A remake of the controversial and bloody British horror flick The House On Straw Hill is currently underway, and our UK correspondent David Stephenson has been talking with one of its stars, the talented Gillian MacGregor. In this insightful interview, she discusses her role in the new film, her career as a young actress on the rise, and what it’s like to work in this bloody and gore-filled genre.
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First off, why not tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a young, British actor and filmmaker who seems to be carving out a niche for myself playing quirky and controversial characters in independent cinema. It’s great that I get to experiment but I sometimes wonder what directors see in me for these roles… It is slightly worrying that I never play normal people!
You’re about to start work shooting a remake of the controversial British horror flick The House on Straw Hill. Could you tell us more about this? What can we expect to see from this film?
The original film was dubbed a “Video Nasty” and was banned for 20 years in the UK. Our version has taken the basic premise and created a slate of new characters to cause all sort of mayhem in a slick, stylish horror / thriller. You can expect lots of scares, some great villains and a hell of a lot of blood! It’s going to be so much fun…
Your character in this is the secretary of the main character played by Martin Kemp – what is the character like? Could you tell us more about your role in the film?
My character, Linda, is a supremely confident and self-assured person. She’s not arrogant, just 100% comfortable in her own skin. She bursts into Paul’s (Martin’s character) life like a ray of sunshine and her sensuality and tactility completely throw him off kilter. Linda is a pivotal role in the film, driving the momentum forward especially at the end when she becomes threatened. I’d tell you more but I don’t want to give too much away…
How do you find working in the horror genre differs from other roles you have undertaken? Have you seen any difference in the way the film is shot or how cast members such as yourself approach working on the piece?
The biggest difference about working in horror is the mess. Leave your vanity at the door. There’s blood and gore and miscellaneous body parts… It’s great fun! I don’t mind the fake blood but I’m really squeamish about touching meat. I did this horror where I ripped someone’s heart out and we used a bit of beef for the heart… It was NASTY. Horror is often quite technical so it’s really important to hit your mark and be in the right place whilst also nailing your performance every time. Safety and continuity are obviously issues too. You do have to think a little differently when you’re creating your character (or I do anyway but everyone is different) because in real life if an axe murderer was in my house I’d be out the door! But in films people tend to grab the nearest spade/plank/shotgun and head up the stairs…
How did you prepare for the role? What techniques do you use when portraying your roles, and have you had to make any changes to your style for this new film?
I’m doing some things in Straw Hill that are new to me so I’ve been trying to get my head around that. Generally I do a lot of research and write a lot of notes all over my script. It gets to be such a mess by the end of the shoot. When I first started doing film I had to do a lot of preparation to get to the emotional space that I needed for the character but now I can turn it on and off whenever I feel like it which is nice. It was exhausting being in that emotional zone all the time. I’m a very physical actor and I find that finding the right body language is key to nailing the performance and that will be especially true for Linda.
This is certainly an important role – how did you get the role, and what drew you to that one role in particular?
It came as a complete surprise to me actually. I’d just got back from the Cannes Film Festival where I was promoting a few films and my agent called to say that the producers had been in touch about a film with Martin Kemp. So, I read the script then met Jonathan Sothcott and Constantine De Naray (the producers) and the rest is history. What drew me to Linda was the fact that it’s a superb part! I knew I’d have loads of fun playing her but I also knew it would be a risk. I was attracted to the challenge of getting her right… of playing this infectious character with no room for doubt, who draws every eye and just dominates every room and situation but not by force… just because she does. Who wouldn’t want to play a character like that?
What is it like to be working alongside famous British actor Martin Kemp? Any gossip? Any stories to tell?
Are you trying to get me into trouble?! I’m not telling you any gossip. Actually, if I’m honest, there isn’t any… Well none involving Martin! He’s the nicest man in the world. I’ve never heard him say a bad word about anyone and he’s so good at making people feel welcome and at home. At the first script reading I was faced with meeting Martin, Patrick Bergin, Jane March, Linda Hayden and Bob Keen for the first time all at once. I was really quite nervous but everyone was so lovely and Jonathan, being such a gentleman, always makes sure I’m ok. I have to say that everyone is great. Patrick always has a twinkle in his eye and Jane is absolutely beautiful. I feel really privileged.
The film’s director is the legendary Bob Keen, famous for his work on Hellraiser, Dog Soldiers, etc. What kind of cool special effects / animatronics can we expect to see in this film? Have you had a chance to work with any of these special effects?
