Out of her skin
How did the baddest bad girl from Skins beat Natalie Portman to play the lead role in Wuthering Heights? ‘I was intimidated,’ Kaya Scodelario tells TARA BRADY
IF YOU THINK those Jane Austen fans are hardcore, doubtless you missed last year’s tweet storm – that’s a flame war in old-world net speak – down by Kaya Scodelario’s official Twitter feed. Emily Brontë fans were forced to reach for the smelling salts as the Skinsstar shared her good news: “I’m gonna be in the new Wuthering Heightsfilm!” wrote Scodelario. “As Cathy! Should probs read the book...” She never did. Director Andrea Arnold forbade the young actor from reading the source novel and from watching any older adaptations. Hours before the film’s London premiere, Scodelario has yet to crack the spine on the third Brontë sister’s only surviving tome.
“I read a lot, but never came across it,” says the 19-year-old. “And I’m quite a technical person. I like to research. It was hard to stay away. But I understood. She wanted us to be very raw. Actually, I never read a whole script. The first time I found out what happened to the characters was when I saw the film.”
Bright, opinionated and wise beyond her years, Scodelario made it through the casting process where other more recognisable stars, notably Natalie Portman and Abbie Cornish, failed to stay the course. Her achievement is all the more impressive when you consider she failed to show up for her audition. Believing she was wrong for the part, Scodelario stayed away, turned off her phone and hid.
“The script had been going round for about two years before it went into production,” she says. “And a lot of people were attached to it like Gemma Arterton and Natalie Portman. I was intimidated by that. They’re both very beautiful, both very talented. And I felt too young.” It took Arnold to convince her otherwise.
“I watched her film Fish Tank. And I realised it was going to be very cool, not a drama-school thing. Then I met Andrea and she wanted to learn more about me. I immediately felt very comfortable about that. She doesn’t care about having a big name to help the film make more money. It’s all about the film with her. And I loved this notion of period drama where it wasn’t about people all talking pretty. She threw all that on its head. That’s very brave.”
If Brontë diehards were unnerved by the prospect of Wuthering Heightsfeaturing Effy, Skins’ baddest bad girl, as directed by the filmmaker behind gritty kitchen sink dramas Red Roadand Fish Tank, it turns out they had nothing to fear. Arnold’s innovations – her use of a “dark-skinned” Heathcliff (played by Solomon Glave then James Howson) and demotic regional dialogue – adhere carefully to the original text. Brontë may not have used the C-word as frequently as Howson does in the movie, but she does record outbreaks of swearing. Equally, the director’s merciless, unsentimental moors are entirely in keeping with a book where one can practically hear a squelch with the turn of every page.
“It was really cold,” says Scodelario of the north Yorkshire shoot. “But to be honest I can’t complain. The crew were there every day. They turned up every day and did their jobs without complaining. So it would be unfair of me to complain. The best part about doing Wuthering Heightswas you were completely in that world. It could not have been done with CGI. You had to be there.”
In preparation Scodelario was required to dispense with certain 21st century grooming conveniences: “That was about the only things I missed: plucked eyebrows and shaved armpits. I did have to have hair extensions. I hated that. I’m not a girly girl. I don’t brush my hair. They were falling out all over the place. I just don’t get how girls can do that.” It’s hard to imagine one of the Hollyoaksgirls surrendering their tweezers.
“Oh yeah,” says Scodelario. “I do have a lot of respect for the girls in Hollyoaks. It takes a lot of effort to look like that constantly. I couldn’t do it.” Being natural has long been part of the Scodelario appeal. Like many of her Channel 4 colleagues from Skinsand Shameless, she had no prior acting experience when, aged 14, she landed the soon-to-be iconic role of Effy Stonem. A Real Live Teenager, she cheekily asked the casting director for a light during the audition and tweeted about “getting drunk on Channel 4’s money” from the wrap party.
“During the first year we’d walk around Bristol between shoots,” she recalls. “By the second year we suddenly found we couldn’t do that easily. We knew if a group of teenagers came along they’d know who we were. We couldn’t go to a bar because we knew somebody would want to pick a fight with the guys because they were on TV. Girls would want to sleep with them for the same reason. It was scary. It showed you a new side to people. When someone shouts Skinsat you its funny the first time. But after a hundred times you think ‘I do have a name’.”
Born in Camden Town to an English dad and a Brazilian mum – Kaya took mother’s surname after her parents’ divorce and speaks fluent Portuguese – Scodelario is no RADA princess. Drama came into her life by accident not design; a place she could go to escape bullies and struggles with dyslexia.
