When working on up coming film Homeless Ashes recently, I got the privilege to work with the fantastic actress, Angela Dixon.
After some great conversations I asked if Angela would mind answering a few questions for the blog. She said yes and this is the great result.
Enjoy this one, Angela parts with some great knowledge about what it takes to be an award winning actress from preparation to inspiration.
Hi Angela, before we get stuck in to the juicy bits, why don’t you start us of by telling us a few things about yourself, what makes you unique?
That’s an interesting question isn’t it? Who are we really? What we choose to tell others is telling in itself isn’t it?! I guess if I were to peel away the layers, at heart I am a deep empath who is genuinely curious (and often perplexed) about what it is to be human. I feel and care intensely. I’ve learnt that I have a proportionately wider emotional spectrum than many, it’s as if I experience life with the dial turned up which means I can love and feel pain profoundly. As an individual that can prove to be challenging, as a creative it’s a gift.
Wow, what a great way of describing it, experiencing life with the dial turned up! I can totally see how it can be both a blessing and curse for you. Thinking about you as a creative, how long have you been acting for?
I was born wanting to express myself. I would sing, dance, write, daydream. Often by myself. Living in a created world might well have been respite from the pain of the literal world. I always observed the layer beneath, x-ray specs cutting through the surface and I think that is one of the main reasons that I am drawn to acting. Acting, contrary to many people’s belief, is not about pretending, faking, lying it’s actually about discovering and communicating the truth.
My job as an actor is to find a way of being believable so that I can bring a story to life for an audience. So to answer the question, in my heart I always wanted to be an actor and when I finally started studying theatre at A levels it became a reality. I followed with a degree in drama and a post-graduate degree in acting and then I mostly learnt my skill in doing.
I love your description of acting, it’s about discovering and communicating the truth. I totally agree with that. To help people know the wealth of experience you have, why don’t you tell us a few projects you have worked on?
The project that I am proudest of is Never Let Go by Howard J Ford. Around 12 years ago really I wasn’t getting seen for any decent work and in the absence of help from the accepted channels – agents, casting directors – I decided I would develop a portfolio of work in independent film that I hoped would culminate in someone taking a punt on me playing the lead in a feature film.
It took considerably longer than I expected (speaks the person who thought they’d be at the national theatre by the age of 23!) but playing the lead in Never Let Go was absolutely as a result of me visualizing it and putting the steps in place to enable me to have that opportunity. Other projects that stand out for me are “Unwatchable” a beautifully produced and shocking campaign film in support of Save the Congo that transposed the brutality of the Congo to an idyllic Oxfordshire village. It was too much for many – there’s a clue in the title – but having read the real life accounts of women who had been raped and mutilated, ours was seriously sanitized. I loved being involved in it because it enabled me to use my skill to help others – that’s my happy place.
Another recent project that I am immensely proud of is “Music to Die for” by Dee Chilton and directed by Ben Mole. It is a 3-minute short film as part of Impact50. I love it because everyone shines in it – it’s a beautifully realised piece of drama and I was able to work with a fabulous actress, Daphne Alexander. From the start, I noticed that we had a similar way of working. Her script was marked up with copious notes and she sat quietly away from the others preparing. We agreed not to communicate at all except when we were working together, when we wrapped we immediately smiled and hugged and chatted, our work was done.
When I work I am 100% committed to the job in hand.
I love hearing when people take the bull by the horns with their own dreams, visualizing and taking action. I find it truly inspiring to watch and awesome to hear about. Also, remind me never to watch Unwatchable…! Well done for doing a project like that, it must be difficult. You touched briefly on this already but I feel there is more, can you tell us what excites you about film?
I love the family, the teamwork of film – I think you were there when I arrived to shoot the second trench of ‘Homeless Ashes’, I genuinely welled up when I saw everyone. We were creating something together, it was special. I love the scope of film, the audience reach and the boundless possibilities for imagination. From an actor’s perspective I find film extremely challenging – more so than theatre – especially the excruciating focus of having to mentally and emotionally piece together the topsy-turvy puzzle – films are rarely shot in sequence.
That is so true and I do remember you turning up on that shoot. It was a truly great moment that just cemented that family feeling. I can completely understand that.
I want to explore one of your biggest successes a bit more, Never Let Go. Can you tell us, in your words, what’s the story about?
Never Let Go follows Lisa Brennan, a single mum, with post-natal depression whose child is taken whilst on holiday. She embarks on an emotional and physically relentless journey to get her child back in the absence of support from either the father of her child or the authorities who believe that she is a childless murderer. For me the personal story of Never Let Go is one of redemption, forgiveness and self-empowerment. I met a women who worked for REFUGE after the screening in Leicester Square. She was clearly moved by the film and said she wished she could show it to all the women who she works with to help them regain their own power. That meant a lot to me.
