Full of pride in one our many talented emerging young artists, Danielle Vitalis, co-star of the film Attack the Block, we went down to the Soho Theatre to interview her before the start of that evening’s performance of the new Synergy production of Convictions: Every Coin in which she’s currently performing.
How are things going?
Really well actually. We had the premier last week and the after party – woah! – in The Penthouse! There’s just been a lot of media stuff we’ve been doing, press and stuff, and we’ve been doing commentaries for the DVD extras and so on. There’s a bit in it [the DVD extras] where everyone’s rapping and singing – ‘cause on the set it was just so much fun, we just had jokes all the time – we didn’t do much work really. So they’ve just got us being mad on the extras.
So what’s the film about?
The film’s about Aliens vs Hoodies basically. Aliens attacking a South London housing estate. The Hoodies vs the Aliens – who are the baddies? We don’t know because the Hoodies – you know those young people, the stigma around them. But then the Aliens are bad as well.
My character’s, Tia, the gang leader’s girl friend, well there’s a boy gang and a girl gang, I’m a part of the girl gang and they come to my house and there’s big old alien invasion kafuffle and we all run out screaming cause we’re girls!
How did you get the part?
They did loads and loads of casting. I think they were casting for about a year and a bit before filming started. They did loads of open auditions. John Boyega came from IAG, the specialist agency that works with young black talent, and then a lot of the people in the film hadn’t done any acting before. Franz [plays Dennis], he was in a Clint Eastwood film before and has done stuff like that, but it was nice because there was a big mix of people between those who didn’t know what they were doing and those that did know what they were doing, but Joe he managed to cast it so well. I think he just wanted the realness of the young people, that’s why he didn’t really go for all professional actors and stuff, he just got them from everywhere really.
He found me and Page, the girl that plays my best friend in the film, at Hoxton Street Casting. They had like a big open audition there. Hoxton Street Casting is run by Lucy Middleweek and they’re a casting agency for young people. They work with under 25s from in and around Hackney and it’s all about raw talent – fresh talent. You go there and they give you classes and stuff, do your head shots for you… It’s like a start-off agency. A lot my friends that are doing work are still at Hoxton.
Before I got Attack The Block I’d started uni at UEL. I was studying Performamce and Media. I’d completed my first semester, but then I got the part and Joe suggested that I take the part and continue with my semester B in September. But by the time September came around I was getting so many jobs and stuff. So I thought I don’t really want to go to uni to learn about acting when I can learn so much from just being out here doing it. But I’m glad that I went to uni to experience it and see what it’s like, but at the same time I don’t think my path was supposed to go that way. I wasn’t going to go to university ever in life, but Emma, she’s the one that hooked me up with that whole thing and encouraged me and said I should apply. I really enjoyed it though, for the time that I was there, but I’m really glad that all this is happening right now and that I know the direction I want to go in.
Tell us about the experience of making the film.
It was really long actually and now it seems like so long ago because it was like the end of 2009, beginning of 2010 that we were filming. The whole film we did in 3 months, but first there was the casting process. I did like 5 auditions! The last audition was 7 hours long – 7 hours! Is that even possible? I learned 3 different parts. I had to go in as this character, then go in as that character, kept switching, switching, getting my lines messed up and then two of the characters didn’t even make it into the final draft of the film! I thought I did really rubbish in that, but I got the part so obviously I did something well.
I’ve never been on a [major feature] film set before and I didn’t know that it took so many people to make a film. There’s like a hundred thousand people on the set with you and you have to act like there’s no one else there. And I realised it’s all smoke and mirrors. My ‘flat’ had no ceiling, next to it was someone some one else’s house, stairs that didn’t lead anywhere, things like that. I was so upset when I found this out [laughs], but it’s amazing the way they do it because it looks so real and now I can’t watch a film without thinking about continuity or things like that. You have people that look at you for continuity, constantly, to see if your chain’s out [plays with necklace], if your chain’s in. But I really enjoyed it. They sent a driver to my house every day, picked me up, put me on set. We started with night shoots and it was freezing cold. But we had these warmers that heat up actually get hot and stuff! They had hand warmers, back warmers, foot warmers… I didn’t even know these things existed! [laughs].
But it was just long. We spent a lot of time in our dressing rooms and trailers eating food, but the time that we spent on set was really fun.
You don’t rehearse. Not really. We had readings of the script with everyone and then when you go on set they just rehearse with you on the day and then you do it at the same time. It’s not like theatre rehearsals, which are really long, but that makes it more fresh, I think and it’s easier because film scripts don’t have really long speeches so it’s not really hard to just do it on the spot.
