‘I went home mortified, crying my eyes out. But you learn from that’
In my whole time at school, I only acted in one play. Wearing a leotard, leggings, a skull cap and big glasses, I played a blind worm in James and the Giant Peach. The part may also have involved a Stevie Wonder impression. It was all very questionable but, somehow, a theatre studies teacher called Mike Friend spotted some potential and practically filled out my drama school application.
I auditioned, didn’t get in, tried again the next year – and made it. So now I was at Lamda but I knew very little about acting. I loved movies but hadn’t gone to much classical theatre, and didn’t understand about projecting my voice. They had to ask me to speak up.
Your drama school years are so exciting: you get to try everything. In my professional career, I still haven’t done Chekhov or Ibsen, but as a student, you sharpen your skills by playing the lot. After you leave, you have to hold on to that feeling of having no limits, as you can easily find yourself falling into various categories depending on your race, gender and background.
Another thing I quickly discovered about being a professional actor is that how you manage your downtime is as important as how you handle working. It can be a shock. You might not work for long periods. “Am I still an actor,” you wonder, “if I’m not actually doing anything?” It takes a while to understand that, yes, you can still call yourself that. You’re constantly absorbing. Somehow, you just have to stay inspired.
When you start out, you’re keen to impress people. You’re looking for affirmation. Every time the phone rings, every time you get an audition, you feel validated. But you have to let that go. You’re searching for something deeper, a way of expressing yourself. When you meet directors, producers and writers, you can start to think of yourself as a collaborator. It’s a process that takes longer than you’d imagine.
Are you comfortable making a fool of yourself? Because to act, you have to be. I remember doing improvisation at Lamda. It was a simple exercise: create a character, come to the front, pick up a phone and have a conversation with another person in your imagination. After each go, the class gave feedback. After mine, the teacher just went: “Next! Let’s move on to the next one!” I went home mortified, crying my eyes out but you learn to laugh at yourself – and “take the note” that there’s room for improvement.
In my third year, I was lucky enough to get an agent – and soon I was in a hospital bed in Holby City. I left before the year was out. It was a bit cheeky but I just took every opportunity I could.
You need to develop a thick skin to deal with all the knockbacks. But then, when you’re acting, you need to take off a layer of skin so that you’re vulnerable, transparent, sharing as much of yourself as you can. So being both tough and sensitive are essential – as is a healthy amount of nerves. They keep you awake and present, but you try not to let them turn into real fear. Auditions make you nervous and so do first read-throughs with a cast, as you may be sitting with actors who you’ve always admired. But with experience, you realise everybody’s probably as nervous as you. And there’s that sense of shared experience – you’re all jumping off the cliff and you get through it together.
Starting out can be every bit as challenging as people say. Sometimes you have to take roles that feel disheartening but there’s never any need to compromise on your artistic integrity. Whatever the part you’re playing, you can always apply a certain amount of vision to your character.
I think people would be surprised by how much you have to look after yourself. Essentially, you’re in training, pushing yourself hard like an athlete. You need real stamina. Acting sounds glamorous but you’re away from home a lot, living quite a nomadic existence. You might find yourself out on location somewhere cold and wet at five in the morning.
I’ve begun to take a holistic approach to it all and, nowadays, feel less nervous when a job comes up. An older actor once told me that you can think about being generous rather than worrying about yourself. You offer your thoughts about the character and the script and that’s when you learn what’s working and what isn’t.
Finally, I can’t overstate the importance of knowing your lines. I need to drill them over and over. I start off by deconstructing a scene – what’s happening, what’s the objective – and then the lines drop in. Recently, I’ve been recording my lines and listening to them on the tube or in the park until they become embedded. But you can only prepare so much. There’s a magic that happens in the moment. When you step on stage, or in front of the camera, you need to be brave enough to let that spontaneous thing happen. CW (Nikki Amuka-Bird is in the film The Children Act later this year.)
‘Even writing 50 pages of crap gives a sense of achievement’
When I started to write, I wasn’t particularly well-read, but I found two things critical. Together they can turn a pile of thoughts into a novel, in case you’re at a loose end next weekend, or are in prison. They’re also helpful if you’ve swum a few pages into writing and find yourself drowning, as I did.
