Ruth Sheen talks to us about creating the character of Gerri in Mike Leigh's critically acclaimed Another Year. She reveals just how difficult the process of working with the director really is, how much he's changed over the years, and how it feels to be one of his "elite club" of actors...
The critical and audience reaction to Another Year so far must have made going back to the "Mike Leigh experience" all the more worthwhile, I'd imagine?
Ruth Sheen: Yeah, yeah, because it is such hard work when you do it. You never know what the project is going to turn out like, you never know what your part's going to be, or how much of it you're going to be in, or where you're going to figure in it. You don't even know what the story is going to be. So it's always quite a challenge. And even when we finished this one I wasn't really sure of its overall concept. I knew it was four seasons, but I didn't know how it was going to look...
Ruth Sheen: I don't know! I guess because you're totally wrapped up in your own character so you don't have an overview. When I finally saw it, I was like: "Oh right..." But I wasn't even sure the first time I saw it because it's so subjective. You do expect your character to suddenly not even look like you because you feel like you've had this transition. I always go: "Oh, it's just me... with more grey hair!" So I wasn't sure about it when I first saw it, but now that I've seen it a few times and listened to the audience reaction and stuff - because, to me, they're the judges - I think it's great.
What did you want to bring to the role of Gerri once you got a handle on who she was going to be?
Ruth Sheen: Well, I never really thought I wanted to bring anything to Gerri... because we start with nothing and then you work out what sort of character she's going to be. And because Mike [Leigh] is always manoeuvring it along, with whatever you bring him through your research... For example, we did decide that she would study psychology and be a counsellor. So that's where we were going, but what we found difficult was how we got there because in the '60s, you didn't have counsellors. So we had to find what she would do before she did that. We thought she would be a caring person and someone who wasn't in it for money. It was because she cared about people and she wanted to work with them. So we had her work in various jobs like the citizens' advice bureau where she would give people advice on quite a basic level: housing, finance and that sort of thing. Then gradually, when we got to a period where people were starting to have counsellors over here, we could move her into that field. So we had to sort of do it as it would have happened. But what we wanted to bring in Gerri was a nurturing person, somebody very caring and a listener - somebody who would listen to other people.
So at what point does a character like Mary [Lesley Manville] come into play? Will Mike let you know that she's going to exist and that you have to factor her in?
Ruth Sheen: Well, Mary comes into Gerri's life 20 years before [we see her in the film]. So 20 years after she's been married to Tom, she goes to work at this doctor's surgery and she meets Mary. Their relationship grows from just saying "hello" to friendship... And Gerri only works there two days a week, of course! But she occasionally went out with Mary over that time.But one of the reasons why Mike did make the film take place over a year is because Mary didn't come round every week. So she came around four times that year. Normally, Mike's films unfold over the space of a couple of weeks, but he decided to do a longer thing because it was very important about Mary visiting. I think Mary pushes the film through her character and her journey. So that's why their relationship developed slowly and their friendship developed as a result.
I've also read in interviews that you're only allowed to meet your fellow actors in character. Do you ever break from that during the course of filming? Can you speak to Lesley as Lesley, rather than Mary?
Ruth Sheen: Oh yeah... at lunchtime. But what we weren't allowed to do was talk about the characters on our own, independently, or discuss motivation or anything like that. So we only discussed the work with Mike. So, say we did an improvisation, then we would both talk to Mike separately about what we thought and how it went... how the characters were feeling. But Lesley never knew how my character was feeling and I never knew how her character really felt, except through what I saw. It's the same as if I'm talking to you and you only know what I'm saying and I only know what you're saying, so it keeps it real. Otherwise, if you know where they're coming from, or what they're going to be feeling, it changes the dynamic. It's just a rule that Mike has and he keeps to it. So when you're having lunch, you talk about lunch or your phone not working or something like that!
Do you ever feel a sense that you're part of an elite club of actors that survive the Mike Leigh experience?
Ruth Sheen: [Laughs] I never thought it was an elite club but as I'm getting older perhaps it is!
How has Mike changed over the years? Does the process get harder?
Ruth Sheen: Well, I think we've all mellowed. I think Mike's mellowed... definitely from when I first knew him. He was much more strident in some ways. But he still has that capacity to surprise me. I still go: "Oh, OK!" But the process has developed more. I think we have a bit more time to rehearse... although there never seems to be enough time or money, to be honest. I think he still has trouble. This film was the lowest budget of any of his movies for a long time. I suppose he hasn't got a script, so people don't just give him money to do it. The Film Council and organisations like that have really kept his films going.
So which are the roles on which you look back most fondly?
Ruth Sheen: To be quite honest, my favourite part was my first Mike Leigh film, High Hopes, where I played a character called Shirley alongside Phil Davis. I had such a great time. I'd done mostly theatre before that, and one television job I think, and one walk-on part in a film, so I didn't have any experience in film. I did think my life would be in theatre at that point. So it was a great experience for me, which has always stayed with me a bit. I just laughed the whole time we were doing it because we had such a great time, so it sticks in my mind. To me, it's quite a political film - Mrs Thatcher and the '80s - we were all quite dissatisfied back then without realising it would get much worse! But the whole period and the film, for me, was very much where I came from in a funny sort of way, so it was quite enjoyable.
Interview: Rob Carnevale