know what he likes to do on holiday. The idea of character comes about in the decision making in the film, their activity in the film. If he spills a cup of coffee on you and he’s not very apologetic, that instantly conveys the character. A scriptwriter can never fully illuminate characters. It’s the actor that comes, and she or he turn the gaslight up and fully illuminate the character, and either it’s the right soul for that character, or it’s not. That’s when you get miscasting. [In VICE], it’s still Christian Bale playing Dick Cheney. We need the pantomime, the body weight, the fat suit, the balding hair to stop our disbelief.
Jim: The Danny Boyle STEVE JOBS film might be a good high-profile example. Michael Fassbender does an excellent job, but they don’t go to much effort to make him look like Steve Jobs. You don’t really need all that if it’s the right fit.
Jamie: Exactly. I’m interested in the audience’s subconscious, and the way you interact with the subconscious of the audience is through micro-expressions. These are things that the naked eye barely registers but your brain sees, slight fluctuations in the pulse that create microscopic changes in the face, and musculature, and structure. If you have a lot of prosthetics you’re hiding all that, and then you’re working with the basics: happy face, sad face, loud voice, quiet voice, you know?
For me, as an actor, I work in honour of the writer. My role is to act as a vessel for the story. You can often get a performance that impedes the story. It’s all about them and their performance. Really, an actor is a problem solver, and the problem is you need a vessel for the narrative. You mentioned the word truth there, and in my opinion the way to be truthful is to genuinely exist – whether it’s onstage or screen – and genuinely attempt to have an affect on the other people, so the concept of acting is no longer there. If you’re watching me use dialogue given to me that then has an affect on someone else – that’s real, that’s not acting.
Jim: So the more important thing is the impact it has on whoever is watching it?
Jamie: And to the person. It becomes documentary. That’s, for me, when it gets very good because I don’t have to act that I’m angry and then act that I’m doing something you are then offended by. I will get angry and I will offend you. I’ll play with the intonation, inflections, and delivery, the timing, my body language. I’ll break the rules of blocking. I’ll do something we didn’t do in rehearsal and catch you out, so you’re surprised. That’s not acting, that’s documentary.
Jim: Staying on the idea of creating a piece of work, starting with the idea, writing the characters, through bringing the characters to life, the actual filmmaking itself, to the visual language that you use. It seems as if creating some sort of empathy at each stage, however that is managed, is maybe the sort of thing that has the most impact on an audience?
Jamie: Agreed, but I think what’s interesting with other art forms is they tend to have a sophisticated, well-informed audience. If you go to a painting exhibition, the ones you have to pay money for, most of the people there know a bit about art. They maybe studied art, buy art, maybe they just go to a lot of these shows. You go to see a poetry night and you’ll have poets in the audience, people big into literature, those who read a lot. Ironically, the biggest audience art form, which is cinema, most of the audience don’t have a fucking clue about filmmaking. You’ll have a grandparent who says, “Have you seen 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS? So how did you like it? You like the films, don’t you?” That’s not to be a snob but what I’m saying is, it’s a harder sell to challenge people or to convey something more complicated, but there’s a greater responsibility to do so because you have the biggest audience Even if it’s pure entertainment it can still have a lesson to be learned, or an experiment to be had, or a question to be asked. Film has a responsibility to improve society because most of society watch film.
“Film has a responsibility to improve society because most of society watch film.”
Jim: In the grand scheme of things cinema is very young in comparison to, say, sculpture, or paintings. If you look at Renaissance art, there’s a very well-developed visual language. Would you say cinema has a lot of opportunities, because it has the most capacity for innovation, arguably?
Jamie: And evolution. It could change tomorrow, where Classical art is a much slower turn. It takes 100 years for quality to weed out the wheat from the chaff. We talk about great books that are maybe over 100 years old, but when those books were printed there was also crap books. Time has meant they are no longer printed. They’re perhaps kept as reference, and only the classic ones that are actually good are reprinted, are maintained, and remembered. We haven’t had that with film yet.
So we’re still getting the likes of SHOPLIFTERS on the same shelf as, I don’t know, ESCAPE PLAN with Sylvester Stallone, you know? But in the future SHOPLIFTERS will be on a shelf in the classical section with other good films, and the others will be forgotten. We’ll have a stronger back catalogue in 50 to 100 years, and that should motivate people to keep working to the best of their ability.
Jim: If you had to take a stab at it, what qualities in common do you think these pieces of work that last are going to have?
Jamie: I think the message they convey is timeless, and at the same time, seems to correlate with whenever it’s released. There’s a few celebrated authors that promote this theory of there are only five, or six, or seven stories in the world, and that any other story is just a derivative of one of them. You could argue that’s the same with cinema, stories are stories whether they’re conveyed in a poem, or a sculpture, or a film. So a sense of timelessness, and not on a superficial level. People still make silent films, people still make black and white films. So it’s not these basic elements that would dictate whether a film is timeless or not. I think it’s the story that it conveys, the message that it conveys, and that message is delivered on a, kind of, platter of truth. The acting is truthful, the choice of language is truthful, the composition, the visual story is truthful.
Jim: Almost an inherent part of the success of a film, and how it is judged is by how many people see it and how much money it makes. Rather spreadsheet based, in a way. Over time that aspect will also fade.
Jamie: Totally. Again, back to that 100 years, that century requirement. I think the establishments that support the different arts, literature, sculpture, painting, dance, poetry, they’ve existed for long enough to be subjected to changes in society and the world at large. Though they have arrived at a place where deep down their core is based around the promotion of that particular art form. That is the priority really. They treat their work with reverence, they protect their work, the artworks, they transport them carefully, they talk about them lovingly, and yes, they sell tickets, and brochures, and a postcard if you want. But really it’s about the promotion and celebration of the art form. I think that’s still to arrive in mainstream cinema.
Everybody watches films, and most people go to cinema. It really has the greatest responsibility to do a service to society, like all the classical arts have done. Actors are malleable, and changeable, and adaptable: I am manipulated by a writer or a director, and by the circumstance on set or the stage. I am a constant piece of art in constant flux forever – but then we all are. That ties in with Brando’s ideas that we’re all actors. I think I’d like to see a more romantic or classical interpretation of the actor, and more respect for really the writers and the actors are the most undervalued people in the whole process, but without a writer your script is nonsense. Even if the script is good, if it’s not conveyed by the actors well it’s spoiled. With the access to technology and software, making a film look ‘pretty’ is much easier. We could shoot a film tonight on your iPhone and with a bit of work it would be visually impressive. But to write a good script, a feature-length script? That is an incredible feat. To understand that and to truly convey it, in the honour of the spirit of the writer as an actor, that is hard, and not to get in the way of it. So many actors are cool and concerned with their image, and they’re cool cats. Philip Seymour Hoffman has said if you want to do a good job you’ve got to take off your cool-cat suit.
By being so self-conscious, that confidence is really a veil for a lack of something else. It’s why you see a lot of people with big muscles. It’s like somebody built a fortress around them. They feel that whatever is at the core is insubstantial, so they built this fortress of muscles, and bravado, and machismo so that they feel safer. Because they obviously don’t feel sufficiently secure in whatever context. So I think actors are often undervalued, and when they are valued it’s often for the wrong reasons, like their appearance, or their star factor, or how many STAR WARS movies they’ve been in. If the writers of Hollywood actually realised how much power they had there would be riots in the streets. The industry is not short of many things, but one thing it has always been short of is good scripts.