Milly Thomas: 'I expected to be objectified as an actor - but never as a writer'
Thomas is teaming up with Sharon Horgan to adapt her searing one-woman play Dust for television. She tells Ellie Harrison about writing from the heart – and the risk of being a “grateful” woman in the TV industry
As part of our Women's Words campaign, RadioTimes.com has approached established screenwriters and asked them to nominate up-and-coming female writers they believe have a bright and exciting future in television.
Here, Sharon Horgan, the creator and star of Catastrophe, endorses Milly Thomas as the next big name in screenwriting.
I haven’t read anyone quite like Milly before, haven’t seen anyone perform quite like her – I think she’s exceptional
Who is Milly Thomas? RadioTimes.com's Ellie Harrison sat down with the writer and actress for a candid discussion about her searingly honest portrayal of suicide and depression – and how she's worked to carve out a future in the TV industry.
“Despite ordering oat milk, I promise you I'm not a twat,” Milly Thomas assures me from across a table in a Covent Garden coffee shop.
Moments earlier, the screenwriter and actor had been explaining how before her first date with her now boyfriend, he’d Googled her name and all that came up was a load of “stuff about suicide”. Thomas hoots with laughter at the memory, while a waitress who has just walked in at the wrong end of the conversation nervously takes our order.
It’s true, search Thomas’s name and the word “suicide” does crop up a lot. Her newest, one-woman play Dust is all about a severely depressed young woman named Alice who, after taking her own life, gets stuck in a sort of limbo and is forced to witness the effects of her death on the people she left behind.
Thomas, who partnered with suicide prevention charity Samaritans for the play’s run at Trafalgar Studios in London's West End, says it’s extremely important to her that Dust is an accurate and responsible portrayal of severe depression, and that it does not glamourise suicide in any way. “I think there's another version of this show where she comes round at the end and it's all okay, but I think that's irresponsible,” she explains.
“The consequences of suicide are something very real that we're battling with on an epidemic level, and also the show is partly borne out of frustration at the way we glamourise suicide in art and media in general.”
Suicide is too often thrown in as a “hook” or a “B plot that's never fully investigated or interrogated” in drama, says Thomas, who finds it “abhorrent” that it is “used as a means by which to highlight generalised distress or as a means of revenge”.
“In real life you don't get to be a sexy ghost and wander through your life as a wronged party, as some untouchable person. And so Dust was a way of taking that concept which I'd seen, but turning it on its head and actually asking what the reality of that would be like. And you may not see the things you'd want or hope to see.”
RadioTimes.com has launched a new campaign – Women’s Words – celebrating female screenwriters and asking why there aren’t more women’s voices on British TV
Read more: www.radiotimes.com/womenswords
Dust, and its subject matter, is deeply personal to Thomas. “I had depression for years and suicide ideation and it's a horrible thing and a very real, very frightening thing, actually,” she says. “And it's so isolating because the fear of speaking up around it is so great.”
Part of that habit of internalising depression, Thomas says, comes from the frustration she feels when everything in her life is going smoothly but the illness does not relinquish its grip. “I had it recently during that heatwave,” Thomas recalls. “It was so sunny and I just remember feeling like the whole world is shining – why is this so s***? It's so unfair.”
Is the character she’s written for Dust based on herself? The play is “personal not autobiographical,” says Thomas. “I would say Alice is me but I'm not Alice at all. I've syphoned off bits of myself into her.”
After she first wrote Dust, Thomas says she “felt like I'd outed myself for absolutely no reason. I thought, ‘If this doesn't go in the way I want it to go, I'll feel awful about it.’”
On stage, Dust is visceral and intense and gloriously inappropriate – I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I saw it, and I get the impression that Thomas relishes the shock factor of her writing. “I wanted to look realistically at what depression can do, it can make you incredibly selfish and that's not something I wanted to shy away from…” she says.
“You can see people in the audience visibly shrinking back sometimes, you can see people recoil from the things Alice says and the way she acts.”
When we meet, Thomas is in the middle of Dust’s run at Trafalgar Studios, an intimate venue with the audience just inches from the stage. “I can see the whites of their eyes,” she tells me, with a tangible glee.
The play is achingly bleak but also very funny, and Thomas says she often sees people “clap their hands over their mouths".
"They feel bad that they've laughed but I think that's what life's like. If it wasn't funny, god, it'd be a tough old watch. I just feel like you wouldn't want to come and see it. It would just be too close to the bone.”
Now, Thomas is adapting Dust for television with Sharon Horgan and Clelia Mountford ("they’re razor sharp, both of them") and their production company Merman, the makers of Catastrophe, Motherland and Divorce.
“Sharon's got such a wicked sense of humour…” says Thomas. “She flirts between safety and danger in her work in a way that I find really exciting.”