That’s a great description and brings it back to me in a rush of memories. I remember watching it and being next to Howard Ford at the time. A great movie maker and such a powerful film. If you haven’t seen it people, I strongly recommend you do! This may be a silly question but what made you want to do it?
It was a no brainer really. Here was that opportunity I had been planning for, a lead in a great indie film. Not only was it a lead role but it was an all too rare opportunity to play a complex strong woman in a role that historically would have been written for a man.
I am becoming increasingly passionate about redressing the male / female imbalance in story-telling and think it’s essential that we start to hear and see more fully rounded female characters existing in their own right. I know plenty of brave, strong, able women – I want to see them represented on our screens. The other major pull was the fact that Howard was at the helm. I met him in 2011 and had seen his last two movies co-made with his brother Jon. His films are so cinematic and I love the way he manages to make zombie films that had beauty and meaning.
I love your motivation for balancing the male / female imbalance in film and stories. I also totally agree with what you say about Howard, he does have that quality cinematic look. What was it like for you working with Howard Ford as a director?
I loved working with Howard. He has a special talent of giving other people the power to be their best and allows the creativity to be shared. There were times when we were so in sync that there was no need to speak. That was a great feeling.
That has to be the best feeling for both of you as film pro’s to be that in sync. It’s great when you find that. How did you find filming in a foreign country?
Hot, humid and insidiously hostile. We had some issue with our license and so the police were at times restricting our movements, chasing us along motorways and threatening to throw us in jail. On one occasion we had to leave a beach where we were filming a drone shot because some people were concerned that we were compromising their privacy and modesty.
Completely understandable and unfortunate as we lost a ‘blockbuster’ aerial shot and in independent film there is no possibility to get it another time.
This was guerrilla filming so we didn’t always have the opportunity of planning and a controlled environment. We often had to get in and out of a location pretty quickly or grab a scene before the sun set minutes later. Sometimes it was deeply frustrating. It certainly provided an extra level of pressure to get it right. At the same time, I’m really proud that we managed to make NLG under such difficult circumstances.
Wow! Such a roller coaster of an experience. It’s a real shame you couldn’t catch that drone shot but I know what you mean about indie film. It’s often then or never. Given all that turmoil, how did you prepare for your role?
It was a three pronged approach. I needed to make a female action figure who is emotionally distressed and kills people into a living, breathing, emotionally truthful human being with whom people could empathize. I knew I had to find a raw vulnerability to her so that the audience could connect to her. I needed a flawless American accent and I needed to not only look strong and powerful but I also had to be able to do all my own stunts.
I have always been physically fit but as soon as I knew about the project, around 9 months before the shoot, I upped my training. Then 5 weeks before we started filming, I started to train intensely, between 2-3 hours a day. I knew that I would be fighting, jumping and running a lot so I focused on those specific elements. I was lucky that my boxing teacher and PT Steve Cole trained with me every day; I also have a great physio, Liz Robson, so between them they helped me to be ready and supported me through filming.
As for my accent I was blessed to find American accent coach Paige Walker via google. She was like a guardian angel who came to my rescue and I really did need rescuing. I had played American before in the theatre but I was going to play American for an American audience and my accent needed to be impeccable. I worked with Paige for two months via skype. I would practice 3-5 hours a day vocally. So much so that I had to get a guard for my jaw as I was in a lot of pain. You can imagine how relieved I was when in America they thought I was American. I now mostly work in American, it is by far my preferred vocal choice.
Blimey! That really is commitment to the role and that commitment clearly shows on screen, you were fantastic! Sometimes I wish many more people could see the sort of preparation that goes into roles like that. If anyone thinks acting is an easy job, think again!
Do you have any techniques that help you get into your characters?
I work from the inside and re-write the story from my character’s perspective in forensic detail. Who are they? Where do they come from? What makes them who they are? What do they most need? What are they really saying? What obstacles do they face? What do they want? And so on …
I comb through the script for clues and then through my own life, experiences, emotions etc. to build layer upon layer a real character just as we are in life. No-one is a stereotype, not really, we are all layers and layers and layers of unknown quantities to the outside eye that drive our choices, our behaviors and consequently our experiences. I love this work. It’s fascinating.
I love the idea of layers and layers built up to make us as a character, no stereotypes, it’s such a great way of thinking. I might have to use that for my own character development in future! Understanding more about your job as an actor in the film, once it’s made I can imagine it doesn’t stop there. How did you help sell the film?
When you play the lead in an independent film it would be foolish not to do all you can to maximize its’ chances to flourish. I helped with PR and marketing, wrote copy, paid for ads, researched and engaged potential audiences, enlisted creatives to help with design, promotional support through sponsors, I got us into parties where we could make the right connections and spread the word, and brought in my network to support the film in whatever way they could.
