Glass Interviews British Actor Saffron Burrows
Hackney-native Saffron Burrows first emerged on the acting scene at the age of 17, formerly trying her hand at theatre as a young adolescent. At the age of 15, Burrows found herself taking a dip in the world of fashion, when she caught the eye of fashion photographer Beth Boldt. Walking in Paris for some of the most revered names in the industry at the time, she soon found herself straying away from the unpredictable and often lonesome world of fashion, becoming a lot more drawn to the versatility and creative scope in acting.
Daughter to an architect father and teacher mother, she grew up in a household of socialists with robust political views – her dynamic and resilient childhood a reflection of her humbling environments and influences, participating in significant world issue campaigns as a teenager, and joining an anti-racism group at the tender age of 11.
Her impressive versatility in acting reflects the actress’s brilliance, never shying away from a challenge. She’s played a wide range of roles including Gustav Kilmt’s love interest opposite John Malkovich in art-house biopic Kilmt; fighting off genetically engineered sharks as a scientist in Deep Blue Sea; and even playing the role of a mobster’s wife in crime flick Gangster No.1. Her most coveted film role to date, and perhaps the role she is most recognized for, is her character as Trojan Princess Andromache in the hugely successful historical adventure-thriller Troy, alongside Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom.
Her latest acting venture in comedy-drama television series Mozart in the Jungle encounters Burrows as a gifted cellist. Humble, grounded and open-minded, fame seems to hold little weight in Burrow’s presence; rather, her drive in acting is fueled by passion and enthusiasm. Openly bisexual and living happily with her wife Alison Balian – a writer for The Ellen Show – the couple had their first child together in 2012.
Glass speaks with the talented actress and mother, to find out more about how she embarked on her film career, and her current on-going projects.
What was is it like suddenly plunging into a modelling career at the age of 15, and modelling for big name brands?
Saffron Burrows: It was very unexpected. I was approached in Covent Garden one day and events occurred quickly. I was in Paris soon after. I remember the feeling was a combination of exhilaration and bewilderment. Some enjoyment and some loneliness for my London life, friends and their normality; as my life became quite altered.
Why did you decide to get into acting and how has your perspective towards it changed over the years?
SB: I thought about the world of theatre when I was very young as my mum took me to plays in London frequently, and I thought it was a wonderful world. I never dreamt I would be in it, or make a living from it. And films were not in my English orbit, with the exception of Ken Loach and Terence Davies, whose work really moved me when I was not yet a teenager.
I attended the Anna Scher Youth Theatre at 11, 12, 13, which was largely improvisation based. At 17 I met a film maker – Ngozi Onwurah (Shoot The Messenger) – who became my mentor. She gave me a small part in Body Beautiful and then wrote a role for me in Welcome To The Terror Dome, the first feature to be directed by a black British woman. The film took three years to complete. I loved being on set. I loved the work. It was shot in my neighborhood of Hackney.
I couldn’t believe how many people there were on a set to have a conversation with. One night, Ngozi told me to stay up all night, literally all night to prepare for a harrowing scene the next day. I did as she instructed. And my family were so sweet. They took it in turns to stay up with me, sitting in the kitchen drinking tea all night.
In your latest TV role you star as Cynthia, a cellist in Mozart in the Jungle, what drew you to her character?
SB: She was complicated, rich in history, fantastically messy, yet full of rigour. I was interested in someone who has to devote that much of their life to their craft.
How have you prepared musically for this role and what are some of the challenges you faced?
SB: I’ve played cellists previously in two films. I already knew I loved the instrument, but Mozart has given me a much longer relationship with it. We often have four or five days notice to learn a piece. It’s like swotting for an exam. I enjoy it, but tend to achieve just 90 seconds of each piece – just enough for the take – wishing, always, I had time to learn more.
What is your relationship like with classical music?
SB: I’ve previously dipped my toes into the world of it via my theatre life, having worked with theatre directors who also straddle the opera world. This has made it less foreign to me, but now, with Mozart, I feel much more of an affinity with it. I will take note of an orchestra in a richer way and have had the joy of watching the New York Philharmonic rehearse, as well as sessions with Carter Brey, the principal cellist. I now feel much more connected to classical music.
You’ve played a multitude of roles in your career, from a scientist in Deep Blue Sea, to a heister in The Bank Job, and a Trojan princess in Troy, is versatility in the roles you portray intentional or by chance?
SB: I think perhaps the answer is both. I am drawn to challenges I’ve never faced before and then often lie in the bath wondering what I’ve taken on: learning near fluent Spanish in three weeks for a Spanish language film in Cuba – very stressful.
And every time I spoke Italian by mistake the teacher threw a pencil at me – shooting in the Himalayas, or doing an improv thriller in New Orleans with a Baton Rouge accent.
I like new places, and living in new cities not just necessarily as a tourist, (although that’s fun too) but at work. While making The Bank Job I was also shooting an indie, The Guitar, Amy Redford’s directorial debut in New York, and playing a lot of stumbling Hendrix, with bitten-down nails and knotted hair. (When I got back on The Bank Job set I needed an overhaul.) Creatively, I felt very alive and perhaps that one film experience served to enhance the other.
What kind of film roles would you like to portray in the future?
SB: Hopefully some more complicated people. There’s one or two I’ve got up my sleeve. There’s a historical character that could be interesting that’s still in development.
Tell us a bit about your life outside acting, are you still involved in some political activism?
SB: Yes. I’m as interested as ever. Fortunately for me, my family are big campaigners and activists so even when I laid low as a new mum, they kept me in touch quite a bit with world events. There are organizations I follow and admire and hope to immerse myself in more now I’m further into parenthood.
How do you stay grounded?
SB: My family, coming from my part of London, going to Stokey school (Stoke Newington in Hackney) having brilliant friends. I come from a strong left-wing community in London where activism and community was part of every day life, whether it was anti-racist campaigning, or fighting deportations, or Police harassment. What mattered was equality and standing up against injustice. I think perhaps those values are with you for life.
What’s on the agenda for you this year?
SB: Hopefully more Mozart In The Jungle and other creative endeavours. More time with family. More enjoyment of home, as well as travel. And the flourishing of new pastures.