In our series of guest interviews, Jonathan Harden sits down with Bronagh Taggart. Bronagh is an actor and writer, who has worked at the Old Vic, the NT, and has written hours and hours of broadcast TV, with more always on its way. Jonathan specifically wanted to ask her what she had learned about managing the two gigs side by side, and – as always – what advice she had for actors seeking representation.
You’ve done loads of other things, but you’ll probably be recognisable to most as Gail McNally from The Fall. Can you remember how it felt getting the call to say you’d been cast?
I had auditioned for the first series, which I didn’t get, but I watched it like everyone else, hooked and dying to be part of it. When the audition came in for a role in the second series, I remember being so nervous. Not just because it had become such a hit, but because I also loved the part and I didn’t want to mess it up. I was so excited when I got the call to say I’d got it, but a bit anxious about joining a show as ‘the newbie’. Thankfully, everyone was really welcoming, and because the character was on the police task force, it felt like joining a team and becoming one of the family.
You also write quite a lot for TV. Is having more than one string to your bow something you’d encourage other actors to work towards? Have you found being a writer has impacted on your opportunities as an actor, either negatively or positively?
When I started writing I worried a lot about it impacting negatively on my acting career. I remember meeting people and them saying “Oh you gave up acting to write didn’t you?” or hear that they had passed on to other people on my behalf that I had “stopped acting”. I got so angry about it, because that wasn’t the case at all, I love acting and don’t ever want to give it up, and also I hated how they were deciding for me that I could only be one thing, that my options were either act or write, that there was no conceivable way I could do both.
I wondered whether it was something I should hide in the audition room in case it put people off. In auditions you’re usually asked “what have you been up to lately?” and it felt messed-up to purposely hide the fact that I had been writing an episode of something in favour of letting them think I hadn’t been up to much.
Thankfully I think the attitude towards actors fulfilling more than one creative job has changed a lot in the last few years. Creating, writing and acting on the same production is possible and has been proven by actors like Michaela Coel, Arinze Kene, Lennie James, Phoebe Waller-Bridge… The list goes on and on. There are loads of actors doing it!
I would encourage all actors to explore and push themselves in any creative fields they’re interested in. Don’t limit yourself. Others will do that for you. Instead push yourself. As well as making us stronger performers, I think having an understanding and appreciation of how other areas of the industry work is a positive thing and brings the whole industry closer. It also makes you feel more proactive. As actor I can’t act every day, but I can write everyday and doing something creative on a regular basis has kept me sane.
What has writing taught you about being an actor? And do you think being an actor has influenced the type of writer you are?
Writing has taught me that a script is a very precious thing. When we read one as actors, we’re not reading a first draft, we’re reading something that has taken someone a lot of time and energy and has probably caused them headaches and tears and minor mental breakdowns to get it to this point. And to be chosen as the actor to bring those words to life is a great privilege and compliment. It’s the passing of a baton in a way. The writer is now saying, “I’ve got it this far, I need you to take it from here”.
I’ve always loved dialogue an actor, my favourite part of rehearsals is breaking down the words and language and interrogating the scenes. Your perspective always shifts from when you first read the piece. I think that has made me a dialogue-heavy writer. It’s my favourite part of writing and when I started out, that was all I could do. Structure and plot were things I had to work on, but dialogue was always (and still is) the fun part.
Have you been involved in casting any of the shows you write for? What has being part of that process taught you as an actor?
I’ve had very limited experience with casting. In the early days of writing, I was asked to watch some self-tapes for a show I was working on and feed back, and I didn’t enjoy it. It felt weird being on the other side of the audition process. I was nervous for the actors and felt bad if they weren’t right for the part. I suppose when you go through that audition process yourself you have a kind of PTS reaction at watching others do it over and over again, knowing how they must be feeling and the pressure they put on themselves to get the job.
I’ve got better though. Casting is one of the most exciting parts of bringing a production to life and if I have the chance, I’ll always try to recommend actors for parts.
Recently I’ve had great experiences working with some casting directors on a couple of my own short films. It’s made me realise how specialised and skilled the job is. There’s a science in pulling all the elements together in order to get the chemistry right.