The first might seem stupid but I actually found it the main hitch in getting words down and “letting rip”, “sticking with it”, and all that noble stuff we’re supposed to do. “The responsibility of awful writing” was Hemingway’s twist on his own phrase “the awful responsibility of writing”. As the man who also said “first drafts are shit”, he pointed to a truth: if the key to finishing a novel is sticking with it, then the main challenge is to face writing crap.
All I liked after writing the first page of Vernon God Little was the voice. It had things to say about everything. I could feel it wanting to say them. But I went on to write 300 pages that didn’t make a book. I wrote them in five weeks, in a fever, without looking back. And at the end, I still liked the voice – but it hadn’t really said anything. Or rather, it had said plenty but nothing else had really happened. I soon found advantages to having done it that way.
For one thing, I would usually find it hard to move on to page two if I didn’t like page one. I bet you could wallpaper the planet with books that never got to page two. And it’s a circular trap, in that some of the energy you need to forge ahead and push your page count up is generated by forging ahead and pushing your page count up. Even crap gives a sense of achievement when you get to 10, 20, 50 pages of it. When you don’t get past page one, you lose the spur. After that, the thing spirals into bad feeling and dies while you check email.
Half the problem is the expectation that we’ll see finished writing at once, more or less in its place. But I wouldn’t have written what I wrote if I’d thought about structure and form at the time. Obviously, if we’re writing about a boy going to the river, we make him go to the river. I don’t mean write without an idea – just that better ideas will come later. They attract each other and grow. We write crap in the meantime. It can work like a compost.
If you watch a dieter breaking their diet, you’ll see that they gobble things before they can stop themselves, before the internal arguments, before the shame. Guiltily and fast: that’s how to approach a first draft. A free writer is not something you are, but a place you can go. To start that climb: speed. Don’t look down. Keep a note of your page or word count, watch it grow like an investment. Amp yourself up. When we do things this way, a phenomenon comes to bear that justifies our approach: art. Some of what we write will crystallise for reasons we can’t explain, and the story comes into a life of its own.
Eventually, take that feverish pile, bravely or drunk, and read it back. Get over the cringing and find a glimmer, see what sentence or idea intrigues or excites you. Start from there and build out. If the job gets boring, loosen up, take a tangent, throw in a new character. In this process, the work begins to show itself. We show ourselves. When gems have grown into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages, look again. Find the part that works best and lift the rest up to it. This is how it climbs, by following what pleases us most.
We can’t compete with Shakespeare or Hemingway, nor should we try. Our particular feeling is all we can bring to this party, and our whole job should be to wrestle it into a story that works for us alone. After that we can dress it for others to read. A different job entirely. Save that for a strong coffee on a Monday.
‘I was playing punk squats in China when inspiration struck’
Songwriting is like fishing. You cast your net far and wide and hope something bites. That may be a melodic hook or a couple of sentences strung together, but suddenly you just know you’ve got something worth pursuing. Before that, you’re just an idiot with a guitar.
I’ve heard songwriters talk about how they woke up after dreaming a complete song. I’m not a believer in the supernatural, but I have definitely written songs where I feel like I’m taking direction from a higher power. If Ever I Stray tumbled out of me in half an hour. Mostly, though, I might have a lyric for years and then I finally find the music to go with it, or vice versa. So the rare occasions when both arrive at the same time feel fantastic. I do tweak and change songs, sometimes for years. I’ve got versions of The Way I Tend to Be stretching back six years and I’m still not convinced the released one is definitive, which is pretty annoying.
Inspiration can strike anywhere. I was doing an illegal tour of China, playing punk squats and dive bars, surrounded by people for whom rock’n’roll was brand new. They were so energised that I felt a desperate need to celebrate the art form, so I wrote I Still Believe – about how rock’n’roll saved us. It was also a reminder to myself that I am lucky to have songwriting in my life.
Sometimes I’ve picked an artist – Abba, Regina Spektor, Townes Van Zandt – and played every song they’ve written. You learn about their construction technique and pick up tricks. However, if you don’t have that initial spark – the need to say something – you can play till the cows come home and not write anything good.
