Playwright and actor Amelia Bullmore: ‘The seriousness is dealt with lightly and the humour seriously’
Playwright and actor Amelia Bullmore has done everything from Brass Eye to Ayckbourn. She tells Catherine Love about returning to Manchester, where she began her career, with a new production of Circle Mirror Transformation
Amelia Bullmore is a believer in lucky accidents. Had the actor and writer’s career followed her teenage plans, she would have gone to drama school and from there straight to the Royal Shakespeare Company. As it happened, her professional trajectory was far more meandering – and far more interesting as a result.
Bullmore will be familiar to many, after appearing in a host of iconic British television comedies, from I’m Alan Partridge to Twenty Twelve, via a stint in a cabaret group, a recurring role on Coronation Street and countless stage parts.
In recent years, she’s increasingly worked on her writing, with her output including the play Di and Viv and Rose and episodes of police drama Scott and Bailey, in which she also starred.
“It’s always been about people,” Bullmore says. “Who you run into and what it occurs to them that you can do.” One example is meeting Chris Morris, the face of TV satires Brass Eye and The Day Today, with whom she worked on sketch shows including Big Train and Jam.
While pregnant and out of work in 1995, Bullmore started doing improvised comedy in pubs in London. The ex-girlfriend of a fellow performer was working with Morris and put the two of them in touch. “If you said, ‘Will anything come of doing improv to 12 people in a pub,’ you’d reply, ‘Almost certainly not’,” says Bullmore. “You just don’t know, do you?”
Though Bullmore attended theatre regularly as a child, it was the doing rather than the watching that stuck with her. She loved “feeling like somebody else” and was constantly impersonating others. “I loved the different ways people sounded,” she says.
Later, as a teenager, Bullmore became “obsessed” with the RSC and religiously attended the company’s performances. “What I particularly loved was seeing the same people in different plays,” she says, “doing different things, sounding different, looking different.”
Once she realised that pretending to be other people could be a job, Bullmore was desperate to go to drama school. Though eventually dissuaded, she credits a year of working and travelling between school and university with broadening her horizons: “It got me out of a very small world into a much more varied, more interesting world.”
At the University of Manchester, meanwhile, she had the opportunity to get stuck into various aspects of theatremaking. “What was incredible about that drama course was you could do anything,” she says.
From there, Bullmore characterises her career as a series of serendipitous roles and projects. On screen, she’s as likely to be found in a surreal comedy as a gritty police procedural, while her theatre career has taken her from small-scale provincial touring all the way to Broadway.
Q&A: Amelia Bullmore
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in a kitchen and toy shop when I was about 13.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I was in a company set up by Helen Edmundson called the Red Stockings and we were a touring women’s cabaret and theatre group.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t be nervous, or don’t worry about being nervous. If you’re prepared, it will be fine.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I’ve learnt so much from people I’ve worked with. It’s a massive, joined-up network of people. You learn every time you go to work – I do anyway.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be ready. It’s tough, because you’re not always given enough time, but know it as well as you can and think about doing the script. All you can do is bring what you’ve got on the page to life as well as you can and the rest is out of your power, so don’t worry about it.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
I would have tried to make a living making things. I don’t know what, but I love craft and colour and design, so I would have tried to do that.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, I don’t exactly. I was in The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic in London and that production went to New York. When we got to the theatre, we each had a placemat with our name embroidered on it. I packed that yesterday to bring to Home in Manchester, so that is as close as I get. But I try not to get too caught up in thinking things have to be a certain way, because what if they can’t be?
She’s previously described her varied back catalogue as entirely accidental, a description she continues to stick by. “That sounds woefully passive,” she says with a laugh, “but I don’t know if there is a through line.” Bullmore’s writing career, which was started by a nudge from fellow actor and friend Niamh Cusack, is another lucky accident. Today, she’s frequently juggling writing and acting jobs.
“It’s a really great mixture,” she says. “You’ve got one thing which is at home and one thing which is not at home. One thing is very sociable and one thing is not particularly sociable.” She adds that there’s a lot of overlap. “What do these characters want? What is this about? Will it be interesting? What’s the truth of this? Is that entertaining? So many of the questions are the same.”
Bullmore stresses the importance of rhythm to both activities. “Maybe that’s what it’s all got in common,” she reflects on her career and her influences. “Writers I admire are really good on rhythm and actors I admire are really good on rhythm.”
She’s particularly effusive about the rhythms in the writing of Annie Baker, whose play Circle Mirror Transformation she is rehearsing when we meet. “It’s so subtle and funny,” she says. “The seriousness is dealt with a light touch and the humour is taken very seriously.”
When Bullmore says she is still constantly learning as an actor, you get the sense that she really means it. Circle Mirror Transformation, which demands great nuance from actors, has been a particularly steep but exhilarating learning curve. “Every day we have to go back to rethink naturalism,” she says. “It’s amazing.” The production at Home also brings Bullmore full circle, in a sense, back to Manchester where she studied and began her career.
Her advice for other theatremakers? Embrace the accidental. “Tactical moves are a waste of time,” says Bullmore. “If you do something that you’re into, it may be that something interesting comes from it. But if you do something in the hope that A will lead to B which will lead to C, in my experience that isn’t a useful way to set about things.”
CV: Amelia Bullmore
Born: London, 1964
Training: University of Manchester
Landmark productions: Major Barbara, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (1992), Road, London’s Royal Court (1994), The Crucible, Sheffield Crucible (2004), Author – Mammals, London’s Bush Theatre (2005), The Norman Conquests, London’s Old Vic (2008), Author – Di and Viv and Rose, Hampstead Theatre (2013)
Awards: Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, TV – original drama serial for This Life (1996), Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Mammals (2005), Outer Critics Circle Award, outstanding ensemble performance, the cast of The Norman Conquests (2009), Crime Thriller Awards, best supporting actress for Scott and Bailey (2011), Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, best television drama series for Scott and Bailey with Sally Wainwright, Nicole Taylor (2011)
Agent: St John Donald, United Agents
Circle Mirror Transformation runs at Manchester’s Home until March 17