Archive | March, 2015

A star is born: my early interview with Cinderella’s Lily James

27 Mar
Lily James with that tiny waist in Cinderella. It's a wonder what a corset will do – along with 600 sit-ups a day.

Lily James with that tiny waist in Disney’s Cinderella. It’s a wonder what a corset will do – that, and a history of 600 sit-ups a day! “If you do any less, you’re wasting your time.”

I hate to say I told you so, but… Actually, scratch that. I love to say I told you so.

In 2012, I wrote a cover feature on a little British movie scripted by Noel Clark called Fast Girls, co-starring Lily James as a runner determined to score Olympic gold. It was Lily James’s first cover interview, and in it I wrote that “She will end up being more than just a pretty face in empty action films like Wrath of the Titans. She’s likely to become a real star.”

And now here she is, playing the lead in the new Disney extravaganza Cinderella, which opens today in the UK. Fair makes you proud. So, for anyone who wants to know where Lily James is coming from, here are the highlights of my 2012 interview with the then barely 23-year-old star in the making. Given the fuss about Lily’s tiny waist in Cinderella, note her comments about doing 600 sit-ups a day. Petite she may be, but this is no anorexic shrinking violet, this is one tough (though fat-free) cookie.

05. The Book

My cover interview with Lily James in The Book, June 2012

Lily James on getting fit for Fast Girls: “I had to train five times a week, two and a half hours a day. I was doing weights, circuits, running, jogging. My diet was changed to six small meals a day, with protein shakes, lots of chicken, nuts and raisins. It was really hard, and I got quite down for a while. I don’t like exercise that much, though I love dancing, yoga, being active. Soon, however, I became obsessive about my sit-ups – as soon as I began to see those six-pack muscles forming, that was all the incentive I needed. I did 600 a day – 50 V sits, 50 sit-ups, 50 leg raises. If you do less than 600, you’re wasting your time. You can do 300 without pause, it only takes 15 minutes.”

Acting for Hollywood:Wrath of the Titans was insane. It was my first film, and everywhere I went there was someone holding an umbrella to shade me from the sun in Tenerife. Your every whim is catered to – ‘Do you want this? Do you want that?’ With Fast Girls it was really exciting to feel much more like we were working together and pushing to get it done. We had to work for everything, shoot the whole thing in five weeks, it was really exciting.”

Favourite film scene: “The bit in Heat where Al Pacino and Robert De Niro meet. They crossed all the cameras so they got every angle in one go and it’s JUST AMAZING.”

Acting on stage: “I feel much more confident on stage. Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where I went, was very classically based theatre training. I love the family feeling of doing a play, going to the bar after, pushing the character to its limits. When you see the great screen actors like Meryl Streep or Al Pacino, they all started on the stage. There’s something lost now with the decline of rep theatre; it would be good to have the time to develop yourself before being thrust into the spotlight. To be entrusted with big roles before you feel ready… Then again, I guess you’re always learning, so you might as well take each opportunity and go for it!”

Acting mantra: “As long as everything is truthful and from the heart, you can get away with anything. Carey Mulligan is so honest. People long to see sincerity and people being genuine.”

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey: “Sometimes I wanted to scream!”

Downton Abbey: “I love period drama, exploring the history, and all the costumes. But it’s also very contained and reserved, I found sometimes I wanted to scream! You get more of a release doing modern stuff.” [At the time, she’d just started filming Downton, but no episodes had been shown.]

Her personal style: “I like long boho skirts, lots of jewellery, rings. I live in East London, and you have no choice but to start shopping in charity shops if you live in East London! It’s hard to maintain your own style sometimes in this business. When you are having photoshoots for the first time, you are presented with stylists who slip you into dresses, and you have to be diplomatic. You can really express yourself through your clothes, but it takes a lot of time and money.”

Her late father: “My dad passed away while I was at drama college so my whole world changed. I used to love singing while my dad played the guitar: Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, I was brought up singing all those. The hardest thing is not being able to share things with him: everything I have done since leaving college I can’t tell him about. But I feel everyone who’s left this world is still here with us, I really believe it.”

Lily James also stars as Elizabeth Bennett in, I kid you not, ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, out later this year.

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Behind Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty — my interview with the V&A’s curator

17 Mar
Alexander McQueen at the V&A

The Romantic Gothic room at the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition

First, do read my review of the extraordinary Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A. And now, to put it in context, here is an edited version of the cover feature I wrote for this month’s Where London, the excellent events magazine distributed in four and five-star London hotels. In it I interview the show’s curator, Claire Wilcox, who often used to meet Alexander McQueen at the V&A.

