June 24, 2020 Interview – Simeon Willis
A man of many talents, Simeon Willis is an actor who also has a passionate interest behind-the-camera. Known for his work in 2015’s Narcopolis, 2016’s The Gatehouse, and 2017’s The Rizen, along with roles in such series as Hetty Feather and Mr Selfridge, Willis has explored a multitude of genres over the past two decades.
Balancing a busy schedule of film projects, Willis recently sat down to discuss his career both in-front of and behind the camera, his love of the outdoors, crafting a three-dimensional character, comedy, and much, much more.
Cryptic Rock – For the past nearly two decades, you’ve been involved in both film and television, as an actor as well as behind-the-scenes. What inspired you to pursue a career in entertainment?
Simeon Willis – Star Wars (1977) was the first film I remember seeing at the cinema and that experience changed my life. The second was Superman (1978) and that cemented my fascination with cinema. Then it was all about dressing up as Han Solo and Superman, of course. And at home, I was totally hooked on the shows coming out of America at the time, such as the Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team and The Incredible Hulk, to name a few.
I also loved pretty much anything Glen A. Larson had a hand in, especially The Fall Guy. I loved The Fall Guy so much I even changed my name to Lee, unofficially of course, and went about becoming a stuntman. (It probably says something that I chose the actor’s name rather than the character’s).
I was lucky enough to grow up in the New Forest, which is one of the largest National Parks in Southern England, and this gave me free rein to experiment with stunts like throwing myself out of trees, rolling across moving cars in tucked away forest car parks, and building jumps for my Raleigh Grifter and later, of course, my BMX. I’d seen Evil Knievel on TV and so I went about jumping over whatever I could get my hands on, including my three younger brothers!
I even set up a stuntman school for my brothers, setting up tests for them to pass in order to get their much coveted ‘Stuntman certificates’. I still love any extreme sports and will always try and do my own stunts if I can get away with it.
The acting came years later. My wonderful drama teacher at school, Miss Sprake, spotted some talent and was keen to nurture it. I remember doing a ‘play for teenagers’ in after-school drama club called “The Chicken Run,” by Aidan Chambers, in which there was a fight scene and a healthy scattering of swear words. I remember feeling so grown-up and privileged to be doing it. I think it was this that set me on the road, albeit a rocky and winding one, as growing up in a small village in the New Forest was great in all respects except if you wanted to be an actor. That was for city-folk and was actively discouraged. But hopes and dreams never fully vanish, and although it took a good few years for me to find a way to follow my dream, I eventually went to drama school and the rest is history.
Cryptic Rock – But you never stopped chasing the dream! Because of that, now you have quite an eclectic resume both in-front of and behind the camera, with credits ranging from a script editor to an assistant director. What is it that intrigues you about working behind the camera, as well?
Simeon Willis – Everything about the whole process of filmmaking excites me. My interest in working behind the camera has evolved since the first feature I ever did (2007’s Stagknight, directed by Simon Cathcart). I was fascinated by what I observed going on behind the scenes and behind the camera. It felt like this great big family all working in unison together; I wanted to feel more a part of that. Actors are usually whisked away between set-ups, and end up spending their time either alone in their trailers or socializing with the other actors in the green room. Instead, I had an urge to hang around between set-ups. For an actor, this can be frowned upon, but my interest was clearly genuine, friendships were quickly formed and it wasn’t long before my presence was accepted behind the monitor. I learned a lot.
You learn what makes great relationships on set, how and when sets work wonderfully, and when they don’t. A first assistant director can make or break a set and it’s gold when you get to work with a great one. I’ve only done it a couple of times, but I really enjoyed it and would do it again, for sure.
Script editing came as a natural progression when I was attached to a project that I loved, but because the writer’s first language wasn’t English, the dialogue needed to be re-imagined. I’ve read a lot of scripts and over time I’ve developed an eye for what works and what doesn’t – which scripts speak out, for example, and which don’t. If a project excites and inspires me, it’s easy to get stuck in and edit a script that needs tweaking. You have to be passionate about a script to be able to work on it successfully. Otherwise, not only is it exhausting but you could easily end up doing the writer an undeserved disservice by changing and streamlining a script that maybe you just don’t get or appreciate the author’s style.
Cryptic Rock – The fact that you recognize that and have respect for the original script certainly gives you an advantage right from the start. Now, all of that said, obviously there are some huge differences between films and television. As an actor who has done both, how does television differ from film, aside from the obvious?
Simeon Willis – I don’t have a huge amount of television work under my belt, but in my experience, I think the main difference is the speed in which television is shot. Generally speaking, film is shot using a single camera whereas television scenes are covered with at least two, each set up leading to a quicker turnaround. This often translates to less rehearsal time in television. On a film set, rehearsal is much more likely.
Firstly, so that the actors and director can organically block the scene for the DOP to light and capture performance, and then secondly while the lighting happens, the actors and director tend to move off set and spend that time fine-tuning the details of the scene. In television, there is less opportunity for the actors to have much of a creative input in the blocking as everything tends to be lit and ready to shoot beforehand, and although you can make minor adjustments, things are often far less flexible due to the speed in which the ‘machine’ has to work to stay on schedule.
