Actor and model Sarah Gordy tells Natasha Sutton Williams why having Down’s syndrome will not limit the roles she takes, training at her mother’s kitchen table and starring in the ‘complex and beautiful’ Jellyfish at the National
Sarah Gordy is a trailblazer. The multi-talented performer, who has Down’s syndrome, has built a career that stretches across TV, theatre, dance, modelling and charity work. She will next be seen at London’s National Theatre starring in Jellyfish after the play’s sold-out run at west London’s Bush Theatre last year.
The actor can’t wait to tell this poignant disability-led story on the National’s Dorfman stage and says: “I don’t think I am very different from standard actors. I just need more time to learn lines. The star of this show is Ben Weatherill’s writing.”
As well as the success of Jellyfish at the Bush, Gordy became the first woman with Down’s syndrome to be awarded an MBE for her services to the arts, and as an ambassador for Mencap. When she went to Buckingham Palace to receive the honour she was not only thrilled to meet Prince William, but also to bump into Emma Thompson, even though it was “in the toilet”.
Gordy is a guiding force for greater public awareness of disabled artists and getting an MBE was another important step for her as a role model. “I know that parents with little kids with Down’s syndrome got a kick out of it too and it has made them happier and more ambitious,” she says.
She attended Nottingham University, where she read law and was the first person with Down’s syndrome to receive an honorary degree from a UK university. “I don’t know if I set a precedent,” she says. “I got it as an individual. I want it to inspire everybody to work hard and enjoy life. Success is different depending on the individual. You don’t have to be in the newspapers to be successful.”
Gordy started acting training from a young age at her mum’s kitchen table. “She used drama to educate me. I wasn’t looking for a professional career. It found me. What I learned was that my ‘coach’ had rehearsed me to my fingertips. Everybody thought I had extensive experience. I also learned I was good enough to earn real respect.”
As an actor, Gordy earned her stripes on screen, appearing in TV shows such as JK Rowling’s Strike: The Silkworm, Upstairs Downstairs and Call the Midwife as well as Holby City and Doctors.
What was your first non-theatre job?
At Cancer Research UK.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Actor in Once We Were Mothers at the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme.
What’s your next job?
The A Word on BBC1.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Keep good records.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done?
Work for charity.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
She has also appeared regularly on the stage. As well as at the Bush, she was in Once We Were Mothers at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre in 2007, Into the Blue at London’s Arcola Theatre three years after and Crocodiles at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2014.
Gordy says she has a different creative process when acting for screen compared to theatre. “For TV it depends on the budget,” she says. “If it is low budget you arrive like an excellent Marks and Spencer’s ready meal. If it is high budget, you understand your character, know your lines but don’t pre-cook. With theatre I have to invest quite a bit of time learning lines before I start. Then I can concentrate on the director’s vision.”
It is rare that Gordy is sent work that focuses on a protagonist with Down’s syndrome, which was one of the reasons Jellyfish appealed. In it, Gordy plays 27-year-old Kelly who lives in Skegness with her domineering mother Agnes. Kelly starts a romantic relationship with non-disabled Neil, but tries to hide it from her mother in order to preserve her independence. The show deals candidly with the real yet under-represented issues of romance, sex, pregnancy and marriage for disabled people.
‘‘There are two love stories in this play: the love between a mother and a daughter, and the love between a woman and a man. Agnes is fierce, loving and protective but her daughter is a grown-up. Kelly loves her mother deeply, they are so close, but she must have her own life, make her own decisions and take risks. It’s complex and beautiful.”
Written by Weatherill and directed by Tim Hoare, it was developed in 2017 at the National Theatre Studio. It was programmed at the Bush the following July, sold out and received a host of effusive reviews. The Stage called Gordy’s performance “superb”, the Evening Standard said she was “magnificent… wonderfully vivid and mischievous” and Time Out said she “sensitively captures Kelly’s mix of defiance and humour”.
Gordy is not only thrilled by the critical response, but by the opportunity to embody Kelly’s undulating character again. Through Kelly she is able to tell a love story, “about a real woman who is strong and wants to learn new things. Down’s syndrome is part of her, like her wicked sense of humour. The writing is what excites me always.”
Critics have described Jellyfish as “radical”. The really radical thing about it is the complex representation of disabled people, who are so often woefully under-represented or misrepresented in all areas of the arts. Gordy says: “Difference is an opportunity, not a problem. Good writers are taking that up.”
The title of the show refers to the concept of the invisible complexity of disabled people. “You can see through a jellyfish like they are not there,” she adds. “Some people look at a person with a disability and don’t see the person, just a condition.”
Jellyfish should pave the way for more plays that feature disabled protagonists. Gordy believes the play is asking its audience to “look at everybody as an individual. Don’t limit yourself and don’t limit other people. Relax. Enjoy difference. I am not standard. Luckily writers see me as a new ingredient. My mum calls me a ‘vanilla pod’. You have to know it to be able to use it”.
Having Down’s syndrome doesn’t mean the actor is limited to roles where this is specified for the character. “I have done a couple of plays, such as Seize the Day and Crocodiles, where Down’s syndrome is not mentioned. It is something the audience see as part of the character. That is interesting and new. Down’s syndrome is not a different universe. We are part of this one.”
As well as acting, Gordy works as a model and has appeared in Vogue Italia and Elle UK, and was recently included as one of Elle’s 50 female game changers of 2019. Although initially resistant, the fashion industry is increasingly welcoming disabled models.
‘I don’t understand the fashion industry but they have great parties’
This includes Radical Beauty, an innovative photography project led by creative director Daniel Vais. It is the first of its kind to feature only models with Down’s syndrome, including Gordy, with artwork shot by more than 40 renowned fashion and art photographers.
The project’s focus is to challenge opinions and understandings of beauty in contemporary culture by providing an alternative vision. Every model is stylised to embody desire, radiance and worth. “The best photographs are when there is something going on in the model’s head,” Gordy says. “I do everything as an actor. I don’t take myself seriously as a model but character interests me. I don’t understand the fashion industry but they have great parties.”
Gordy says that by simply existing and working, she is subtly changing people’s perceptions to look beyond disability. “The public finds difference interesting and it reflects life. It’s good drama and it sells. But the work must be good and not just ticking the box.”
• Jellyfish, Bush Theatre, London (2018); National Theatre, London (2019)
• Crocodiles, Royal Exchange, Manchester (2014)
• Once We Were Mothers, New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme (2004)
• Upstairs Downstairs (2010)
• Call the Midwife (2014)
• The Silkworm – Strike Mysteries (2017)
Agent: Liz Nelson, Conway Van Gelder
Jellyfish is at the National Theatre until July 16. Visit nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows for full details