INTERVIEW: Mad To Be Normal Stars Talk About Working With David Tennant On RD Laing Movie
Mad To Be Normal, the new independent feature film based on the life and work of the infamous psychiatrist R.D. Laing, is now out on release in selected cinemas in the UK. David Tennant plays Laing, whose radical theories regarding the treatment of people experiencing severe mental illness often brought him into conflict with other medical and mental health professionals. The partly fictionalised film is based around the experimental community that Laing established at Kingsley Hall in London during the late 1960s, which advocated an anti-psychiatry, medication-free environment for mental health patients, who lived as equals there with doctors and other staff. Elisabeth Moss co-stars as Laing's girlfriend Angie, with Michael Gambon and Gabriel Byrne as two of the residents of the community. Mad To Be Normal was written and directed by Robert Mullan, who interviewed Laing and wrote his biography.
To find out a little more about the movie and how it was made, we spoke to two of the stars of the film, James Utechin and Tom Richards.
James, who plays Sam in the film, trained at the London School of Dramatic Art, but prior to that he had been performing in off-West End shows. He says that theatre is his main passion, especially Shakespeare, but if you watch Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix closely you can glimpse him as Young Remus Lupin!
Oxford graduate Tom, who plays Raymond says he got into acting essentially by mistake through school: when he was in the Upper Sixth, his mum was late picking him up the day the school play was auditioning, so he went along and ended up with quite a big part. He enjoyed it so much he applied to the Year Out Drama Company in Stratford for his gap year, and at University he took part "...in an awful lot of theatre". Since he moved to London he has taken part in many stage productions, including a national tour of Stewart Pringle's one man play The Ghost Hunter, and has set up a horror theatre company with some friends. He will also soon be seen in a slasher movie called End of Term, out later this year.
We asked both James and Tom what they knew of Laing before they started the film, and what they thought of him now since researching and working on the production.
“I had heard the name but knew very little about him,” James said. “It was fascinating reading some of his work and delving into his world. He was a very complex man. Often scary but always had a good heart.”
Tom had heard of Laing through other productions. “Before Mad came along, I think my knowledge of Laing pretty much consisted of allusions to him in the foreword to Peter Shaffer's Equus and the text of Anthony Horowitz's Mind Game,” he explained. "'Controversial 60s psychiatrist’ is about as far as I could have got. Now, I think he was a brilliant, troubled, difficult man who was wrong about a great deal but whose importance when it comes to the things he was right about can't be overstated. He's a huge part of the reason the preferences of people with severe mental illnesses are now taken seriously, and that's something we should all be tremendously thankful to him for.”
Tom says he loved the script as soon as he read it, and his co-stars were another attraction. “I thought it did a brilliant job of walking the knife edge between biography and narrative rhythm,” he said. “The chance to work with incredible actors like David, Michael, Gabriel and Lizzie was also not exactly something that comes along every day, and Gabriel in particular was someone I'd grown up admiring - The Usual Suspects was my favourite film for years, and I still love it.”
James came to the project through its production team, but also shared Tom’s feelings about the cast: “I had worked with Phin [Glynn] the producer before up at the Edinburgh fringe festival and the chance to work with this cast was too good to turn down!” Making movies was something that James had not had much experience of prior to this project. “I had never been involved in an entire film shoot before so doing scenes out of order was bizarre for me as a stage actor,” he confessed.
Preparing for the film, both actors found that Robert Mullan, the writer and director, gave them plenty of opportunities to develop their own characters. Tom explained, "The script left a lot open to interpretation and Bob very much encouraged us to find things for ourselves and try them out. Before we started shooting I talked quite a bit to a friend who's a clinical psychiatrist about delusions of grandeur, and tried to bring both his insights and my own experience around people with similar conditions to Raymond."
James also found speaking to other people helpful. "I talked to a few of my friends who try to deal with mental health issues every day," he said "They really helped me in getting the mannerisms of such a character right. Very slow, methodical movements seemed to be appropriate for my character."
Robert Mullan’s previous experience in directing documentaries also had an impact on character development. Tom explained about his methods.
"He likes to do small numbers of really long takes - much longer than the scene will ever end up being in the final version," he told us. "The acid scene was one take and about half an hour, changing lenses and filters mid-scene while we carried on acting. As an actor, having that opportunity to inhabit a character and feel the flow of the action is brilliant, and I think in the film it gives a real sense that these people's lives don't only exist within the confines of the movie itself."
Like James, Tom found the transition from stage acting to film production a challenge. "There's a scene where I burst in on David and Lizzie's characters in bed. We shot it first with the camera on them, then turned it around with the camera on me. Suddenly I was acting to a piece of tape on the edge of the camera instead of other actors, which is absolutely commonplace in film but as almost all my experience was in theatre I found it quite hard to get used to!"
James added that the long takes gave him one of the best moments while filming. "There's a scene where we are all dancing in Kingsley Hall. Bob just played the music and said go. He filmed for about 15 minutes straight. It’s hard to keep a straight face when Michael Gambon is dropping his moves to Pink Floyd. It was one of those 'I really love my job' moments." He added that Mullan’s expertise on Laing shines through "There would be no better person to make this film than Bob," he said. "He really gets the fire and offset nature of Laing. It really is a fantastic portrayal, when you watch old interviews of Laing and compare to David's performance, you'll see."
During filming, both actors worked directly with David Tennant and had nothing but good things to say about him and how he supported his colleagues on set.
"Most of my scenes were with David, because most of everyone's scenes were with David," explained Tom. "He's so central to the movie. He's an absolute delight - as an actor, he's incredibly present and open, which makes your job so much easier, and as a person he's funny, kind, thoughtful and full of energy. Sometimes there are little problems on set that less established actors - like me and plenty of others on the film - don't feel comfortable raising because we don't want to cause trouble. Maybe the placement of a prop is causing issues with a movement we're supposed to make, that sort of thing. David was brilliant at spotting when stuff like that was affecting people around him and bringing it up, which was massively appreciated."
"I had quite a few scenes with David and one substantial one towards the end of the movie," adds James. "He's a really generous actor. Always giving his scene partner a lot to work off. Very approachable, charming and funny. A joy to work with."
With grateful thanks to Phin Glynn, Bad Penny Productions
Mad To Be Normal is now on limited release in the UK. For screening dates visit www.madtobenormalmovie.com - please note that not all of the screenings are confirmed as they are dependent on ticket sales.