By Alex Moreland.
“I was looking for a while to make another step from just being an actor,” explains Sophie Rundle, “to producing and having a seat at the table and starting to have more autonomy in the decisions I make.”
Rose: A Love Story, she says, ended up being “the perfect project” to take that step. Not only does Rundle star in the film, she also produced it, and was involved in the film since the start of its development. It’s a story about a young couple, isolated in the woods, living under the shadow of a mysterious condition that causes violent, feral outbursts – as the film progresses, their relationship is strained by the burden of that illness and threatened by the rapid intrusion of the outside world.
“Matt [Stokoe, Rundle’s partner] wrote it, just for the exercise of writing and wanting to explore that genre,” she continues. “He very flippantly said ‘oh, do you want to be in it?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ thinking, ‘Oh God. I hope it’s good!’
“But then when he sent it to me, I just loved it. It’s such a clever take on a genre and a style that we’re so familiar with, the vampire story – you sort of think ‘well, I don’t know how you could put a fresh spin on that’, but then when I read his script, I just thought it was so smart.”
“It was so clever to frame it as this couple, one of them dealing with this life-changing illness that’s all consuming. I hadn’t thought about that before, and I thought it was so tenderly drawn and it was such a beautiful musing on a relationship and what the burden of illness can do to a couple. I just loved it. So, he sent it to me and then I said, ‘Well, no, actually I’d really like to be in it’”
From there, the next step was finding a director: Jennifer Sheridan. Introduced by Rob Taylor (who also eventually acted as an executive producer on the film himself), Rundle explained: “We really liked her vibe, so then she came on board. For a first-time project, I think it’s a very bold step to write something and be in it and produce it and direct it, so we wanted someone at helm to oversee it”.
As production continued, Sophie added: “I learned so much about what goes in to getting something up and running and the decisions that have to be made months before you get on set. It was one of the most formative professional experiences that I’ve had, definitely.
“It took, I think, about 50 people to make it – and I loved that feeling, when people are up against it, when you’re in the middle of Wales and you’ve got no money and there’s no back-up. That was really humbling and exciting, because it’s easy to become complacent when you’re moving from job to job, and then you go back to grassroots and it just reminds you everyone’s there because they’re geeky and they love storytelling,” Rundle continues, the genuine enthusiasm obvious in her voice.
The film ended up having an unexpected resonance, though, one no-one could’ve predicted while shooting the film in that Welsh forest. “Making a film about a couple in lockdown, one of whom has to wear a mask every time she goes outside? You could never have planned it,” Rundle laughs, before continuing “that’s the beautiful thing about filmmaking, about art, isn’t it? It has a relevance that can change depending on the world it’s received into.”
“God, we all wish that the past year had never happened, but it’s fascinating to see how Rose fit into this new world, now that we’re all much more familiar with and literate with the idea of the claustrophobia, of being stuck inside, even with your loved ones, and having to wear a mask and feeling sort of trapped. It has been an amazing evolution of the film in a way.”
Rose: A Love Story is the first project from Rundle and Stokoe’s production company Bone Garden Films, but they’ve already started developing a television series and another film. “I really love the process of it,” Rundle explains, describing her role as a producer. “It’s been so liberating to start a new branch of my career in a way, where you get to have autonomy and you get to have a voice and you get to create original content. I mean, I love acting, I’ve been able to work with some amazing people, but you have to keep yourself creatively inspired.”
Eventually, she’d like to direct too. “I have so much respect for directors. I wouldn’t have the arrogance to say, ‘Oh yeah. I’ll walk in and direct something right now’. I think I’d have a lot to learn, but definitely on the horizon. I really enjoy having more of a say creatively and being more in the bones of a project, I’m really enjoying the producorial side, being the creative voice in the process, seeing how that works.
“After that,” Rundle continues, “it’s not an immediate burning desire to do anything. It’s more sort of the seed that’s growing. But I think in the future, especially as I get older, and I think especially as a woman in this industry, your relationship with the industry, the industry’s relationship with you, can change very quickly as you move from being a twenty-something into the later part of your career.”
“I would wait and see what my identity might look like as a director, I think, before I jumped in, but I’m totally open to it. I think you have to evolve and change and grow in this industry to stay interesting and stay relevant and stay inspired. I don’t think I would want to just be an actor forever,” she finishes.
It’s no surprise, though, that Rundle is starting to reflect on the next stage of her career – particularly with the last series of Peaky Blinders on the horizon, marking her final appearance as Ada Shelby, a role she first played when her acting career was just beginning.
“It has been a constant for me, which is quite unusual. It feels like it’s been forever that I’ve been part of it,” she muses. “I feel incredibly loyal to the show and I feel it has definitely occupied this special place for me. I grew up on it. That sounds really w***y, but I did. I learned so much. I was such a kid when I started and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing – and I still don’t!” she jokes, laughing.
“I feel like I’ve changed, and it’s been one of the characters I’ve enjoyed most, because Ada has changed so much from the first series to who she is now, and I love that. I love that I’ve been able to keep going back to it, each series adding another layer, these characters becoming fully realised, because they’ve got history, and the audience knows your history. So, I do feel really fond of it, but you can’t do something forever, can you? You’ve got to let a story come to its natural conclusion and who knows if there’s life after it, but I feel very proud to have been a part of it from the beginning and see it through.”
If nothing else, it’s left her with a strong sense of the sort of acting roles she’d like to pursue going forward (alongside producing and directing, that is). “It was such a rare opportunity to get to play someone like [Ada Shelby]. The fun and the swagger that Steven Knight puts in his scripts, that’s really rare to come across, especially as a woman, especially in my casting bracket.
“As I grow up, I want the characters that I play to be more grown up as well,” Rundle elaborates. “I’ve done a lot of quite vulnerable, tender parts, which I’ve loved doing, but as I get older and I just get a bit more opinionated and a bit more experienced and feel stronger in myself as a woman, they’re the kind of characters that I want to play. They’re the ones I want to see reflected on TV, in films that we watch.”
“I’m just interested in, I don’t know, toughening up a bit and playing some…” she trails off and then laughs. “I just want to be in an Italian crime drama! That would be it. During lockdown I’ve gotten really weirdly obsessed with crime dramas, I’ve discovered this bizarre blood lust that I have for really violent gang land dramas, so I’ve watched all of The Sopranos, I’ve been watching Gomorrah, ZeroZeroZero. I really love that genre.”
It’s not surprising from an actor who, looking back across her career, always really throws herself into different genres. Comparing the more supernatural aspects of Rose: A Love Story with the period dramas she’s starred in, she explains “I love that distance that you get in a period drama and I love the world of it. [But] the real pleasure in Rose – doing something modern, in my own accent – I was surprised by how I was still able to keep that distance. It never feels like me, do you know what I mean? It always felt to me like it’s a sort of fable, it’s a fairy-tale.”
That distance, as Rundle explains, is one of the most important things to her as a performer. “If you can be kind of anonymous in your work, you as the actor slip out of it, then that’s the best thing.”
“If you’re watching someone and recognise something in that performance or that character, even just for a moment, that’s so elusive and so rare. If people have even a moment of that with anything I’ve been in, I’d be delighted – the absence of me would be my preference.”
Rose: A Love Story will be available on digital platforms from 5th April. Visit our TV Guide to find something to watch tonight.