The premiere was fun. That was a bit overwhelming actually. It didn’t really feel real ‘cause before it was like I’ve filmed that now I’ve finished with that project. Then I just went to watch the film and all these people were like, [mimics shouting] “Danielle! Danielle! Danielle! Come and sign my poster” and I’m just like, “How do you know my name?” I felt a bit wary. I was like is this what happens now with my life? It was really exciting, though, and it’s made everything about the film feel real. Before it was just like I was making a film and now it’s done. But now it’s coming out and Joe Cornish says to me “Danielle this is only the beginning, only the beginning.” I was a bit scared!
What’s it like working with Joe Cornish?
He is like the most hilarious director that I’ve ever worked with. You can’t be on set with Joe and not laugh. I think I actually laughed at him too much because he’s got such a dry humour, which I just found so hilarious and he’s just so cool and I don’t understand how he’s written such a brilliant script and directed it. It’s just like he knows the ‘road’ – he doesn’t talk ‘street’ or anything, but it doesn’t feel like it’s written by him.
Tell us about your time at Hi8us.
I think that really made me. We won a BAFTA for L8R series 2 and that was brilliant. That was where people first started to see my face on tele and when I realised that this is what I really want to do; this is what I enjoy. I was studying performing arts at the time, but I hadn’t really done anything and then that bit of tele just made me really get into the acting thing. I was going through a lot at the time and Emma helped me out with things like housing and applying for grants to go to uni and things like that. Emma was just really helpful in that aspect and I thank her today because if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s those kinds of people that you need to hold you up at certain times and give you a little push in the right direction. Hi8us found me in Plaistow at New Vic College and now I’m here. I’m a professional actress, hururrgh!
I also worked online with the virtual cast of L8R and a lot of the time young people from Youth Offending Teams would be writing to my character and I’d have to respond as my character. It’s a really good base and experience because now I’m doing a play here [at the Soho Theatre] with Synergy called Convictions: Every Coin and I’m doing some stuff with them with some young offenders. I’m also working with Clean Break and that’s ex-offenders too. It’s [L8R] given me the skills to speak to people and respond to them in those kinds of situations and now I really want to do some more Theatre In Education.
What have you been doing since finishing the film?
I’ve done six plays since then. One of the plays I did after the film was a free one at the Arcola and then from doing that play, I got into United Agents. Since joining them in August I haven’t been out of work. I’ve just been doing play after play after play. I’ve done three plays at the Soho Theatre and I’ve done a Radio Play for BBC Radio 4 and it’s just really exciting, it’s been really, really exciting.
What’s tonight’s play, “Every Coin”, about?
It’s part of a series called “Convictions” and it’s basically come out of working with people in prison or who were in prison. The play that I’m doing is by a first time writer who’s in prison right now and the other one is by an ex-prisoner from South Africa and it’s just a really good chance for their work to get out there because they’re really brilliant pieces and they’re really different from each other. Synergy does a lot of work in prisons, going into prisons and delivering writing workshops, the prisoners get support from a dramaturge to develop their scripts and I think they’ve come up with some excellent pieces to be honest. I think it’s one of the best plays I’ve been in. Even though it’s the smallest part I’ve ever had in a play, I think the writing in it is really amazing. I love it. I play Chelsea the daughter of the central character who visits him twice in prison. Ben Bishop who was also in the L8R cast is in it too. It’s about a Muslim gang in a prison and the pressure there is on inmates to be part of a gang in order to survive.
So what’s a day in the life of Danielle Vitalis like now?
I’ll pick an actual day when I had the audition for this play in the morning in Hammersmith – Riverside Studios. Then after that I had to go to Elstree to do an audition for E20, which I didn’t get, but at the same time I got this play so it was like, you know, when one door closes…, whatever they say. And then after that I had a fight call for a play here and then at 7 o’clock we did the play and then after that maybe stay in the Soho bar for one drink and then get on the train home – boom bang. Then start again the next day.
So what are your hopes or plans for the future?
Hopefully to do some more film and TV work. I was really upset because I got this pilot for a series on BBC3 and I got the part and everything, but it was for only a week in Manchester and I wouldn’t have been able to do this play, which is several weeks work, so my agent said do the play. Which has worked out for the better because of all the brilliant reviews and stuff, but I was, “ohhh!” [sighs]
I do want to do more TV and film, but I’m really loving theatre at the moment. It’s just wicked. It’s just like a different experience and it’s weird because in theatre you do the most work and you get paid the least, but it’s really rewarding and I love the sense of camaraderie – it’s like family.
In case you’ve been on another planet, Attack The Block is on general release in UK cinemas now. It’s a must see.
This from one of the many deservedly glowing reviews for Every Coin: “…but his daughter very nearly steals the show. Played by the charming Danielle Vitalis, Chelsea brings the kind of honesty only kids can get away with…” The play has now completed it’s run at Soho, but Synergy are taking bookings from theatres. So watch out for it. It really is a powerful piece of work.