A song has to be true to itself. If you try to write for the radio or an arena, you’ll end up with something that sounds like it should be on The X Factor. Nick Cave treats the job like a nine-to-five: he has a little room and writes in it all day. I’ve not done that but, a few years ago on a second date, I jokingly promised a girl that I’d write a song for her birthday the next day. She didn’t believe me, so I penned Little Aphrodite in 24 hours. It didn’t work out with her – but I got a song out of it!
I first started messing around with guitars and words when I was 11. I remember changing the chords to Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and thinking: “I’ve written a song!” Which wasn’t strictly true, but it was a big moment in my genesis. But I wanted to play thrash metal, which is really difficult, so instead I sat down with my sister’s Counting Crows album and figured it all out, chord by chord. That taught me a lot. Then, in my 20s, I discovered the Beatles, Motown and Bruce Springsteen and thought: “Holy fuck. This is probably better than 90s metalcore!” The first time I felt like a songwriter was after finishing I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous. I’d said something that couldn’t be said in any other way, so that song survives in my gigs to this day.
There’s no such thing as the perfect song, but I could spend the rest of my life studying Leonard Cohen – and the Canadian songwriter John K Samson, who used to be in the Weakerthans, makes statements in lyrics that tear me to shreds: “We’re talented and bright / We’re lonely and uptight.” The song I most wish I’d written is The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by the Band: there’s an aching longing and a defeated pride to the lyrics that’s unique in songwriting. I’m currently obsessed with The Rat by the Walkmen. It strikes a chord deep inside me.
Many times, I’ve realised that a song I’ve been working on has already been written. I recently came up with a melodic chord progression and suddenly realised it was a song called Shiver by the forgotten punk band Horny Toad, from a cover-mounted cassette free with Kerrang! in the 90s. It had obviously lodged deep in my brain.
To write a song in your bedroom about your own failings, then hear thousands of people singing it back to you at a gig, is incredibly empowering. It’s a reminder of how much we all have in common. DS
‘The Late Show couldn’t use the interview as I was very drunk’
Art’s a strange career choice so, once you’ve committed to it, expect weird things to happen. Right now, for complicated reasons, about 60 of my paintings are stuck in a self-storage place in Los Angeles – in Compton in fact, where the gangs are. Who actually owns them is not clear. But anyway, right now I’m sitting in my studio/office at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, near Lisbon, where I am artist-in-residence for six months. Clearly a good thing. And a good place to reflect.
One badly kept secret is that hardly any art school graduates go on to become professional artists. If you have decided to be one of them, give yourself a pat on the back. Next, develop a reputation as a team player. Your first shows are likely to be collaborative efforts mounted by groups of like-minded peers (that’s how Damien Hirst and the other YBAs got started). Be the sort of person who springs to mind when anyone needs a hand shifting furniture, because then you’ll be included when people are putting on a self-financed exhibition in a disused warehouse.
Next: professionalism. Until about 2005, it was fine for artists to behave badly. Not today. Anyone who has watched Turner prize events on TV may have noticed that the more recent winners – Helen Marten in 2016, say – are very controlled in their approach to the media. Back in the 1990s, I was interviewed by Matthew Collings for The Late Show, but the footage was unusable because I was incredibly drunk. (I hadn’t realised that when a film crew gives you a time they’re going to turn up, it’s approximate. So the two cans I intended to drink to steady my nerves ended up being about 12.)
If you’re fortunate enough to be taken up by a commercial gallery, don’t get too excited. People think it’s the artists who have an “artistic temperament”, but it’s actually the gallery-owners. Not only can they lack business sense, some of them are mad (this goes back to my stranded paintings, over there in Los Angeles). And don’t get any ideas about where you stand in the pecking order. Curators and gallerists easily outrank you – just compare your pay if you don’t believe me. When I had a prestigious show at the Baltic in Gateshead a couple of years back, people working there had to do as I asked as it was my name over the door – but I was still among the worst paid in the building (I don’t think they should all have got less, just that I should have got a bit more). Even very successful artists have no power, so don’t expect a “leg-up”. Because they can’t give you one.