From what Bob has told me wait for some nightmarish fast cuts and there are some horrible deaths in this movie. I don’t think there are a lot of animatronics in this one. I suppose you’ll just have to wait and see… With Bob involved, it’ll be worth the wait though!
Straw Hill is by no means your first film. You also appear in Hard Case, which recently premiered at Cannes. Could you tell our readers a little more about that?
In Hard Case I play a detective for the CSA and I’m investigating a man after receiving an anonymous tip off. The film is stylishly shot with a few twists and turns. I’ve worked with the director Brian Barnes a few times now and I always enjoy it. Another film that I took to Cannes was “The Other Woman” which I produced and starred in. I play a con woman out for revenge and it’s really dark and nasty. So a typical MacGregor role then!
How does it feel to have a film you’ve worked on be premiered in festivals? What’s it like seeing your face up there in front of all those people?
I feel proud, terrified, narcissistic, impressed and embarrassed all at once. It’s a very complicated feeling. I love watching a completed film of mine but I have an idea of what I look like and the reality on film is never quite what I have in my head. Ha ha! Also, you become aware (especially when you produce the film too) of how many factors there are to get right that have nothing to do with your performance. I’m so used to seeing myself though that I can (almost!) just sit back and enjoy the movie.
One thing that really jumped out at me when looking through your past credits was your work as Lucifer in the theatrical piece In The Beginning – could you tell us a little about that?
Sure. It was my first job out of drama school and I was so ready for it. Playing the devil was amazing because I couldn’t go too far. I tried to play her like a normal, ambitious person who got carried away and now must live with that mistake forever, constantly trying to get God’s attention. It was also very physical and we “created” heaven and earth from what we had available. It was beautiful. There was a lot of singing in it which is a skill I’d like to use on film one day.
Which do you enjoy the most – theatre or film? Which do you find most rewarding / satisfying?
I love them both but film is my ultimate passion. I’m interested in connecting emotionally and finding the reality of the situation. The problem with theatre, sometimes I find, is that there is a lot of snobbery whereas film is much more accessible to everyone. I’d love to do some cutting edge theatre. It just has to be exciting and challenging. It’s always satisfying when you feel you’ve done a good job and you make people feel something.
Do you find there’s a difference in approaches between the two mediums? Are there any changes to the way you portray your characters when moving between the two?
I don’t have a different approach when it comes to getting inside the character but when it comes to performance you have to treat them differently. Stage work generally has to be bigger and you have to allow the performance to be much more external than for film.
As a young, up-and-coming actress, which of the two mediums do you feel can be most beneficial to a career?
It depends what you want to do. If you decide you want to be a theatre actor then it makes sense to do as much theatre as possible and the same for film. You’re more likely to be famous if you work in film but if fame is all you want then there are easier ways to get there! Both mediums borrow talent from one another and if you’re a good actor, a nice person and a hard worker, talent will be recognised eventually. I find it really irritating when I see bad acting. Everyone has off days but if you see someone who is consistently bad I wonder how they keep getting work. It’s tragic.
Do you have any advice for any budding young actors / actresses out there trying to break into the business?
Well I’m hardly an expert but all I would say is try to find what makes you different to everyone else and exploit it. You have to be honest with yourself about what your casting is and allow yourself to be type cast to begin with as there’s always time to try new things when people know your work and trust you to deliver the goods. We all want to be the beautiful one that gets lead roles in everything and the reality is often difficult to swallow! Don’t wait around for things to magically happen to you. It’s a business and you have to work hard. People can’t help you if they don’t know you exist. Just be yourself, be realistic and put the work in. And if you do make a mistake try to keep things in perspective. I should remember to take my own advice at times!
What’s next for Gillian MacGregor, and where do you see yourself being in 10 years? What are your ambitions?
What’s next? Oooooh. There’s so much. I’ve got a few projects lined up after Straw Hill and we’ll see what happens next year. In 10 years time I hope I’ve continued to challenge myself and made some great movies. I think I’ll be producing more movies and giving new filmmakers and talent a chance to do some good work. I have some personal ambitions to fulfil too like going back to university to get a second degree (I already have an Honours degree in Acting) but I don’t know when I’ll fit that in! I’ve got so many ambitions and so much I want to do… Watch this space!