Cryptic Rock – Understandable. Now, as far as film goes, let’s talk specifically about 2016’s wonderfully done The Gatehouse. In the movie, your character is a widower who also happens to be a writer. The artistic temperament seems to be perfectly-suited to you, and you portrayed the struggles of a creative type beautifully. Was this a role that was easy to embrace?
Simeon Willis – Thank you for saying so. I’m truly grateful to you for your lovely words!
A jobbing writer who relies on his agent to negotiate the majority of his work will undoubtedly experience the same uncertainty and unpredictability about where the next job will come from, or indeed if one will come at all—as an actor does. With that in mind, knowing Jack has to endure all the ups and downs that can come from that uncertainty, he and I are not that far removed, so finding an affinity with Jack was an easy transition to embrace. Even though I’m not a father myself, having nephews and nieces meant the idea of that wasn’t completely alien either. (Laughs)
So yeah, identifying with Jack’s struggles and inner turmoil as a freelance writer and single father, coupled with the pain of losing the love of his life, did come fairly naturally to me and I found myself living in his shoes with comparative ease. Of course, there are always things about a performance that I feel I could have done better, but with each new job you learn something about yourself as an actor and The Gatehouse is no exception. Working with the wonderful Martin Gooch, and with our fantastic cast and crew, was such a great experience and one I will always cherish.
Cryptic Rock – It’s a wonderfully done film and you had a magnificent on-screen, organic chemistry with your precocious young co-star Scarlett Rayner. Are there special challenges when your main co-star is so very young and performing in their first film?
Simeon Willis — In real life, Scarlett Rayner is far from precocious and was a joy to work with. And I got to play at being a dad for a few weeks which was great! I remember we hadn’t even properly met before we started shooting. The very first scene we shot was the one where I had to cut off her thumbs and I remember how, despite all the craziness, she took it all in her stride, remaining calm and focused even though she would have been pretty daunted by it all. I was super impressed by her tenacity and professionalism for someone of such a young age.
Whilst waiting around between set ups, Scarlett was often engrossed in a game on her Nintendo and when the director, Martin Gooch, would say to her “Okay we’re going to shoot now,” barely looking up, she would say “What scene?” Then, without referring to a script, she would jump to her feet ready to play. Amazing! I am very proud of our on-screen chemistry and I think that’s because Scarlett is such a naturally playful and insightful actress. Off camera, she was a little shy to begin with, but we easily built up a great bond that gave a natural quality to our relationship on camera. I’m sure you will be seeing a lot more of Scarlett Rayner!
Cryptic Rock – She is certainly a very talented young lady! Now, beyond The Gatehouse, you also worked on the 2017 Sci-Fi flick The Rizen. Presumably you must enjoy the challenge of acting across different genres, but do you have a favorite genre to work in?
Simeon Willis – Absolutely, I love working across different genres—it keeps the work exciting. I tend to gravitate naturally towards Comedy but am very happy whatever the genre, which means I get to do a lot of Drama too, and really enjoy doing both. Where I can, I try to bring some light to the dark and some dark to the light in my characters.
I think Jack Winter in The Gatehouse has a little of both in him. I believe people are very rarely one or the other, and in order to avoid stereotypes, I will always try to bring a level of vulnerability and, therefore, humanity to a character. That’s not to say you can’t sometimes create a character whose performance feels larger than life or exaggerated if the style requires it—look at some of Dennis Hopper’s characters, for example. Ultimately, it’s important for me that any interpretation of a character is honest and truthful, and I approach a part as if it’s basically me, or rather the essence of me, if I’d been brought up in the same environment, had the same journey and made the same life choices as the person I’m playing. That character is then ‘let loose’ within the framework of the particular genre.
If something is well-written, engaging, and has well-rounded characters driving a great story forward, then I’ll be drawn to it and be excited about bringing the character off the page, breathing my life force into them and ultimately taking them on the journey of the script for the viewer to hopefully empathize and engage with.
The producer, Clare Pearce, and some of the team behind The Rizen had also worked on The Gatehouse, so it was wonderful to work with those guys again. They’re a fantastic bunch and I love being a part of their film family when I can. I met Matt Mitchel, the writer and director of The Rizen, whilst filming The Gatehouse and he was a joy to have on set. He made me laugh every day, so I was extremely happy that I got to work with him on his film. He is a fantastic writer and, all being well post-pandemic, we will be seeing some great film and TV from Matt and Clare of Lost Eye Films.
Cryptic Rock – Certainly when you work with people who you enjoy being around it makes the job easier and usually the outcome is better, as well. That said, obviously over the past few years you have starred in quite a few shorts, as well as 2019’s Deathcember and the recent UK-release Second Spring. Do you find it more of a challenge to deliver in a role that is dramatic and based in reality versus a character who exists amid a fantastical Horror or Sci-Fi premise?
