An Interview with Kate Isitt
Kate Isitt is an actor. Her credits include, Coupling, Is It Legal?, Philophobia, Half Light, Strictly Confidential, Jonathan Creek, Last Tango in Halifax, and Rocks. I spoke with Kate about growing up abroad, her early inspirations, playing Sally in Coupling, and life in lockdown.
You travelled a lot when you were growing up…
I didn’t grow up in England at all, but would come here to visit. Even now, it sometimes feel as if I am looking through a window at life here. I used to be struck by college friends talking about their home towns, and realised, for good or bad, they had roots - whole histories from one place - and that informed everything about them, whereas I felt quite rootless, and that has shaped my choices and who I am. Britain has taken me a long time to become a part of. But I think travelling teaches you to observe and adapt, and that links in to being an actor - as an actor, you need to absorb everything you can to bring you as close as possible to portray a character as a full human being. That’s what I relish about acting - exploring human behaviour and psychology in different forms; investigating lives and situations, by playing them. Acting is an infinite education actually.
Is that initially what drew you to acting?
It wasn’t an exterior coming towards. I was going to be a ballet dancer and then, when I had to drop that, I turned to acting. Acting was always something I had been drawn to, from a very young age. I would say my most formative experience acting-wise was in a school play in Singapore. Just the freedom of being on stage but understanding the remit of the performer - knowing you’ve got the audience to serve, the character to fulfil and just the liberation, I think, of being able to release energy and show off with permission. I was taught not to show off in life. I remember that so distinctly - that I felt very at home on stage. But I didn’t do anything with that, I went into ballet (after having to drop judo…but that’s a whole other story). I came back to acting after I had shut the door on ballet.
I do recognise acting is like a virus. And if you have it, it’s very difficult to be free of it.
Is there anyone who inspired you to become an actor?
There was never one person. I would just be riveted by what I saw on screen. It didn’t need to be very much. I remember seeing really average films and being mesmerised by them. I still find filming quite daunting because I can never imagine myself being part of the thing that I used to see. But the stage, that was a natural home for me.
I don't remember seeing anyone in particular and thinking, I want to be them. It was more the impact of storytelling, and emotional revelations, either in performance, or on the page.
Subsequently, I’ve been inspired by many actors and productions. At A-Level my English teacher made us watch an ancient recording of The Homecoming, and Ian Holm's performance struck me deeply. Something about his malleability that was instructive. The same with Mark Rylance, who floored me in The Grass Arena. Stunning. I always thought they should play father and son in something… I’m so sorry that’s never going to happen now. They both have a mutability that comes from this very quiet, profound presence. People like that inspire me.
Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves was a revelation for me as well. There was so much bad acting on TV and then going to see Emily Watson in the cinema was just fantastic. I thought I’d love to be able to have some of that luminous honesty she brings to her roles. She was inspiring.
Otherwise I would take myself to an art house cinema, in Soho, London. A little theatre round the back, and I would just go and see all the foreign language films that weren’t given the big screen treatment, or little indie films that weren’t deemed sufficiently bankable to put on in the main cinemas. They showed Hal Hartley films. He had such a lovely, quirky quality. And Jim Jarmusch, early Ang Lee and the wonderful, Gus Van Sant. I’d love to be working with some of those guys. But mainly I’d see films from the French nouvelle vague - Truffaut, Godard...there were so many - then forward to Betty Blue, Manon des sources, Jean de Florette, La Reine Margot. Most of these films captured human beings so rawly; like they were naked. Actually, in French arthouse cinema, someone generally was naked… Anyway, I developed a passion for French cinema and Scandinavian cinema - from Ingmar Bergman to Bo Widerberg, and later to Lars Von Trier, and Dogme. Much as I relish the excoriating intensity of much Scandi cinema, I treasure Bo Widerberg’s, Elvira Madigan: a lyrical piece about a doomed love affair. He brought a romantic authenticity to it. There’s a cinema verité about it that is utterly beguiling and charming. So beautifully shot. I see that echoed in various contemporary works, from Andrea Arnold to a young director I worked with recently - Guy Davies. He was capturing that same thing in his film, Philophobia. There’s so much of it around. Even songs seem to reflect this pastoral lyricism - innocence spliced with doom. So, many inspirations.
Talking of doom-laden: the tv series The Flowers by Will Sharpe, was extraordinary! He’s an inspiration as both a straight and comic actor (watch Defending the Guilty) and as a creator, director. Actually he’s sickeningly gifted. As is Michaela Cole! She manages to be both dazzling and empowering.
