The story I’ll dine out on till I die (or do something better)

The Libertine

(A spoken word recording of this post can be found here.)

“Any experiment of interest in life will be carried out at your own expense.”

–       (Oh, how wrong you were…) John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

The night before my little sister and I left Chang Mai, Thailand, for our epic journey south to Koh Pha-ngan about ten years ago, we were having a drink outside to celebrate the rare break from the tropical rain that had fallen for the duration of our stay. The conversation had an edge of sadness to it – Coco was going back to Australia after our holiday and I was flying back to England – but there was also an air of excitement. Having both decided that we wanted to challenge ourselves more frequently to step outside of our own comfort zones, we chatted about how a fun way of doing that might be to get some work as extras on film sets. Who knew what sort of adventures it might lead to? We each resolved to look into it when we got back to our respective homes, then we sheltered from the rain that had started falling again and ordered another couple of Singhas.

It didn’t take long, on my return to London, to find an extras agency to register with. I called and made a couple of appointments and soon found myself chatting with a casting agent in Shepherd’s Bush. Towards the end of my interview, when the forms were filled and the photos handed over, the agent drew my attention to a notice pinned up on the wall. I’m sure you won’t be interested, he said, but I wonder if you’ve seen that? I looked at the notice, which said something to the effect of, “Think you’re adventurous, do you? Well, would you do any of these…?” Beneath the headline was a series of activities apparently considered outside of the remit of the average extra. The list included such things as smoking (ooh, the shock of it!), same-sex snogging, simulated sex and full-frontal nudity. I recalled my conversation with Coco and remembered our determination to step outside of our comfort zones… Fine, I said to the casting agent, sign me up for all of them.

My first job as an extra was far from exciting and depleted none of the reserves of bravery and adventurousness that I’d set aside especially for the task. I played the part of a shopper in a major UK supermarket chain, milling around the store with other shoppers. The only differences from the usual food-purchasing experience were that it happened overnight, there was a lot of hanging around in a cold supermarket car park and I didn’t get to take home any of the goodies that I put in my trolley.

But sometime soon after that inauspicious beginning to my “acting” career, I was sitting in the offices of one of the companies in London at which I worked as a freelance subtitler when my mobile rang. The conversation went something like this:

MICHELLE: Hello, Michelle speaking.

MARK: Hi, Michelle, this is Mark from The Agency. We wondered if you might be free to work for us for two to three days next week.

MICHELLE: Hm, I’m actually committed to three weeks of subtitling work. It might be difficult to extricate myself…

MARK: Well, perhaps if I could just explain the project to you and you can get back to us about your availability. John Malkovich is producing and acting in a film called The Libertine, which is also starring Johnny Depp, and they’re shooting a number of scenes in Wales next week. We don’t know any specifics yet, but you may be expected to be semi-naked for your scene, and also to have simulated sex with Johnny Depp.

MICHELLE: Erm, Mark, can you give me two minutes and I’ll call you back?

A week later I boarded a train at London Paddington bound for Abergavenny, Wales. As I stared out of the window I contemplated the words of my friend who’d joked that I must have misheard. They probably said Johnny Vegas not Johnny Depp! This was all the more alarming as it transpired that Johnny Vegas was actually to be in the film… I was still contemplating this when the train pulled into Abergavenny and a friendly driver came over to greet me. I wasn’t expected on set until the next day, so he took me straight to the hotel that the agency had booked for me and said that he’d pick me up at 6:30 the next morning. I had a solitary hotel dinner, a long bath and an early night.

I’d done a bit of research about The Libertine and what it was to be about, but even the knowledge that it was based on the life of a notorious 17th-century poet hadn’t prepared me for the scene that the driver delivered me to after a 15-minute drive to Tretower Court. When I got out of the car, I quickly found myself in a field full of 17th-century folk, many with blackened teeth, all of whom looked as though they could do with a wash.

As it transpired, my character was a rich lady, and that was the name that I was to answer to on set. If I heard a call of “Rich Lady to makeup!” that meant me. First, though, I was to head to wardrobe for a fitting. It took some rifling through racks full of 17th-century dresses, with all their velvet, bodices and lace, before the two women in wardrobe came up with the perfect outfit for me. But I was halfway through a fitting when a call came in from the director. There was a problem. While wardrobe had at first been instructed to find me a dress that laced at the back, there had been a slight change of plan for my character and the dress now had to lace at the front… The details these people had to consider! What difference can it possibly make? I wondered.

