Ever been watching a movie or flipping through the channels on your TV and come across an actor or actress you know you've seen before -- and maybe even know from where -- but can't remember the name? If you live in the UK, one of those actresses just may be Sarah-Jane Potts, who has been a fixture on UK TV, and to a lesser extent film, over the past 10 years. Although not entirely unseen on this side of the pond, having appeared briefly on Felicity as Noel's girlfriend Molly and in the British import Kinky Boots, Sarah-Jane Potts has been carving out a rather nice resumé full of diverse characters. Her latest project to grace North American screens is the international story of Rick Hansen's Man in Motion Tour, Heart of a Dragon.
I sat down with her recently to talk about her character, her experiences on set, the current trend in "found footage" movies, and much more.
Mark McLeod: I'd like to start off with how you became involved with the project.
Sarah-Jane Potts: I was in L.A., and my American agent called me and said, "I have this amazing script. Would you like to be involved with it? It's called Heart of a Dragon and it's about the Man in Motion tour." I said, "What's the Man in Motion tour?" and he explained a little bit about it to me and I loved it, so I went to meet Michael French, our director, and that's where it all started from, really.
MM: Your character in the movie is sort of combative at the start with Jim's character, and even with the group itself. However, by the end of the film, she's more accepting. Was it hard to play a character with that sort of arc, being that things take place over only a couple days?
SJP: No, I think it wasn't because I fully understood why she was so combative in the first place, because of the weight and responsibility she felt for Rick. In terms of Jim's character, she felt very protective of her and Rick's privacy, and I think when you fully understand something, the arc of that is not difficult because you imagine yourself in that situation. It's 500 days into the tour, and they were exhausted, and this guy comes in and starts asking questions, and she just doesn't want to know and thinks it's not relevant to what we're doing. Come in, help me take care of him, but don't try to stick your nose into it and ask me if I'm his lover or not, as it's not your business.
MM: Now, you shot the movie in China, and nowadays even more so than say 5 or 10 years ago, locations double for the real place the events transpire in. How important do you think it was for this film to shoot in the actual places the story took place in?
SJP: 100% important. You can't fake the Great Wall of China. No Hollywood studio can fake it, I know they can do some pretty amazing things in post, but the Great Wall of China is not one of them. I think the experience of being there was so important to us working on the movie to capture the essence of the story and to know how they felt. We had 4 full days of shooting on the wall, and it was a crazy place to be and it has so much energy. You can't even comprehend what it's going to be like until you're actually there, and even when you're on it, you're just looking at this feat of human achievement going, "This is laid brick by brick and by people with relatively basic tools when it was done," and that somebody had the vision of this wall and it got made. It's really crazy to think that.
MM: You mentioned that you weren't really aware of the story beforehand. Did you lean more on cast members like Victor and Jim, who would have been more aware of it?
SJP: Not really. Once I got offered the role and read the script, I did a lot of research on my own about the Man in Motion tour, and I think that as an actor that's my responsibility -- that if you're telling a story, to know all the details and be as educated as you can be about what actually happened. Victor was such a sweetheart and he was enormous, he was like my older brother who took care of me and had a way of making me feel very taken care of because he could just pick me up and put me on his shoulder as he was 250 pounds of muscle. I kind of kept my distance from Jim a little bit because she's so combative with (his character), so I didn't really spend that much time with him. He was also quite private on the set, and that it was his journey, and he didn't want to be too social with us because he knew he had this character to play who was the devil's advocate who people don't particularly like very much.
MM: Your character is based on a real person who Rick eventually married. Did you have a chance to talk with her before you shot the movie?
SJP: No, I didn't want to. I didn't feel it was necessary because I knew we weren't doing a biopic or a documentary, so I didn't want to be heavily influenced by her characteristics. My role is to bring to the screen a creative version. I felt I had to tell her story, but I didn't have to be her, and there are no comparisons in how we look or anything like that. I'd love to meet her woman to woman, but for me, playing her, I didn't think it was too important.
MM: You're primarily known in the UK for TV, and I remember you from Felicity a number of years back. Do you believe that the lack of, say, a recognizable face will help audience members believe in you in this role, because with some of the others like Ethan, audiences might be taken out of the story remembering him from another movie?
SJP: I do, I think the suspension of disbelief as an audience member is not complete. I have trouble when I go to the movies and see someone playing someone else, because you don't quite believe it. Oh, that's Brad Pitt pretending to be Troy. I'm always interested in going to see someone I don't know playing someone else because you believe it, because they haven't got this label of being really famous. So I hope that it helps and that people come to see this movie and see the character and not just go, oh that's the girl from such and such.
