If you missed our online Masterclass with Michele Austin, we’ve lovingly written up her top tips from the session!
Firstly though, she spoke a little about her career...About myself
I’ve done a bit of everything - except I can’t juggle and I can’t ride a horse! I did go to drama school, I’ve had 5 agents, I’ve had no agents, I supposed I’ve had a pretty comprehensive experience of the industry.What is the audition process like when auditioning for a Mike Leigh film?
I auditioned for Mike Leigh a long time ago, and it was for a play, so his process might have changed over the years. He’s very much interested in personalities and your story - he is not really interested in performance and performers. I was straight out of drama school and had no idea who he was - luckily, I suppose, so I couldn’t get too nervous! We chatted a little bit about me and my background, where I was from, where I went to school, and about people I knew who were the same age as I was. He asked me to choose one of those people, and then he left the room and asked me to get into the character of that person. It wasn’t about finding things to do or making up a story on the spot - I think on that occasion I sat in the room and read a paper, looked out the window, and we did some walking around in character. He feels that you should only ‘know’ what your character knows, so you have to know what your character is about, why they do what they do - which really helps to separate ‘you’ from what you are doing.When you're filming something such as a soap where you are working extremely fast, there are a lot of scenes that you're shooting in various orders, what are the biggest challenges? How do you overcome these?
Well I mean the biggest challenge is time. So, what you have to do is you really have to know your lines. It’s quite simple - no-one has the time for you to find it. You have to do a lot of the work yourself. I’ve done a lot of police procedure things, where you need to know what the story was before and understand what you’re about to do. One of the biggest challenges is also your nerves - getting on set is a daunting thing. I think the training has got a lot better, but if you’re on top of the work, that’s part of the job done. Put the work in before you get to the studio. I know some people find it hard learning lines - and I know you cannot spend your whole life learning lines - but you really have to just get on top of it. What is your advice for staying productive/positive during periods when you’re in between acting jobs?
I think we’re all going through this now. Staying positive is really hard. We’re all struggling to stay positive, we don’t know if we're going to work again, when we're going to work again. I’m struggling with it too - I suppose what you can do is try and remain match fit. Do some exercise - the days are gone of actors being drunk at lunch time! You’ve got to be ready to get up and go.
Mentally, you’ve got to find things to do that are really good for you. Sometimes we measure how well we’re doing by the job we’re doing or have most recently done. The advice I would give to people who are starting out is to try and find a job that you want to do that goes along with your acting. One of the hardest things is finding a job that works with acting that you enjoy, and that pays. Also, have friends that aren’t actors. Know some other people and do some other stuff!Is there a difference between preparing for film and theatre?
Not much. The best thing about theatre is that you have the time to figure it out - you can go into the rehearsal room with questions that you don’t have the answer to. With theatre, it’s a longer process - you've got longer to explore and to have a play. We always feel like we did our best show the run before we went into the theatre though!
The important thing when preparing for both is to know your stuff - of course I've blagged auditions and hadn’t read the whole script, we all have time constraints, but it’s a really key thing to do. Working on Cyrano with Jamie Lloyd, which was such an innovative staging, was it a collaborative practice? What was the rehearsal process like?
It was amazing - Cyrano
was an extraordinary experience. It was one of those jobs where you feel like you can’t do it. I’ve never done Shakespeare, and the idea of singing on my own was terrifying, and this was speaking in verse and originally involved singing a solo (which later became a piece of spoken word).
Jamie had two very different ideas, but from the outset we knew a few things about the piece. He talked about there being no nose, and there was going to be a limited set, and we were going to have handheld microphones. We were mic’d from day one in rehearsals. We just went through the play and had a go, played with chairs, played with different viewpoints, and then one day he decided to try it like a radio play. This developed the form - If you don’t have a nose, do you need to have cups, bottles or whatever. We then worked on some movement with Polly Bennett where we explored the lines and angles. This led to us facing the front. It was a challenge not to look at each other, but it worked.
The practice was collaborative, yes - you'd offer things up all the time. Some things got accepted, you tried things out. You knew what you were working with though, as Soutra Gilmour has a very distinctive design style and so does Jamie. Another thing was that they took pictures of us each day, of what we were wearing. They wanted us onstage to look like us - of course everyone dressed up a bit then so you’d look a bit cooler than you probably normally would!
