10 December 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Seána Kerslake on Acting
07 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Actor Seána Kerslake.
With the IFTA Awards Viewing Season in full swing, we showcase Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry. 

We find out what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

We spoke with four-time IFTA nominee Seána Kerslake, who has established herself as one of Ireland’s leading female actors after breaking through at an international level with Lee Cronin’s hit Irish psychological horror, The Hole In The Ground  (2019). The film, which made its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival, was picked up by A24 and DirecTV for distribution in North America and has since secured distributions sales in multiple territories worldwide.

Kerslake also featured in Paul Mercier’s We Ourselves (2018), an unconventional film dealing with the lives of a group of seven friends over a period of more than two decades, articulated through a collection of monologues; and the screen adaptation of Emmet Kirwan’s critically acclaimed stage play, Dublin Oldschool (2018).

Kerslake first came to prominence alongside Jack Reynor in her feature film debut, Dollhouse (2012), which was written and directed by Kirsten Sheridan. Since then she has delivered a number of establishing performances including the titular role in A Date For Mad Mary (2016), Colin and Darren Thornton’s IFTA-winning debut feature film, and Deadpan Pictures’ RTE series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope (2018). Kerslake can next be seen in Parallel Film’s drama My Salinger Year (2020) and Treasure Entertainment’s new thriller series Smother.

What do you look out for in a script?

“When reading a script I first look for the story, what are we trying to tell here? And the character, it has to be someone I am interested in connecting with or understanding.”

How do you prepare for auditions, and what advice would you give to younger actors?      
“To prepare for an audition I first read the script, if you are given that option. I read and re-read the sides I have to learn for the audition. I often write the scene out and then record it on my phone, so I can listen back to it over and over as I go about my day.

“I try to create pictures of the action in my head so that I can visualise the story if I lose my way and then I usually hit the script off my head a few times to really make sure the words go in.
The advice I’d give on auditioning to actors starting out would be: be prepared as you possibly can so when you go into the room or tape at home, you can focus on the scene at hand not remembering the lines and not to become complacent.”

What attracted you to the roles in The Hole in the Ground, We Ourselves, and Dublin Oldschool?

“I was attracted to working on The Hole in the Ground as it was a genre I had never worked in before. I wanted to try and make a surreal experience feel very grounded and real. Also, Lee guaranteed that it was going to be emotionally and physically challenging, which it was. I was looking forward to the stunt work and the messiness of the project, of being buried in dirt and crawling through muck. Lee and Stephen provided a great script that left a lot of space for me to explore the character. I liked that she was an introverted person who held great strength.

“With We Ourselves, I had loved Paul’s previous feature ‘Pursuit’ and I knew that it was going to be a very unique experience working on a film that had been adapted from play with very little alterations. I knew it was going to be a challenge playing out long scenes with no cut-aways.

The script is so cerebral and poetic; it definitely lends itself to being rewatched. I also loved the concept of the movie, the nostalgia of looking back over a time in someone’s life that has hugely shaped them as a person, that they constantly replay and return to those moments throughout their life was very appealing to me.

“I loved the play Dublin Oldschool so when I heard it was being made into a film it was definitely something I wanted to be a part of. The team involved was incredible so I knew it was going to be a lot of fun to shoot. Emmet’s script was like second nature to be spoken, which is a testament to how good his writing is and working with Dave, there was so much freedom as an actor. I’m a sucker for a love story so the story between Gemma and Jason, of a love that isn’t good for either of them, was a topic I was interested in exploring.”

How did you approach playing your character in this film, and how much rehearsal was involved?

“With each character, there are different ways to prepare but there can be an overlap in your process.

“For The Hole in the Ground, myself and Lee went through the back story of what Sarah had been through up until the point we meet her in the film. We were in agreement on a lot of it so it was comforting to know we were on the same page. Then I went off and did some of my own work, asking questions about the character and writing stream of consciousness in character.

“Lee gave me reference images of colours and tone so I started a mood board with images that could help me visualise or have a quick in point to the feeling of the piece for Sarah.

 I had a playlist of songs Sarah was listening to for that time and depending on the scenes we had to shoot I’d listen to that as I got ready for the day. Also, myself and James got to hang out, rehearse, and talk about books and films, which was really significant for both of us.

“With We Ourselves, there was a lot to learn in a short space of time so learning the script off was important. We didn’t know what would be said out loud or voiceover until we shot. It’s a period piece so I looked up images from that time and visualise what the Gerkin factory they all worked in looked like. I had to create relationships with the other characters I speak about, without having conversations with the other actors. Also, I had to figure out what has happened in the time since we were all together. There was no right answer so there was a lot of freedom in that but a lot of pressure from yourself too.

“For Dublin Oldschool, I created a playlist for the Gemma; I find that works as a great in-point to get into the character's mindset. I also did a mood board of images of where Gemma’s headspace was. I wrote full-blown rants as the character; her feelings about the relationship and what she wanted in life. Ideas can pop up this way that you may not have thought of by just asking straight forward questions and it can spark off other avenues you may not have seen and it’s just fun.”