That right there is a great example of artist collaboration with film. Too many people think that an actor’s work is done as soon as the camera stops rolling. It’s great to see that level of tenacity and passion for the project you are a part of and I can guarantee its a part of the reason it is so successful. Well done you!
Delving into you a bit more as a creative individual now, where do you get your drive from, on difficult days, how do you keep yourself going?
Sometimes it’s a challenge and often I fail. I’ve come to realize that I am incredibly resilient. That doesn’t mean that I don’t fall down, I do with alarming frequency – and I fall hard – but I seem to have the ability to literally drag myself up off the floor and keep going. I’m not sure where that comes from. Maybe I’m just bloody minded. If I say I’m going to do something I will, even if it kills me.
Now that I really can relate to! It’s nice to know that other people also suffer those setbacks too but also great to see that it’s just about dusting yourself down and getting back on with it if you do!
It sounds like you have a wealth of passion for what you do which is great to see so I am curious as to what you do between acting jobs, if anything?
I made a decision many years ago that I would only earn money using the skills that I value. Fortunately, I have created a parallel career in business helping people to build a greater awareness of themselves and their impact on the world. I then help them make better behavioral choices. I am passionate about this work. It is truly transformational and gives me an intimate insight into what it really is to be human from multiple viewpoints, personalities and cultures. It’s a real compliment to my work as an actor.
I get to travel all over the world, meet people I would never encounter otherwise and very importantly because of the ubiquitous rejection you get as an actor, it keeps a roof above my head and gives me a sense of self-worth. In conjunction with building my film portfolio I also got qualified as an executive coach, facilitator and yoga teacher. I think it’s essential for an actor to upskill – you have to be resourceful.
That’s a great philosophy to only make money from skills that you value. Fantastic!
I know exactly what you mean about upskilling as an actor, it never hurts to have another string to your bow, often it’s the weird skills that will give you the biggest success.
You mentioned earlier that you studied as an actor, do you think studying is essential to an actor today?
I did and I think in an overpopulated profession going to drama school, if nothing else, starts to build your network and credentialises you. If you go to a ‘known’ highly respected drama school – you get on the list and the better the school, the higher on the list you get. I have spent most of my time over the past 20 years trying to get on the list.
That’s an interesting viewpoint. I see where you are coming from with that and it does make sense that if you have an opportunity to put a foot on the acting ladder why not take advantage of it. You mentioned earlier about your preparation of character before a role, does this differ in the way you prepare yourself for auditions?
I will always research as much as I can – who is the director, casting director, play, film, writer or product if it’s a commercial? If there is a script I will learn it and break it down into objectives, beats, thoughts, emotions etc. Unfortunately, there is rarely the time to do the level of preparation I would prefer, usually you are called to auditions last minute.
Ain’t that the truth! Last minute auditions really can be a pain for preparation. It’s nice to see that it happens to the best of us as well though, at least I think it’s nice to see that…
Sticking on the audition theme, how do you feel about self-taping as an actress?
I think it’s a great way of being able to extend your reach. However, it can be very time consuming. The last self-tape I did, which also involved an accent, took me 30 hours over a weekend and I only just got it to a stage that I was happy with in the early hours of the Monday morning. What I like about live auditions is that you have the adrenaline pumping through your veins which I find a creative aid. It propels you to higher level of resourcefulness.
So it’s not just me that faffs about with my self-tapes. Both a benefit and a massive pain in the backside at the same time, that’s for sure. I agree that auditioning live in a casting room has that extra edge about it. Nerve-racking but I have learnt that it can be huge fun at the same time too.
Thinking about what people consider you need as an actor, how important do you think an agent is to an actor?
Having an agent you like, trust and who can open doors for you is essential and again in my experience all too rare. I am very lucky at the moment. I love my agent and know that they have my best interests at heart. It feels like a real collaboration.
Sounds like you are in a great position with your agent. We spoke about it a bit earlier but how important is promoting yourself as an actor, even if you have an agent and how important is social media for the modern actor?
Again it’s essential, 99% of my work I’ve got myself. I personally struggle with social media. I am a very private person so it’s not my preferred medium but I do think it gets you out there and the more visible you are the more chance you have to be considered when the right role comes up. I think of it as a necessary evil – I’m not sure that’s a helpful way of thinking of it! I need to work on that.
That is interesting. I think most people assume that actors love to be in the limelight but in reality a lot of actors I know can actually be quite private. I do agree that social media can be hugely important for the modern day actor. I guess the hard part is how to make it feel less of a chore and more a part of the process.
Thinking about you getting 99% of your own work, how important has networking been for you?
Without networking I simply would not have worked. I met Howard Ford at a networking party on the Pinewood yacht in Cannes [which incidentally I think I had gate-crashed]. From that chance meeting I kept in touch and kept on ‘showing up’. I accepted invites to screenings, parties and events and through that we developed a professional relationship that enabled him to cast me as his lead. I would now count him as one of my closest friends.