But Normal People was my stand out experience this year. I found that shockingly special. I nearly didn’t watch I May Destroy You because Normal People aired first, and it just made everything else look a bit too try-hard; a bit average. I think it set a new standard of television, both acting-wise and in cinematography. Lenny Abrahamson and his amazing DOP, Suzie Lavelle, caught something very special. That’s such an important point about filming: as an actor you can be as honest as you want to be. In the end, if your cinematographer and director don’t set the scene up to capture your performance, it goes for nothing. It is the great directors who have captured these visceral performances. It’s extraordinary how they can mould it into something so electrifying when you watch it. There is such magic in performances as tangible as the ones in Normal People. For me, the series was superb.
You portrayed Sally Harper in Coupling. What drew you to the role?
I was thrilled when Beryl Vertue was going to get me back in for something. I had adored doing Is it Legal? with her, because it had been the happiest working environment. When Beryl got me in for Sally in Coupling I trotted along and it is a complete miracle that I got that job, because I not only went along on the wrong day, when I came back on the right day, I did a dreadful audition. I knew the director didn’t like me. I was trying to be too ‘real’ and knew it wasn’t working. I was so ashamed that I’d let myself and Beryl down. Then I got the role and I couldn’t quite believe it. I was just so pleased. Once a job is mine I can really start to relax and enjoy bringing what I want to it.
I loved doing Sally because so much of her was very unlikeable. I really enjoy playing those parts where you get to say the unsayable, or exhibit the peculiarities of a very flawed human being. When I started playing her, I thought I was saying lines that nobody would say in real life, but Steven Moffat is some kind of prophet, because not only have I started saying some of the things that Sally said, my life reflects some of his scenarios. He wrote an episode where Sally is in distress about the guy she’s fallen for, ‘Look, if I marry him, we’ll move to the country and I’ll just eat biscuits.’ And that’s exactly what’s happened! I am just a lard-arsed, biscuit eater. I daren’t look back at Coupling and find out what other horrors Steve Moffat wrote for my character, because it will all come true!
What was very special about my experience playing Sally, was Steven writing more and more wonderful stuff for her. It was just such a pleasure to work with him and his writing. There were many times I would think 'that’s such a great line, don’t get in the way of it’. It’s a joy and a privilege to hit a role where you’re flourishing together, but that is really dependent on the writer writing well for you.
It was also a treat to work with people like Gina Bellman, who is one of the sweetest, most level-headed humans I’ve met, who took an insane character, Jane, and made it work so well as a sexy-bonkers-likeable-predatory-innocent.
When I first read a review of Coupling it was referred to as the British Friends, which I think takes away from it a little.
Well, Coupling had its own identity, and if someone didn’t like Friends, they might still enjoy Coupling. However, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, as Steven was tasked by his wife, the producer, Sue Vertue, to write a British Friends. So he went about in his Scottish way, to write, I think a much more twisted, ambivalent version of a group of friends. A sort of Friends with a bit of Ally McBeal thrown in - because you occasionally go into someone’s imagination, which was not a Friends device - topped off with a Scottish diffidence. So he took the format and re-delivered it as Coupling. Perhaps rather than a British Friends, more Friends' bastard child..?
Interestingly, one of the American studios bought the rights to Coupling, to do an American version, and they then put their twist on it and it fell flat.
It reflects the contrast between the industry approach here and over the Atlantic. Steven was the sole writer for the British Coupling, just as Simon Nye had been on Is It Legal? In America, they have a team. At the recording stage, we’d just enjoy ourselves and do a few re-takes if we needed to pick things up. Whereas the Americans have a much more scientific approach. As one of the actor’s on the US Coupling told me, "we’d stop, they’d rework gags, the writers would rework entire scenes, so that we would get the laugh on cue every time.” The quirkiness seemed to have been ironed out. It didn’t take off. But it’s not always the case that the more relaxed British approach triumphs over the tight, Hollywood professionalism, as proved by The Office. Both can deliver hilarious results. At the time, the British Coupling was building its niche audience, really gaining traction, but the move to America was the end of it.
You also portrayed Alison on Is It Legal? What was the experience like working on the show?
