An Interview with Gemma Jones
Gemma Jones talks to Sara Teresa about her role in the film Radiator – a moving, blackly comic drama about the strains of coping with ageing parents by director and screenwriter Tom Browne, also a guest at KFF16.
You've certainly worked with your fair share of directors, but perhaps none so personally connected to the story, direction and set as Tom Browne...
Yes it was a most unusual and rather extraordinary assignment. Initially it was the script that I loved, before I knew how autobiographical it was, and before I knew we were to be filming in his parents home. It was just a very lovely script. So that grabbed me first off. And everything else was a wonderful bonus. Obviously Tom was very close to the story and we had a very sensitive director. I'd worked with him as an actor before, we'd done a Jackie Chan film, I played Queen Victoria in a very silly Jackie Chan film. So I'd met Tom before. But as I say, the script was absolutely lovely. And then, when we arrived on the set, it felt like walking into a home, it did feel like home. Although it was a very dilapidated set, I was told the set designers had actually cleaned it up a fair bit before we got there. It was in an even worse state than when we arrived, but it had great atmosphere. A lot of it was extremely touching. There were a huge amount of his parents things still there. Love letters that I picked up. Very personal items. A couple of scenes I had sitting up in the marital bed, reading a book she would have held in her hands. It was an extraordinary assignment and a very happy shoot. We all got on very well. I think what has come out at the end is a lovely film, I'm very proud of it.
It sounds particularly intimate, as the actor who played Daniel, the son, also co-wrote the script with Tom Browne?
Yes, they knew each other and worked very well together. Everyone really got on well. Richard Johnson I had worked with before, I knew him. Nothing felt too scary, we all knew each other. Because it was quite brave, what we were required to do. Particularly Richard. He's an elderly man but he has incredible energy and stamina. He was actually playing far more decrepit than he really is, which he did brilliantly.
It sounds as if the crew was kept fairly small and shooting in a house meant you had little space....
Yes, the whole unit was quite small and we were all living in the village where the house is, and we had the most fantastic caterers. A young couple who fed us, very important when you're working! We all met up in the church hall and were fed really delicious food at the end of the day. A very bonding experience. The shoot was about five weeks. The last time I saw the film, they'd kept almost all of what we shot. The script was so tight that it wasn't a situation where by the time you see the film, everything had been edited out of existence and your favourite scenes had gone. It was already there, most of what we did you can see up on the screen.
Tom Browne has said that with the script he was interested to examine how you view your parents as a child versus how you view them as an adult. How you think you know quite a lot about them, only to later discover that you perhaps know very little. Do you think that's quite a universal feeling, or in the story were Daniel's parents particularly difficult to know?
They were very much of their era, as well as being individually quite eccentric. They were never very overt in showing their affection. I never wanted to see a photograph of Tom's mother, because I wanted to play the person in the script rather than trying to imitate someone. But that never seemed to be a problem for Tom, he never said anything to me like "My mother would have". So I got a great sense of her, and it wasn't until we'd finished that I actually saw a photograph of her.
Do you think that was difficult for him, to hold back?
He didn't express that it was, so I think for whatever reason he cast me, I must have had a sensibility that wasn't entirely different to his mother's, something that I could express. He was only ever encouraging. I never saw him put his head in his hands anyway! And now I'm a grandmother myself, I can see through the span of generations, and of course as you get older you don't feel any different, but to the younger generation we must look, you know, very old now.
Following on from that, were there parts of your character that were informed by your role as a mother and a daughter?
Well, very much so. I was sort of playing my own age span, which was nice. I wasn't particularly flattered in my role as far as the look, but I quite like that, I enjoy playing raw and real. I think Richards and my intention was always not to be affected in any way. Just to play the scenes as written and be as true to the moment as possible.
I read that Tom said it's very likely his parents would be, well, horrified at the idea of their story being made public in this way....
Yes, who knows. Except that I think at its heart it's compassionate. They were tricky, and particularly the father, he was a very irascible and difficult man. But I never felt that they were being judged. And it's very touching, and their non-communication is very touching I think. I don't think anyone would say that it was a cruel vision of what his parents were like. It's certainly difficult to have parents like that. But I think, in their own way, they always had love for each other. The father wasn't always very kind to his wife and to the boy, who they didn't understand because he was of a different generation.