How do you like to work with Directors and do you like to have a collaborative process?

“I love if the director is open to collaboration; a person who gives you the freedom to explore and is open to having collaborative conversations is great. Both feeling safe in each other’s choices is ideal. You are given support but stirred or pushed in the right direction when needed.

“It depends on the character though with how much you want to talk or to divulge in preparation or even though process. Sometimes a good understanding is key, but just doing the scene is the best way to show how you feel about it. On these three films I’ve mentioned throughout Lee, Paul and Dave were all very open to you; the actor, bringing your thoughts or choices to the table.”

Tell me about your experience on set, and your favourite moment during this production?

“The atmosphere on set for The Hole in the Ground was quite light-hearted. I feel because we had James around it kept everything in context; that we were making a movie and it should be fun. It could be strange at times as I was often alone in scenes or acting opposite my imagination, which could be a challenge. A notable memory was my first time having to crawl through the underworld and *spoiler alert* drag James back up through that small tunnel. The stunt work was always fun too.

We Ourselves had a great air of excitement about it. Paul brings energy with him that is infectious. Running around a hotel room getting blowup dolls to cooperate and stay where you want them to be is defiantly a strong memory of filming. We had great craic with the costume and jumping around different spots of an abandoned hotel trying to get all the snippets needed, filmed.

Dublin Oldschool had an exciting, present energy. I feel the cast and crew knew they were filming something special; that we were all invested in. Being on the rooftop of a Dublin car park at night was fun to shoot, the rain machine going, and the voiceover sequence that reminded me of the play. I knew it was a pivotal moment for both characters.”

What was your first paid role as an actor, and what were the key things you learned from doing that role?

“I was very fortunate that my first paid role as an actor was ‘Dollhouse’, directed by Kirsten Sheridan. It was an unbelievable experience and I got to work with some brilliant people. As many people know by now, we didn’t have a copy of the full script; there was a lot of structure but was mainly improvised. It was a baptism of fire to working in the industry. I learned so much on that job: how a set runs to call sheets to hitting marks to continuity. I couldn’t believe people did this as a full-time job. I was sold.”

What international performance by an actor has blown you away?

“I love Gena Rowlands. Her performance in ‘A Women under the Influence’ is amazing. One of the best performances of all time. She is so raw and honest, it’s beautiful. That’s all to be said, just watch it.”

Is there an Irish film over the last few years that has really impressed you?
“There have been so many that I’ve enjoyed and been impressed by. I loved the ‘The Breadwinner’ from Nora Twomey; anything from Cartoon Saloon. ‘Bainne’ by Jack Raynor, ‘Finky’ from Daithí Keane, ‘Arracht’ Tom O Sullivan, Carmel Winter’s ‘Float like a Butterfly’. We are a talented country.”

What Director or Actor would you most like to work with and why (Irish or international)?
“I’ve been extremely lucky to have worked with some amazing directors. Many I’d love to work with again but if we are talking new directors I haven’t worked with and in no particular order, I’d like to work with Neil Jordan; ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ is still one of my favourite films. I love the Du Plass brothers' work; it’s heartbreaking and interesting and I’m all about it. Andre Arnold, Alex Garland, Marielle Heller. Noah Baumbach, obviously; Marriage Story was amazing, and ‘The Squid and the Whale’ has stayed with me for years. I’ve come across Destiny Ekaragha and I’m interested in what she will do next. This is a tough question because the list could go on and on once I get started.”

We often are our own worst critics. What is your approach to constructive criticism and inward reflection?
“We can definitely be our own worst critics so it’s good to try not to be so hard on yourself. We’re all trying our best. With film and theatre critics, it’s difficult because you are putting yourself out there for people to hold opinions on you but you know you aren’t going to please everyone all of the time.
“If you do read reviews or if you are told them by other people; you can’t live and die by them because it’s one person’s opinion. All you can do is do your job and if you are being as honest as possible in your role I think people can see that. It’s good to put all criticism into context and if you are going to focus on the bad you have to take all the good too.”

What is the best piece of advice youve been given in your career thus far that you would share with young aspiring Actors?
“Hmmm I don’t know if someone has ever sat down and given me advice on acting; I think you learn in the industry by seeing others do their job!

Just keep rooting down to what is true and unique in you and try not to lose that. Some days it’s easier than others to try remember that but you will be cast because they need what you bring.”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

“I’ve found lockdown a really hard time to be creative. I’ve done constructive things but not always majorly creative. I’ve consumed a lot of movies, TV, books, Q&A’s, and webinars, but there have also been periods of being unable to concentrate. I haven’t been majorly hard on myself to come out of lockdown with a finished product.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.

IFTN Festive Q&A with actor Albrecht Schuch
IFTN Festive Q&A with director Luke McManus
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