At WFT Ireland, we are constantly inspired and impressed by the caliber of work being done by our members across the film industry. So much so, that we have decided to celebrate their achievements with our monthly slot ‘Member in Focus’. For October, we are thrilled to feature the work of Laoisa Sexton, a writer, director and performer, whose modern, fun short have been snapping up awards at a wealth of festivals, local and international. We spoke with Laoisa about her background in theatre, taking direction from Philip Seymour Hoffman and on her secrets to nailing the perfect performance.
How did your love for film, theatre, and performance begin?
Ballet – for years when I was little. Also, my Mam was a huge influence. She was a dance teacher and was well versed in the arts. She’d plonk me down in front of the TV & make me watch old black-and-white films. I remember watching Red Shoes when I was about 6, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Black Narcissus …Yeh I was terrified. But she would go through the story with me, talk about the actors, and give me all the background info. She introduced me to the theatre at a very early age too.
What was your first job working in the industry?
I was a dancer in Cinderella and was in love with the Fairy Godmother. Her hair was black like mine, and her dress was way nicer than Cinderella’s – dark green with sparkles & twinkly stars on it.
How did you learn the crafts of performance and writing?
I did amateur drama as a child and was in community plays. We moved around a lot, so it was hard to join any formal type of drama school. Finally, I went to drama school in New York. I did the Sandy Meisner Program for three years, and also film improv for two.
As far as writing went, I never had any formal training. I grew up in hotels in the West of Ireland, so there were always things happening, people coming and going. My Da is one of 13, and is a very good storyteller. He’s always reciting poetry whenever he gets an audience. It was a colourful upbringing, I suppose. One time we moved and I attended this weirdly progressive protestant school for a time. We were one of a few Catholics that were allowed to attend. It was there that I wrote and starred in my first play. I was nine and it was about these two spoiled sisters who were asking for too many presents at Christmas. However on Christmas Eve a strange creature appears and tells them all about the poor, so they end up giving all their presents away to people in need. Then, they wake up on Christmas morning as nicer humans. Riveting stuff!
I wrote my first screenplay when I had just turned 18. I remember being very forthright meeting all these big Knob producers in Ireland. (I wrote to everyone and anybody I thought was somebody). One of these well-to-do Fat Cats told me: “I only wanted to meet you cos I wanted to see how crazy the person was who wrote such a mad script” I wasn’t impressed, and neither was he!
As a writer of plays and films, you have a very modern, well-observed body of work; where do you get your inspiration from for these stories?
I started writing because I wanted to write some good parts for myself, that would allow me to flex my muscles as an actor, and venture into more interesting territory. I am always getting cast as Slapper # 2 or Junkie Girl #3, so ye know…
Yup. We do.
With everything I have written so far, my thought process was: I want to do this, and I want to do it this way; and I want to do it now! When I’m writing something, I know how it’s going to turn out, because I know what I’m capable of as an actor. To date, I’ve written three Off Broadway plays and performed in all of them (but not directed).
Actors have this uncanny ability to be in the moment and at the same time acutely aware of their surroundings and their own behavior. It can seem a bit psycho to other folk if you try and explain it, but I have this ability to sort of be-in-the-be. We can empathise and separate at the same time… if ye get me?
I do. I think most writers would say something similar.
We are always watching. Even in the darkest moments – at a funeral, or something life-changing, I can be doing this. Like imagine you are in the A & E and it’s all doom and gloom, but Beyonce is blasting from a radio: ye know she – “…woke up like this… Flawless” and some old man is slowly making his way down the corridor pulling his drip along. That juxtaposition is everywhere you look and in most things you experience. I’m particularly curious about that.
I am always studying people, their mannerisms, what they are wearing, the way they speak, stand, walk- so that helps with writing too. You see some people flipping out in the middle of the street. Maybe his Uber never came and he’s losing it… and I’m thinking: this is good. I can use this. then I’m wondering- Where is he going? What did he just come from? And your imagination does the rest.
Ideas can start with a person’s character, a picture or photograph, a piece of music (not necessarily music you want to use but music that makes you think about something).