Jamie was also really keen that we really stuck to the metre and the rhyme - it was really interesting because it felt like if you stepped away from that, it didn’t work as well. So keeping the rhyme and metre felt essential.How was studying at Rose Bruford? Would you recommend going there?
I had an amazing time. I think everyone has shaky years, or a shaky term. I was lucky, as I got a grant/very small loan. It’s very different now though, I mean who wants to get into 40k of debt when you’re becoming a low paid actor! There’s lots of amazing opportunities to train without the huge expense, such as Identity, WAC Arts. Lots of people and places offer amazing opportunities where you don’t have to study full time.
Rose Bruford was amazing for me, however. The biggest recommendation I can make whilst you’re training, or not, is to go and see shows if you can, watch films, tv series - find out what you like and that will inform what you want to do.How do you keep it 'fresh' on long-running dramas like The Bill or Eastenders?
Sometimes you don’t! One of the best, most brilliants bits of advice for working on long-running dramas came from a colleague who said ‘Give the writers something that they haven’t written’. What he was basically saying is they’ve written you a character, they’ve got an idea of who this person is. They want you to give them something back. You give them ideas of what to do with the character. Give them little things to work with. Try and develop a character that you really like and enjoy playing - if you’re playing them 5-6 days a week, you have to really like and enjoy your character.
Working on long-running dramas, you just have to do the work (prepare and learn your lines), be kind, be polite, be nice. How do you overcome audition nerves?
It is really hard, because sometimes we just really want the job, or need the job financially. The truth is, don’t be late, remember that when you’re in that room waiting to go in, it’s your time to collect yourself - find your space. It’s not rude if you don’t want to chat before going in. You have to keep in mind - they want you to be the one! They don’t want you to walk in and be shit. In the back of your mind remember that they want you to do well, and it’s okay to ask really nicely and politely to do something again if you need to. We’re human, not machines - sometimes you’ll only get things sent to you the day before so you can’t prepare as well as you’d like, so you might not get it right first time. You have to be easy on yourself!Is it a good idea for an actor to work in a TV/Film studio to get connections?
I would say there’s no harm in learning how the studio works, getting experience in understanding people’s different roles is never a bad thing, but I’m not sure you’d get acting work that way. What advice would you give people looking for representation?
Get your showreel out there. A lot of people are making their own showreels if you can’t get it done professionally. And get involved with young people’s programmes - lots of theatres up and down the country have great programmes for young people. If you’re in London, check out theatres like the Kiln, Royal Court, Lyric. Keep active and be involved in as many theatres as you can.
Representation is so hard if people can’t see your work. My heart goes out to those drama students that are graduating now and having to do online showcases to try and get agents to view their work. Looking back at your career, what advice do you wish you got?
I’ve had lean years, and great years. In the lean years, I wish I’d put in the work to find something I enjoy to make money. I’ve done all sorts of jobs, from being a charity seller to a terrible drama teacher (it was little ones to be fair), so get a proper ‘other’ job. Oh, and accents! Accents, I should have paid more attention to the accent stuff - it’s so important. You have to keep going with that, even if it doesn’t come naturally - I have to work at it. Pay attention to Laura Hart (amazing voice teacher).Would you like to produce theatre?
I enjoyed directing a short film, but I wouldn’t like to produce theatre. I was the naughty one at the back of the class who liked the ‘playing’ thing rather than the admin!When working on classic texts like The Seagull, do you have a process to prepare before you reach the rehearsal room?
I don’t think that it’s necessary to be an expert on Shakespeare to do Shakespeare, or an expert on Chekhov to do Chekhov - at the end of the day it’s a story. I think the most important thing with classic texts is just to have a handle on the world. I mean, sometimes you start a rehearsal period and you don’t even know where or when it’s going to be set.
I think if the text is difficult, you have to do some work at home to understand the text and understand the world. And if it’s theatre, you have 4-5 weeks to prepare. If you come with a bag of questions, that’s okay. It’s a collaborative process, so you can make those discoveries together.Any actors or directors you particularly admire or want to work with?
I have a secret desire to be in an action film. I want to be a middle-aged black woman running through exploding things with a gun. I want to be in car chases!
One of my best friends is a director who’d I’d love to work with - Francis Lee. I was also about to work at the National (before lockdown), which hasn’t happened for me just yet, but that would be wonderful. There’s lots of work I’d like to do - but it’s not Shakespeare. It’s just not something I’m aching to do.What has been your experience with agents?
