FilmFrak Exclusive: A RECKONING Interview with Leslie Simpson

A Reckoning_Leslie Simpson
A Reckoning_Leslie Simpson

Leslie Simpson in A RECKONING

FilmFrak Exclusive: A RECKONING Interview with Leslie Simpson

Prepare to enter the artistic consciousness in this email interview with the singular Leslie Simpson. A talented actor whose obsessive performance in the lost film from 2011, A RECKONING displays a daunting commitment to psychological and emotional discovery.

Making his feature debut with Neil Marshall’s ferocious DOG SOLDIERS, Leslie continued to collaborate with the Director on THE DESCENT and DOOMSDAY. Working steadily on short films and TV, this year he wrote, Directed and starred in the surreal horror short HALFWAY HOUSE.

An actor that we will be watching closely. The wry and unfiltered responses we received to our questions in this interview fill us with absolute glee. We hope you are as enriched, amused and inspired by Leslie’s honest words as we are.

Once you finish reading feel free to experience the full feature length film A RECKONING available at the bottom of this page.

 

A Reckoning_Leslie Simpson

Thank you for taking the time for this email interview. You dominate every frame as the star of A RECKONING. Let’s just get this out of the way. The psychological trauma of lone isolation. The madness in solitude. Grief, Loss, letting go, there are so many themes at play in A RECKONING. What is your reading of the film? What is it about to you?
-FilmFrak Adam-

Leslie Simpson: Well, thankfully it wasn’t my job to interpret what was going on or what it means. The only reference to the genesis of the character’s predicament was in the original voiceover, and we didn’t come to that until after we’d shot the film. That gave Andy, Kraj (the cinematographer) and I the luxury to respond purely to the action on a day by day basis, which was Andy’s intention; to be engaged in a wholly voyeuristic study.

My job was to commit to being in the moment, to have a sense of being entirely alone and not concern myself with anything beyond that, including meaning. If one is able to be genuinely present, then we are somehow free to explore.

By the time we came to the voiceover, Andy was already convinced he had his character study (a tone poem as Kraj called it), and between us we took a scalpel to the narrative, leaving any interpretation to the viewer.

Of course, Andy, Kraj and I have spoken at length about what we sense was really going on, but why make the audience ask questions and then readily give answers?

 Your performance in this film is incredibly powerful, what were some of the challenges you faced as a one man acting ensemble while shooting?
-FilmFrak Jon-

Leslie Simpson: To be honest, none at all. I’m a masochist by nurture and I thoroughly enjoy going as far as needed and then a little further. The motto of my theatre company was ‘Exceed, exceed!’ This was a dream job because there was no room for Leslie to get in the character’s way because it was all day, every day. Union rules didn’t apply, and the concept of this film set being a ‘safe space’ would have limited the creativity and exploration, though obviously we were grateful for the abundance of snowflakes. 

There were numerous occasions when our outstanding First AD, Tiernan Hanby (whose job it was to keep the shoot on schedule) tried to rein me in, for health and safety reasons – he feared for my health, and on one occasion for my life, but I was having none of it. The film is what it is because everyone went the extra mile. It was a joyous whirlwind through the Land of Oz.

The only time I felt challenged was when the financiers failed to feed the crew. It didn’t worry me personally because I wasn’t eating, but I wasn’t going to keep quiet about basic film set etiquette.

A Reckoning_Leslie SimpsonAny semblance of who you might actually be as a person disappear in this role, do you embrace more of a ‘method’ style of acting? Are you always in character on set, or do you relax in between takes and can then switch it back on?
-FilmFrak Jon-

There has to be a person in the first place. In my case, there isn’t.

Pinocchio is a wooden toy who wants to be a real boy. When his wish is granted, he has no strings to hold him down. If we’re sensitive enough we can see the strings when someone is ‘acting’.

I once lived on the streets as an experiment, but only gained the genuine experience of vagrancy when I tried to get off the streets but couldn’t. Only then was my vagrancy a real experience. That was my eureka moment as an actor.

So if we study, say, to be a butcher for a year with the aim of playing a butcher on camera or on stage, then the attention is on studying butcher(y) for non-butcher reasons, and that can only lead to ‘playing a butcher’, not being a butcher. Strings are subtle, wire-work, sleight of hand.

The ‘Method’, as insightful as it is, is still a set of techniques unless one fully understands what lay behind the principles. In my experience, the Method is an extremely valuable teaching aid, but will not teach anyone how to act who doesn’t already have a sense of Self to bring to their work. Actors are taught to be observers, but no teaching mentions that the richest source of observable material lies within ourselves. Watching other people is less than haIf the story.