I spoke to Lizzie Berrington, one of the founders of the ERA5050 campaign, whose website cites some shocking stats about how badly equality is needed in our industry. For example, the BBC commissioned 32 men and only eight women to write drama for broadcast in 2017. Channel 4 has transmitted only two prime-time original drama series created by a woman since 2004. As a writer, have you experienced this kind of inequality in the writing room?
In the early days of writing I did find myself as either the sole female or one of a few in a room full of men. I was sometimes automatically assigned the ‘girls’ storylines too. We’d brain storm male characters story ideas and then when we moved onto the female characters I felt like it was all eyes on me to produce the goods. As much as I loved writing for the females, I wanted to write for all the characters and for the male writers to do the same.
I don’t think anyone thinks this inequality has been solved yet. I have seen some small changes though. I’m writing on two majority female writing teams at the minute, but I think there’s still a lack of female lead writers on shows, and that needs to change.
You didn’t train at a drama school. Do you think this held you back at all?
I always wonder about this one, but something occurred to me recently. There is no ‘one way’ to work and succeed in this industry. And that is both the greatest thing about it, and the worst thing.
If like other careers there was a clear path in acting where you start at a certain point and you climb the ladder until you stop working, then we’d know if we were on track career wise. But in the acting world there is no clear path or ladder. It’s just unpredictable from start to finish. So saying training is the only way to get into the industry or that not training holds you back isn’t true.
We know people who have trained and who’ve had great careers and ones that achieved just as much without training. The important thing is that you learn somehow and continue to learn. And I believe that can be done either at a drama school or on the job. What I’d like to see is the snobbery around training disappear. With arts funding disappearing, there are less and less working class actors able to afford drama school and I’m worried that this job will just be for those that can afford to train, instead of being open to everyone.
As you know, the users of The Artist Hub initially sign up because they don’t have agents. So how did you get your first acting agent? Are you still with the same one? If not, how many have you had and what makes you want/need to move on?
I got my very first one back home in Belfast when I was at school and got my first recall for a film. But that wouldn’t be very typical of the industry. There were only two agents there and you were either with one or the other.
I got my first London agent when I did my first play there at the Old Red Lion in Islington. I invited some agents along and luckily one of them invited me in for a chat and signed me. I’ve moved agents a few times since then. When I have moved, it’s been because I felt lost within a huge list, or that I felt a disconnect between the type of actor I am, and the type of jobs an agency were putting people up for.
What advice would you give to someone looking for their first agent?
Getting someone to sign you depends on many factors that are out of your control – Do they have room on their books? Do they already represent someone very like you? So I’d say make sure you take care of all the factors that are within your control and do what ever you can to give you the best chance at securing an agent.
Contact as many as you can, do your homework. The smallest of mistakes can look like you didn’t care enough and if you want them to take you seriously then you’ve got to do the same.
From my experience most will want to know if they can see you in anything so if you are working then strike while the iron’s hot, don’t wait until the job is done to tell them about it.
The actor-agent relationship can be a difficult one to get right. What have your learned over the years in terms of keeping it all running smoothly?
It’s not about being with the biggest and best known agency, it’s about being with someone you can be honest with in terms of what you want and someone you can talk to easily and openly. The job is stressful enough without the added worry of feeling like you can’t express your hopes and aims with the very person your supposed to be working alongside to achieve them.
Bronagh Taggart is a actor and screenwriter from Belfast. As an actor, her screen credits include: The Fall, Best: His Mother’s Son, and the BAFTA-winning Occupation. She appeared in Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic, in the epic Ulysees for BBC Rado 4, and in Colin Teevan’s Iph… at the National Theatre. After gaining her first broadcast credits as a writer on BBC drama 6Degrees in 2011, her 30 minute film, Call it a Night was one of six scripts chosen for Touchpaper TV/Channel 4’s Coming Up series in 2013. She has since gone on to be commissioned to write over twenty episodes of shows for Zodiak, CBBC, and Disney, and to develop original ideas with BBC and Channel 4. Her award-winning short film, Guard – in which she also plays the lead role – has screened at over 30 festivals internationally, and continues to travel the world.
Jonathan Harden in an actor, director, and creator of the award-winning Honest Actors Podcast & Blog. He can be found tweeting and instagramming at @jonatharden. Series 3 of the podcast launches later this year.