Simeon Willis – My process for creating a character isn’t particularly genre dependent; whether based in reality or amid a fantasy world, my focus is on the specific challenges my character faces in the story. Embracing those challenges is a big part of what makes my job as an actor interesting. I love to be engrossed in whatever genre my character exists within, and get an enormous kick out of it when I find that sweet spot of complete synchronicity between character and world. I’ve talked a bit about this before, but I usually find it easier to deliver in a comedic role, as I find there is greater sense of freedom to explore and play—and there’s a lot of fun to be had in building those characters.
A recent example is the short film The Messenger (2017), written and directed by the young and very talented Hansel Rodrigues, which has picked up a whole heap of awards on the film festival circuit. It’s available to watch online now here.
That said, being free to play is also important in more serious drama, and when a character is beautifully written they are a true pleasure to take on. Second Spring is a great example of a beautifully written drama and working with Andy Kelleher, the writer and director, was an absolute joy and pleasure that I hope will continue on further collaborations with him in the future.
In contrast, I do sometimes struggle to find a level of enthusiasm and purpose to a character if I’m asked to play someone who feels flat and superficial on the page compared to someone that has a bunch of interesting idiosyncrasies and is preferably wild or off beat in some way. So if the character on the surface seems a bit of a caricature or a bit of a stereotype in the script, I think it’s my job and duty to make that character fully rounded and three-dimensional, with all the good, bad, indifference and curiosity that every human being has. This can be harder to manifest in a way that an audience might appreciate in a short film but I still need to do that work rather than just dialing it in, or else the joy of playing is severely diminished and, after all, being playful is what acting is all about.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. There’s no challenge for the actor in portraying a flat character and, in turn, there’s usually very little intrigue for the audience. All of that said, understanding that most filming is temporarily on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what is hopefully next for you?
Simeon Willis – Yes, COVID-19 has certainly put everything on hold, and I just hope the industry doesn’t change too much because of it. There seems to be this understanding that it will never be the same again but I’m hopeful things will work themselves out. It’s a difficult time. I’m having a go at writing at the moment, so we will see where that goes. I’ve always believed I’d end up directing, so perhaps this hiatus in the industry is the push I need to take that idea more seriously. As far as acting goes, we’ll have to see which, if any, of the independent projects that were in discussion pre-pandemic will now be viable. Fingers crossed all the restrictions and insurance issues will not cause budgets to soar and deter investment in Independent films everywhere.
Having said that, and to finish on a lighter note, social distancing may be easier to adhere to in some stories more than others, leading me to conclude by saying that as well as really wanting to do a Western, I’ve always wanted to utilize my New Forest woodsman and bush craft skills (I love it!) and do a survival story set in the wilderness. If anyone knows of any, give me a shout! (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – Well, we love a great wilderness survival flick, so here’s hoping that happens for you! Last question. Do have any favorite Horror and/or Sci-Fi films?
Simeon Willis – I’m not a die-hard fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I definitely like a good Horror—from my mate’s dad’s VHS copies of classics such as Carrie (1976) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), when I was too young to be watching, through Shaun of the Dead (2004) and the more recent offerings of films, such as Get Out (2017) and the masterclass in tension that was A Quiet Place (2018). It also goes without saying that The Shining (1980) is pretty much perfect, but then again, so is anything directed by Stanley Kubrick.
The Endless (2017) by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead is a brilliant Horror/Sci-Fi, and I’ll happily admit that I’m a huge Sci-Fi fan. This probably stems from Star Wars being the first film I ever saw at the cinema, and my love of TV shows like Buck Rogers, Star Trek, Space 1999, Dr. Who and the original Battlestar Galactica. I’m also fascinated and deeply curious about the unknown, untapped and unseen possibilities of, not just the accepted universe we can physically sense, but also with the infinite possibilities and wonders of multi-universes we don’t see, feel and hear in this plane—and other worlds and lifeforms, alternate realities, space time continuum, quantum theory, etc., etc. I could go on and on. So, any work that opens up these worlds has my attention.
Blade Runner (1982) is still one of my favorite movies of all time, along with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but the volume of Science Fiction greats is huge. From Interstellar (2014), Gattaca (1997) and The Matrix (1999) to Primer (2004), Moon (2009), Inception (2010) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the list goes on and on and on. And even thinking about what to include blows my mind, so I’m gonna have to stop or I’ll never finish. Suffice to say, I’m always after recommendations and any new work that comes out I get very excited about. Actually, I can’t help myself but I must say that one of the best series of more recent times has to be Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. In fact, I think I was in the middle of watching it when I was working on my only Sci-Fi film to date, 2015’s Narcopolis (directed by Justin Trefgarne), and got to work with the brilliant James Callis, who plays Gaius Baltar. A great actor and a great guy, and a really great show. Okay, I’m done now!
Let’s move on. I love music and I used to listen to a lot. Less so nowadays, unfortunately, and I can’t remember exactly how or why this has happened. A shame, really, and that is something I really have to rectify and educate myself on today’s artists away from the mainstream. If you asked me who my favorite band is, my automatic response would be The Doors and Talking Heads. (Laughs)
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