If we can discover a way to study ourselves without judgement and with forensic objectivity, we may learn to understand what ‘presence’ actually means. We already have all the tools we need to express loneliness, to be evil, to be loving, to be a bastard, to be a king, to be relaxed between takes, to be switched on as the character all the time.

My first job upon leaving Drama School was as a dancer at Hen Parties. Despite wishing to be an actor I was a very insecure young man, and the experience terrified me.

The women at those events were like Bacchanalian ‘maenads’, literally trying to drag me from the stage. I barely got out alive some nights.

I realised then that I wasn’t ready for what the industry might bring, so I threw myself headlong into life, never shirking a new experience whatever it may be, or how controversial it might be, as long as the experience was genuine and personal. I was, and am uncompromisingly brutal with myself and work.

When the eureka moment happened – mentioned above – it set the course for my own way of working. Eventually something grew in me, something I can’t explain, and I was able to rely on intuition (tuition from within – (in)tuition – not from the world) to guide me. It’s taken me down some very dark alleys, but as mentioned previously, I’m a masochist by nurture.

What the audience watches is important, whereas the process that actors and filmmakers use to create the work is not, in my view. So whatever state we may be in between takes should be irrelevant to an audience.

At worst, talking at length about one’s process – or having one’s publicist feed tidbits to the press, as a means of distancing oneself from judgement – manipulates the audience’s perception of the character prior to even seeing the piece, and may even place the actor above criticism.

I only wish to be more present now, to be here in this world. The rest is gravy.

However, if any serious actors in Australia wish to study the ‘Method’ in its pure form – from the source – then the Master is Peter Kalos of the Melbourne Actors Lab. If there’s an actor in you, he’ll improve your golf swing for sure. A little plug for a genuine mensch.

You do a lot of bare foot running in this film, were there any REAL foot injuries similar to the one your character faces in the film during this?
-FilmFrak Jon-

Leslie Simpson: I can’t remember. Probably. I think one of the straw characters had gout if that counts?

The weather plays a large role in this film as well, were the elements constantly pushing your limits in addition to the isolation of the set?
-FilmFrak Jon-

Leslie Simpson: We were very fortunate with the weather. You can be relatively certain that you’ll get snow in January in the UK, but you can never be certain of the quality of the snow, or the length of time it will settle or take to disperse. We did a little raindance before we started the shoot, and the Gods were clearly pleased with what we were doing. As for the influence on my performance, I can’t say. I don’t remember. I cared whether it helped the film, and it did. It didn’t slow us up, and Andy and Kraj were ecstatic with how it looked.

Dog Soldiers-Leslie SimpsonAs a huge fan of Director Neil Marshall and his films, like many I primarily recognized you in A RECKONING via your work in the blasting DOG SOLDIERS and suffocating THE DESCENT. Could you tell me a little about your experiences working with Neil Marshall? How did you approach the collaboration?
-FilmFrak Adam-

Leslie Simpson: They were good times. Neil is very passionate about film and is a natural. The two films were very different experiences. There was an extraordinary camaraderie on Dog Soldiers that was infectious, connecting cast and crew alike. It went beyond the intimacy of the set and we brought the hotel to life, as well as the cast and crew of another film that was shooting at the same time (Fear.com – heard of that? A much bigger production). Everyone wanted to be part of what we were doing. We had a blast.

The Descent was a wonderful experience also. I’d always wanted to be a movie monster, so it was another dream come true. That the Crawlers are so well thought of – Guillermo Del Toro considers them one of the greatest movie monsters of the new millenium – is an honour. Craig Conway is a wonderful actor and human being, and it was a pleasure working on the creature psychology with him. Unlike Dog Soldiers where

everyone bonded with everyone, we spent long hours locked up in the make-up room, all the while naked and hairless, being sprayed with paint from 2AM till dawn in sub-zero temperatures. It’s not a stretch to say that by the end we had an almost Stockholm Syndrome relationship with the special make-up effects guru Paul Hyett. That we all had a great time and didn’t try to escape Stalag 17 is down to the fact that Paul was a thoroughly splendid bloke, as well as being one of the most dedicated and talented people in the business. Did I mention I’m a masochistic by nurture?

What did you learn from Andrew David Barker and Neil Marshall that you have since incorporated into your own approach to Directing the 2013 short film GRANDPA or this year’s HALFWAY HOUSE?
-FilmFrak Adam-

Nothing. I was completely attentive to my own duties on their films. It would be disrespectful if I wasn’t. Was I supposed to be watching what they were doing? Yikes!