Once the dress was found and proved to fit I headed off to makeup, where I was horrified to learn that I wouldn’t be wearing any; apparently in wealthy 17th-century society the men were quite heavily powdered but the women were more inclined to go au naturel. And not only was I to face Johnny Depp with a completely scrubbed visage, but my own blonde hair was to be covered by a red, curly wig, the short fringe of which would be curled and glued to my forehead. Good looking…

After hanging around on the set and chatting with my fellow extras (even the poor and toothless ones) for the entire day, I was told that they’d run out of time to shoot my scene. Would I be prepared to come back tomorrow? Few will be shocked to learn that I said yes; I couldn’t go home with a story about once having almost met Johnny Depp!

So the next day dawned, there was a lot more hanging about, and finally I was led to the collapsing castle where my scene was to be shot. The room, a dark, cold and dusty 17th-century doctor’s office, was stuffed with all the accoutrements that one might expect a doctor of the time to possess, including a taxidermy monkey in glass casing, which stood on the desk.  The film’s director, Laurence Dunmore, came over to me to explain the scene and how it was to be shot.

Taxidermy monkey

(Thanks to tophattaxidermy.com for this image.)

Johnny Depp, who would be joining us shortly, was playing the role of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, who was famously drunk and debauched and had fallen out of favour with his king, Charles II, who had exiled him from London. In order to return to the city, Wilmot had affected a disguise and was pretending to be a doctor (called, incidentally, Dr Ben Dover…) and was luring rich women into his surgery and simultaneously extracting their virtue from them and wads of money from their gullible husbands. My scene was to be part of a montage in which the good doctor merrily shagged his way around London high society. Oh, and it was to be remembered that during this period of his life, John Wilmot was already suffering from the ravages of syphilis…

As we spoke, another cast member, Kelly Reilly, came in and shook my hand, which Laurence took as his cue to explain what exactly would happen in the scene. John Wilmot, as Dr Ben Dover, having lured this particular Rich Lady into his den and extracted the cash from her husband, would, in his usual fashion, have his wicked way with the Rich Lady, taking her, as was his wont, over the desk. (Now I understood the reason for the front-lacing bodice…). With the syphilis taking its toll, however, Wilmot was not quite the man he used to be and would need some extra encouragement to erm…finish the job. So his favourite prostitute Jane, played by Kelly Reilly, would enter the room and flash her breasts at him to help him along. All understood then? Laurence asked politely. OK. If you wouldn’t mind waiting on this chaise longue, we’ll be right with you. Oh, and of course it will be a closed set. All but the cameraman, wardrobe and soundman off the set, please!

So I sat on the chaise longue for a few minutes, until someone rather familiar-looking came and sat next to me.

Hi, he said, shaking my hand. I’m Johnny.

To this day I’m still grateful to the Gods of Cool for not abandoning me at my hour of need. Hi, Johnny, I said. I’m Michelle.

Johnny Depp is, of course, a man of many incarnations, and the version of the man that I was meeting had lost his nose to syphilis, and was therefore sporting a rather crude metal prosthetic one in its place.

You’re not looking so well, Johnny, I said.

Ah, don’t worry, he replied. It’s just a scratch.

Laurence came over and directed Johnny and I over to the desk where we were to stand for the scene. After showing me exactly how he wanted me to lean over the table, he went on to explain to Johnny that there’s a method of simulation which would involve him knocking the back of my knee with the front of his to make things look realistic. Johnny asked, Ah, but where would be the fun in that?

And so my wardrobe woman unlaced the front of my dress and raised my skirts and Johnny, his long cape hiding the fact that there was really nothing to see here, put his hands on my hips to begin the scene. We had one rehearsal; who knew that practicing anything could be such a joy? Between the rehearsal and the commencement of the first take, my wardrobe woman redressed me to ensure that I didn’t get too cold. Between the second and third takes, however, that became unnecessary, as Johnny wrapped the cloak that he was wearing around us both. Yes, for just a few minutes in this wonderful life, I have been wrapped in the arms of Johnny Depp.

At one point, while camera angles were being adjusted and it was ensured that the boom was not in shot, Johnny, behind me and with his hands still on my hips, leaned forward and whispered in my ear, Isn’t this a strange way for two adults to make a living?