MM: That's what I'm finding a lot of now, with these sort of "found footage" movies like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity. Now, when they get to the sequel, they are casting a lot of sort of TV actors and actresses that you might not know their names, but you will recognize their faces, just even a little bit, and I think it really tears the audience out of it.
SJP: That's a dilemma as an actor -- you have to do so much publicity. I will publicize any project I'm doing as much as I can because I feel that's important, but this trend to publicize yourself is rubbish. I'd rather be able to be so varied in everything that I do that people might go, "I sort of think I know her, but I'm not quite sure." That's more of my ultimate goal, and to be able to go into any character not being recognized and for people to go, "She was really good." Hopefully.
MM: Now, I write for the internet. How important do you think the internet is to get the word out about this movie?
SJP: Huge, beyond huge. The internet is an amazing device in general and is a fountain of knowledge. It's a fountain of a lot of other things as well, but in terms of movies and music -- everything kind of media related -- it's enormous. I think it's also because you can do it anywhere, the comfort of your own home, and now with Blackberries and iPhones, it's immediate and nobody has to wait anymore. I remember when I first got my computer, and you had to wait 'til you got home to check your e-mail, and now it's instant gratification, which is not only what people want but it's also a great way of advertising a product. It seems to be what people are driven by at the moment.
MM: I like to ask everyone I speak with this: If you could describe their character in one word, what would it be and why?
SJP: That's a hard one. One word. She's a dragon. Not in terms of a scary dragon, but she's his champion. Apparently all dragons are female. She is a real driving force behind him.
MM: You mentioned earlier that Victor was acting like your older brother, but your actual brother is in the movie. Did this prevent a challenge for you? Are you competitive with him at all?
SJP: Yeah he was. And no, we're super close and we've worked (together) before in England. It was a joy having him there. because he knows what you're thinking and they can recognize what's going on with you, which is something that a lot of people that don't you know that well can't. So he was a massive support to me, because it was a difficult shoot and we were all very tired and emotionally stressed, so having him there was a comfort to me. Now, that's not to say that he didn't get on my nerves, because that's something that always happens, but in terms of watching him, we have quite different acting styles and I'm always inspired by watching what he can do, because he's so good. He's just been nominated for a Gemini as well. He did a thing up here called Alice.
MM: Now the movie is starting off with a small release in BC and is hopefully going to build from there. How important do you think it is for people to get out and see this movie?
SJP: Very important. I would like to be able to brainwash everybody and sort of subliminally brainwash them into going, and then we can release it worldwide. I think it's a story that's really important and needs to be told, and I was shocked that I didn't know about it. I got the script and was like, "How can I not do this?" When I got the role, I talked to a lot of my Australian friends, and they didn't know who he was either. He seems to be isolated to certain pockets of the world, and I think his story should be exposed to more.
MM: Jim was saying that even Victor wasn't as familiar with the story.
SJP: And he's Canadian. That's terrible.
MM: Yeah, from one province over. The film has a title that can be different things to different people. What does it mean to you personally?
SJP: I think it means the heart of a man and his friends and his journey of realizing that nobody is an island, and everybody needs help from the people who love them in order to achieve what they want to achieve in their lives.
MM: What should audiences take away from this movie?
SJP: I hope the knowledge that when people say things are impossible, that it's just a label, and a label we give to things, and that anything is possible. You look at the Great Wall of China, which was built by men, and that a man like Rick Hansen, who's in a wheelchair, pushed himself half way around the world. I hope people can do or reach out for that thing they didn't think they could do.
MM: What was your favorite moment on set?
SJP: There were so many. I had my 30th birthday there, so I was on the Great Wall of China shouting off of it that it was my birthday, and that I was embracing my 30s. I'd have to say that being on the Great Wall was it, and I was being paid to be there. I'd recommend anyone to go to China and go visit the Great Wall. Nothing compares to that.
MM: What was the most difficult?
SJP: The drivers. The driving there is frightening. Our driver was called Mr. Die. It was me and Victor and Ethan and my brother put in this van to be taken back after a 16-hour day to our hotel, and this guy would be driving us laughing like a maniac, and didn't speak a word of English, and I thought I was going to die. I'm not being melodramatic, I would sit in the back and put my iPod on and I'd cry. My little boy was 2 at the time, and Victor is a bit of an adrenaline junkie in the front yelling. "Come on!" and we'd take a blind bend and I'd just be in the back saying, "I have a child. I need to live. I'm not going to die in China in the back of a van." It was insane. They make like 4 lanes out of one small road. Finally, after a couple of days, he figured out we were trying to communicate with him trying to find out his name and he leaned over and went, "Mr. Die," and we were like, "No, it really can't be," and he laughed in a really manic, way too.
Heart of a Dragon is now playing in limited release throughout British Columbia. More information on where you can catch it can be found on their blog at heartofadragonmovie.blogspot.com.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.