I’ve worked with a lot of directors on stage and screen, and my experience is that everyone has a different approach. Some I’ve loved, some I’ve liked, some I have enjoyed less. My respect, love and appreciation for the work of both Neil Marshall and Andy Barker can go on the record. They are both unique, and both are an utter joy to work for. I hope to be unique also.
Hopefully I contributed the energy they asked for, and I am proud of the work, and what we achieved together. We all hail from, (and were based during that period), unfashionable parts of England, and yet, to a greater or lesser extent, the work we did together has admirers from around the world. 

In the case of Andy’s film, that’s true in spite of the fact it has not even had an official release, which is … unusual?

A Reckoning_Leslie SimpsonWhat do you hope people walk away with when they see your work in-front and behind the camera? Do you have a personal philosophy to life and art?
-FilmFrak Adam-

Hmm …

The short answer is an unequivocal yes, there is an underlying aim, but it would take an essay.

The sense I have is very few artists alive today will be remembered at all by history, myself included. We live in a dark age – a Dark Age typified by a lack of artistic/cultural identity that has any aspiration beyond distraction, ‘entertainment’, cheap thrills and the peddling of secular, fake ‘art’ to serve the commerce machine. 

From a dark age, only dark stories endure, because they highlight the ‘horror’ of the age. Bosch, Dante, Homer, the Beowulf poet, all lived during periods of cultural collapse, or a dark age, and very little, if any, of the work of their contemporaries has survived.
I sense we may have a duty to reflect our times without identifying with it.

We live in a time when everyone is ‘making history’, is a ‘legend’, a ‘genius’ and other facile, empty platitudes. Most, almost all, are anything but. This is a dark age, and few are prepared for the struggle to reach above, to express the agony of our age and existence. It takes immense energy and focus to pay attention, to be alive, now. It means being responsible for our work and what it genuinely represents. It means asking questions, and not expecting an answer. The root of the word question, is quest. And the quest now, as it was ever thus in a dark age, is through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman – a rope over an abyss”, says Nietzsche. I accept wholly I am not up to the task, but I can struggle. Audiences may not understand this approach or the work, and there’s nothing I can do about that.

This philosophy is exemplified in my contribution to A Reckoning (I still prefer the original title, Straw Man), but it is also there in my personal contribution to other work.

As to my own work, it is the fundamental basis of everything I do. Alienation, disconnection, questions, the absurdity of existence, the ‘not knowing’. I am at an early stage in my development, and still learning how to get the balance right between intent and entertainment. Hopefully the opportunity to explore these ideas will continue. If not, then the chance to try to ‘make my mark’ is lost, to simply become another note in the margin in the Book of Life, dying, as I was born, as a relentless Habit Machine in a broth of white noise.

For me, there’s no point making anything with the idea you’re ‘writing history’. There has to be real need beyond that. Making money? Being powerful? Getting laid? To party? Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? To conquer the world? All valid reasons, I suppose. Who am I to say what’s right or wrong?

“But Les, it’s recorded! It’s history, man!!” 

“Yeah, well, so was Showaddywaddy, Tracy Emin, the bloke who got to number one with ‘You’re My Favourite Waste of Time’, and that geezer with Tourettes who won Big Brother.”

 I’m an Australian and I’m curious what initially drew you to Oz? What is your assessment of the culture and the local film industry?
-FilmFrak Adam-

Leslie Simpson:  We had just wrapped on the voiceover for A Reckoning. I had taken the isolation required for the film to its apotheosis, and – according to an extremely close friend (and an extraordinary artist) Ben Reche, having lost so much weight for the role, some of my impartial judgement and psychology went with it. I fell from the sky one day suffering from delusion and mania. A year later I woke up, wondering where the heck I was.

Seven years of bad luck, jousting with demonic sociopaths (the two shorts are a good illustration), and only the soothing light from the archangels Hart and Felicity got me through it. I now live in the most remote town on Planet Earth, in the middle of nowhere, Moonbase Alpha, a paradise with scars.

With such a powerful performance, I personally cannot wait to see what you do next. Is there anything you are presently working on that you can share?
-FilmFrak Jon-

Leslie Simpson: Things are looking up, for sure. There’s development funding for a couple of feature projects. Unfortunately, in this industry nothing is certain, so loose lips don’t simply sink ships, they can make one look like a fool. 

Watch the full Feature Length film A RECKONING

 

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