Tuesday 21 November 2017

Playing a corpse is bloody murder

Though her TV acting debut was fleeting, Julia Molony did at least manage to impress her mum

I made my debut in a prime-time drama on telly last Monday night. Finally, all those years of childhood dreams achieved in one moment. Unfortunately, though, that moment turned out to be most notable for its brevity.

I was playing a corpse. And in as short a time as it took me to draw my last breath, it was over. I was dead, out of shot, and ready to be wheeled off to the mortuary. Blink and you'd miss it.

It's a bit ignominious, really, to wait 30 years for the world to recognise your talent, only to have that talent snuffed out in a millisecond.

And it had all started out so promisingly, with hours spent in hair and make-up. Long discussions in the costume trailer about what Fifties' vintage day-dress would suit me best. I'd even been given a trailer of my very own, with Thomasina Tuckerton, my character's name, scrawled out in black magic marker and stuck on the trailer door.

Of course, it was rather by accident that I was there in the first place. At home one evening earlier this year, I was sharing a bottle of wine with a friend, who also happens to be a big-shot TV producer when I noticed that she was regarding me with an air of scrutiny. "You've got a very big forehead," she said, wheels clearly turning. The show she was working on, The Pale Horse, a new episode of Miss Marple, was in need of an actress, or more accurately a "supporting artist" (otherwise known as an extra) who could convincingly be made to look like she was going bald. And in me, with my big spam, she felt that she'd found her woman.

Everyone, at some point, has indulged the fantasy that they'll be discovered. That they'll be sitting around one day, just being their fabulous self and a person of cultural authority will say, "I've got a job for you." This, however was not quite how I'd imagined my discovery would play out.

Still, turns out having a high forehead is good for something. Before I knew it, I was in a meeting with the director and hair and make-up team. Poor Tommy Tuckerton was going bald because she was slowly being poisoned. A former high-society good-time girl with a love for parties and a handsome fiance from the wrong side of the tracks -- now she was most regularly referred to in pitying tones due to her severe and embarrassing alopecia. No more parties for Tommy.

I had to be made up like death and dressed in finery before being laid out to showcase my acting chops (such as they are) by expiring in front of the camera. I gave it my best, practising my death rattle and last, strangled breath for a while beforehand. To get into character, I spent a bit of time lying very still. Then I spent some more time working on my listless stare -- trying out first a sort of a squint and then opting eventually for a heavy-lidded eye-roll.

Actors, I'm told, are supposed to draw on past experiences to try to convey a truthful emotional journey. So I thought very hard about the time I'd come down with glandular fever at the age of 17, took how wretched I'd felt as a guide, put myself back in that place and then tried to multiply it by 100. Eat your heart out, Daniel Day-Lewis.

It must have worked, after a fashion, because when I sat down to watch my performance last Monday night, my mother came over all strange. This, for me, was no small measure of triumph. I'd never before succeeded in convincing my mother I was ill when I wasn't, despite many childhood claims of stomach aches and trickery with a thermometer. But there she was, visibly unsettled by the sight of me on my deathbed.

Now I know what was missing back at school. If then I'd had team of make-up artists to hollow out and redden my eyes and bleach out my skin, there would be no limit to the sports days and maths tests I could have gotten myself out of.

As yet, there have been no Hollywood producers calling demanding that they must have the girl who played the corpse on Marple, though I wait in hope. But until then I'll have to comfort myself with the small triumph that my mother, at least, thought it was very realistic.

Sunday Independent

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