What is it actually like to be a working actor in London? We're following professional actor and City Academy Screen Acting tutor Tom Colley as he takes us on a journey of his career to date. So far we have seen him land his first independent film role, play a badger in a family Christmas show, get rejected from agents and offered a role in the BBC hit show 'Call the Midwife'. Role secured, it's time for Tom to step onto the set of 'Call the Midwife'.
Filming was scheduled on intermittent days over a two week period in September. I had some time to read the episode a number of times and learn the lines before I stepped on set. A costume fitting came around and so I idled along to CosProp, a prominent London costume store for theatre, film and television, to meet the costume designer and get fitted. Work boots, high waist wool trousers, plaid shirt and braces were all donned to take me back to 1950's in the East End. I remember looking at my transformed self in the mirror, excited to see who I was going to be in a few weeks. It was exhilarating; a whole new person stared back at me as I scrutinised my appearance for a while. I'm sure that the costume designer was a bit perplexed, but this was a first for me and I was going to relish it, however peculiar I seemed!
Then there was a read through with the rest of the cast members, and a little 'meet and greet' at a converted church just off Shaftesbury Avenue. I got there, petrified and intimidated as acting greats like Pam Ferris and Jenny Agutter (look them up if you don't know who they are!) floated through the room with ease and grace. I ended up talking mostly to the casting director, the only person I was familiar with. A bottle of water, script and name tag denoted seating positions on tables shaped into a huge square. I sat in my place, took hold of the script and felt my heart pounding. A thousand thoughts all at once; What if I'm not good at the read through? What if I trip over my lines? Can they re-cast me even though I've signed the contract? After taking a breath I decided to introduce myself to the two actors either side of me, who smiled cordially and introduced themselves with ease. Am I the only person here who's nervous?
Formal introductions next; producers, directors, writers, actors all took their turns. I watched with building tension as we were getting to me. What do I say? ... Hi, I'm Tom and I'm going to be playing Ron Redmond (too long winded)... Tom Colley, playing Ron (too severe)... Hi, I'm Tom and I am Ron Redmond (no, you're Tom, not Ron) ... Hi, I'm Tom Colley and I play Ron Red - ... too late, it was my turn and I blurted something out that was a random combination of the above. That will just have to do.
Next, the read through. God, this is relentless! Just before we started I was asked if I would read for another character as well, as the actor couldn't make it today. What? Me!? But I haven't prepared for that! Obviously I agreed and we dived in. After the first few lines were out of the way, and I accepted the inevitable sweaty palms and dry mouth, I decided to just enjoy it. When it came round to reading my part it just flew by with no hitches. I enjoyed it immensely and made a vow to myself that the next time this happened I would own the space, safe in the knowledge that I am meant to be there, I got the part and so I should be there.
The first filming day rolled around. I was picked up at a ridiculous hour in the morning, went to set, taken for breakfast, and then into costume and make up. Post haircut, shave and costume change I was taken to set. My first scene was incidentally the first in the episode; sprinting out of my terraced house and down the street to a telephone box to 'Call the Midwife.' My wife had just gone into labour. The first thing the director mentioned to me was; 'Look at that!' (pointing to a huge green screen in the back drop), '...we're going to superimpose a 1950's working dock yards in the background. This is the most expensive shot in the episode.' Don't tell me that!
Set up was done and I was in first positions. I went through the moments before bursting through the front door; my wife going into labour, her calling my name, the realisation that we need the midwife, and running on the spot, anticipating the impending 'Action!' And there it was - I was out the door quicker than a greyhound out the gates, and sprinted down the road. The telephone box was my rabbit. I turned the sharp corner up the street and my boots slipped on the loose gravel. I half fell down, was able to regain my footing and just about made it to my destination. 'Cut!' The director sauntered up to me and said 'Excellent. Great. But one problem. You ran too fast. We couldn't keep up with you. On camera you seem faster than you actually are. Slow it down. Same effort, half the pace.' I think he knew that I needed some coaching for working on screen as well as direction, and he was kind enough to give me the time to work through his advice.
Another moment I remember clearly was a scene in the bedroom. The midwives are with my wife, and on 'Action!' I said my line with the feeling and intention that I thought appropriate for the scene. After 'Cut!' again the director came up to me. I felt a little disappointed with myself. I'm not really getting this... 'So, Tom, another thing, when I call 'Action!' don't feel like you have to act, just feel, and the words will come. You don't have to necessarily do anything. Stillness is just as important as action on the camera. Just feel.' And with that we went again...
It's advice that I swear by now, even though at the time I felt somewhat hurt. There's the ego of the actor for you! In all seriousness, it stays in my head, and is a constant reminder in casting rooms and on set. These little nuggets of gold can help to define your career path. Those two did for me.
Tom directed our latest video for the Screen Acting department - take a look!
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