“School is a difficult time for everyone,” she notes. “Kids are mean and I was at a tough school. I was quite quiet, having been brought up with just my mum. I wasn’t able to fight. It’s a confidence thing. That sort of bullying really lowers your confidence. But I was lucky. I had a mum who understood when I told her. She put me in another school and it was because of that school that I fell into acting and Skins.Drama was the only thing that I ever felt confident in. It was the only time I ever put my hand up in class. I fell in love with it when I was nine. I suddenly didn’t feel scared to say the wrong thing. I remember feeling a buzz off it and wanting to feel that buzz every day.”
Post Skins,she’s found work on Clash of the Titansand Moon, and has just finished shooting Now is Goodwith Dakota Fanning. Still, Wuthering Heights’ Cathy is a big step up for any budding starlet.
“I didn’t think I was qualified but once I got there I really enjoyed it,” says Scodelario. “I am quite an emotional person anyway. So I found it emotional just doing the work. The scene where Heathcliff and Edgar are fighting, that really freaked me out because my boyfriend had been in a fight. I wanted to open up every feeling inside me. I didn’t have that much screen time to show her losing it. I had James stand behind the camera and shout abuse at me. That took me back to the playground at school. All those things you bury came floating up.”
Her boyfriend is Elliott Tittensor who plays Shameless’s Carl Gallagher. In August 2010, Tittensor was arrested following an altercation with a “fan” who threatened Scodelario. The subsequent trial and tabloid furore was, she says, a terrifying experience. Do some people still confuse her with the partying, boozing, nymphomaniac Effy and act accordingly?
“I thought they would think that more than they do. But they don’t. I think guys on TV get a lot of girls and attention. But around girls from TV, guys feel more intimidated. They don’t really speak to you. Girls don’t either.”
She describes herself as a feminist and hasn’t quite mastered the red carpet wave (“So scary; like I’ve gone back to the nervous 14-year-old at school”). But that’s precisely what sets her apart from her peers.
“A lot has changed over the last few years. It’s not as taboo as it used to be to have not gone to drama school. Skinsand This is Englandhelped change that. Those projects like people who have lived life. The whole notion of 26-year-olds playing 16-year-olds is over, I hope. Those are two completely different stages of life. Why pretend you’re 16 when you’re 26. Casting directors need to respect younger people. That’s why Andrea had a lot of balls for expecting us to carry this film.”
Arnold’s gamble has paid off with one of the most powerful films of the year. Her Wuthering Heightsis a landmark literary adaptation, one that fits neatly with the new grimy kitchen sink revival in British cinema.
“ Wuthering Heightshas taught me not to judge a genre,” says Scodelario. “And not to think only certain people can do certain things. Maybe if Andrea Arnold directed a rom-com I might do it.”
So will she ever get around to Emily Brontë? “I’m waiting for all the fuss to die down so I can come to it fresh. I want to wait until I can read it without thinking about the film. I liked Cathy. My mum hates her. She thinks she’s a horrible character. I like her honesty. If you feel something then say it. Ultimately she knew Heathcliff would kill her. He was like a disease. But she couldn’t resist. She could run or settle for the nice guy. I can’t judge her for that.”
Wuthering Heightsis on general release
For decades British cinema has thrived in sink estates and dark alleys. But nowadays the milieu once defined by Ken Loach has taken on even earthier hues with a whole new wave of natural performers and filmmakers hell-bent on streetwise verisimilitude.
Young Master Hoult had already won plaudits for his role in About a Boywhen he was cast in Skinsas Effy’s big brother Tony. The 21-year-old has since moved onwards and upwards with turns in A Single Manand X-Men: First Class. Next year, he’ll grace our screens as Zombie R in Warm Bodiesand Jack in Jack the Giant Killer.
The progenitor behind the new dirtier down home brand of British cinema, Meadows shot to fame with Twenty Four Seven, his second feature film, in 1997. His use of non-professional actors and scruffy locales has served the indie auteur well, resulting in such modern classics as Dead Man’s Shoesand This is England.
Another Skinsalumnus, the 24-year-old Liverpudlian has gone on to appear in The Damned Unitedand HBO’s Game of Throneson the back of his addled performance as ne’er-do-well Chris Miles.
The former children’s TV presenter wowed the Academy with her Oscar-winning short Wasp(2004), before wowing Cannes with two raw Jury Award winning features, Red Road(2007) and Fish Tank(2010). Wuthering Heights, her coruscating Brontë adaptation premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, where it received the Golden Osella and diametrically-opposed reviews.