London Fashion Week, the year 2000: Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman and actress Gwyneth Paltrow take their places in the front row of a warehouse space to see the latest catwalk collection by Alexander McQueen. As the models strut past, a simple mirrored box in the centre of the stage reflects the audience’s faces back at them. At the show’s climax, the box falls apart to reveal, replacing the audience’s faces, a grotesque, obese woman, naked but for a fetish-style gas mask, and surrounded by moths.

‘The two most terrifying things in the fashion lexicon,’ as the model herself wrote in her diary: ‘ample flesh and moths.’

‘It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry,’ said Alexander McQueen later, ‘turn it back on them! God, I’ve had some freaky shows.’

Alexander McQueen at the V&A

The final room at the V&A, and Alexander McQueen’s final collection: Plato’s Atlantis, with the notorious ‘armadillo’ shoes

McQueen was never one to take the easy route. Growing up in east London as the son of a cab driver, McQueen had made dresses for his three sisters, and never wanted to do anything else. The only O-level he got was in Art, so he left school and apprenticed at a Savile Row tailor, where he stitched secret insults into the lining of a jacket for Prince Charles. His graduate collection at the prestigious Central St Martin’s, where he was invited to take an MA in Fashion Design when they recognised his talent, was entitled Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims. His first proper collection was entitled Taxi Driver, and inspired by the violent Martin Scorsese movie. His first catwalk show was entitled Nihilism. They got stranger after that.

‘Each time he’d say, “how am I going to beat that now?”, and push himself harder and harder,’ says Claire Wilcox, the curator of the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. ‘His shows were extraordinarily theatrical.’

McQueen won British Designer of the Year four times; he was made chief designer of Givenchy at just 27. So the fashion world was stunned when, aged 40 and depressed at the death of his beloved mother a few days before, and the suicide of his great friend and mentor Isabella Blow before that, he took his own life.

Alexander McQueen at the V&A

The Romantic Gothic room again, at the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition

The Metropolitan Museum exhibition that followed in New York a year later broke box-office records. Martin Roth, director of the V&A, recalls how gripped the city was when he flew over for just one day to see it. ‘This immigration guy stopped me and said, “What is the purpose of your visit?” I said, “I’m going to see Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” And he said, “No.” I said “What do you mean, no?” He said “No. It’s sold out, I’ve tried twice for me and my wife!”’

The V&A has expanded the Met show by an extra third of physical space, and added 40 more garments and accessories to the 200 previously on display (see my review). One welcome change is a new gallery right at the start entitled London: ‘I thought it would be a good idea to understand more about his early days in London when he was broke,’ says Wilcox. ‘This city does produce some great designers. It’s a real cultural melting pot. There’s a marvellous education system here, and a real independence of spirit.’

The vast Cabinet of Curiosities room at the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition

Wilcox is reminded of a quote from McQueen to illustrate this. She goes off to ask someone to look it up, and returns slightly breathless: ‘What McQueen said is, “Clothes don’t come from a notepad. It’s eclectic. It comes from Degas and Monet and my sister-in-law in Dagenham.”’

And the ’80s were a fantastic time for street style. ‘After punk,’ says Wilcox, ‘you got that new wave of historicism in Westwood and Galliano, the club kids like Boy George dressing up, the emergence of magazines like iD and Dazed & Confused — it was rebellion mixed with historicism and theatre and a devil-may-care attitude.’

9._Duck_feather_dress_The_Horn_of_Plenty_AW_2009-10._Model_-_Magdalena_Frackowiak_represented_by_dna_model_management_New_York.__Image_-_firstVIEW-500x750

Duck-feather dress by Alexander McQueen

Wilcox first met McQueen 20 years ago, and often saw him at the V&A. Surprisingly, for those who think of McQueen only as a rebel, she says he loved bird-watching. Feathers inspired him, not just for their beauty but their engineering, and he drew a lot of his colour palette from the animal kingdom. He also loved museums, says Wilcox, having been taken to the South Kensington museums every Sunday as a child. ‘He noticed everything – he wouldn’t talk much, he would just look; and when he looked at clothes in our archive he understood their construction immediately. I learned a lot from him.

‘There are many stories about his prowess with scissors. It’s said that after he joined Givenchy as Creative Director, the staff took fright at the speed and confidence with which he cut their fabric.’