I have a feature film, The Pigeon in The Taj Mahal, that I am trying to find a producer for and funding. It is based on my last play of the same name and is about this mentally challenged man who is living alone in a caravan on an abandoned campsite in a field in the West of Ireland. One night he happens upon an unconscious woman who has been unceremoniously dumped in a field and has become separated from her hen party. He brings her home, and when she wakes up, they have to learn how to communicate. It’s a f***ed up love story in the vein of ET, that’s ultimately about kindness and trying to get home. The story illustrates the culture clash between the modern world coming up against nature as well as the spiritual world, ancient Ireland/ tradition. technology against mythology, rural against urban etc.
Quite topical as we destroy the planet. I’m hoping and praying for funding: please send help… light candles… thank you!
When it comes to film, you’ve taken on roles as a writer, director, and performer. While it’s all creativity, there are definitely different skill sets required for each. What do you find are the biggest differences between each of these roles?
Massive question! The Acting Hat, Directing Hat, and Writing Hat are all vastly different but they can inform and enhance each other. It seems people want to define you all the time in this business. Casting directors stop asking you to act when you create your own work because they think you’re directing now. It’s really silly, because the truth is, most of us have worn all of the hats… or some of them at least.
Acting has given me the tools to write. I could never imagine writing without performing. Being an actor you have an innate sense of what works on stage/or film, how dialogue can affect and what the physicality can do. As an actor you know crying and feeling things does not mean an audience will automatically be feeling and crying too. Actually for the most part, we leave that up to the audience to do. Acting is not feeling. It is doing. An actor just has to live in the moment truthfully and then the audience will come along for the ride. Audiences are very smart; they know if your lying and that goes for writing too.
I have learnt so much about my writing by directing a film. Now when I write something, I know instinctively if it’s not going to make the edit. Is it moving the story along? If not no matter how good it looks, you need to snip- snip! I learnt a lot from the editing process too.
I must say, I did not really mean to end up directing a film. I was thinking I’d write something and look for a director, but I ended up having a bad experience with a director on a play I wrote. He refused to collaborate with me in any way and bullied me. The play suffered. So when it came to my first film, this made me think. I’m gonna direct it myself. That way it will be my fault if it fails, and at least I know I can’t blame it on anyone else. That’s the hardest thing: finding collaborators, people who have a similar taste, that are eager to work as hard as you, and have the same dream.
If I find a director who was into my work, it would be great, but if I don’t – I’ll keep directing. I am lucky that I am married to a very brilliant cinematographer, Trevor Murphy – he’s pretty legend. We share the same taste, so he gets me like that. He has a brilliant way of translating what I want into the most beautiful pictures.
How do you prep yourself going into a project under each of these roles? For example, as a directing approaching a script, how would you break it down?
Well, I have never directed anything but my own film. So my only experience of directing a film was of a piece that I knew like the back of my hand. I knew it inside and out and worked for months crafting it so it had no fat on it. Also, with comedy, you have to be very sure of your tone, and mine is dark, so it’s never a ‘broad’ comedy. Of course, I gathered images, colour palettes and things I liked. I did storyboards and a shot list. I scoped out locations, spent time in them, re-visited them several times and blocked out scenes there with my cinematographer. I went back if something was not working. Originally we were going to shoot in Phoenix Park, as some of the story takes place there, and at night, but we realized there was no point. It’s pitch black and you can’t see a foot in front of you. Instead, we found a shed to shoot in and were able to control the light the way we wanted. This was huge, as imagining an entire crew in the middle of the park at night, in the wilderness seemed like a total nightmare – especially with no money. But we drove around there at all times of the night with a camera strapped to the bonnet of the car and got a feeling for it. Anything I could try and figure out before the shoot, I did. The biggest thing you learn is there is never enough time. You have to work fast and smart. I did not have the luxury of a locations manager or lots of HODS, costume etc, but I figured out the things I could not live without. Sound was important, as it was a story that took place mostly at night. It was tough too as we had a low loader trailer, cars, and a baby. It was very ambitious really for no budget, as car shoots are tough, especially on your first go!
As a performer walking on to someone else’s set what would your approach be to developing a character?
Don’t Fuck up. Know your lines. Stand on your marks. Do your homework. Bring options. Know the scene(s) inside out. Always be prepared to change what you worked on if asked.
As an actor you have to know where you fit in the telling of the story and the tone of the piece, but if you’re cast, chances are the director senses that you can deliver. Then it’s up to you to make brave choices – even if they are the wrong choices – and let the director tweak the temperature.
