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Sohoitis I: Being with Dylan, on The Edge of Love

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Sophie Parkin reports from the set of the forthcoming Dylan Thomas biopic in her new column for 3:AM.

Keira Knightly is thin, but nothing as disturbingly thin as, say Wallace Simpson, who had an embroidered pillow on her sofa that read ‘You can never be too rich, or too thin’. So Keira isn’t either, but unlike Wallace, she is in real life mesmerically beautiful. I mean in a shocking way, that makes you stop and turn at her icon-esque Hollywood looks, “No wonder that bloody camera loves her.” I thought as I waited to light another disgusting Woodbine (continuity insisted) and re-do the walk past Sienna Miller who’s cart-wheeled herself across the floor, knickerless and laughing shouting, “Why wear knickers, it’s only something else to wash”, cue Sophie Parkin AKA Girl in Pub, me. I’m a listed extra no less, I walk past Sienna or Caitlin Thomas, look at her with disgust before settling to discuss with Nina Hamnett look alike (played by my mother Molly Parkin), what terrible tarts those girls are lowering the tone of the pub, and that is saying something coming from Nina if you know her history, before the bomb goes off whereby I shriek and laugh hysterically and grab her drink!

So how had I got to be in director John Maybury’s new film all my friends want to know. Synchronicity, as simple as that. Was I going to be the next Daniel Craig? Discovered by Maybury, who played artist Francis Bacon’s boyfriend in, Love is the Devil memorably appearing naked in the bath, and currently enormously popular on YouTube.

Well I’ve not done a nude scene, and if I ever did it would look more like something from a butchers slab, or a Lucien Freud painting, than a Dylan Thomas poem, made flesh.

Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity defining it as ‘meaningful coincidence’ OR ‘the simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with one or more external events which appear as meaningful parallels to the momentary subjective state’. And that was how it was that month, all things colliding, everywhere I turned Dylan Thomas, appeared.

It started off with me reading Julian Maclaren Ross’ 1940′s memoirs (Collected Memoirs, Black Spring Press), when first Richard Thomas who organises The Lattitude Festival that I read at last year, told me that he was organising a Dylan Thomas festival in his hometown of Laughrne in Wales, did I want to go? I’d think about it, I said, and did nothing. Then the day before, out of the blue Swedish Blonde designer Vanessa Fristadt, rang me to ask me to travel down to the Dylan Thomas festival to see Rhys Ifans, Keith Allen and co. in a re-enactment of Twin Town. The highlight for me was the excitement of seeing Dylan’s writing shack in Laughrne, The Great Poisoners of Our Time on his shelf, an uncapped pen, a picture of Dame Edith Sitwell and another of Gertrude Stein, paintings ripped out of books of the Three Graces, a blue Picasso, Bronzino’s Allegory and a feast of scrunched and abandoned pages of writing littering the floor, I was sold. I bought Under Milk Wood, to watch Victor Spinetti and Burton, Liz Taylor and Sian Phillips, pinning dreamlike and lost. I was suffused in the stuff. Previously I hadn’t thought about Dylan for years, not since I’d seen George Martin’s all Welsh cast of Under Milk Wood with Tom Jones, Catherine Zeta Jones and Sir Tony Hopkins. So when John Maybury returned from LA and said what his next project was, a film about Dylan in wartime Soho, I wasn’t surprised, all things seemed to point to me being in the film, I am half-Welsh after all, I reasoned. So greedily I asked — don’t ask don’t get!

I pleaded pathetically, “Preeety pleeze can I be in your Dylan film John”. Poor John. “OK, but can you act Sophie?” This question strangely hadn’t entered my mind as being a requirement, so I skipped cheekily over it — “Depends how good the direction is,” I replied.

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The Edge of Love, written by Kiera Knightly’s mother Sharman McDonald, is about Dylan (Matthew Rhys) and Caitlin Thomas (Sienna Miller), the relationship with his childhood friend Vera Phillips (Knightley) and her eventual husband, William Killick (Murphy). And what leads to Phillips and Killick opening fire on the Thomas home with a machine gun and a hand grenade. Originally Lindsay Lohan was cast as Catlin but obviously too much identification with her character led her back into rehab again. Contrary to her confusing comments about the film, there are no lesbian scenes, I’ve been assured, well I certainly wasn’t in any and neither was my mate, the singer and actress, Lisa Stansfield who plays a tart, undressing in full suspenders and everything. “I love all that underwear don’t you? I could really get used to it.” She told me after her three day stint in Wales where after meeting actor Karl Johnson, she said “What a lovely man,” he’d changed her life. So if anyone’s looking for a life coach…

31st May 2007, 6am: Thursday morning arrives, and I’ve hardly slept at all, for like a schoolgirl worrying about waking in time for her exams, I’ve set three alarms, with no use for any of them. I leave the house with eyes as red as Catlin’s hair, I might as well have been climbing the tiles for the state of me. I cycle across the park and narrowly miss being juggernauted to death on the Edgware Road before arriving at a bomb site now car park, not it turned out where we were shooting the film but where the trailers were parked. Films seem to be as much about trailers as anything, the most important being the food, make up and costume trailers, and a bus to sit in, to wait for your call, oh and of course the stars’ trailers!

