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Alexis Zegerman - From Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky To Killing Brando

Alexis Zegerman was working in credit control the day Mike Leigh’s people called her. The actress, writer and scene-stealing star of Leigh’s most recent film, Happy-Go-Lucky, had originally written to the fabled director after she heard that he actually read and responded to all such solicitations from young wannabes. Which was probably why, after the extended silence, she’d ended up in credit control. So to end up at the Royal National Theatre in Two Thousand Years, Leigh’s first stage play for thirteen years, let alone being cast in Happy-Go-Lucky, is something Zegerman is still coming to terms with.

“I was in Mike Leigh-land for about two and a half years,” she says. “The play was done in exactly the same way as his films. You go in not knowing who you’re going to be playing and develop it for five months. The only difference with the play is that you have to go on and do it every night. So not only was Two Thousand Years my first big break, but it was at the National Theatre, and because it was Mike Leigh it was completely sold out in advance. No pressure there then.”

No pressure either on Zegerman as a writer over the next few weeks. As playwright in residence at Hampstead Theatre, her debut full length play, Lucky Seven, inspired by the Seven Up documentaries, opens in November. For radio, Zegerman has written Deja Vu, a bi-lingual play written in French and English. Overseen by former TAG theatre Company associate director Lu Kemp, it will be the first drama ever to be jointly commissioned by Radio Four and French station, ARTE. More immediately, however, is Killing Brando, a short play by Zegerman which opens in Glasgow next week as part of Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie And A Pint season of lunchtime theatre.

Set on the mean streets of Camden, Killing Brando concerns Daniel, a cab driver in decline who meets Niamh, a young woman who may or may not be a prostitute. As a diversion from her lot, the woman loses herself in films from Annie to Apocalypse Now as the pair attempt to come to terms with reality. Despite such a milieu, there is one film that most definitely isn’t in the picture.

“It’s not Pretty Woman,” Zegerman gushes during a brief stop-over in London. “That’s what you’re likely to end up with when you start writing about prostitutes. That’s why it’s not clear whether Niamh is one or not. It’s about how you live your life through fantasy and reality, and about having to grow up. There’s this massive need for escapism, be it through films, through Big Brother or through Playstation. But the great thing about films is that you can escape into them and live through what’s going on onscreen. That’s what excites me as an actress, to bring people in. It’s like when the Iraq war war’s on, you get a lot of apocalyptic films, because everyone wants to save the world, but you’ve got Will Smith to do it for you.”

Annie was an influence on Zegerman too it seems.

“In the play, Niamh fixates on it, and gets into this whole searching for her Daddy Warbucks. But I remember watching it when I was a kid and thinking, God, wouldn’t it be great to be Annie. Which is terrible, because there’s me, this real suburban girl wanting to be an orphan, but I guess I just wanted to sing all the songs.”

Zegerman grew up with her mother, an East End Jew who put her daughter through private school. She wanted to be an actress from an early age, and a defining moment came when, aged six, she played Mary in the school nativity play.

“I remember thinking Joseph wasn’t really up to it,” she chuckles. “Though I’ve become less demanding since. But I remember being onstage was the best feeling ever, because I was always quite shy. People now think I’m rather gregarious, but I was a pretty serious child, and going onstage you can do anything. You don’t have to be shy. I had a TV in my room at an inappropriately young age, and I remember watching Kramer Versus Kramer. My own parents were going through a divorce round about the same time, and I remember watching the kid in it. Jodie Foster in Bugsy Malone as well. She just blew me away. Are you an actor because you want to be someone else? Well, being me’s fine, actually, but I’m fascinated with other people, and as an actor you get to disappear into them.”

Despite her ambitions, Zegerman went to Edinburgh University, where she studied English. While such a move came out of loyalty to her mother, much of her time was spent acting at The Bedlam Theatre. Once armed with a degree, Zegerman went to drama school anyway. It was only when she left that she wrote to Leigh. She ended up doing “a couple of fringe plays at the wrong end of the King’s Road,” before marking time temping.

To keep herself sane, Zegerman started writing, solely for herself and with no real game-plan. Taking advantage of her work’s postal system, she sent some early scripts out en masse. The Royal Court picked up on her, and in 2000 invited her to join their writers group. By 2002 she was in their advanced group under the tutelage of Simon Stephens, author of this year’s Traverse Fringe hit, Pornography.

“He was the first person to refer to me as a writer,” says Zegerman, “and that gave me so much confidence.”

A reading of a short play, Ronnie Gecko, led to a Royal Court event at the London Eye, where she worked with actress Sally Hawkins, Zegerman’s co-star in Happy-Go-Lucky. Another short play, Noise, won a prize at Soho Theatre. Zegerman wrote Killing Brando for Wild Lunch, a series of readings produced by the Paines Plough company, then run by Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany, who would go on to be in charge of the National Theatre of Scotland. Until the play trickled down into director Jemima Levick’s hands for next week’s production, however, Zegerman had resigned it to her bottom drawer.

“I’m a firm believer in having to let some things go,” Zegerman says. “but I’d seen David Greig’s play, Being Norwegian, in London after it had been on in Oran Mor, so as soon as Jemima asked me if she could do it I was thrilled.”

It’s interesting that someone with Zegerman’s background should end up working with Leigh. As well as being of similar Jewish descent, the film-maker’s entire oeuvre is founded on the prevailingly British notion of class. Perhaps that’s why Zegerman’s own class consciousness has filtered into her writing. It’s there in Killing Brando, but is most pronounced in Lucky Seven, which, like Seven Up, looks at three people contractually obliged to meet up and have their lives filmed every seven years.

“We’ve watched these people growing up,” says Zegerman, “and we all identify in some way with them. So the play’s not about reality TV. It’s about how these people’s hopes, loves and disappointments, how they’re doing in their lives, reflect on us. These people not only have to take stock of their lives. They also have to be judged by the nation. It’s about the choices these people make because of the programme.

“It’s deeply about class,” Zegerman continues. “When Seven Up started, it was a social litmus test. So it’s interesting now what class has become, and how that social dynamic is played out onstage. The working class guy in the play is of Jewish extraction, so these are things I know about. I’ll make no bones about it. I’m about as middle-class as they come, and I know I can slide my accent around, but I was at Edinburgh, and the woman in the play is very much the sort of person you meet there. Then there’s a guy called Alan, and there’s me, or a male version of someone like me, inbetween.”

Zegerman is about to fly out to Germany to shoot extra scenes for Storm, a film about a war crimes tribunal by acclaimed director Hans-Christian Schmid. Zegerman plays one of only three English speaking roles alongside Kerry Fox and Stephen Dillane. Word is that Schmid was so impressed by Zegerman that what was originally a relatively minor role was fleshed out, hence her return visit. Then there’s U Be Dead, a TV drama with David Morrissey and Tara Fitzgerald, which airs later this year. While Zegerman is clearly on a roll just now, she isn’t taking things for granted.

“Even catering gets me excited,” she says. “Let alone being on a film set with Stephen Dillane.”

Killing Brando, A Play, A Pie And A Pint, Oran Mor, Glasgow, September 29-October 4. Lucky Seven, Hampstead Theatre, London, October 31-November 22

The Herald, September 27th 2008



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