The Great Acting Blog: “Freedom In A Strait-Jacket – Conversation With The Actor”


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The next in our series of posts reflecting on the process of producing Distracted, focuses on the work of actor, John Giles. He plays Detective Mountjoy, a cop who needs to win a promotion otherwise his wife will leave him.

After John’s last shot on the film, I sat down with him to discuss his approach to playing Mountjoy. The vast bulk of John’s experience has been in the theatre, and I was interested to find out how his work there contrasted with Distracted. This is particularly so since John’s performance is quite brilliant, and I’m very excited about unveiling it when the film is released.


Distracted has been a substantial piece of work, made over nearly a year. What would be your approach to Mountjoy? You’ve had the script, it’s time to get to work, where would you start?

JOHN: The luxury of this is that I had the script a long time, albeit an early draft. That  helped. I might be wrong but it has been two years since you first sent me the script, something like that.

We had various meetings in the first year, read the script several times. I’ve had time to allow the character to seep into me, to become part of my subconscious. In the theatre, you spend quite a bit of time in intensive rehearsal to force that into your second nature, to become that character. I think Distracted has been a much more gentle approach but a much more solid one – my preparation has been less intense but more thorough. Turning up to the first shoot, I felt character-wise I was already prepared. In fact I think it’s the most prepared I’ve ever been for anything I’ve ever done because I’ve had so long to take it in. So that’s been new for me.

Normally with a play, you’d have 3 weeks or whatever, learn the lines…

JOHN: In a typical 3 weeks rehearsal, the first third of that would be breaking down the character and making it part of you, finding out what you can bring to it, what parts of the character are part of you. That’s quite intense.

So the script analysis approach….

JOHN: In a theatre 3 weeks condensed approach, it can be formulaic, you can sometimes force things. I think allowing the character – which is more like the Russian theatre approach – to seep in, to become part of you, to wear you down perhaps, I felt the benefits of that. I’ve never once turned up to a shoot worrying about how I’m going to play the role. The preparation’s there, it’s more about finding the beats of the scene.

We’ve made the film over a 12 months period with long time-gaps in between shoots…

JOHN: Had I been given the script just before the shoot I would have approached this very differently.

So because you had the script all this time, gone over it, it’s gone into your subconscious.

JOHN: It’s a slow, gentle approach – I’ve had the luxury of reading the script and letting the story seep into me, rather than read the script once and straight into character analysis – let the bigger picture seep in, who the other people are, how they affect me, that’s been nice.

When you’ve been in front of camera to do a take, how has that affected the results compared to a normal, theatre, structured rehearsal way?

JOHN: It’s given me stronger foundation which means that for each shoot my preparation has been purely for that shoot rather than the bigger picture, because the bigger picture is already inside of me, I don’t have to think “oh at this stage I’m at this kind of mood” – I haven’t had to worry about that, I’ve focussed on the particular beats and rhythm of the scene itself. The big picture is already there in the background, the subconscious.

So it’s a subconscious process, you’re letting your creativity just churn, you’re carrying it around with you.

JOHN: Two weeks before each shoot we’ve had the re-writes (of the script), it’s changed slightly, sometimes changed the rhythm or the beats of the scene, but not its poignancy within the piece, so my process was broken down into mini-structures –  what makes me say what I say? And that takes about a week. Then you throw it away, I might occasionally revisit the scene in my head.

So when you come to do the scene, you just trust what’s gone into you and you just go for it?

JOHN: There’s been very little of me saying my lines out loud before getting there, maybe once or twice, just to see if I can play around with the rhythm. But no, I’ve been trusting totally my preparation and the person I’m in the scene with.

You’re not turning up with a ready made performance, you’re turning up with nothing.

JOHN: I’m turning up with the character and the preparation, but not a preconception of how the scenes going to run.

When you say ‘the character’ do you see him as a separate person; “he’s like this”? Or the Alec Guinness way trying to find how he walks, this kind of thing.

JOHN: No, very much inside out: this character is probably close to some of the traits I have – and before we started shooting I made sure I didn’t become a parody of myself, but just accept some of those traits, allow them to happen naturally through the dialogue. But no I didn’t come up with a twitch, or a walk. The character doesn’t have a stutter or a stammer, but some of those things are in the script, the clever wording, the placed stutters, he doesn’t have a stammer or stutter but they are placed and they help the scene and the character. You added things when we were on set, so I couldn’t turn up with pre-conceptions because I didn’t know how it was going to go on the day.

You’re responding to what’s happening in the moment rather than turning up with a designed performance and implementing it.

JOHN: Yes, it’s more real that way. They way I prepared – you could have given me a completely new script, and I should have been able to cope with that on the set on the day, because I prepared for that scene.

You’re putting yourself in a position where you can react to any eventuality?

JOHN: My prep for Mountjoy was more natural and unstructured – very different to how I worked in the past. The prep for each scene is more about the rhythms. Being true to the poetry of the script, the beats of the script which have to be hit.

It’s a paradox : you have the structure of the script but at the same time your trying to be open to what actually happens in the scene.

JOHN: It’s a bit like in panto some actors have prepared ad libs. Not a bad thing if you can make ad libs look like ad libs – I didn’t have a prepared way I was going to respond, but I still had to hit the beats – but that’s film: you’ve got to be natural but still hit the marks. Filming is a complete paradox.

As a director, the situation I try to create for the actors is  to put you in a straight- jacket with the dialogue, and anything within the straight jacket is yours. You can move around as much as you want, but within the straight-jacket. That becomes a wrestling match between the actor and the script.

JOHN: If I was to continue that analogy, I would say my prep got me fit such that I could create room within that straight-jacket. I felt I’ve been able to play with freedom which has been a joy, but not gone beyond the boundaries of the framework.

It’s freedom in a strait-jacket.

JOHN: Yes, exactly.

Well, John, thank you for your time.

JOHN: It’s a pleasure, old boy.



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