Every Friday, Indiewire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the indie world who deserve your attention. Select profiles will include photography by
Daniel Bergeron, exclusive to Indiewire. Today we talk to actress Dorothy Atkinson, who gives a breakthrough performance in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” which just world premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
As anyone familiar with Mike Leigh would probably tell you, the man doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The filmmaker famously demands a lot of his actors, requiring that they improvise in his projects, and rehearse extensively before stepping foot on set. The results of his method speak for themselves: Brenda Blethyn (“Secrets & Lies”), Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) and Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”) are among the celebrated actresses who have worked with Leigh, and come away with an Oscar nomination. Though it’s extremely early to gauge, Dorothy Atkinson makes a solid bid to join them with her scene-stealing supporting turn in Leigh’s latest, “Mr. Turner,” which just world premiered at Cannes to rave reviews. In the deeply affecting period biopic, Atkinson plays the shy but extremely devoted house maid of 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), who suffers from a deteriorating skin condition. In a film ripe with improvised dialogue, Atkinson stands out for not saying much at all while still commanding your attention and breaking your heart.
Atkinson has collaborated before with Mike Leigh on “Topsy-Turvy” and “All or Nothing.” Her role in “Mr. Turner” marks her biggest one to date with the filmmaker.
I wrote a letter to Mike [Leigh], which is how I got to meet him, back in 1998. I don’t normally do things like that. I knew that “Topsy-Turvy” was coming along. I thought, “Sod it, I should write him.” My agent couldn’t get me seen for some reason. I’d love to read that letter! I don’t remember what I wrote.
[Mike Leigh] apparently keeps these letters. He puts all of the letters that actors send him in a black box. He says I came out of his black box.
You really know your character by the time you get to improvise. You gently bring in all the elements before you start speaking. As soon as you start, you’re all on the same boat and very quickly you
get into the swing of it. At every point you know the situation that
they’re in. You know what time of day it is. You’re not taking a total
stab in the dark. You know where you are.
[Mike Leigh] puts you at ease on the first meeting and just asks you questions about your normal life, not about your acting life. I suppose to see where you’re at and where you come from.
I’d made the rookie error of not doing the research before meeting for “Topsy-Turvy.” I was just naive and hadn’t put enough work in it. So I had a quite daunting start after meeting with him. I learned very quickly to get my act together.
We were never given the arch of [“Mr. Turner”}. I never knew until I saw the film that certain characters existed!
These improvisations can be two hours long. It’s never embarrassing. It’s exciting because it’s not you, it’s the character.
The stamp that I appreciate is something that Mike said the other day — that he doesn’t work with actors who have a lot of vanity. I’ve always said that whatever I do, I never want to let myself get in the way.