When I left drama school, I was lucky enough to get an agent. It was a time where there were little jobs on TV - you got a few scenes on The Bill, Casualty.
It was a smaller agent, and this agent left and started up on their own. In true actor style, I left that agent when I got a big film. And then spent a good year and half with a really fancy agent... but with no work. The lesson that I learnt from that was it’s not always about being with the big agent, it’s about finding the right fit for you. Sometimes it feels like there are only 3-4 agencies you can be with, but agents are like football teams - it’s about being in the premiership, not being number one. You want to be with one who’s doing well, in the league, but you have to find the one that will work for you. The fancy agent eventually got rid of me - and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s the business. Losing my agent made me realise that I do want to do this job. I was courtesy of Spotlight, and I had to negotiate my own contracts - and don’t get me wrong, it’s horrible, but you survive it.
With my current agent, I really like her. It is a professional relationship, but she has also become a good friend of mine. How did you make the rhymes and rhythms in Cyrano feel so natural to your voice?
Martin Crimp had gone to lots of spoken word gigs so a lot of it was already there in the script. But you have a play with it, and I listened to a bit of spoken word. I had a bit of fun, and you try to not feel like an idiot if you get it wrong. It often works - the rap came from someone mucking about in Tech!How did you prepare for Mad Mary in White Teeth?
I managed to talk to people who saw her. She used to walk up and down Kilburn High Road, cursing and spitting. I did struggle with creating her as a character!As a black actress, how has your experience with casting opportunities been over the years? How have you stopped yourself being typecast?
I’ve played a lot of nurses. There’s certainly a stereotype for black women being cast as those caring roles - nurses, teachers. I’m lucky to be at a stage of my career where I can say no. If it’s going to make you feel bad, don’t touch it. In my experience things are getting better, but I am also older and have been doing it a lot longer. You are aware of the stereotypes, the same that you are if you are a South East Asian or Irish performer. You have to make the judgment call. It can be tough to feel like you’re playing the same character over and over again - you have to have the power to say no, it’s not for me. I hate the term colour-blind casting - you’re not blind to colour - but the more diverse we get across the industry, the better. That felt really important on Jamie Lloyd’s production of Cyrano, it was a really diverse group of people in terms of gender, sexuality, ability, disability and more. It just makes the work better. What’s been your favourite job/role to date? Do you have any ‘dream’ roles?
There isn’t just one - I think I just like when you become a gang. You know when you think “these people have got my back”. That definitely happened on shows like The House That Will Not Stand.
Working with Mike Leigh has also been the most amazing thing for me.
One day, when we all get out our homes, I would love to be in Doctor Who, just for my kids. My kids need to see me in the Tardis!Would you recommend creating your own work?
Yeah, if you want to, and you can. It took a lot of hard work for me to make my own work. It can be so simple though too - you can make something to stick on Instagram. It doesn’t have to be a full production; it could just be writing for yourselves. It could be a short story, anything that gets you through! Do you enjoy comedy? I’ve been seeing you on The Richardsons!
Yes, I do! I didn’t think I’d like being sat on my own on the phone all day, but I loved doing The Richardsons
- so much fun. As a black actress how do you combat the lack of consistent TV/Film roles in the UK?
You just take it from job to job and work between - you save your money - try not to buy too much! Go and see things - I know I speak from a place of privilege as the theatre can be so expensive. There are very few people who go directly job to job to job. It’s really not the case. I do think things are getting better though. You know I’ve been to LA, I’ve done that and you could try it - but I've got a young family. That didn’t work for me. And it takes money to do it. Favourite play as an Audience member?
I do like seeing things that I can’t do - I’m not a singer so I love to see a musical. I enjoyed Dear Evan Hansen
. I love seeing people who can sing and dance and belt it out. It takes me away from everything.Best advice to be actor but still make life money-efficient?
I’m amazed by people who are working their own business on the side. I’ve recently been working with a young actor who set up a business from their phone, buying and selling items online. I think finding a way to make money.
Finally, thank you for tuning in. It’s a tough time we’re all going through at the moment and if you’re struggling, it’s ok to say so. Remember there's lots of help out there if you need. Check out the Useful Links
section on the Masterclass website for sources of help.