By Linda Robertson
Playing guitar, learning Italian and discovering a new-found appreciation for jogging … they’re just a few things that defined lockdown for Edinburgh-born actor Emun Elliott. Oh, and there’s landing a major new movie role, too.
The BA Acting graduate, whose credits include Black Watch, Star Wars, Guilt and Game of Thrones, talks to Linda Robertson about life at RCS, his new film releases and shares words of wisdom with the next generation.
When coronavirus brought the film, theatre and TV industry to a halt this year, Emun Elliott, like many of his fellow actors, watched as productions hit pause.
Cameras stopped rolling. Stages fell dark. Schedules were suddenly clear. He certainly didn’t expect to find himself cast in a major new movie during lockdown.
“It was quite a weird experience after sitting around for months thinking everything’s over,” says Emun, talking from his home in London.
“I had sent off a self-tape to my American rep, something you do if you can’t make an audition. I got a call saying that writer and director M. Night Shyamalan wants to FaceTime.
“We sat and chatted for an hour which was surreal because out of nowhere, and after thinking the industry is done for, for a while, suddenly we’re talking about the potential of this new and exciting project. I’m thrilled to be working with another highly acclaimed, bold and adventurous film director.”
Emun will star alongside Gael García Bernal, Eliza Scanlen, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rufus Sewell and Ken Leung in Old, scheduled for release in summer next year. While the plot is under wraps, it’s said to be inspired by the French graphic novel Sandcastle.
While Emun can’t give anything away about Old, he can talk about two of his most recent roles. There’s the gripping, psychological Repression, shot in Scotland and Luxembourg, that tells the story of a therapist who loses her grip on reality when a ten-year-old boy claims he can control her future.
“It stars Thekla Reuten, who is an actor I’ve loved for years, Bill Paterson and Peter Mullan – it’s good to be in such fine company,” he says.
“It’s dark, beautifully shot and very creepy. The script was one of the most complicated, high-concept things I’d ever read.”
Emun will also be seen on screen in the Orpheus-inspired Phea by Rocky Palladino, currently in post-production, and Walking to Paris, from arthouse director Peter Greenaway.
The ambitious and highly anticipated Walking to Paris was shot over five years and is Emun’s first lead in a feature film. He portrays the real-life sculptor Constantin Brâncuși who, in 1903 and 1904, walked from Bucharest to Paris.
“It took him a year-and-a-half and shows how that journey informed his work. He went on to become one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century.
“It’s very visual and classical and full of nudity and experimentation. I thought, if I’m going to do something crazy, Peter is the one to do it with. His films are masterpieces and every single frame looks like a beautiful painting. The things he asked me to do on camera, I’d never dream of doing with anyone else. I’m really excited to see it.”
What draws him to a role? “Sometimes you read a script and you know you have to do it, you almost become attached to it immediately. Other times you’ll respond to something because you don’t know how to do it and you’re interested in figuring a way through it – you’re more focused on the challenge of doing it than the outcome.”
And he admits, some roles can take a bit of convincing: “A lot of the time other people can see things in you that you don’t necessarily recognise yourself. What excites me most is always the challenge – feeling like I’m right for something but not really knowing how I’m going to execute it. It’s that knife-edge that so many creatives walk and it’s definitely part of the thrill. Sometimes it will lead to failure but it’s a risk that you have to take.”
Emun isn’t afraid to take risks, an approach that led him to swap the world of academia for acting, after he realised that university life wasn’t for him.
“That’s a nice way of saying I dropped out,” he laughs. “I went to Aberdeen University to study English and French and switched to English and film before dropping out.
“I loved doing school plays and drama was my thing but it wasn’t on the curriculum. When I was about to leave school, I told the head of my year that I wanted to become an actor and was advised to rethink that and go to university like everyone else.”
His parents told him to make sure he didn’t get stuck in a job he wasn’t passionate about: “I used it to pursue the thing I really loved. I auditioned for RCS when it was known as the RSAMD (Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) when I was 17 and I remember thinking that if I didn’t get in, I’d audition to be an entertainer on a cruise ship and go around the world doing that.”
He didn’t need to find his sea legs as he was accepted to the three-year BA Acting programme. “I had the best time at RCS but I never really knew what I was in for! I was doing the thing I enjoyed at school and what I was told I was good at. I thought I’d learn to be an entertainer and I realised in my first year that while it can be that, there’s also this whole other side to it and you can push it and take it in whatever direction you like.
“It’s this vast, complicated craft and there were all these ideas and techniques thrown at us and these beautiful, different ways of approaching them – something I really underestimated.
“I remember feeling very overwhelmed, like ‘I don’t understand this and don’t know how to employ it, does that mean I’m not a good actor?’. I became obsessive about what this thing was, what made something believable, and it became this big labyrinth of discovery.”
He felt like the ‘dark horse’ in those first twelve months but credits RCS for building his confidence, from his teachers and guest artists to fellow students.
“It’s something I definitely learned. I’m naturally quite shy, which is one of the reasons I like acting, it gives me the excuse to say someone else’s words and be an extrovert, and be under the umbrella of someone else.
“I always felt like I was playing catch-up in first year but the opportunities we were given made sure that everyone got the chance to play a leading role or take a part of some significance.”