I looked back over my shoulder at him. Are you hearing any complaints from me? I’m not sure that the Rich Lady looked as shocked and violated as she might have in the scene that followed.

And so my scene was done, I said goodbye to Johnny and changed back from velvet and lace to jeans and a jumper, and the on-set minivan which was serving as a taxi was ordered to take me back to the station. My conversation with the driver was interrupted by crackling from his walkie-talkie, and we could see someone in a distant field waving to get his attention. The driver spoke briefly into his walkie-talkie, then turned and said to me, Sorry, we’ll have to take a slight detour. Someone else needs to be picked up.

Within a couple of minutes, the back door of the van slid open and John Malkovich climbed in. I was very glad, at that point, that I’d read all about the financing issues that the film had faced and the change to tax breaks for the film industry that had almost threatened its continued filming. While otherwise I might have been reduced to, Can I have your autograph? my prior reading had given me some fuel for a reasonably intelligent conversation with the film’s producer.

And so, when the film was finally released, 25 lovely and expectant friends joined me to see it on its opening night in Leicester Square. We all watched avidly for a glimpse of my…face, but to no avail. It turned out that I’d been left on the cutting room floor. Now this may sound anti-climactic, but given that I was a freelance subtitler at the time and that a friend or acquaintance was bound to end up having to watch the film one frame at a time, the deletion of my scene was actually a massive relief. I had got to have simulated sex with Johnny Depp, and now didn’t have to worry that, as one friend had threatened, my breasts would be used as a screen saver.

And now, all these years later, my search for a better dinner-party tale continues. Perhaps somewhere between here and my deathbed I’ll do something more interesting… But for now, I’m quite sure that a prosthetic nose, a taxidermy monkey, a moth-eaten cloak and the man who wore it are just a few of the images that will flash before my eyes before I die.

Is Fiction A Waste Of Time?

I so wish that I were able to see the world from a thousand different perspectives and experience the lives of others. Sadly, though, I’m stuck with my own rigid point of view, which is why I value fiction so highly – it gives me the chance to learn not just what happens to other people, but how the world looks through their eyes. “Is Fiction A Waste of Time?” is a brilliant analysis of why literature equals life.

My life is a film and I’m a bit-part player

Jardins 4

(Yes, yes, I know Shakespeare put it far more eloquently but I can’t help it that he got all the best lines.)

A long time ago in a relationship far, far away, an ex-boyfriend accused me of expecting my life to play out like a movie. He said (condemningly) that I require all the people that I meet to be in some way interesting, for my work to be fulfilling and afford me travel to fascinating places, and for every day to have some kind of poetry to it, even (or perhaps especially) in times of unavoidable suffering. Get real, he said. Life just isn’t like that. Well, if you’re reading this, ex-boyfriend (and you know who you are), it turns out that life kind of is.

Sometimes bits of my life end up in movies in a literal sense. After the Great Johnny Depp Experience of 2005 (is there an expiration date on stories about brief but exciting brushes against someone else’s fame?), I decided to retire from the movie extras game for good. I believe in going out with a bang, as it were, and I had to face the reality that it was all going to be downhill from there. (“A sex scene with Ryan Gosling? Pah! I wouldn’t get out of bed for that!”).

But you just never know where life is going to take you and last Sunday I found myself back in the role of an extra once again, this time at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, the home of the Large Hadron Collider.  It turned out that a guy who works for the CERN audio visual service is making a feature film and needed some people to dress as lab staff and sit in a boardroom looking fascinated while a glamorous French neurobiologist (a real one, incidentally, not just someone playing one) talked in depth about her field. It was revealed in conversations between shots and over coffee that my fellow lab staff hailed from Venezuela, Italy, Spain, Greece, Switzerland, Ireland, Latvia, the USA, India and Belgium, while I represented the UK and Australia. I don’t think my performance will be attracting the attention of the Academy (I was wearing makeup, after all, and no-one in my scene died), but it was a fun and unexpected way of spending a Sunday morning.

At other times, my life can feel like a movie just by the sheer good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. A few weeks ago, when one of my four gorgeous sisters was visiting from Australia, we decided to stop for coffee in the Haute-Savoie town of Annecy on the way back from a hair-raising morning on the Aguille du Midi. (The experience of the ascent to the highest restaurant in Europe, the imaginatively named “3842”, is one that my sister will not soon forget…).

