by Linda Robertson
The year started and ended on a high note for an actor who is rapidly earning a reputation as one of the most compelling talents in the UK. Linda Robertson finds out more from BA Acting graduate Anna Russell-Martin.
There has long been a buzz surrounding Anna Russell-Martin.
It began with a critically acclaimed one-woman play just weeks before she graduated from drama school and, since then, her star has rapidly been on the rise.
Despite everything that the coronavirus pandemic has thrown at the world, 2020 ended on a high for this bold, bright talent who is making her mark on stage and screen.
Anna recently won ‘best female performance‘ in the CATS (Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland) for her electrifying role as Anais Hendricks in The Panopticon, the National Theatre of Scotland’s stage adaptation of Jenni Fagan’s best-selling and hard-hitting novel inspired by her personal experiences of the care system in Scotland.
“I loved that show so much – the character, everything it stood for, it was my favourite ever. I’ll never forget it.”
“It was amazing to work with its director Debbie Hannan again,” Anna continues. “We first met at RCS when she directed The Wonderful World of Dissocia and we’ve done a number of things since then and have become good pals.”
There’s also the success of her first film role in The Shift, winner of the Venice Short Film Nomination for the European Film Awards 2020.
Written and directed by Laura Carreira, the nine-minute film centres on Anna, an agency worker. As she wanders through the supermarket trying to find the most affordable items, her agency calls – she has lost her shift. The film aims to capture the vulnerable condition of a temporary worker.
Venice was the only film festival to take place last year, which meant a flying visit to Italy for Anna and her first trip down the red carpet.
“It was such an honour to win the award, it was my first film role and I loved worked on it.”
“Venice was surreal because it was so quiet with no tourists. I was sitting on a gondola at one point and the streets were empty. It was a brilliant way to experience it.”
The Shift has also been selected for the BAFTA-qualifying London Short Film Festival.
In between, there have been radio plays, podcasts, an episode of Casualty, and various online appearances including Ghost Light from the National Theatre Scotland, a love letter to theatre by a cast of leading Scottish actors.
Anna also delivered a monologue from the play Nora: A Doll’s House for The Scotsman Sessions, a series of video performances by Scottish artists that won the Innovation of the Year prize at the British Journalism Awards.
“Work is picking up again and positive things are happening. I was in Scotland for a workshop not that long ago and it was the first time I had been in a room with actors and a director. Everybody was buzzing.”
Anna is warm, chatty and someone who laughs a lot, just take a look at her Twitter account for her amusing asides, whether it’s aiming a barb at Trump or people reading her diary on the tube.
She has been performing since she was three when she’d take dancing, drama and musical theatre classes growing up in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire.
“I did loads of plays, playwriting and competitions and went to the Dance School of Scotland at Knightswood for my fifth and sixth years.
“From there I went to RCS which felt like a natural progression as I was getting more serious about acting. Unfortunately, I don’t do much dancing or singing anymore and I haven’t been required to do it in the jobs I’ve done … I’d love to get my tap shoes out.”
A tap-dancing musical would certainly be a change of mood from some of her most recent work where she has delved into the darker depths of life.
In The Panopticon, her character Anais has been let down by just about every adult she has ever known and is taken to a young offenders’ institution. Her performance earned a raft of rave reviews – ‘a revelation, ‘an almost overwhelming star performer in its midst’ and ‘a shining star on the theatrical horizon’.
“I seem to play these really distressing parts, the edgier, grittier roles like the stressed, struggling mum, the abused person, and I was always the youngest in my class at RCS playing the wise old mother,” she laughs.
“It tends to be a rougher character and I’m always drawn to those roles because they have depth and more bite. I’m always more interested in that. People must think that must be my life! I’ve been very fortunate to have a lovely upbringing in a loving and supportive family.”
Anna has worked solidly since she left RCS in 2018 with her BA Acting degree. Even before she graduated, she made her professional debut in Bunny, a blistering one-woman show at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow.
“I was in third year and I had to do it in the space of three weeks,” she recalls.
“It was one week of rehearsal and two weeks of shows while I was still at RCS. I would walk around the corridors at lunchtime trying to learn a new paragraph. It was massive getting to do a one-woman show.”
The critics loved it. The Times praised her ‘captivating, nuanced performance’, The Stage called her ‘superb’ while The Herald called it a ‘fearless, professional debut’.
After graduating, she went straight into an internship at the Citizens Theatre for ten months from July 2018 to April 2019 and in March that year, performed in the Citizens’ production of Nora: A Doll’s House.
A six-week run of Nora was due to open at London’s Young Vic in March this year, cancelled due to Covid.
She moved to London for the play and she’s there now, living close to her best pals, RCS acting alumni Elliot Baxter and Jack Simpson.
She admits she’s enjoying it more now than her first visit: “I auditioned for RCS as well as drama schools in England and I remember my first few rounds at RCS, thinking ‘I’d love to go here’.
“I had recalls in London and stayed for two weeks and hated it! I was bawling and crying on the bus back up because I knew I didn’t want to study there. I love Scotland and Glasgow so I was over the moon to get into RCS, it was my top school.
“I cancelled all the other auditions, even though I’d paid for them, and told my mum and dad that I was staying in Scotland and going to RCS.”
“London just wasn’t the right time for me, I was 16 when I was auditioning, and 17 when I started. I wanted to stay at home for a bit and find my feet.”
A highlight of her time at RCS was The Wonderful World of Dissocia, directed by Debbie Hannan, a graduate of the Masters in Classical and Contemporary Text.
“I loved Dissocia, the shows at RCS are brilliant. I got to do some singing in that, actually. We worked with Debbie who was young and cool, and treated us as equals and part of the collaborative process.”
The training at RCS will always stay with her: “I still do the exercises that our teachers gave us, I really enjoyed them. There would be things to help you get into character and I remember one tutor told us to listen to a song or a playlist that your character would listen to. Or give yourself ten minutes or half an hour to write a diary as your character. But if your character doesn’t write a diary, then don’t, just stare at the ceiling or fall asleep, do what your character would do.”
She advises acting students to keep hold of everything: “Your notepads, exercises, everything that a teacher gives you – put it in a big folder. I had a workshop recently where I had to do a monologue in a cockney accent and I spent the whole weekend practising and reading my notes, which really helped.
“There’s a reason you get taught all these things and I’d be very surprised if you got to be the best actor you could be without those notes. I’ve only been out two years and I wish I kept more.”
She also encourages graduating actors to stay positive, despite the challenging arts landscape: “Projects are happening, the roles are still there and you will be fresh into the industry. Be bold and brave in your decisions and know what your strengths are and play to them.”