If he could give young Emun advice, what would he tell him?
“Don’t beat yourself up about a comment someone made in rehearsal, a bad review or not feeling particularly ‘on it’ in a performance. Have the ability to let go and move forward and don’t get stuck in the past. When you’re younger, you sometimes think that you need to be this deep and tortured artist having a terrible time to deliver these great performances. Take all that with a huge pinch of salt.”
He says drama school gave him everything he needed to grow as an actor: “The great thing about the RCS was the variety in terms of what we were able to explore and the diversity of people brought in for workshops. There was also a real sense of camaraderie and support with other pupils, we very much felt like we were all in it together.
“When you start working professionally, whether it’s rehearsing a play or going on to a film set, you become part of this new family for a while and RCS was integral in preparing us for that.”
“It was a wonderful time. By third year, I certainly felt ready to enter the industry with high hopes.”
Emun graduated in 2005 and has worked consistently ever since across film, theatre, television and radio.
His first TV role was in Scottish drama Monarch of the Glen and he has appeared in shows including Game of Thrones, Lip Servie, Vera, Trust Me, Clique, Threesome and The Paradise. He will return to TV screens in the BBC series Guilt, which is currently shooting its second series.
On the film front, he has worked with legendary director Ridley Scott twice on Prometheus and Exodus, joined Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens and starred in Irvine Welsh’s Filth with fellow BA Acting alumnus James McAvoy.
He was also part of the original cast of the National Theatre of Scotland’s celebrated global smash Black Watch, which holds special memories and felt like a ‘turning point’. Based on interviews with soldiers from the Scottish regiment about their experiences in Iraq, the play performed to sold-out audiences and earned rave reviews.
“It had such a phenomenal response and I feel so lucky to have been part of a play that people still talk about today. It felt like it opened a lot of doors for me, it took me to New York and all over the world, and on the back of it I got an American agent.”
He loves the immediacy of theatre, being on stage in front of an audience night after night. “No-one is filming or editing and what you decide to do on stage is what people will see.
“I love rehearsing and exploring the possibilities of the material. Theatre feels closer to the reason why I decided to do this in the first place. Also, when you do a play, the relationships with your cast members are different as you spend more time together.”
So how does he feel about the current state of play in theatre, with arts and culture taking a massive hit from the pandemic?
“Actors, artists, are used to challenges so I feel hopeful about the future of live performance. Theatre will survive, it will go on but it needs audiences. In terms of TV and film, it’s easier because of the stop-start nature of these productions and camera trickery can be used to get around Covid-centric obstacles.”
The last time Emun set foot on stage was in New York for his Broadway debut in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, alongside Oscar-winning actor Marisa Tomei.
“It was great to be able to tick that box, it feels like Broadway is at the peak of the theatrical world. It was wonderful to play opposite Marisa Tomei, an Oscar-winning Italian-American actor, and to try to convince a New York audience that I was Italian. I loved the challenge of that.
“Working in New York and being part of the energy of the city was amazing. I spent the best part of six months there, performing eight times a week. I finished up before Christmas, came back home, took January off and was gearing up for everything again when the industry came grinding to a halt. I had a couple of things lined up which were put on hold. It’s a relief that things are happening again.”
Emun spent the first month of lockdown at home in Edinburgh. “We had that glorious sunshine, that doesn’t even happen in summer time! It was almost like nature’s response, thanking us for slowing down and I felt that everything would be beautiful and brighter. The longer it went on, the harder it was to cling on to that optimism and spirituality,” he laughs.
“It has been a mad rollercoaster from one extreme to the other.”
How did he approach lockdown life – did he acquire any new skills, start baking banana bread, take part in Zoom quizzes?
“I did fall into that lockdown cliche! I started learning Italian and played the guitar more than usual. I also started jogging, which I’ve never done in my life and always turned my nose up at the idea of it but lo and behold, I’ve become one of ‘them’! It helped build a bit of structure although as an actor, you learn the importance of being disciplined with your days in downtime.”
His advice for actors right now, especially those who have just graduated and are following in his footsteps, is ‘to keep staying positive (and testing negative!).’
“First, congratulations on getting this far, in deciding to pursue your passion and getting into drama school. I know it has been a strange year but you’ve completed three years of training so don’t be disheartened by what may feel like an uphill climb in getting a foot in the industry. Just persevere and keep going – there will be light at the end of the tunnel. And believe in yourself, don’t forget the reason why you’re doing it in the first place.”
Best TV character?
Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (Walter White).
Who’d play you in a film of your life?
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
A musician, I think, or a teacher. I played violin until I was 14 then switched to the guitar. I’m a massive music fan and love sitting around and playing with musicians.
What inspires you?
Real life, real people. The art form that inspires me more than any is music. It’s so immediate, you can put on a piece of music and your entire emotional system can rewire in seconds. What is the magic doing that?!
Best advice you’ve ever received?
My mum and dad telling me to do something I love and to treat everyone with respect, wherever they stand in the hierarchy. Be nice, be a team player, never be late and be as fully prepared as you can be.
Last person you called?
My mum – I call as much as possible, especially during these crazy times.
A couple of years ago I went to Zanzibar, an incredible paradise. There’s something very special about it.
What would friends say is your best quality?
Salt or sauce?