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My mother was in the make-up trailer when I arrived being done up to look like Gloria Swanson desperate for her Sunset boulevard close-up. She was complaining about her outfit — “I thought I’d be all a la Crawford, in a big sharp shouldered suit, instead I look like a dowdy dowager in a grey wig!” My mother is 75 but doesn’t always remember that fact. Old people have grey hair, she has smartly dyed black and an outrageous amount of diamantes.

“But people weren’t all dressed in the latest fashion during the war, just like now, some older people were stuck in a previous decade.”

She ignored my explanations.

“I mean if I’m playing a Nina Hamnett character in 1946 I would have thought shoulder pads, definitely.”

I had to tell her, “Mum, you’re 75 playing a 75 year old, and they weren’t dressed like Joan Crawford in 1946, let alone Joan Collins Dynasty style. They’d be wearing stuff from the 20′s or at least 30′s. ‘Make do and mend’, was the motto wasn’t it? You were there, can’t you remember any of it?”

“I can remember what a girl would do with a Yank for a pair of real nylons, to avoid washing your skin with Bisto and drawing a crayon up the back of your legs.”

Meanwhile my eyebrows were being mascared into place along with my lashes, lips were coloured into a carmine pout to match my nails and my hair was chignoned around my hat within an inch of its life. When we were picture perfect we were poured into a minibus and driven to the secret location with a bunch of spivs, sailors, soldiers and wideboy racketeers.

I thought there’d be much more waiting around, food grazing and boredom sitting down. Instead we were on set most of the day living in a a perpetual state of Groundhog Day, in a beautiful old pub in Maida Vale, shooting and reshooting from every conceivable position until John shouted, “It’s a wrap” and everybody clapped with relief at 7pm that night. In between we chatted and gossiped, occasionally moaning about sore feet and all the standing required along with rictus smiles ghoulishly in place. It being a decorated film set 1940′s style pub there was no alcohol, just a lot of fakery, in between takes even herbal cigarettes were doctored to look like Capstans; Dylan wouldn’t have been at all happy. We drank enough tea to keep India afloat and ate every available biscuit on site. We found inevitably that somehow we all knew each other, because we all knew John. There was Michael Wojas and Sally of The Colony Room, Mark the head of research at The Royal College, Stewart Helm, the artist and Tom, a film producer.

Keira lounged on the bar, her bottom and back as flat as an ironing board, next to my mother, sitting on her stool who cross examined her about all the gossip she’d read in The National Enquirer, was it true she was giving up acting to settle down and have babies? “No way, I love acting and I’ve got to make some money before I stop”, mother says she said. Who am I not to believe her?

Matthew Rhys oozed charismatic Welsh chumminess, we even had a lovely photo taken of us, me all squinting into the sun. He’d put on two stone for this part and looked delicious, “Mostly by eating nuts — pine nuts, pecans, Brazil.”, many others would’ve opted for donuts, beer and fish and chips.

Sienna was bubbly and charming, unpretentious and friendly even after I walked into her cubicle in the portacabin, and we both screamed in shock, not often you get to see Sienna sitting on the carsey. “I’m so sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine at least you weren’t one of the big hairy tech guys.” Thank God for that, we were both relieved that wasn’t the case. She had one minder who looked after both her little dogs and tried to keep the paparazzi away but as the day progressed they became like bees around an open honey jar.

Cilian Murphy chatted away with anyone, to me he spoke about how his parent teachers from Cork hadn’t wanted him to go into acting, the nature of the beast but how they were proud as anything now. I looked into his pale sky blue eyes and nodded dumbly, he could’ve been reading the telephone directory, he really was extraordinarily handsome; small but perfectly formed in his wartime uniform, with alarmingly large feet.

By about 4pm and we were all feeling a bit tail end, Mother saying she wouldn’t be an actor for anything, how madly boring it was, how infuriatingly slow the process of, one day and four or five minutes filmed, Cilian said you had to learn to turn off. Sienna was bouncing about giggling and smiling saying, “Today’s been so much fun, hasn’t it? Don’t you just love it?”

I’m afraid I vied on the side of my mother, I’m thrilled to be part of anything about Dylan, and especially by John Maybury, it all looks so beautiful and the script is funny and sharp, even if I end up on the cutting room floor I won’t mind, but one day was about as much as I could handle in the smoke filled boozer The Wheatsheaf circa ’46 Soho. However many stars you crammed in, however much charisma they have, give me a table in the British Library any day. Somehow I don’t think I’m heading towards being the next 007 Jane Bond — I’m sure his agent will be relieved to know, Daniel Craig’s career is safe.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sophie Parkin has written six published books. Three grown-up novels (you can’t say adult otherwise people think they might be pornography): All Grown Up, Take Me Home and Dear Goddess. For teenagers there is French for Kissing, Best of Friends, and Mad, Rich and Famous. She has also contributed to four other books, from short stories, true stories, long stories, to poetry. Mothers by Daughters, Sons and Mothers both published by Virago, Girls Just Want To Have Fun: the Cosmopolitan book of short stories, and POT 05 – Anthology of Poetry ed. Michael Horovitz.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 4th, 2007.