Read all the art magazines. Nobody enjoys this, but it’s part of the job. Actually, it can become enjoyable once there’s a possibility that you’ll be mentioned. If that’s the case, though, it will have ceased to be something you really need to do. Go to private views, too. These look like social gatherings, but are in fact a sort of professional speed-dating in which residencies, teaching jobs and exhibitions are brokered. Always say the show is amazing – this carries a small risk, because others may not agree. But the greater risk is in saying you don’t like it, because they may like it, or they might know the artist who did it, or actually be the artist who did it.
Go easy with the number of ideas you have or people will get confused. One a year is plenty. Successful ideas have two components, usually an object and the thing it’s made of: a bronze aqualung, a glass hammer, a pastry crash helmet. Your job is to realise these projects, not just think of them. Bear this in mind if you’ve come up with a piece featuring kayaks full of golden syrup. You will need to source your kayaks (ideally as a sponsorship deal with a manufacturer), then your syrup and so on.
You may need to get a regular job. If you don’t fancy putting on a lanyard, a monogrammed sweatshirt and becoming a gallery invigilator, then consider being an artist’s assistant. But remember: this is only tolerable if the very successful artist you’re working for is at least five years older than you. Otherwise it hurts like hell. (Simon Bill’s novel, Artist in Residence, is published in paperback by Sort of Books, £8.99.)
‘In my first job, workers had posters up of naked women’
When I was studying architecture, I was the only woman on my course. In six years, I never had a single lecture by a woman. The whole system offered a very male view of the world, a belief in architectural heroes and designing to impress rather than to fulfil societal needs or fit in. The culture was very laddish: field trips always involved heavy drinking, demolishing the hotel, pissing out the window. I did wonder if I was in the right profession: I had to unlearn most of my education to find my voice. Then, in my first major job, workers still had posters of naked women up on building sites. When I had to tell a project manager his work wasn’t good enough, he leapt towards me and threatened to hit me. Another contractor would bring me white roses all the time, which was a different kind of problem.
I like background buildings. A flagship building can be a flash in the pan. I try to design differently, paying attention to place, community, culture. My firm was set up in 1992 and, since then, we have only taken on work within a 70-mile radius of our office in Leeds, giving us a closer relationship with our clients.
Inspiration comes from the project itself: the reason for it, the client, the budget, as well as the location. You need to look at what the traditions of the area are, its politics, and what is available locally in terms of skills and materials. But the building also has to be relevant to its intended use.
One of my favourite projects is in Lincoln: the Terrace, close to the cathedral. It looks great after 10 years and it is always full of people. Our brief was for one big building to house some digital and creative companies, but this area has a medieval street layout with lots of little streets crisscrossing. So we broke up our one big building into four connected ones. They joined, not on street level, but above it, while on the ground level, it still followed the medieval pattern. It didn’t just make the project more contextual, it also allowed for natural daylight and ventilation in the buildings. It is very contemporary but it fits the area.
These days, what you really have to think about is sustainability. That doesn’t just mean energy efficiency, it means long-term viability too. Even successful buildings can find themselves being closed down after 10 years. While architects can never completely prevent this, they have to bear it in mind – using easily replaceable materials that weather well and, as they age, still fit the fabric of an area. In one project we’re working on, a Museum of Making in the Silk Mill in Derby, we are considering designing all the fittings on castors so layouts can be constantly changed and rearranged.
Climate change is a huge factor these days, too. As well as the temperature rise, there will be be more extreme weather, from floods to droughts. I am a professor at Sheffield University and we work with students to calculate how many roofs in a neighbourhood could be fitted with solar panels. We also need to think about window shading more: overheating is already a problem in offices and air conditioning uses a lot of energy. You can use traditional methods like shutters, but climbing plants could be wonderful.
One thing architects must have is integrity. It’s hard to reject work when you need to put food on the table, but a track record of ethical work can sustain you. Our firm has survived three recessions and stayed more or less stable. I remember the project that made me feel we had arrived: it was a promenade in Bridlington, Yorkshire. We were a small unknown firm, but we believed in collaboration. Because of this, we were given the commission and got to work with Bruce McLean. We got a lot of awards. I remember sitting in the hairdressers reading a 10-page article about us in a glossy architectural magazine and thinking: “We have broken through!”
We got four more commissions from the client – and the relationship has now lasted more than 20 years. It shows that, in the end, what you believe in will get you through. HK