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Brit Takes: Why ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Salem’ Star Tamzin Merchant Went From Acting to Directing

Brit Takes: Why 'The Tudors' and 'Salem' Star Tamzin Merchant Went From Acting to Directing

[Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with Shinola in support of Brit Takes, our monthly dispatch on the UK film scene. As makers of modern watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals, Shinola stands for skill at scale, the preservation of craft and the beauty of industry.  Learn more about Shinola handcrafted goods.]

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Tamzin Merchant has revived Shakespeare’s Juliet in an entirely new light. “Juliet Remembered” is Merchant’s second short film, the first being “American Virgin,” the story of a 17-year-old girl who attempts to sell her virginity so she can afford to attend a summer program at Juilliard. Her followup, “American Homo,” is already in the works this year.

With “Juliet Remembered,” Merchant takes on a more earnest and dramatic tone with Maggie Steed (“The Painted Veil”), by playing an actress who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and gets placed in a nursing home following the death of her husband. Although she can’t remember most things, including what her son looks like, she has the ability to recite every line from “Romeo and Juliet.”

It’s an exciting time for Merchant. She’s been in front of the camera for more than a decade, acting in the series “The Tudors” and “Salem” as well as films like “Pride and Prejudice.” She considers the business of making film a labor of love and has extended that idea in terms offering opportunities for everyone on her set. On top of the fact that Tamzin directs powerful female leads, she also hires many women in below-the-line roles.

Indiewire spoke with Merchant about her life as both actress and director — and why she’s really over the gender status quo.

Why does acting appeal to you as an art form? And as a career?

I’ve always been drawn to storytelling, and acting is the most immersive form of storytelling you can get involved with! You’re actually in the story when you’re acting. Writing and directing to me was the logical evolution from my life as an actor: going from telling someone else’s story to actually creating my own. Perhaps one day I will do all three: write, direct and act in the same production. That might get a little hectic though. 

What’s the difference between the UK film and television industries?

They’re quite different mediums in the UK, and I appreciate both for different aspects. Something that unifies both is that there is such great writing to be found in each — the scripts I read that come out of the UK TV and film industries are almost always witty, intelligent creations and that excites me. 
Can you talk to us about how you’ve dealt with rejection from studios?
It’s not something I dwell on, especially after a few years, and it’s just part of the job! Sometimes it still hurts, but for me it’s not about the studio or director: it’s when I’m auditioning for a character that I really am in love with and want to play, and if I don’t get the part it can feel like a breakup. You got to know this person and love this person and want to spend time with – be – this person and when you’re told you can’t, sometimes all you want to do is shut yourself in your room and listen to “emo” music.  
Why do you now direct?

Because I love it. When I directed my first short – “American Virgin” – I had no idea if I could actually do it. Like I might just get onto set, have everyone look at me and just completely freeze and have no idea what to do. But pretty much the opposite of that happened. I was like a fish diving into the sea. I love having this vision in my mind and then seeing what other people’s talent brings to that vision, and guiding it into life. Seeing it materialize on set, and then afterwards in post-production, is such a thrill. I also love working with actors, and I try to direct actors the way I would like to be directed myself: make the set a playground for them, a safe space for conversation and experimentation. There’s nothing worse than a director who feels more like a cop than a comrade, so I try to never give orders or create an environment where it’s “my way or the highway,” because actually allowing talented people to bring their originality and insight always brings more depth and complexity than if everyone has to do what you tell them to!

How did “American Virgin” originate and what did it mean to you?

I was shooting the second season of my TV show “Salem” in Shreveport, Louisiana and there’s an amazing filmmaking community there. I met my wonderful producer Cam on the set of “Salem” in season one and we wanted to make a short. I had the idea of what I wanted it to be about, and when I got back into town for season two I wrote it and we made it, with local actors and local crew. It was a lot of fun. And it meant so much to me that people gathered round and supported us making the film. It gave me the confidence to do my second film, which has given me the fire to do my third! I owe so much to the amazing cast and crew of my first film. 

Do you think that gender plays a pivotal role in your perspective as director?
As far as being a female director goes, it’s part of who I am and I’ve grown and understood the world as a female and I think it’s important to bring all your knowledge and experience to every film you make so certainly in that sense being a woman plays a role in my perspective as a director. And my first two films have females in the central roles, so perhaps I’m naturally drawn, as a woman, to telling stories about women. My next film, however, has a man in the central role. So I’m branching out! On a different but pertinent note, once you describe someone as a “female director” rather than just a “director” you’re putting them into a sub-category. We wouldn’t say a “male director.” Being sub-categorized is definitely something I’m against.  
How does your latest film challenge the status quo for the industry?
The existence of the film itself challenges ageism and sexism in the industry. Making a film about an older woman who is effectively playing an iconically youthful character — Juliet — in her own mind, shows that all those things that the industry and our culture ascribes solely to the young, are as important to older generations as they are to the younger ones. Love, romance, laughter, passion, impulsiveness – all these things we associate with the young, but these are all the things that Maggie Steed plays so wonderfully in Juliet. The industry is certainly centered around the white male. Still. Just look at the Oscars this year. Film’s safe-zone is in the realms of the youthful heroic white man’s struggle. “Juliet Remembered” is all about an older woman’s inner life. That’s certainly two fingers to the status quo. 

“Juliet Remembered” has a stellar cast. Can you tell us if there is a particular performance in your film that moves you?

What I love about the cast is that they all had such respect for each other’s performances and worked with such elegance together. I couldn’t have imagined a better cast for my film. They each bring such depth and such lightness to their roles — there’s pathos and humour in each of them. I was giggling at Matt’s antics, Rakhee made my heart melt with her subtlety, Josh brought such conflict to his role, James brought such humour and pathos to his, Chrissie was perfectly strict as the matron and Maggie made me cry with her beautiful heartbreaking delivery of Juliet’s soliloquy. I was in heaven with this cast.
Would you like to star in one of your own films?

Certainly directing a feature is my goal for 2016, even if it’s just to get a feature off the ground. Starring in it at the same time might be a little hectic though! I love being able to be on set with no make-up, wearing sneakers and jeans and not caring how my hair looks. That would go out the window if I were to also act in the film…But I’m not ruling it out! It would be a pretty cool challenge. I’m terrible at watching myself perform so that would have to change. 

Merchant is currently still raising funds for “Juliet Remembered” on Kickstarter. To learn more or support the making of this film, click here.

READ MORE: A ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Story Turns Incestuous in Seattle Film Fest ‘The Automatic Hate’

This article is presented in partnership with Shinola in support of Brit Takes, our monthly dispatch on the UK film scene. Detroit based design brand Shinola was conceived with the belief that products should be made by hand and built to last. As makers of modern watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals, Shinola stands for skill at scale, the preservation of craft and the beauty of industry. Learn more about Shinola handcrafted goods.

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