She reveals that after Horgan expressed an interest in adapting the show, she thought, “This is someone who gets me and gets what I'm about, and is able to facilitate all my messiness and me being me on the page in a way that I wonder if other people might have wanted to comb out the knots and sand off the edges.”
Horgan, meanwhile, has hailed Dust as “such an important piece of work” and told me that when she saw Milly perform it “the whole audience left in tears”.
“I forgot my bag, that had my laptop in it, because I was such a wreck. All I could think about was going home to hug my daughters," she said.
“Watching a character in severe depression, and the fallout amongst her friends and family after her actions is heartbreaking – but it screams the point at us that we find it easier to talk about periods and bad sex than mental health.”
With Horgan by her side, Thomas is writing “anywhere and everywhere I can” and she tells me “the fear of not working” means she constantly needs to keep busy. “I will end up writing on holidays, I find it really hard to relax completely,” she says.
She charts her fierce work ethic back to drama school, where she found herself “feeling really disillusioned” by the whole process. “I always knew it would be tough but I didn't realise how tough.
“I was watching all of these incredibly talented actors in the years above me and watching them become jaded and it made me feel jaded, and I just thought, ‘I've wanted this for so long, I really don't want that to be me.’”
She says she was tired of waiting for her “face to be the right fit for someone because that's all acting is at the end of the day, which is a sad thing” and so she took some time to think about how she could “keep a hand in the industry that I love”. It was then that she realised she loves telling stories, she can make people laugh and she can write her own roles. After the penny dropped, she says, “I just wrote. I wrote like a demon, I wrote so much so fast.”
The first play Thomas produced was A First World Problem, which opened in 2014 and in which she cast herself. It was quickly followed by Piggies, Clickbait, Brutal Cessation and Dust. She has also penned TV scripts for Clique and River City. It’s been a busy four years.
When Thomas writes, she listens to “weird ambient stuff or that playlist on Spotify, Electronic Concentration, thank you Jesus for that. I find lyrics really, really distracting because usually it's a million times better than what I'm trying to write".
This is not the first or last time she downplays her abilities during our hour together. Her self-deprecation is undoubtedly part of her charm, but this is a woman who knows her talent.
She's also full of praise for her peers. “My admiration for Michaela Coel knows no bounds. I think she's astonishing… Her honesty and her frankness and the way she's used social media to demystify the process of making television and her generosity, the way she speaks about what she's doing I think is so, so important because [television] can feel like such a closed shop…
“People can make you feel so small for asking questions, and that's really cruel in an industry that you know nothing about if you're on the outside of it.”
Thomas says she has encountered roadblocks in the TV industry – both because she is a woman and because of the disclosures she's made about mental health in Dust. “I expected to be objectified as an actor,” she says. “That's a terrible thing. I had expected that and I anticipated that which is a sad state of affairs and speaks volumes about our industry. But I never expected to be objectified as a writer. And that was a very rude awakening.”
She speaks of being invited into meetings just to tick a gender diversity box and of “not being taken seriously” because people who have read Dust will say things like, “Oh, I've got this thing, we want to make something about a girl going crazy and we thought of you.”
Yet, Thomas admits, she still fights “the urge to be accommodating” and remain polite. “You're made to feel like an imposition as a woman often. You're made to feel grateful. That word, grateful. It reduces you in size, you're meant to feel grateful for the opportunity. That you're lucky to be there, whatever that means.”
Acutely aware of the obstacles facing women in television, Thomas is exasperated that so many talented female voices are going unheard. “I feel like all the people I know and hang out with are just brilliant women on the cusp of something,” she says, “but no one's being given the opportunities and we're seeing the same shows again and again and again.”
There is one piece of advice, given to Thomas by a director at drama school, that has helped her to be fearless: “Hold on tightly, let go lightly… The idea that you should hold on tightly when something comes your way, you should go for it, commit 100% because you're not going to get the most out of it otherwise…
“If it doesn't work out, doesn't go your way, you let go lightly. Doesn't matter, not the end of the world, onto the next.”
Thomas’s tip for aspiring screenwriters entering the industry is simply to “be truthful”. She says, “Truthful writing, fiction included, will hit you off the page like a punch to the face. It won't get on TV unless it's wrestled the people reading it, bored in an office, wrestled them to the floor.”
Her ferocity is no doubt what propelled Thomas to where she is today: adapting her stage-play for the small screen with Horgan, starring in Amazon’s new sci-fi series The Feed and writing a range of projects for TV and theatre.
In five years’ time, she says, she’d like to have created and starred in her own TV show. Does she feel optimistic or terrified about the future? “A bit of both,” she smiles, swirling her oat milk tea.
“But honestly, I'm just trying to enjoy it. I won't forget that fear in drama school of seeing those people in the years above me, it can all disappear. I'm just trying to enjoy it, and every time I get too scared or too stressed I just remind myself that they are just stories.
“I'm holding on tightly before I let go lightly.”