Shirley Henderson, the gifted young Scottish actress whom viewers might remember as Gail, the unfortunate girlfriend of Spud (Ewen Bremner) in “Trainspotting,” visited Dallas recently to talk about the experience of working with Mike Leigh on his extraordinary new film about Gilbert and Sullivan, “Topsy-Turvy.” The focus of the conversation was on Leigh’s unique way of building a script through long periods of conversation and improvisation with his selected stars. Actually, as Henderson explained it, “there’s never a script–not ever, even when you start filming. You only know the scenes that you’re involved in. I didn’t know what anybody else was doing” during the shoot, she said.
The process, in fact, was extremely complicated, and even Henderson couldn’t explain precisely how or why it works so well. It began, she said, with an invitation from Leigh to come in to talk with him on the chance that he might offer a part in his next project, neither the title nor the subject of which was known to her. “When you take the job, you don’t know what you’re going to be doing in it. So I just accepted the
job hoping it would be something nice.”
As it turned out, Henderson was offered the role of Leonara Braham, the leading soprano of the D’Oyly Carte company which produced the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the 1880s. And she was immediately put to work in effect creating her character through intensive research.
“I discovered that she was a real lady,” Henderson said. “I didn’t know how you researched someone who really lived–I’d never done that before.” So through books and a search of the census files at the Public Record Office, she learned as much about Braham as she could. The singer turned out to be a young widow with a child, a little boy, and in 1885 at the peak of her career. But she had a drinking problem that almost got her sacked.
In addition to learning as much as possible about the actual Braham, Henderson studied the milieu in which she lived. “You just immerse yourself in things you probably ought to know about”–using novels of the time and works on Victorian life–“so that when you do start to improvise you’ve got all that information at your fingertips,” she explained. Even the formal language of the period “just kind of naturally became part of you. You just kind of immerse yourself in that, and when you start to improvise you pluck up the courage to start
speaking and getting comfortable doing that for a long time before you even start filming, so that it’s just there.”
The actual shoot took twenty weeks, but it wasn’t all devoted to filming. “We would improvise for hours and hours at a time and over days, and then we’d come back and improve until you finally got a 2-minute scene, and then the next day we would film it, and then move on to another scene. Before then we’d been improvising kind of on a one-to-one basis with Mike and getting your character, your personal life going, and then you’re put in with people,” the other actors, actually to improvise out the final scenes together.
Asked whether she found Leigh’s unusual creative approach frightening, Henderson replied, “Not frightening–well, a little bit nerve-wracking, because I felt it was a long journey to try and get that kind of way of speaking and conducting oneself, and then to be able to improvise like
that…. And also the singing!” (All the actors performed their own songs in excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan’s scores, especially “The Mikado.”) “The whole thing was just a lot of hard work. But once you started doing it, it’s great fun, becoming people so different from yourselves.” She added: “You have to take a chance. It’s a very unique way of working, I think. I’ve never done anything like it. And it requires a lot of self-discipline…. I don’t know how he Leigh] creates what he does, because he’s clearly under some kind of schedule and some kind of budget. But he’s letting you,” as an actor, “bring what you can to it.” And on the basis of the raves that “Topsy-Turvy” has received, it’s a process that somehow works.
Henderson will next be seen in a more contemporary light in Michael Winterbottom’s “Wonderland,” which was well received at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year and is expected to be released next fall.