As we walked through the streets, of the “Venice of the Alps”, it became apparent that this was no ordinary Saturday, but a carnival day. I was so mesmerised by the costumes, the music and the throngs of people on the cold and beautiful streets of the Old Town that it didn’t even occur to me to get my camera out. (Stupid, stupid girl!) As we roamed the streets in search of a favourite shoe shop where my sister was to purchase the perfect pair of European winter boots, we found ourselves marching to the beat of a different drum… Literally. Under a series of arches we finally found the drumming band, a group of about 20 enthusiastic amateurs beating their drums and stomping their feet until my sister and I felt it not just vibrating in our chests but also coursing in ridiculous rivulets down our cheeks. Easily moved to tears, my fellow Scorpio sister and me.

As I sit writing this, in the garden of the chateau my partner and I are renting in south-east France, the sun is making its slow descent behind Mount Grand Colombier, there are two birds sitting on the feeder about a metre from my seat, and the slight breeze carries both the smell of spring flowers and the sound of church bells from the nearby village. It may not be Quentin Tarantino but this is a scene from the kind of movie I’d pay to see.

Patriotism – a dragon to be slain?

For a long time now I’ve kind of envied people who have a strong sense of national pride. I still remember when I told my Dad that I was making England my permanent home, having moved there years before from my native Australia. He said that he felt sorry for me because from that point on I’d never really belong anywhere; I’d be considered Australian in England and English in Australia. As a post-war Dutch immigrant Dad knew what he was talking about but I didn’t completely grasp his point for a number of years, so busy was I enjoying the novelty of my new home.

But then one night I was in a pub in London watching a football match with a crowd of English friends. A lot of them weren’t really into football but every single person in that pub – with the glaring exception of the expat girl in the corner – shared a patriotic passion for their country and a desperate hope that in this football match, England would triumph. There was no question for them. But I wasn’t English so I didn’t feel that blind sense of nationalistic love, and I realised that my loyalty to Australia had been diluted by the years I’d spent in England. Dad was right – the moment I boarded a plane out of Australia at the age of 20 I gave up my right to the rousing sense of community that made every other person in that room into a part of something bigger. I left the pub in tears.

Having said that though… I’m a little perplexed today by the increasing popularity of the idea that England should have a national holiday for St George’s Day. I completely understand the desire for countries to promote a sense of national solidarity, especially when their freedom and independence have been hard-won. I can get behind France’s Bastille Day, American Independence Day and Australia Day, each of which celebrates a historical event which has led to the formation of a free and independent nation (without, for the moment, getting into what that might have meant for indigenous peoples…).

But St George’s Day? In recent years I’ve been surprised, in my travels, by the widespread adoration of the saintly George, who I’d always associated with my adopted homeland of England. In Palestine I visited St George’s Monastery in the Wadi Qelt, and learned that George had lived in Palestine as a child and is patron saint of Palestinian Christians, many of whom have a stone-engraved picture of him in front of their homes to evoke his protection. In Coptic Cairo I visited a monastery where they display the instruments of torture apparently used in the vain attempt to force George to renounce his Christian faith, and where tourists are invited to seek St George’s grace by wrapping a chain around their necks and bodies. In Pérouges, a medieval city in France, I saw several representations of the saint, who is considered by local legend to have fought and defeated the dragon which appears on the city’s crest.

Coptic Church of St George

And these are just a few places that I happen to have visited. It only takes a minute on the internet to discover that St George is also considered patron saint or protector to Bulgaria, Georgia, Portugal, Montenegro and Ethiopia, the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo, the city of Beirut in Lebanon and the German city of Freiburg im Breisgau, as well as the Boy Scouts of America and sufferers of skin disease and syphilis, to name but a few.

Part of my pride in getting a British passport a few years ago (to sit happily alongside my Australian one) lay in my belief that I was officially joining the ranks of a people who strive to be rational, just and fair, and, to a very large extent, secular. This is why I struggle to understand why such a large percentage of the population wishes to celebrate, by virtue of a national holiday, a man who was born in Eastern Turkey,  moved to Palestine and became a Roman soldier, then went on to erm, slay a dragon, then become a martyr to his Christian faith. Yes, his bravery, fortitude and loyalty are to be commended, but isn’t there a better way of celebrating a proud and open-minded nation than this?

I’m open to suggestions.

St George's Monastery