That’s amazing! I love the idea of you gate crashing that yacht party and it leading to one of the best moments of your acting career. It’s funny how things can happen like that. Thinking about some of our up and coming filmmakers or actors, what advice would you give?
Seek meaningful collaborations, build creative partnerships with people you trust, respect and who are great at what they do. Filmmaking is teamwork. Be prepared to fail. Take risks, put yourself out there, listen to feedback and then be brutally honest with yourself about what to listen to and what to ignore. Develop by doing.
Be prepared to fail, that’s a great quote and so true. Without failure we are unable to grow. Definitely develop by doing!
You have experienced so much it seems in this industry, what would you do differently if you were doing things again?
I would have more self-belief. It took me a long time to really walk the talk. I would put myself out there, way out of my comfort zone, but I was petrified, I didn’t walk it well for a long time – I’m still learning.
I think we are all still learning to some degree or another, nothing wrong with that. I must make a note to practice my walk again…
Your last answer probably already answers my next question to a degree but what one thing would you tell your younger self now?
Like, love and forgive yourself. Embrace your power.
Embrace your power! Now thats an Angela Dixon slogan if I have ever heard one. I love it! For the aspiring actors amongst us, what advice would you give to someone who wants to become an actor?
If it’s not essential for you to act, don’t do it, there’s a lot of heartache, sacrifice and rejection. Know your brand. Who are you? How do others perceive you? Once you’ve discovered it, sell it. Find a way to keep positive through the rejection because if you think you’re not worthy you won’t work.
Be resilient, be pro-active and build networks of people within the industry who you respect and like. And remember networking is not about what you can get from others it’s about what you can do for others. Be generous
I am a huge believer of branding as an actor. I know a lot of people struggle with it but I totally believe that if you know what you are then you can easily sell yourself. So what’s next on the cards for Angela Dixon?
I have two projects that I am working on at the moment. One is Homeless Ashes, by the lovely actor / filmmaker Marc Zammit which follows the journey of a young man from boyhood to life on the streets. I play his mum. Marc is a real inspiration. He’s putting himself out there, getting things done and carving a career for himself. I have utmost respect for him.
The other project which I have just wrapped on is Howard Ford’s new feature film Adventure Boyz where I play the mother of the two lead boys who get into all sorts of trouble when their mum leaves them alone with their dad. It was such a joy to work with Howard again, he is the most talented creative I know. I will never tire of saying that he is a filmic alchemist and one of the nicest human beings on earth.
They both sound exciting! I am privileged to know a bit more than most about Homeless Ashes having also worked on it. I must admit I am looking forward to how both of those turn out and seeing you back up on the big screen.
I know as an actor you can get approached about work, how do you like people to approach you that want to work with you?
Get in touch via my agent and if you contact me personally, treat me like an intelligent adult, no flattery or power games I don’t relate well to either.
Good answer. Brutal honesty, I love it. You have had quite a journey it has to be said, are there any people you have met on your journey that you are glad to have met?
Plenty. Last weekend, I went to see a friend who is at the RSC with another terribly talented friend. It struck me as I was with them how important it is to have inspirational people in your life. It helps to keep you on your own successful trajectory especially in those times when you are struggling.
That’s so true. That leads nicely on toward your inspirations. Purely for my curiosity, what’s your favorite film?
That’s a tough one, on the list are Francis, One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Babel, The Return, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and oh my goodness if you haven’t seen Leviathan – get it out – I love Andrey Zvyagintsev. Jaw dropping stuff.
Amazing, such a lovely eclectic mix of great films! And next, who is your favorite actor and why?
Jessica Lange for her edge and emotional range, Meryl Streep for her versatility and technical execution, Ann Hathaway – that girl’s a genius – she so deserved the Oscar for her performance in Les Miserable. It’s a masterclass in emotional truth, brave choices and specific thought. I also love Sean Penn and Heath Ledger – his performance in Brokeback Mountain was exquisite, his vulnerability was mesmerizing.
You have a lot of similar inspirations to me, especially Heath Ledger, he is my biggest inspiration and I definitely agree with you about his performance in Brokeback Mountain. It was subtle and brilliant.
Well what can I say, thank you so much for giving us such a personal interview and being so open with me. I know I genuinely appreciate that and found the answers both fascinating and even educational. I have learnt some great things that I can take away with me for future. I guess there is no better way to round this off than to ask, what one thing do you want people to know?
I’m not going away so hire me.
Haha, what a great note to end on! Thank you again Angela, I have really enjoyed this. Definitely people, if you are thinking of hiring Angela for your film, do it! I can personally vouch that you won’t regret it!
To help, I have put some of Angela’s social media details below.
Follow her, keep watching her and definitely hire her.
IMDB: Angela Dixon