BWW Interview: Michele Austin Talks THE HUNT at Almeida Theatre
Screen and stage actress Michele Austin is currently tackling The Hunt at the Almeida Theatre, directed by Rupert Goold. David Farr's play is based on the critically acclaimed Danish film thriller Jagten.
When did you decide you wanted to be a professional actress?
I suppose quite late. I wasn't one of those kids, even though I did plays at school. I had a really brilliant English teacher, so I thought I might want to be a teacher at the start.
Then, I failed one of my A-levels and that enabled me to get the time to think "Actually, I think I want to try out for drama school". So, it wasn't until I was 19. I don't come from a family where that's the norm. I had really amazing parents who let me go for it, no matter how ridiculous it sounded. They were brilliant, and supportive - all of those things.
Do you approach acting for the screen differently from acting on stage?
Well, you're slightly forced to, in a way. For a lot of TV and a lot of films, it's so quick. Sometimes you hardly have any time to prepare; you have to be quite instinctive about all those decisions you make. What's so lovely about doing a stage show is that you've got time to delve into it a little bit deeper. I'd say I'm pretty instinctive anyway, but I think you get much more time to think and play and make mistakes, then correct those mistakes. There's also that immediacy of the audience; it comes in many forms.
Having said that, I enjoy doing both things. There's also a lovely bit when you're doing films and TV where you can just concentrate on something one day and then you move on. It's a different way of telling a story. In terms of my approach, I think I like the fact that on stage you get that element of playing and making choices with the material. It's quite exciting.
And also, there's something fun about being in a gang - it's your company. I've been really lucky, I've worked with really nice people. Lots of people have made me laugh; that's quite important to me. It should be fun.
Are there any roles you'd like to play but haven't had the chance yet?
There are things I would like to do, not necessarily roles. I've always made a joke about it, and I got to do it once but I'd love to do it again... There's something about that feeling of jumping away from an explosion. I know that's ridiculous, because I'm a middle-aged woman now, but I do like the idea of being in a thriller or something like that!
I do lots of sensible - that's my kind of casting. Lots of teachers, social workers, things like that. Any opportunity to get more serious or really wacky. I'd like to dress up, I guess.
There's also a lot of history that we haven't really examined. You know, there were black people in Tudor times, there are all sorts of things that haven't been examined. There's all sort of things we haven't seen yet. But yes, thrillers would be great. And working with some amazing female writers would be amazing - that would be quite exciting.
What's The Hunt about?
It's about what happens to somebody when their community turns against them, and they may or may not - but it appears they are - innocent. And how that changes their relationship with their friends and the place where they live. It's about the idea of being hunted and what that does to a person, what that does to their psychology.
How do you fight back if you're not believed? There are parallels that you could draw with it, the #MeToo movement perhaps, people who are wrongly accused by the press; there are people who have been called guilty but had nothing to do with the crime all the time. It's a thriller set in a small northern town in Denmark. And it's based on a film called Jagten.
Who do you play?
I play Hilda. She's the headmistress of the infant school where the teacher who's being accused works. She's part of the community. What was interesting to me is that I feel like she values it and wants to be part of it. She doesn't want to stand out. She has a good relationship with Lucas, who's the teacher who's accused of an act. They start off having a really good relationship - for her it's a real shock to learn what's going on.
Is the play different from the film?
I think in the film it's a nursery school. In Denmark they start school later, so we made it an infant school here. And there are fewer characters in our play than there are in the film, but it's very much along those lines.
Does the fact that there is a film impact you as an actress in terms of pressure?
Well, I read the play way before I watched the film. I read it at a workshop and I thought it was an amazing story. Only after that did I watch the film. My character is, in fact, very different. I'm younger, for a start. It's a very different take on it.
What's the biggest challenge this project presented to you?
I think the biggest challenge is that it's quite difficult to see the children go through it - they're so small. We talk about quite difficult things, and even if you're acting there's something about having to listen to a child say those lines - they're so affecting. And I'm a mum myself. I've been around a lot of children, I love working with them too, but when we're doing those scenes with the girls who play Klara, the little girl, I found the first few times quite hard.
We're being incredibly careful with the children - things have been explained to them and there's specific safeguarding to make sure that they're not in any way confused or upset. Our girls are older than they look - the girls are ten years old playing six - but they're still quite small, obviously. That's been the most challenging thing. We're very sensitive about what we're doing; there was one line that was taken out of the play because it would have been just too much for those little ones.
But in terms of challenges, it's been a real joy. It's been lovely to work with Tobias [Menzies] and the rest of the company. I'd worked with a few of them before, so we're managing to giggle to fight the darkness of it all.
What can the audience expect from the show?
I think it's a gripping show. In some ways, we'll keep you guessing. You might believe one thing and then you might start doubting what you've seen. That's the nature of it, when we suspect people. I think it will be a really sharp piece of theatre. It makes you reflect. It has a conclusion which is possibly unsettling.
What would you like people to take from it?
I'd like the audience to come out of it still talking about the show. I'd love them to still have discussions about who they trusted and didn't trust. I think that's it - I want people to talk about it and what they've seen, I want them to have different opinions about everyone's behaviour.