Save your energy, and trust yourself. There’s no point in being pent up in the corner working yourself up into a frenzy because when the AD brings you to set, you need to be relaxed. You need to listen to the other actor and affect change in them. Even if you’re doing a devastating emotional scene, it does not matter if you arrive on set crying or cry in a corner all day waiting for your big moment – it’s not all about you. When the camera is rolling you need to be present and reachable. Everyone has their own way of getting there. I never interfere with that, it’s not my job, but I’ve learned to pace myself. I got my tricks. I had a drama teacher who used to say you’re an instrument, like a violin, so you should be able to play yourself like a virtuoso. You need to be able to call on things when you need them. I always visualize a tap turning on and filling myself up. It’s a little mind game I do on myself… I turn off the tap before it gets too full because you never want to be on set and cut off from the scene or not listening to the other actor.
What was your worst moment on set?
There’s always humiliating stuff if you’re an actor. I remember that more than the good stuff. I was doing this play in New York. Philip Seymour Hoffman was directing. The piece was American. The story took place in New Jersey, so for weeks I kept thinking they wanted an American, and wondering how did I even get hired, like? So I’m doing my best, hiding my real accent even between rehearsals chatting with the other actors. I was trying to come off all ‘Jursey’. Then after about two weeks during rehearsal one day, he says to me: ‘Laoisa, shall we try it in your own accent?’ I was like: ‘Can we speak in private?’ I whispered in his ear: ‘My real accent is Irish.”… and then he laughs, this big, beautiful belly-laugh and says: ‘I know that’s why you were hired. We wanted an Irish character.’ Scarlet!
What are the pros and cons of working in film as opposed to theatre?
Theatre is where you get to design your own performance, or at least have more of a say over the final product. Whereas in film, as an actor, you never can tell what the end result will be, the way it will be edited, or the pacing of it. Maybe you will be cut out of it. Perhaps you performed it as a comedy but when you finally see the final cut, it’s pure drama. You just never know, and in many ways it’s not your place to know. As they say, it’s a director’s medium. What often happens is that maybe you have a couple of lines and are not involved in the storyline so much. You can feel apart from the other cast, you practice alone in your hotel room saying: ‘He went that way’ like 90 times. Those bit parts, the two-liners are harder in some ways than doing a full-blown monologue or a lead, as your less invested but you still have to deliver. Or if it’s a bigger part, you can be shooting out of sequence so maybe it’s more concentrated but less connected. Sometimes you don’t get to work as much as you’d like to.
In theatre, you get to live something through from start to finish, a full story in sequence. Also, more often than not, you get to work your acting muscles (depending on the role, of course). You get four weeks of rehearsals, so you get to explore every element of the character, and if you’re doing a long run (most Off Broadway shows runs two/three months or more), you’re doing this every night, 8 shows a week. Whereas with film, usually, there is no rehearsal at all. Theatre is ethereal in ways; it goes out into the ether. However, a film is there and stays like that forever. There is something magic about both.
As an actor, how important is it to train in the craft? Is there such a thing as natural talent?
Some actors get by without any training, and fair play – however, I think they are few and far between. Certainly, there are people that audiences like to look at, and it doesn’t really matter if they have any training or ability and that’s fine, there are different types of entertainment. I believe in the craft of acting, actually I believe in craft full stop. Craft will see you through every time, and give you the confidence to make choices. You only have to look at all those big-budget US films or Marvel fluff, when they need someone to deliver the heavy dialogue, it’s always a proper actor they use (usually of British descent) who has trained in the theatre and is in full command of his/her instrument. This is because they are the only ones who know how to sell it: it’s shite dialogue but they will ride it into the sunset. That’s the power of craft.
What themes do you like to explore through your own work? Why is this important?
In general, I like to write little stories about the human condition, and the limit of human agency played out in all its tragic comedy. I don’t really write with themes in mind. They become apparent after you finish. With comedy, it’s easier to talk about uncomfortable things and highlight stuff that at times can be very taxing to watch or witness. Take Flowers on Netflix. The first episode is your man trying to top himself, but it’s not a lecture about mental health, it is very cleverly crafted storytelling.
