Angela Dixon in Never Let Go
What would you do if your child was kidnapped? How far would you go to get them back? Never Let Go, the new film from The Dead director Howard J Ford, sees a US single mother visiting Morocco go all out to pursue the people who snatched her baby. It's a visceral film with some stunning stunt work and a great central performance by Angela Dixon. We caught up with her to ask what originally attracted her to the part.
"It was a great opportunity to play a complex strong woman in a role that historically would have been written for a man," she says. "This film would have passed the Bechdel test with flying colours. For those people that aren’t familiar with it, the Bechdel test asks if a work of fiction features at least two [named] women who talk to each other about something other than a man. It’s great that it exists but its existence is so telling of the gender bias in storytelling. I am becoming increasingly passionate about redressing that imbalance and think it’s essential that we start to hear and see more fully rounded female characters existing in their own right. The other major pull was the fact that Howard was at the helm. I met him in 2011 and have seen his last two movies co-made with his brother Jon. His films are so cinematic and I love the way he managed to make zombie films that had beauty and meaning."
How did she prepare for a role that was so physically demanding?
"I have always been physically fit but as soon as I knew about the project, around last January, I upped my training. Then five weeks before we started filming, even though I wasn’t actually confirmed in the role until three weeks before the shoot, I started to train intensely, between two-three 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 let me train with him daily; I also have a great combat teacher and physio so between them they helped me to be ready and supported me through filming. I was in the running to play Lisa but there was always an understanding that I might not be cast. Films need names to sell them and the first Hollywood name that read the script said yes. I had promised Howard that I would be ready to play Lisa even if it I didn’t get the part. At the five week mark I just couldn’t leave it any longer. The ‘name’ dropped out and I flew to Morocco."
What we see in the film looks tough, but how many retakes did she have to do to get those scenes to look right, and how did she feel by the end of it?
"It was tough sometimes and it was physically, mentally and emotionally draining. However, that wasn’t because I had to repeat the action over and over. In fact most of the scenes were only one or two takes. 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."
Did she do much of her own stunt work?
"I did it all myself. I loved doing it although it wasn’t always easy. One of the biggest challenges was that I’m not great with heights. I also seemed to be much better at climbing up than I was at getting down. One time in the Medina I got stuck on a roof and didn’t feel confident that I could make the gaping gap between myself and the ladder. I had to ask people to stand in strategic positions so they could catch me if I fell. Meanwhile a crowd was massing to watch what this strange bloodied blonde woman was doing on the rooftop in the first place. When I had to jump off a building and from one to another, I have to admit I was a little scared. I couldn’t jump as myself. I could only jump when I was Lisa and I knew I had to jump to save my daughter. That motivation short-circuited my brain’s flight directive and re-wired it to her fight. Howard always jumped first so I knew that it was possible and let’s face it after he had done it I had no choice!"
How did she approach getting a balance between the physical aspects of the role and the work of connecting with the audience emotionally?
"Getting the audience to engage and connect with Lisa was essential. She needed to have physical skill and strength but I didn’t see it as defining her as a person. It was crucial in my mind that Lisa was a fully rounded real woman. The balancing act for me was between capturing her strength and her ability to take action with her fragility. She’s a psychologically vulnerable woman, abandoned in a foreign country in horrific circumstances with nobody to help her. The challenge for me was how do you make a woman in such a heightened state of anxiety displaying some erratic and aggressive behaviour sympathetic? Howard and I spoke a lot about the necessity to bring out her vulnerability as well as her strength. That meant in certain scenes I really had to play against the obvious choices. It was also essential that I let the audience see what was going on for her. I knew I had to be vulnerable and raw."
A stitch in time...
How did she get into the mindset of a woman who has just had her child stolen?
"It’s the unthinkable isn’t it? I imagine any parent would say that losing their child would be the worst thing that could ever happen. I don’t have children but I have always had very strong maternal feelings. Your job as an actor is to observe yourself and others and to use that knowledge in conjunction with all your experience, feelings, thoughts and senses to communicate the human truth within a story. Whatever your experience you have to discover the right personal triggers that will help you access the right emotion at the right time. Interestingly if I did have children they might not have been the right stimulus to help me find Lisa’s truth. There was a whole complex web of feelings and emotions that Lisa goes through that are connected to motherhood but not necessarily completely dictated by it. I worked on finding a substitution for Sophie. There were two obvious candidates in my life but as I was working on the scenes by myself the emotions I was accessing just didn’t feel powerful enough. Then I chose someone else and within seconds I had a visceral reaction and I knew I had found the key. It felt as though I had received a blow to my solar plexus, I collapsed and sobbed uncontrollably."
Part way trough the film, Lisa explains to a police officer that she has "some special training" that enables her to what she's doing. It makes sense of some of what we've already seen. How did Angela approach that aspect of the character? Did she spend time around people with that kind of experience?
Never Let Go poster
"I have met a number of people whose experience and behaviour I drew upon," she explains. "In the past I trekked in the Everest region by myself. Along the way I met and trekked for a while with two army officers. Through them I met a group of SAS guys. It’s hard to explain but you know when you are in their presence, their power is palpable. Dan Rickard was my onset authority with the gun handling, Glen Salvage and Alexandra Octavia, both of whom are martial arts experts, choreographed and talked me through the fight moves so I was in very good hands. I was really pleased that one of the cast members who works in security and knows a lot of ‘Lisas’ in the real world said I nailed it. You never quite know whether you’ve got it right."
There are few films that provide this kind of opportunity to female actors. Does she think it changed the nature of the story, that it was a woman rather than a man who was the rescuer, with other women trying to help her?
"I have been so lucky to play Lisa and you are right it is very rare. It’s my belief, however, that Lisa is not as rare in real life. I know plenty of brave, strong, able women. We are just not used to seeing them represented on our screens very often. I think having the rescuer as female most definitely changes the nature of the story. If the lead character was male the focus would most probably have been on the thrill and the action rather than the abduction. I do all the things that my male counterparts do but what I hope we show in NLG is what’s driving her. Her physical prowess is due to her training but her strength and power are to do with that she-lion instinct to protect her young. For Lisa that instinct is a revelation and ultimately her salvation. Her journey through the film is one of finding unconditional love for her baby and for herself and through that redemption."
What was her experience of working with Howard J Ford? Was she familiar with his previous work when she took on the role?
"Yes I was familiar with his work. I met Howard on the Pinewood yacht at the Cannes film festival four years ago. We only spoke for a short time but we had a strong creative connection. When we saw each other’s reels I think we both recognised that we shared a deep sense of heart and spirit at the core of our work. Over the years we kept in touch. I loved working with Howard. He is a phenomenal film-maker and a thoroughly decent human being. He is also great at giving other people the power to be their best and allows the creativity to be shared. Because of that we had a really tight knit team. There were times when we were all working in sync without the need to speak. That was a great feeling."
How does she feel about the film screening at Film4 Frightfest?
"I’m really excited. I’m also naturally a little nervous. When you put your head above the parapet there’s a chance that you might get shot! I’ve been to FrightFest before when I went to see Howards’ last film The Dead II with the fabulous Joseph Millson. The audience was amazing, there was a real buzz. My hope is that people will enjoy NLG.
Finally, what’s her next project?
"I have a lead role in Indie feature ‘Homeless Ashes’ with Marc Zammit which I’m really looking forward to. I’m also looking forward to continuing to work on great roles in great stories. I’m excited about what the future may hold and I’m ready for it."