And that’s what is sometimes forgotten about McQueen. His shows were controversial and spectacular, with models being spray-painted by car-factory robots or gigantic trees made of fabric twisting upward from the catwalk; as he told Time Out when we interviewed him for a cover feature, ‘I don’t want to do a cocktail party, I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions.’ Yet the clothes themselves were strong enough not to be overshadowed.

McQueen

Alexander ‘Lee’ McQueen himself, shot in 1997 by Marc Hom

McQueen had a supreme mastery of line and cut: however outlandish and science-fictional his creations were, they always flattered and enhanced the female form, turning skinny models into fashion superheroines. ‘I want to empower women,’ he said. ‘I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.’

Wear and dare: inside V&A’s Alexander McQueen show

16 Mar
Alexander McQueen's It's Only A Game catwalk show, 2005

Alexander McQueen’s It’s Only A Game catwalk show, 2005

The V&A’s blockbuster show Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is like an art exhibition, a film, a theatrical performance and a fashion show all rolled into one. It’s even better than last year’s Bowie exhibition, and those who know what a rabid Bowie fan I am will know what high praise that is. Even just hanging on a fetish-masked mannequin or simple wire frame, the clothes have life, and conjure up fantastical visions of alternate worlds. To my surprise, I found myself close to weeping at one point.

My companion said “yes I know, it’s so sad he killed himself when he was so young,” but it wasn’t that. It was the way the clothes hung, how they were cut, the hard or jagged or geometric shapes made from soft fabrics, the transformations of dresses into birds, the weird juxtapositions like the dress inspired half by American football gear and half by a kimono, the sheer astonishing radiant beauty and riotous inventiveness of them that pricked forth tears. Does that make me weird?

I’m kicking myself for never going to one of McQueen’s shows, even while I was Editor of Time Out, even when we put him on the cover. [For the strange story of the Time Out golden-shower shoot, see my review of the Isabella Blow McQueen collection.] The V&A has the next best thing: video footage of the shows. There go his catwalk Glamazons stamping through water, standing in a ring of fire, spellbound in a blizzard, getting spray-painted by robots, trading places like chess pieces on a giant illuminated chequered board.

The V&A has pulled out all the stops in giving these powerful clothes a suitably dramatic setting. The Romantic Gothic room is hung with vast, ornate gilt frames; the black walls of the Romantic Primitivism room are made of bones and skulls, like the Paris Catacombs; the Romantic Nationalism room is all mahogany wood panels, befitting the Imperial grandeur of the bright red, military-inspired clothes.

Alien-Shoe

McQueen’s ‘Alien’ shoe from 2010

Any other clothes would be overpowered by these surroundings, but here are jackets of ponyskin with impala horns jutting from the shoulders, costumes made of gold-painted goose feathers or black duck feathers or synthetic bouffant black hair, fanciful shoes with platforms a foot tall or with designs inspired by the Alien movies (right). You couldn’t overpower them with a nuclear bomb.

There’s even a whole room devoted to an ethereal, floating Kate Moss, created for one of McQueen’s shows using the 19th-century theatrical illusion of Pepper’s Ghost. She appears from a wisp of smoke, coalesces into evanescent life, long hair waving and organza gown billowing like Ophelia sinking peacefully beneath the water, and is just as quickly returned to the spirit world whence she came.  All things must pass, as McQueen was keenly aware, and fashion is the most transitory of the arts: it shines brightly for a single season and then, like a butterfly, it is gone.

In a similar vein, March and April are already mostly booked out for this fabulous exhibition – whoever you need to bribe, threaten or screw to get a ticket, do it quick.

Click here for my interview with the curator, Claire Wilcox, which formed the cover feature of this month’s Where London magazine. You may find it useful, as if there is one criticism to be levelled at Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, it’s that it is not good at putting McQueen’s work into the wider context of his life and times. 

Charlie’s Dark Angel: film noir meets theatre in James Christopher’s debut

9 Mar
The cast of Charlie's Dark Angel. Front: Ben Porter as Charlie and Joannah Tincey as Susan. Back: Phoebe Pryce as Ukrainian Ella,  Kieran Gough as un-reckless Eric

The cast of Charlie’s Dark Angel. Front:  Joannah Tincey as Susan and Kieran Gough as Eric. Back: Phoebe Pryce as Ukrainian Ella, Ben Porter as Charlie. Photo by Aimée Watts – HausOfLoud

One goes to see a play or film written by a friend with some trepidation. What do you say to them at the bar afterwards if you don’t like it? Thankfully there was no such problem with Charlie’s Dark Angel, a theatre noir written and directed by James Christopher, and playing at the Drayton Arms until March 28.

