How Niamh Algar’s ‘Unusual’ Self-Tape Impressed Ridley Scott

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Photo Source: Aaron Hurley. Pictured – Niamh Algar

It’s a tough time for actors right now, but The Slate – Backstage’s live series of classes, seminars, and digital exercises – will help turn time on your hands to your advantage.

There’s a lot of great advice for actors in our chat with Niamh Algar. The BAFTA-winning actor discussed building her character in Shane Meadows’ extraordinary series The Virtues, sending Ridley Scott an unusual self-tape, and why you need to find your drive within.

On going out and making it yourself
“Back before getting an agent, I learned that you are your own best friend and your own worst enemy. You’re constantly looking for approval from others but it’s counterproductive. The drive [to act] has to come from you. Don’t look for an external source in order to fuel what you do. And I don’t think you can count on getting jobs or just one job establishing that ‘you are now an actor.’ It’s more about always finding different creative outlets.

In The Factory, Jim Sheridan was one of the directors there and he said: ‘The best way you can learn is if you go out there and make it.’ We were given cameras and sound equipment and we went out and shot short films. And that fed my creativity, it kept it alive. I wasn’t just counting on jobs to be able to act – I could go and make it myself. That’s how you’re going to learn.”

On how Shane Meadows builds characters with actors
“I’m such a massive fan of Shane, from the series and film of This is England, to Dead Man’s Shoes – these were influential to me as an actor. So, it was nerve-racking to get an audition for him. You put someone on a pedestal and all you want to do is impress them! But when I went it was a 15-minute improv which was recorded. There was a page of character description and I was told: ‘Wherever you go with this, it’s up to you.’ Immediately, the stress is lifted, there’s no expectation, it’s just being present and responding to what is on the page. The next week, I did an hour-long improv with Johnny Harris, then was offered the role and started many, many weeks of workshopping the character. Finding who she was, where she fitted into the story. 

Shane gives you a lot of freedom. He sent me to speak with different women who had similar experiences to [my character] Dinah, because he wants to capture the truth, and for you to find stories in the real world. So, I’d go out for the evening in Nottingham or Sheffield and meet these people. And the stories were just incredible. To have access to these real people helps you connect to those characters. So, he’s a bit of a magician in that sense.”

On sending an unusual self-tape to Ridley Scott
“I auditioned for Raised By Wolves by sending in a tape of me boxing. I do a bit of boxing anyway and the physicality of my character Sue is athletic – she’s a soldier, she’s got real strength. But in the [audition] scenes, there wasn’t anything to showcase that strength and I really wanted to put that in. I took it upon myself to go to the gym; I got my mate to come along and do some sparring and I got another mate to shoot us. And that’s what I sent in! [After getting the role] we were out for dinner and Ridley brought it up and was like: ‘That’s quite unusual.’ But obviously it worked! We ended up bonding over boxing as we had the same coach. [Ridley] is ridiculously in-shape for a man who’s in his 80s. He has more energy than anyone else on set, which is infectious. And he’s always got like 20 projects on at the same time, yet gives each project the same amount of attention and care. I don’t know how he does it.”

On controlling your nerves
“I think my nerves have improved over time. Someone once told me that there is no chemical difference between nerves and excitement. So, when you’re about to audition and are feeling those butterflies, if you tell your brain you’re excited, it means you can do the whole process in a different way, one that doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to mess up. So, anytime I feel that now, I’m like: ‘I’m just excited.’ I’m excited for a meeting or a chance to get to act. But generally, the ones I’m nervous about are the ones where I didn’t have enough time to prepare the material and am just worried I’m gonna look like an idiot!” 

More industry advice for UK actors? Click here.

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