It did strike me that Tom has perhaps made the film as a bit of an apology, is that fair? That he wasn't more understanding and indulgent while his parents were alive?
I wouldn't like to say apology, but a realisation maybe, retrospectively, that they were who they were. Something he may not have appreciated at the time. I would like to think that the film is a nice memorial to them, but without being at all mawkish or sentimental. It's quite raw at parts, and that's honest. I think they would have appreciated the honesty.
I saw that it was only eight years ago that your own father passed, and lived to be 97....
Yes, and he was remarkably well until the last few months of his life. He was an actor, and a very busy actor. He kept working until he was 90 with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I hope I've inherited some of his longevity.
Were there any parts of the script and the film that brought back memories of your own time with your father before he passed? Were there parallels that were helpful?
Not directly, but as he got older he became more dependent and there was a role reversal. I think sometimes now, god will my son have to help me up the stairs someday? But that's the natural order of things I guess.
You've talked about the family home and all of the items that you found. Did the reality of the surroundings, did it constantly affect you? Or were there times when it felt like any other dressed set?
It never felt like a dressed set. It always felt like a home, even though it was dilapidated. There were mice that appeared in the film that hadn't been invited. But it did always feel like it had been a home, although a slightly blown upon one. It was a wonderful help, the house. A good set is always useful and supportive, but in this I just felt I had walked into my character's home, which was hugely helpful. And the surrounding countryside is so beautiful. The home is quite claustrophobic but then every so often, in contrast, it goes out into these wonderful hills and out to the lakes.
I wanted to ask you about the surroundings actually. I've read that you're quite an avid walker and mountain climber?
Yes, I am a hill walker. So, I had some good stride outs on my day off. I was first introduced to the Lake District when I was about ten or 11 and we had a family holiday in the spring and stayed in Borrowdale. I remember it distinctly, it was a wonderful holiday full of long walks. My father would drag us, me and my mother. And then we'd come back for huge high teas. It is a very beautiful part of the world. My family home is in Wales, so when I have time off I go there. Which means I haven't been to the Lake District as often as I'd like really. It's extraordinary when you see how small it is on a map, but when you get up on the hills you could be miles and miles from anywhere.
Right, I'd like to diverge just a little bit before we finish. Can we talk about 'The Devils'? It's not a film I've actually seen, but I know I must see it. It was your first feature film. Were you aware at the time of how the film might be received?
Maybe I was very naive, but I didn't realise it was going to cause such controversy. It was an enjoyable shoot, but I was playing quite a chaste character, I was Oliver Reed's wife, and I didn't have to do anything too alarming. I was a sort of innocent. It had the most amazing sets that were build by the painter Derek Jarman. He designed these sets which were huge in scale and geometric and most unusual at the time. It seems pretty tame now, but I suppose at the time it was a bit wild. We all wanted to do our best for Ken Russell, who created a great atmosphere on the set of wanting to do what he wanted. It was only in retrospect that we all turned around and said, well, maybe we were a bit abused. It's been recently remastered, there's a new version which I think you can get. It's worth seeing.
Do you feel like the film aided your career? Or was the controversy a hindrance?
It didn't create any difficulty for me, no. I didn't do a lot of film in those days, I was mostly doing theatre. There was quite a gap between that film and my next one, which I think was Sense and Sensibility. Luckily since then I've done more film, in the latter part of my career. But theatre has certainly always been the spine of my career.
So, one more fun aside. I can't help but ask about Harry Potter. I'm interested because most established actors in Harry Potter tend to say that they took roles because of children or grandchildren. Was it similar for you? Had you read any of the books?
I hadn't read any before I was asked to do it. But I was very happy to be offered the role. It's not a big role, but I get so much fan mail from children now, which is rather wonderful. What is thrilling is that they were engaged by the books first, as well as by the films. I was proud to be part of it. Because all of the children acting in the film had to be educated, our days were sometimes very long. There was a lot of sitting around in each other's caravans and having a jolly good time gossiping in-between set-ups. It was like a big club, because so many of us knew each other. That was very enjoyable.
I think that's all I have for you, unless you'd like to add anything?
Just that Radiator is only just beginning its exposure, and we're really hoping that momentum will pick up and people will tell their friends. I believe we're going to Glasgow first, and then to Keswick, so we're just getting going. I think it's really worth seeing.