I’ve known and worked with James for 20-plus years: first when he was Deputy Theatre Editor on Time Out, then when he was Film Critic at The Times. He’s a terrific journalist, particularly known for his arresting metaphors. But although he has since taken an MA in theatre direction – an experience he describes as “humbling” – I had no idea if he could make that great escape under the barbed-wire fence separating critics from creators.

I needn’t have worried. The play is strong meat. When two old schoolfriends are reunited in a country house, each with a female partner in tow, a sinister, stalkerish obsession soon surfaces. The house is also built over a peculiar, disused well, perhaps haunted – the well is, as I said to James, his Chekhovian gun. (I knew he would know what I meant.) In other words, once it’s been introduced in Act One, you can be sure it will be used come Act Three. And how!

None of the plot devices and film noir tropes is startlingly original, something that has occasioned a couple of (to me) mysteriously negative reviews from online arts review sites. But it doesn’t matter; it’s not the point. As James said to me, “Film has borrowed from theatre for so long, I felt it was time for theatre to steal from film. The plot is just the McGuffin that keeps you along the linear narrative track, but really it’s about trust, and betrayal, and emotional crisis.”

James Christopher’s journalistic love of metaphor shines through in his stage writing. To take but one instance, the profession of the protagonist, Charlie, is picture framing. As he talks about the painstaking process of framing, with its multiple layers of varnish and gilding, he’s really talking about himself, about how his inner self has been varnished and gilded and eventually obscured, until he is all frame and no substance.

Ella the Enchanting (Phoebe Pryce)

Ella the Enchanting (Phoebe Pryce). Photo: Aimée Watts

But though Charlie’s Dark Angel is similarly multi-layered (James says it took five months of “agony” to write), it is also splendidly pacey, particularly in the shorter, post-interval final act, with ping-pong dialogue pricked by the odd flight of fancy. Plaudits also go to the four fine actors who bring the production to life. The one theatre neophyte, Phoebe Pryce, maintained such a consistent accent as a young Ukrainian artist/Manic Pixie Dream Girl that I asked James if she were actually foreign. He looked at me as if I was mad.

“That’s Jonathan Pryce’s daughter,” he said. “We were lucky to catch her just in time. After this she is acting with her father in The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe.”

To tell you more about the production would be to spoil it. I was on the edge of my seat for much of it. (And not just because the benches are rather small.) Two days later, I am still reliving and savouring moments. It’s sexy, and edgy, and there’s a lurking menace bubbling constantly under its characters’ urbane surface, as in the aforementioned well. I’ve been to a lot of West End theatre in the last couple of years, and this was one of my favourite nights out: quite a surprise from a first-time writer/director in a small pub theatre.

For info about Charlie’s Dark Angel and to book tickets, click here.

Revealed: the Ritzy’s roots

2 Mar
The original Electric Pavilion

The original Electric Pavilion

There’s a lovely piece in the Brixton Bugle about the origins of the Ritzy Cinema. I particularly like the details that it was saved by the 1981 Brixton riots, and scuppered by the 1995 ones; and also that it first came about through an ad in Time Out. (So many creative people I’ve spoken to over the years owe some sort of debt to Time Out; David Hare would always speak to us as he credited Time Out with helping to launch his career, back in fringe theatre days.)

I remember the “Little Bit Ritzy” well, as it was then: an art-house cinema showing the sorts of movies people now take for granted on DVD or streaming, but which back in the early ’80s we would have to scour listings and travel across town to see. It was so purist about film that it refused to serve popcorn, lest the munching disturb fellow film-goers (you’ll still get shushed for munching now), though in compensation the carrot-cake was superb.

The Ritzy is one of the main reasons I have chosen to live in and around Brixton for more than 20 years. Though it is now a six-screen multiplex, allowing more films to be shown, they achieved this without — as so many cinemas have — breaking up the wonderful main auditorium, instead building on an extension. Given the cinema’s egalitarian, right-on roots, I was incensed by the recent wage dispute, about which I wrote several blogs; they are now happily resolved, so it’s okay to love the Ritzy again.

If you love the Ritzy too, read the full article here.