There’s an awful lot of social issue-based theatre and film in Ireland, doom and gloom misery porn – it’s not my bag. Sure issues need a spotlight on them and artists can do this through their work. But I think it’s more interesting to craft them into the actual storyline, rather than just document an issue using actors. Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Andrea Arnold all do this brilliantly – each of them in different ways, but all of them use the power of story.
Especially in the world of lower-budget filmmaking, it’s really important to generate your own buzz. This goes double for when you don’t have a massive marketing budget. What do you do to promote your work?
Ahem, yes. Please follow us at:
and on Facebook.
We will indeed! I Didn’t… I Wasn’t…I Amn’t is doing so well on the festival circuit – can you tell us a little about this project? (How did Aiden Gillen get attached?)
The storyline was adapted from my debut play called FOR LOVE, which was produced Off Broadway at Irish Rep Theatre. It was a huge hit. The story chronicles the lives of three working class women adrift in Dublin seeking sex, deliverance and in danger of going under. I had written it first as a feature. I tried very hard to find a director and a producer but no one would even read it. One director said he could never ask actors to do that ‘kind of sex stuff’ another told me it was ‘trite’, another told me I need a gimmick to sell a story about women, another told me they already had a female-led drama that year so couldn’t do two with women as the leads!!! Everyone compared it to Girls or Sex and the City, even Cant Cope, Won’t Cope. This is something people do when you put women together in a story, but that’s reductive- because it has serious issues and is refreshing and ballsy and true to life. Then I wrote a TV pilot as there are so many places for these three characters to go, but no one would read that either, so I thought let me take one of the stories and make a short film out of one of the characters.
I was in a play The Prophet of Montoby, with Aidan’s brother, JP, so I asked him would he put me in touch. Aidan was in Canada at the time, busy working on Project Blue but he said to send him on the script, and he liked it. Then it was a matter of finding a time that would work – the man is busy! He literally flew back after 3 months of filming, he was getting an award on the Friday night, and then was on our set the following morning at 6am. Apart from him being a good human, he is so good in the role. I needed someone with that presence. He brings that predatory mysterious, sexy, danger thing. You’re never sure what he is up to and what he is going to do next. You don’t realize how on top of his game he is until you’re in the editing room and you see all the choices he gives you.
Do you have any new shows, screenings coming up?
I Didn’t… I Wasn’t… I Amn’t is screening in the upcoming Richard Harris Film Festival (Oct 24th) and in New York at the Irish Screen America Film Festival (Oct 27th). In November we screen at the Nottingham Film Festival (Nov 17th) & Derby Film Festival. I just shot my second short film, The Lucky Man. We are just starting the post-production, which is slow going as we’re waiting on finishing funds. The whole thing was funded on my credit card – which is currently on fire! I’m also looking for acting work & hustling to find a producer for my feature The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal – which, by the way, has the perfect role for Daniel Day-Lewis – do you know how I can reach him?
Not in my Rolodex, but perhaps someone reading this can? Thanks again for chatting with us, and the very best of luck with your second short.
About Laoisa Sexton
Laoisa Sexton is an actress and writer. She has performed in Ireland, the UK and the US. Her performance highlights include: 24hr plays Abbey (National Theatre), Waiting for Ikea, Gaslight, Oh, The Power (directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman for LABryinth Theater), Bloomsday in Brooklyn (with John Turturro), Long Day’s Journey into Night (directed by Joe Dowling at the Guthrie), The Prophet of Monto (earning her Best Actress Award 1st Irish Theatre), Shining City (Studio Theater Washington DC). Laoisa has performed in independent films in the US as well as on TV in Ireland. Her credits here include Fair City, and Red Rock for TV3/BBC. As a writer, Laoisa has penned three Off-Broadway Plays. For Love garnered critical acclaim and received the NY Times 5* Critics’ Pick. Her second play The Last Days of Cleopatra premiered in New York and also received 5* Critics’ Pick from the New York Times. This play has also been produced in Canada, Milwaukee and Dublin. Her third play, The Pigeon in The Taj Mahal was hailed as the ‘Best Theater of the year’ by Irish Central. Laoisa adapted this play into a feature film, she is currently looking for a producer. Laoisa wrote, directed and performed in her debut short film. I Didn’t… I Wasn’t… I Amn’t was nominated this year for two ZeBBie Awards: one for Best Short, with Laoisa picking up Best Actress for her performance in the lead role. She just finished directing her second short film The Lucky Man.