Interview: Rachel Austin
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN IN NOVEMBER 2012 FOR THE VELVET ONION
The majority of column inches for Sightseers have focussed on the obvious. Yes, this is highly acclaimed, mind-blowingly brilliant director Ben Wheatley’s third feature. Yes, it’s the brainchild of the ever wonderful Alice Lowe and Steve Oram. There’s even a smattering of cameo appearances from other comics, and fans of Sherlock will love seeing Jonathan “Anderson” Aris on screen once more.
Tucked away in the facts and figures for the film is an interesting one. Sightseers marks the film debut of a talented young actress who has been making waves on stage, radio and television for quite some time. Salford based Rachel Austin has a small but pivotal role as bride to be Chailey Morris, who she tells TVO whilst in the middle of a train journey to the latest London-based screening of the film, is “just your average girl on her hen do, in a really dodgy looking restaurant with an even dodgier looking stripper!”
It’s only a few weeks since Rachel last attended a screening of the film, at Manchester’s prestigious Cornerhouse venue. When TVO talked to director Ben Wheatley and star Steve Oram that night, they sang her praises as a lovely young woman with a bright future ahead. This sentiment has been echoed by Alice Lowe too, who sends her love when she hears we’re talking to her. Despite only appearing in two scenes, it’s clear she made an impression on the cast and crew.
“I had seen Kill List,” she tells us, “which blew my mind. It’s a great film. But, to be honest, I didn’t know any of Alice and Steve’s work. Since working with them, I have stalked them a little bit… well, a lot. Online, anyway. I’ve watched all their stuff on YouTube and they’re funny buggers. They’re amazing.”
Those two scenes definitely count too, as Chailey marks something of a turning point for the relationship between Chris & Tina, as you can briefly glimpse in the trailer. “Without giving too much away, her actions leads to her facing up to Tina,” she teases. “It was quite a moment – fun to film and also quite scary. I had a stunt double, how ace is that?”
Austin became involved via open auditions for the film, in which her willingness to just go for broke must have helped sway the part towards her. “The audition was quite hilarious,” she explains. “I had to pretend to snog Steve, although he wasn’t there. So it was one of those awkward moments where I turned my back to the camera and did a full on snog with myself. I bet they had a right laugh watching that back!”
Rachel certainly had a laugh on the shoot herself, thanks to an unusual request from the production team. “A week or so before we did the main ‘hen do’ scene,” she reveals, “Claire Jones [the film’s producer] called me up to see if I wanted to bring some friends from home along, to make up my hen party. So, I took three of my actor friends and two girls who I went to High School with. Ben asked us to improvise and just have a great time! So we did! Some of the stuff that was coming out of our mouths even shocked me!”
Ad-libbing was an important part of the writing process with Alice & Steve, so TVO is pleased to hear this extended even to extras! “Yes!” Rachel exclaims. “We rehearsed the scene a good few weeks before and we just went for it. I was a little scared then to be honest, but once we were on set, I felt a more relaxed. I trusted Ben, Alice and Steve and knew they’d steer the scene. We’d do a take on script then off script so Ben had more options and we could have a play. One line I remember Alice coming out with which made me corpse was: ‘You look like a giant prawn.’”
The film is, as we have seen, garnering top end reviews from just about every major outlet. Understandably, Rachel is surprised, but overjoyed by the reaction. “I had no idea Sightseers would receive this kind of reaction,” she confesses. “It’s just amazing. Yeah, I feel really bloody lucky!”
The project was book ended by Rachel’s breakthrough performance in the title role in Simon Armitage’s poetic play Black Roses: The Killing Of Sophie Lancaster. Inspired by the tragic and brutal murder of the young goth (and real life friend of TVO’s editor, no less) back in 2007, Armitage’s poetry gave life to Sophie’s spirit, interspersed with interview soundbytes by her mother, Sylvia – who now spearheads The Sophie Lancaster Foundation to raise awareness of attacks on those from alternative subcultures, and to help provide mainstream acceptance of those who are seen as ‘different’.
First performed for the radio, the piece broke records for BBC Radio 4’s podcast downloads, prior to Rachel’s involvement in Sightseers. After the shoot, she went on to recreate the role in the theatrical version of the piece, co-starring Coronation Street star Julie Hesmondhalgh as Sylvia. A sell out run at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester received huge acclaim, and has left a remarkable impact on Rachel’s life.
“I really hope Black Roses happens again. It’s in discussion at the moment, and I do think it will have a re-run at Royal Exchange at some point. Hopefully we’ll tour it as well. Sophie’s story has many more hearts to reach.”
Due to TVO’s own personal connection to the play, we have to complement its stars for capturing the spirit and vibrant essence of the real life mother and daughter. Austin explains, graciously: “My aim was always to capture Sophie’s energy, courage and zest for life rather than try ‘to be’ her. I trust Julie with my life as we’ve been friends for a couple of years now, so i felt completely safe with her in that space. I’m also now friends with Sylvia and everyone involved in the foundation. It’s very important to me to hold them close.”
Whether Black Roses returns or not – and we sincerely hope it does – remains to be seen. Right now, Rachel has just completed gritty romance short Girl Shaped Love Drug, directed by Manchester based film-maker Simon Powell, and also featuring Sacha Dhawan and Life On Mars star Dean Andrews.
Austin is also working on comedy of her own, as part of new troupe The Sketch Pistols, and is in preparation for a three night stint at Manchester’s Joshua Brooks venue in December. One thing is for certain, though: she would work with the Sightseers team again in a heartbeat.
“Of course I would,” she insists. “I’d jump at the chance. They’re all amazing. I’d also really love to work with Julia Davis, though I doubt I’d be able to keep a straight face!”
Thanks to Rachel for talking to us. Sightseers is out on November 30th.
Please show your support for The Sophie Lancaster Foundation by visiting their website & getting involved!