Actress and Jesus College student Ellie Kendrick talks to HOLLY STEVENSON about her career so far, her Cambridge projects, and the dissertation that she really should have written by now…
Imagine you’re a Cambridge English student in your second year. Now imagine that, as well as your weekly essay and the terrifying dissertation you have to write, you are an up-and-coming actress who has graced the Globe theatre’s stage and appeared on TV as the iconic Anne Frank. Now imagine that, on top of all this, you have set up a new project to encourage the writing and performance of drama by Cambridge students. Readers, you are Ellie Kendrick.
The ridiculousness of Ellie’s schedule is highlighted by the fact that we were due to meet Ellie for a cup of tea and a chat last week. But, an hour before our appointment, she cancelled, frantically emailing that her agent had booked her into a production meeting that afternoon at the last minute. And you thought it was bad when your afternoon plans are scuppered by the Gossip Girl box set…
Holly Stevenson and Tabatha Leggett: You said you were ‘absolutely terrified’ at the thought of playing Anne Frank. What was like to play her? Do you suffer from nerves and how do you overcome them?
Ellie Kendrick: It was stretching, tiring, and manic, but enjoyable. It was daunting, because so many people have grown up reading her story and she’s become a symbol of Jewish persecution in the Second World War. It felt like a big responsibility. I was nervous, of course – you’d have to be an idiot not to be with a part like Anne Frank. I didn’t really have a procedure for getting over that, I just had the occasional self-contained panic attack after work.
HS and TL: You’ve played lots of iconic female characters. How have you prepared yourself for the roles? What do you feel you can bring to them?
EK: I prepare by reading the script, thoroughly. I think it’s important not to get clogged up with too much unnecessary research, and sometimes people think you’re a bit crackers if you do intensive preparation techniques like method acting. If the script is good enough, most of what you need is there. With Anne Frank, though, I did read a couple of biographies and watched an excellent documentary called ‘Anne Frank Remembered’.
HS and TL: Your major roles have all involved playing characters that are either real people or have been played before. Do you think this puts more pressure on you to make your performance individual?
EK: Luckily, I hadn’t watched any dramatisations of Anne Frank before I accepted the part, and I’d only ever seen Romeo and Juliet once, when I was a young nipper of about twelve years old. Of course, I’d seen Luhrmann’s brilliant Romeo and Juliet, but that was never something I thought about at The Globe; obviously our version was totally at the other end of the spectrum (I was wearing a corseted dress modelled on Italian seventeenth century fashion – not quite as flattering as Claire Danes’ fairy outfit). So, I was never thinking with those parts, ‘I have to do this in a way that’s different to their version.’
HS and TL: What are you involved with at Cambridge University?
EK: I think there’s some fantastic theatre at Cambridge but I’ve only ever been in one show here (the ETG’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in my first term last year), because it’s such a big time commitment. But I have started up a new writing showcase, called Hatch, with my friend Adam Lawrence. I’m also on the team for The Shop on Jesus Lane, the only student-run gallery in the University. It’s a really thrilling project – we do student exhibitions, talks, workshops, clothes swaps, acoustic jams, life drawing, and plenty of other things. I’m helping to organise a Shop clubnight at Hidden Rooms, and am planning an exciting series of talks for them, in conjuction with Hatch. So far we’ve got Dominic Dromgoole, Polly Stenham and Jean Marsh signed up to do events with us.
HS and TL: Can you tell us more about Hatch?
EK: Yes! Starting on Monday 18th October, every fortnight at Corpus Playrooms, we’re putting on hour-long showcases of work by students at the university – each piece under ten minutes. We want it to be as varied as possible: any kind of writing that can be read or performed… rough cuts, poems, prose, monologues, fragments, scenes, excerpts, short plays – anything! We both feel really strongly that there should be more avenues for new writing in Cambridge. It’s brilliant that the whole Smoker system is in place, but if you’re writing stuff that’s not primarily comic, there isn’t really a regular event at which you can show your work unless you can find the time to write a whole play to put on somewhere – and with the workload at Cambridge, that’s pretty rare. We also have a team of actors and directors who will stage any dramatic writing that we select – and I think that’s really important. I did a scriptwriting course with the Young Writers Project at the Royal Court Theatre, and the most valuable thing there was hearing my work read by actors.
HS and TL: What is TV acting like in comparison to performing on a stage? Which do you prefer?
EK: TV is much smaller and more focussed because you have a camera right in your face. You have to be a lot more naturalistic. You have to get used to doing the same scene about 20 times in a row, and there are lots of technical things you need to remember, like walking to a mark on the floor at exactly the right time every take so the camera can focus correctly. You film all the scenes completely out of sequence so you have to make sure you know exactly where you are in the story. Theatre is freer and more exciting because everyone’s watching and you can’t fuck it up. But it’s hard to keep it fresh – doing sixty-four shows of Romeo and Juliet was a bit mad.
HS and TL: You are working on a remake of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’. What’s that like?
EK: I’ve just finished filming it in Cardiff, and I had a great time. I made friends with Jean Marsh, who was in the original series; she has the dirtiest mind of anyone I’ve ever met!
HS and TL: What was performing Romeo and Juliet at The Globe like? Was the rehearsal process quite intense?
EK: Obviously it was just a dream come true to work there. It was really quite gruelling, because I had no formal acting training and I’d never appeared on stage professionally before, and I was just petrified that I was going to make a tit out of myself. I had to do a lot of work, and also lots of bizarre exercises for my breathing which sometimes involved lying on the floor and making strange noises. I was living with friends in London at the time, in a house with with thin walls, so that was kind of embarrassing…
HS and TL: How do you find time to pursue your acting career alongside the demands that Cambridge places on you?
EK: Things have worked out well up til now because the timing has always fitted snugly into the holidays – the TV show I just finished filming in Cardiff, ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, ended on the 3rd October, so I hopped straight onto a hellish 4 ½ hour train to Cambridge from there in time to start Michaelmas. I didn’t finish the first draft of the dissertation I was supposed to do over the holidays, but let’s not tell anyone that!
HS and TL: Do you spend the majority of the university term in Cambridge?
EK: I spend most of my time in Cambridge – I really love it here, and I enjoy the work, so that’s my life at the moment. Every so often I’ll take half a day off to go for an audition in London, but apart from that my home is Jesus College.
HS and TL: Do ever feel like you are missing out on the student experience?
EK: No. Fortunately I’ve never had to miss any term time for acting work.
Despite all of her commitments and extremely busy schedule, Ellie is enthusiastic to the point of chirpy. She clearly has boundless energy, or a REALLY good coffee machine. Either way, I’m slightly in awe of her.