Is It Legal? was the best job I ever had. It was this funny, odd little piece. The Office is sort of a successor to Is It Legal?, in that it looked at these rather sad human beings, not the winners, which I always find enticing. Written by Simon Nye, who was colossally successful after Men Behaving Badly. Then he writes this little piece about these tragic people in a solicitor’s office in a depressing, western suburb of London, and I just loved my role of Alison, who is ghastly. I’d worked as a temp secretary so I knew all about secretaries and being bored. I also have a friend who was a high-powered PA, and I modelled a lot of Alison on her… not sure she’ll be thrilled to know that.
Patrick Barlow and Imelda Staunton were the leads, and they were great to work with. Generally, if the stars of a show are decent, the company as a whole is decent. But this company was fantastic. We also had Richard Lumsden, Matthew Ashforde, Nicole Arumugam, Jeremy Clyde and many others, including, occasionally, Ben Miles, who later played Patrick in Coupling, which was a lovely tie-in. It was such a happy ensemble with our fabulous technical crew and a delightful director, Martin Dennis, and Simon Nye, who is just a lovely human being, writing it.
It really was special in a way that doesn’t usually happen. I wish Simon Nye would pick it up again and do us all 30 years on.
You’ve recently worked on a number of short films, as well as a few features. Do you prefer working in film to television, and what’s the biggest difference between the two?
I would be grateful for either right now! The aspect I like about film is that it’s entire. There is a single purpose. I love the esprit de corps that comes on a film set because you’re all there for that one job. I love that and having a complete story arc.
Having said that, in television, I like the opportunity of bedding down with a character, and getting to know them better with each series. Otherwise, on the technical sides, it doesn’t necessarily have to be any different, although separate genres can require different disciplines. Take sitcom in front of a live audience - there’s a duality at play which is very different. You must serve both the audience present in the studio, and the camera capturing your performance for the people who will view it, on screen, at home. That’s entirely different from any standard film or television practice. You need to calibrate your performance to serve both simultaneously, and prevent yourself looking badly over-the-top on screen…unless that’s your goal.
I would happily do either film or television, and, although there’s still a romance and a glamour about films that isn’t attributed to television, with the likes of Normal People on our screens, you would never now say television is subservient to cinema. There’s such great TV drama going on, from the Killing Eve trope, which was so refreshing, down to that cellular level of Normal People, and exploding back into the shattering multi-angles of I May Destroy You. There’s so much richness in television, I couldn’t say which I preferred at all.
Is there anything you’ve been working on during lockdown?
As an actor, as a person, I’m looking for the meaningful, the seeds of meaning in everything. During lockdown I did something that really replenished my sense of the meaning of why I’m in performance. My neighbours, who just happen to be international classical musicians, and I, have been collaborating on a piece primarily for children, called The Enchanted Violin. Our aim is to make classical music accessible through storytelling to children. It’s a musical fairy-tale. We were due to perform it in various venues around the south of England, but because of Covid-19 all our dates were cancelled. So a few weeks ago we persuaded the director Nigel Cole to film it for us. It’s completely imperfect, we’re doing it on iPhones and a small video camera - very Dogme Manifesto, nothing but the light that we had and the sound of the instruments and my voice. It’s just a simple storytelling piece with sublime music. And although the initial aim was to bring music to children, the creator, Kate Comberti, was determined to give people cooped up in hospices, care homes or their own homes, a chance to re-experience the beauty of nature, so we filmed mostly in a stunning garden that we live near, and a little up on the Downs, and down on the beach. We’ve sent it to schools and hospices and released it on YouTube now, so it’s out there for free. That has been my COVID-19 highlight.
I also had fun working with Christopher Ettridge and Richard Waring through Zoom, on their homemade comedy, Grandpa Corona.
A while ago, I did a tiny part in Sarah Gavron’s latest film Rocks which was supposed to have been released in April. Of course that was postponed, but I’ve just learned it's going to be released on September 18th, 2020. My stuff mainly ended up on the cutting room floor so I’m barely in it, but it was a treat to work with a director of such talent, intelligence and integrity. The film captures girls from different ethnic backgrounds, growing up in metropolitan life today. It’s a moving, sometimes harrowing piece. I think it’s an important story. Check anything she does out because there’s going to be an intelligence and, most importantly, a huge humanity and decency behind what she does.
The other thing that lockdown has impeded is the Radio4 show Alone that we are meant to be recording. This should be Series 3. It’s with Angus Deayton and a wonderful cast, so I’m looking forward to the moment we can get back and record that.
So Rocks will be released soon and then hopefully, Alone.
In the meantime, I really need gainful employment, and long to get back to work. I hope we’ll find a way to get the theatre back up and running very soon, as well as the rest of the industry. As a society, we need it.