Bognor Regis actress Sandy Foster on getting a role in Mr Turner, working with Mike Leigh and what’s to come next
PUBLISHED: 09:57 23 March 2015 | UPDATED: 12:00 03 November 2017
Bognor Regis actress Sandy Foster hadn’t worked for a year. Then Mike Leigh cast her in his latest film and she “screamed the place down”. Still starry-eyed from the critical plaudits that keep rolling in for Mr Turner, Sandy says it was a teacher at Felpham Community College that ignited the creative spark
“It was probably my fourth or fifth letter that hit home,” says Sandy Foster.
Sandy and I have met to discuss her journey from Felpham, West Sussex, to a role in a critically feted film. We’re sitting in the bar of a cinema in Clapham, around the corner from where she is rehearsing with the RSC, and she is talking about how she persuaded Mike Leigh to give her an audition. From where I am sitting I can see Timothy Spall’s pensive face, hugely enlarged on a poster for the film Mr Turner. It makes Sandy’s story seem even more remarkable, a kind of thespian Cinderella story.
Although she despises the term, she sees herself as a character actor (in Shakespeare, “I always play the clown”). She had wanted to work with Mike Leigh, one of our most renowned British directors, since drama school. “I started writing him letters once every six months to a year. Things were going pretty badly and one day I thought, ‘what have I got to lose? I’ll just write one more letter.’” At the time, Sandy was touring the comedy circuit with her surrealist musical act Lovely and Jason, and she sent the great director a YouTube link to one of her songs. He called her agent and asked for a meeting. “Mike said to me after we’d had our first chat: ‘I’m really glad I’ve met you, because I really liked your comedy but I thought you might be too bonkers to work with.’”
Fortunately he reconsidered and cast the 32-year-old as Evelina Turner, the artist’s illegitimate and unacknowledged daughter. It is through a scene with his children that we see one of Turner’s anachronisms: while he is capable of great kindness and generosity of spirit, he sometimes acts callously towards those who have a right to his protection.
Tim Spall has been garlanded with awards for his performance. He (along with cinematographer Dick Pope) won an award at Cannes, and won the award for Best British Actor at the London Critics’ Circle Awards. Many critics were shocked by Mr Turner’s omission from the Golden Globes, Academy Awards, and BAFTAs.
For a young actress who has held an abundance of temporary jobs, from payroll administrator to waitress, all this must have been quite overwhelming. It sounds as if she was just a little bit starstruck. When she first met her dream director, “I was a bit gushy to begin with and in fact right at the end of the audition I couldn’t stop myself from saying, ‘I would just love to work with you!’ It is like meeting the Queen!”
She counts herself a “massive fan” of Ruth Sheen, who plays her character’s mother, Sarah Danby, in the film, and “Tim is obviously a national treasure now, so it was fairly intimidating initially, but he came over and introduced himself and I thought, ‘this is bonkers, you don’t need to tell me your name – I know exactly who you are!’
“Because of the way Mike works – in my experience, but he’s said this himself – he doesn’t work with egos or people that are difficult, so you walk into that room and everyone’s on a level footing. It felt very much like a collaborative ensemble company.”
Sandy, one of three children – she has an older brother Chris (who lives in Bognor Regis), and a younger sister Alison – grew up in Felpham and attended the “amazing” Felpham Community College. It was there that she began acting under the tutelage of drama teacher Debbie Smith, who encouraged the nascent comic spark into a flame at yearly comedy workshops. Soon she had joined West Sussex County Youth Theatre, run by an “amazing woman” called Anne Fenton. After touring West Sussex schools with the professional arm of her youth theatre, she started at Central School of Speech and Drama, where she was a contemporary of Games of Thrones and Pompeii actor Kit Harrington.
A variety of jobs followed, which, she sighs “is just the actor’s life, really”. “Sometimes it’s heart-breaking but also I wonder if I may not have been as much use to Mike if I hadn’t done as much job-wise. I have done every job going: I’ve been an aerobics instructor, I’ve been a waitress, I’ve been an administrator, receptionist… every job under the sun, and as a result of that I’ve had much more to draw on.”
You can sense Sandy’s appetite for humanity – which she shares with Mike Leigh, this tireless interest in the humour and tragedy of day-to-day life – when she talks about her character in Mr Turner. “I found out where my character was married and where she was christened and I went and looked for her grave because I wanted to see where she was buried. Her gravestone doesn’t exist anymore but I went and stood on the place where her body would have been.”
Because of Leigh’s much-documented process, Sandy didn’t know the direction her scene, or the film as a whole, would take: “When I went to see the film at the cast and crew screening I had no idea that he was going to deny his children later on in the film. I cried then, because by that point you have a connection with that character, so you feel it almost as they might have. It’s brilliant though, it’s the best job an actor can have.”
So what is next for this most down-to-earth of actresses? “Having done some film I’m really eager to do more, because I have realised that theatre is an actor’s medium whereas film is much more collaborative. You realise that you’re surrounded by a company of people who are all having to do their jobs at the same time. I love that company feel. I would love to do more British films, particularly.
“There are many theatres I haven’t worked at yet, like the National and the Royal Court, and I would love to come home and work at Chichester. I love the work that we do here. We have a really strong industry and we make really interesting, real work. Most of the British work I see has a message, a real heart, and honesty; which sometimes Hollywood lacks. I think we need to hold our ground and be proud of that.
We need more young directors who are willing to do what Mike did, which is to fight for their vision no matter how hard that might be at times.”
My favourite Sussex
• Shop - I have a favourite genre of shops in Bognor. The charity shops are second to none. I love vintage and secondhand clothes.
• Pub - We used to frequent the William Hardwick in Bognor. There is a nice place called The Oystercatcher, which is between Arundel and Bognor.
• View - Bognor seafront. It’s not the prettiest, but my heart belongs there. I’ve written a play about Bognor Regis, because growing up, I used to watch Catchphrase with my grandmother, and the booby prize would be a trip to Bognor Regis. The audience would be wetting themselves with laughter, and I would be sitting there in my house in Bognor Regis, watching. As a young person, all you wanted to do was get out, but as an older person I just yearn for Bognor Regis and I love going back there. There’s nothing better than sitting on the seafront, eating a bag of chips and looking at that cranky old pier. It’s a magical place.
• Place to visit - Arundel Castle. It’s gorgeous. I would definitely take visitors to Bognor seafront, and for a nice walk on the South Downs too.
• 29 famous people who went to school in Sussex - Celebrities and other famous figures who went to school in Sussex.
• Gruffalo creator Julia Donaldson on life in Steyning, helping others and inspiring a generation - Julia Donaldson is beloved by millions of children as the creator of the Gruffalo. The book, published in 1999, has been translated into 50 languages and has inspired a feature film and a whole host of merchandise. Now Julia is back in West Sussex, and inspiring another generation of children
• Sussex celebrities and personalities share what they love most about the county - Some of Sussex’s best known personalities have revealed in the magazine what they most love about the county. Here, we compile their stories, favourite restaurants, pubs, shops, views and places to visit