An Interview with Jamie Robson
Jamie Robson is an award-winning actor. He has collaborated with directors such as Tim Courtney, Charlotte Wells and Ross A. Wilson in the upcoming film Spin State. I spoke with Jamie about his approaches to acting, what draws him to a script, and actors who have influenced his work.
Was acting a career you always wanted to pursue?
From a young age I was in love with movies and television. After leaving school, I explored the idea of filmmaking, but it wasn’t for me. Then almost by accident, I fell into acting.
What’s your approach to acting?
What I do isn’t an accumulation of techniques, it’s not a method, it’s not a system - it’s a state of mind. Being an actor makes me happy, it’s good for my health. I find it therapeutic and cathartic. Acting is my way of life. As I develop my working process, my life skills grow in tandem. The better an actor I become, the better a human I become and vice versa. I feel a welcomed obligation to constantly enrich myself holistically. By learning and exploring, I hope to become an increasingly textured entity, which hopefully enriches the characters I’m asked to portray. Basically, I experience the circumstances created by the writer and director - it feels like lucid dreaming. The line between true and false is blurred. I feel that in life our job is to survive but in art our job is to perish. To survive in life you sometimes have to act. Paradoxically, the task of an actor ultimately asks that we don’t act, a state of non-acting. Perhaps it’s an oscillation between complimentary opposites - true and false, survive and perish and so on. It’s an interesting philosophy.
What is it about a script that draws you to a role?
I recognise the sanctity of a writer, however, for the actor, things change once you’re on set: scenes are dropped, characters are modified, then more adaptations are made in the edit. So what you’re reading when you first see the script may turn out to be very different. For me, the decisive factor when choosing a project is the director. If I trust the director, then I know that I will be looked after. I’m confident that pre, peri and post will be handled professionally. Only once I’m officially onboard a project does the script take precedence because it’s the window into the writer’s mind, the director’s body and self of the character. The script is the blueprint once the wheels are in motion but it’s not the first thing that draws me to a project, the director is the primary reason.
How do you prepare for a role?
I absorb the text in order to understand the character’s “why” so when I’m working, the “how” is spontaneous. Then I flesh out the role. However, everything has to be actable. It’s a mistake to fuss over things that are not actable. Once the role is constructed, the character manifests into being. I can then just turn on a switch when required and be that person. It’s like a suit, once it’s tailored, I can put it on effortlessly at a moments notice. From that point on, it becomes a meditative process. I go on set, with the objective of remaining relaxed and available. I don’t go in with too many plans or ideas. It’s like being a fighter. An actor and a boxer have very similar experiences and very similar lifestyles. You go in with a grasp of the situation - rounds (scenes), opponent (co-star), rules (dialogue) etc etc. You have an overall strategy, but the tactics to help you achieve that strategy come and go as required. Above and beyond all these transient components, it’s ultimately about awareness. I’m paid to be aware, to be awareness - that’s my job.
Do you ever find yourself working with actors who have very different approaches to your own, and how does that affect you?
You have to work with whatever you’re presented with, including other cast or crew members. It’s not my responsibility to advocate any particular way of working. We all have our quirks, nuances and traits. If another actor wants to do things in a certain way, that’s their given right. Anyway, when the camera is rolling, I don’t see them as an actor being a character, I just see them as that character. I will say my lines to them and listen to them say their lines to me while trying to affect them in order to get what I want. Film and television are very industrial processes. You’ve got to treat it like an art and a science. It can’t just be an art because there are schedules, deadlines and obligations. Equally, it’s not just a science, it’s a deeply human art that requires delicacy, intimacy and sensitivity.
Do you often have these conversations with the other actors on films you are working on?
No, it’s like avoiding the discussion of religion or politics at dinner parties. I don’t talk shop with other actors, I’d rather just blether about random stuff and keep it fun. The work can be so gruelling that when there’s any free time to chat, most of us are keen to just relax and shoot the breeze.
Are there any actors that stand out for you in terms of their approach?
I admire a lot of leading character actors such as Jack Nicholson, Sean Harris, Olivia Colman and Frances McDormand who seem to blend surrealism with naturalism in different ratios.
I appreciate a broad range of actors and I enjoy reading about the history of our business, even as far back as the silent era: Rudolph Valentino, Lillian Gish, Louise Brooks and Conrad Veidt are interesting because they were the true pioneers of realism. In the silent movies, a lot of the actors were quite pantomime in their performance, perhaps understandably so because they had no sound and no dialogue. However some of the names I mentioned, such as Louise Brooks, were able to bring a level of realism that was never seen before. Brooks seemed to engage these caricatures with such authenticity, particularly in films such as Pandora’s Box (1929).
When people talk about Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep or Gena Rowlands being pioneers of realism it’s not historically accurate - if you look further back to the 1920s, Louise Brooks was demonstrating realism forty years earlier. There is one caveat in all of this, because what constitutes naturalism and surrealism ultimately depends on the time. So, it’s interesting to observe the world we inhabit today, with all of our collective challenges. Filmmaking will always reflect the period. How acting is expressed and how acting is received mirrors society chronologically. It’s interesting...