‘First public performance? I put my skirt in my mouth and twirled in slow circles’: An interview with Carina Birrell (1/12/2014)

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Christmas is fast approaching. That carefree time of year when we curl up on the sofa with a glass (or two) of mulled wine, and watch familiar, old movies while an open fire gently crackles beside us.

Although, before you get too comfortable, an unnerving psychological thriller is coming your way. Shot in the picturesque Scottish Highlands, ‘Wandering Rose’ is the story of a young couple who plan one last peaceful, romantic getaway before the arrival of their first child. This peace is short-lived, however, as Rose steadily begins to battle with dark secrets she’s been hiding from her partner.

Carina Birrell takes on the lead role of ‘Rose’ in the movie, and has been receiving high praise from film critics for her portrayal of the emotionally-fraught lead character. Brought up in Glasgow, Carina graduated from the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London, and has appeared in several feature films in recent years. This week, she kindly gave up some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for us…

 How are you keeping? What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done in the past week?

I am very well thanks, and things are pretty great right now.  The past week has been amazing – I experienced my first American Thanksgiving, which was probably the most exciting thing this week. I celebrated it with new friends in L.A, and had an incredible day, then spent the day after on the beach!  It is such a great holiday and I really think that we should all celebrate one day in the year where we tune out and are just grateful for things.

Christmas lights have been appearing around Southampton over the past week or so. Are you the sort of person who likes starting Christmas early, or would you rather wait until Christmas Eve to get the tree up?

I am a mega Christmas nut. I love it! It’s my favourite time of year, but I try to be disciplined and not start celebrating too soon. December 1st (today!) is the day I allow myself to start wearing my Christmas socks, haha, and listening to the “She & Him” Christmas album by M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, which is my choice festive album.

You’ve been a prolific actress for a number of years now…what drew you to acting in the first place? Was it something you always wanted to do when you were younger?

Well, that’s very kind, thanks.  It’s the best job ever, and yeah I’ve wanted to do it professionally for as long as I can remember, probably since I actually realised as a little kid that you could do this as a “job” – dress up, play, tell stories and pretend to be different people!  I started going to youth drama classes, Scottish Youth Theatre, Stagecoach performing arts school, and playing parts in plays and commercials, and then auditioned for drama school after high school. We got to perform every day, and do great productions, produce our own plays and take a couple of them to the Edinburgh Festival, which is an amazing and valuable experience for any actor.

Can you remember the first time you performed in public?

I will never forget it (as there is video evidence, haha). I was performing in a dance show in Glasgow and we had been rehearsing every week in class for months for the annual show. I was probably about four years old.  We came on stage, dressed in some kind of Little Bo Beep costumes, and began our performance.  All the girls were doing an amazing job, and I was so mesmerized by the audience, that I think I entered a state of shock – I put my skirt in my mouth and stood in one spot, twirling in slow circles with my pants on show to everyone for the whole first song. At least the audience found it hilarious!

Is it difficult trying to ‘become’ the character for each new role you take on? How do you normally prepare for new characters?

I start by just reading the script loads of times – and picking out all the information the script tells me about the character. Then you start to get to know who they are and the world they live in. It’s important to understand everything that has happened to her up until the point where the story begins. Then I try and grasp what they are trying to achieve in each scene throughout the script, and their relationships with the other characters. It can be helpful to have experienced some of the things the character does in the story, so you have feelings in common and can empathize with them. It is always possible to find a little bit of yourself within the character, and then develop that.

Your latest feature film, called ‘Wandering Rose’, has been receiving some fantastic reviews in the press. Can you set the scene for us, and also tell us a little bit about your own character, Rose?

Wandering Rose is about a young couple, Rose and Theo, who are expecting their first baby, and escape to the remote Scottish Highlands for a romantic weekend to celebrate their anniversary. The weekend turns into a nightmare, as Rose increasingly withdraws herself from Theo, battling with the trauma of dark secrets that she is hiding from him. She is a confused young woman throughout the course of the film.  She loves Theo dearly, and has high ambitions for herself and their life together. However, as the story unfolds she is forced to confront the fact that she may slowly be losing her mind.

Much of the film was shot around the stunning Cairngorms in Scotland. As a Scot, had you been to that area before? Do you think that this backdrop added to the overall feel of the movie? 

The location absolutely adds to the movie.  When I first auditioned, the producer spoke about how the mountains are more or less another ‘character’ in the film – they play a certain role and generate a particular energy, and I think you really feel that – particularly with some of the beautiful aerial cinematography. I used to go to the Cairngorms often as a child – we had school trips there, ski trips, and I also explored the area with my family during weekends away. I have a lot of memories there.

Did the movie scare you when you first watched it back?

I didn’t expect to be scared at all when I first watched it, because of course I know what’s going to happen…but I definitely did feel a little frightened at a few bits throughout.  When you see the final version, with music and effects and great editing, it is a totally different version to what you experience when you performed in the scene.

Would you like to do more scary movies in the future?

It would be great to do more similar movies – there have been some incredible horror films and thrillers made over recent years, and I think it’s a genre that just keeps getting stronger and more ambitious.  It’s also a great challenge as an actor, and really great fun and quite visceral too.

If you could replace any actress from any movie in history, which role would you place yourself in and why?

I would love to play Rosamund Pike’s role in the recent adaptation of the novel ‘Gone Girl’, as the character is so complex and fascinating, and David Fincher is an amazing director. It would also have been amazing to play Uma Thurman’s role in ‘Kill Bill’, or Carey Mulligan’s role in Lone Scherfig’s ‘An Education’ (or my guilty confession would be to play Amy Adam’s role in the kids movie, Enchanted!)

Apparently you used to do swimming and long-distance running at national level…as a triathlete myself, that’s seriously impressive! When was that? Do you still manage to keep up either of these sports when you’re not busy filming?

When I was young, my brother and I trained daily as swimmers and competed at weekends up until our mid-teens, and then transitioned more into long distance cross-country running. We loved it, and I guess the training schedule was a little more forgiving alongside school. When I stopped competing as a runner I became really interested in triathlons as they combine my two favourite sports, as well as cycling, which I use as my main form of commuting. Both my brother and I still run, swim and cycle alongside practicing lots of Yoga.

We have toyed with the idea of creating our own ‘iron sibling’ challenge where we would combine everything and involve the English Channel, the London Marathon and a very lengthy cycle! I am not sure if or when we would do this, but it’s certainly an exciting prospect, and I began investing in this idea by competing in my first Olympic triathlon a few years ago, which went great, so who knows…

A few quick fire questions now…

Favourite breakfast cereal?

Dorset Cereals Organic Muesli

Favourite farmyard animals?

Horses

Favourite Christmas song?

Fairytale of New York

And finally, what other exciting projects can we expect from you in the near future? What would you most like to be doing 5 years from now?

I have a great movie called ‘One’ which be out next year, made by an amazing collective of writers/directors in Bristol.  Five years from now, I would love to have worked on bigger productions with some of the emerging directors I have been lucky enough to work with up until now.  I would also love to get more involved with some of the incredible TV series being churned out in the US and the UK. I am in L.A at the moment in the process of setting up a base to enable me to take on some work here over the next few years.

There are so many directors I would love to get to work with… some of my favourites include Lone Scherfig, David Fincher, Jean Marc Vallee, Ken Loach, Jez Butterworth, Richard Linklater, Julian Fellowes, Drake Doremus, and I wouldn’t say no to Richard Curtis.

Thanks so much for your time, Carina.

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