"If a director plays games, an intelligent actor is likely to become irritated" - Peter Brook
In Ladybird Ladybird, Crissy Rock plays Maggie Conlon, a woman who has had four children by four different fathers. One evening, Rock locks the children in their home while she goes out to her local to sing karaoke. While onstage, Rock learns that there has been fire at home, so she races back to discover her children have been taken to hospital, one of them burnt across his chest and shoulders. The social services, deeming Rock to be an unfit mother, take the children away from her. Rock is a woman whose great love for her children is undeniable, but her tragedy is that she is incapable of caring for them: unemployed, poorly educated, at the mercy of her own considerable bad temper, ( with a special vitriol reserved for The State, upon whom she is completely dependent) and drawn to violent, abusive partners. The scene where Rock reaches out to her burnt child with the intention of comforting him but only succeeds in hurting him by touching his wounds, is emblematic. However, a new chapter in her life opens when she meets Jorge, who has moved to Britain from his native Paraguay in order to escape persecution there. Jorge, kind, gentle and intelligent, surprisingly falls in love with Rock, and commits to helping her win her kids back, even ripping up his return ticket to Paraguay (thus making him an illegal immigrant) to show his commitment to her. Rock, after failing to win back any of her four children, takes a flat with Jorge, and has a baby with him, which is taken away from her by social workers after the baby has been home only a few days (at this point Rock is breaking the law by having custody of a child). Unperturbed, Rock and Jorge decide to have another, and Rock, through fear of having yet another child taken from her, almost refuses to push the baby out while giving birth at the hospital. The scene where this baby is taken from her by social workers, before Rock has even left the hospital this time, is among the most harrowing in all cinema, and Rock's will to keep hold of her baby is incredibly moving, if not gut-wrenching, as she is doomed to failure.
Crissy Rock's performance in this film is truly astonishing. Her emotional intensity is unbearable at times, spending so much of the film at the extreme end of human experience, whether it's her rage at the injustice she perceives is being meted out to her by the authorities and those around her, or the hideous anguish of a mother who has her children taken from her, or protecting herself from violent boyfriends (there is a scene where one of them, played by Ray Winstone, throws her to the ground and lashes abuse at her, Rock's expression of fear is so true that it is heart-breaking, a miraculous piece of acting). This is real powerhouse work from Rock, the essence of her performance is Shakespearean in it's sheer emotional scope, but embodied of course in Loach's milieu of everydayness. My first thought about Rocks's performance was that she must have been utterly exhausted playing this role, yes it's true that she rants and raves throughout the film, but that's not that unusual in itself, what is is the sheer force and intensity with which Rock does it – she absolutely throws the kitchen sink at it, her commitment is total, her intensity at full throttle, she is giving everything she's got here, and it's coming from the heart. My second thought about Rock's performance is that it is very difficult to extrapolate any practical lessons from it, to infer anything general from the particular. Rock's work has a rawness to it, it lacks the precision and definition of, say, Peter Mullan's performance in My Name Is Joe. After a little bit of research, I was not surprised to learn that Rock was a non-actor (ie – this was the first time she had acted), her emotional rawness is difficult to maintain over the course of a career, but can sometimes be found in the debuts of non-actors: a one-off genius performance. That is not to diminish Rock's accomplishment in this film, nor to downgrade the powerful experience of watching it, I merely suggest there is very little an actor seeking constant self-improvement can extrapolate to aid his own work, practically.
I thought it useful to look a little deeper into Loach's working methods in order to understand better how Rock arrived at her performance, and since Loach is soon to have a retrospective at the BFI, it wasn't difficult for me to find out more. The following is taken from Kira Cochrane's profile of him in The Guardian recently :-
Of actors... “They don't tend to see a full script in advance, and move through his films as confused as the audience about what lurks around the next corner. I ask Loach which surprise was most memorable, and he laughs incongruously through a few examples. He talks about an incident when an actor walked through a door, on-set, to discover his co-star in a bath, her wrists apparently slashed. “Surprised is the hardest thing to act”, says Loach, “and his response was just very true”.
This way of manipulating* actors may be suited to working with non-actors, but is, I believe, problematic for the experienced actor, because, crucially, it strips him of his own creative turf within the overall production, it denies that the actor is an individual artist, and, furthermore, it denies that there are good and bad actors, but says that all actors are the same: all are equally false, so they require a director to step in and use his special technique in order to “draw” a performance from the actor. However, this does not necessarily mean that the director's intentions are anything less than pure, infact, in Loach's case, his whole production methods are designed to help the actor do his best. Here's Loach again:-
“we thought that what happened in front of the camera was more important than the camerawork, so in order to get the best out of what was happening in front it we had to find a very simple way of shooting. It became observation rather than chasing.”
Furthermore, Loach uses only a single camera always positioned at eye level, apart from close-ups, and placed as far away from the actors as is practical. Loach also asks those crew members who are not needed during a take to keep themselves out of sight, and asks those who remain to hide their eyes from the line of the actors' vision. So Loach is obviously someone who has the highest regard for actors and understands the importance of their work, and obviously, the methods he has devised over the years are to aid the actors in giving barnstorming performances such as Crissy Rock's in Ladybird Ladybird. However, manipulative methods (and others like them, the Method being the most obvious) are not useful to an actor attempting to construct a body of work, they are not practical in the broader world, and such methods will not help an actor sustain a career* – I doubt Crissy Rock has come anywhere close to this performance in her subsequent work (generally it's very rare for non-actors to follow up a powerful debut with anything of similar force). For me, however, the playing of tricks in order to gain a response from an actor is a fundamental subversion of the form, regardless of the results, for the end does not justify the means. Perhaps then, it works best with non-actors, who maybe more amenable to directorial manipulation (may even be grateful for it in the absence of a concrete technique of their own), and who rarely perceive themselves as creative artists, as they are often plucked from the street and employed because they “seem real”, as oppose to being employed because of the merits of their already existing body of work. I'd be interested to know if tricks were played on Peter Mullan, a consummate actor-artist, during the filming of My Name Is Joe, and if so, how he responded.
From an audience perspective however, I say that if they have enjoyed the film or the play at hand, then the actor has done his job, and by that standard then, not only has Crissy Rock done her job, but done it brilliantly, giving us a performance of heart and soul, and in the process, delivering one the most harrowing and moving portraits of humanity in turmoil. Rock is the very embodiment of truth in this film, and that's something all actors must aspire to.
*This kind of manipulation is very to different to a director adding a stimulus in order to aid the development of an improvisation – because the manipulation is a trick to momentarily confuse the actor into thinking that the palpably untrue is indeed true, thus gaining a reaction, while in the improvisation, the actor is a conscious participant, creating something.
**The logical extension of this is: “oh, let's REALLY make the actors have sex in that love scene”, as though this could be anything other than obscene and humiliating. Perhaps one day we will see actors REALLY shooting eachother.