As an actor, your body is a gift. I can use mine to play neurotic Clare Devlin in Channel 4’s Derry Girls, or a tough-edged courtesan in 18th-century London in Harlots, or the tragic, misunderstood Joyce Emily Hammond, who I’m currently playing every night at the Donmar. I’m very lucky to get to use my body to become all these fascinating women. But the prism through which my body is viewed is inescapable.
I remember watching an episode of 30 Rock while I was at drama school. One of the characters had gained weight over the summer break while starring in a pizza-themed musical. When she came back on set, Alec Baldwin’s studio exec, Jack Donaghy, said: “She needs to lose 30 pounds or gain 60. Anything in between has no place in television.” I laughed, I loved it. But I also accepted it as fact: actresses have to be a certain size to be legitimate – those are the rules. I had read autobiographies by brilliant actors who I idolised; how a film director had told Judi Dench she had “every single thing wrong with her face”; watched the infamous 1975 Helen Mirren interview, when Michael Parkinson asked if her figure undermined her credibility as “a serious actress” (to which she brilliantly retorted: “Serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?”). These women were goddesses – I could not believe anyone would dare to criticise their bodies when it was so irrelevant to their talent. Now I know how it feels.
When I first auditioned for the play I’m currently in, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I researched the character thoroughly. In the novel, Muriel Spark describes Joyce Emily as “an outsider … the very rich girl, their delinquent, who had been recently sent to Blaine as a last hope, because no other school, no governess, could manage her”. David Harrower’s adaptation has brought the character of Joyce Emily into the foreground, making her a fascinating, three-dimensional character. I spent seven weeks creating her world in rehearsals; I researched the Spanish civil war in depth, I spent hours working on my Edinburgh accent, creating her changing physicality from age 11 to 15. By the time we opened the show I was so proud of all the work we’d done and was excited to share it with an audience.
The first review I saw had just this to say of my performance: “Nicola Coughlan as Joyce Emily, the kind of overweight little girl who will always become the butt of her fellows’ immature humour.” Everything I’d done to create my character had been reduced to a hurtful word and casual comment on my appearance. It’s worth noting that at no point in Spark’s novel, or David Harrower’s adaptation is Joyce Emily’s weight referenced, not one place.
I might have ignored it, but the same reviewer, Philip Fisher of the British Theatre Guide, had also come to see me in Jess and Joe Forever, a play I did last August in Edinburgh. His description of my performance that night amounted to him describing me as “a fat girl”. That was hurtful, and not only in the obvious way. Those were the only words he could think of to describe the work I’d done. That time, I didn’t complain but the play’s writer, Zoe Cooper, contacted the BTG. The “offending word” was removed from the review but no apology issued.
I am not someone who cannot handle criticism, but if I wanted to read cruel things about myself I’d head to YouTube’s comments section under a Derry Girls video and fill my boots (it truly is the armpit of the internet). This is different. Fisher is a professional; he was meant to review my work. Instead he reviewed my body. That is not acceptable.
This time, I wanted to have my say. I sent a tweet to the BTG hoping for acknowledgement and apology from them, which to the BTG’s credit I did receive.
The apology was relayed to me by the Donmar; he offered to do so in person but I declined. I didn’t feel like it was my responsibility to explain to him what he did wrong. Fisher was upset that he’d caused me offence, I have no doubt this is true, but in and of itself that’s a huge part of the problem. When someone stands up and says, “This isn’t OK”, the onus is on you to learn why, and do better.
But I got more than just an apology. The tweet was be seen by nearly half a million people. It created a social media storm, the kind I’m not used to being in the middle of. I had support from people I know, and so many I didn’t; and while I appreciated that, it was overwhelming. I’d inadvertently opened myself up to the kind of scrutiny I’d been trying to say was irrelevant to my work. The focus was on me, not my acting.
I know I’m not alone; women in my industry are put under constant scrutiny for their looks. It affects male actors as well – I had messages from them – but the vast majority of feedback was from women. Something in our society tells us that women’s bodies are fair game for scrutiny in a way that men’s simply are not.
At least I know I’m not alone. I’m following in the footsteps of some incredible actors, who dealt with similar comments throughout their entire careers. And I’m emboldened and inspired to come out and speak now, thanks to the work of the brilliant women in the Time’s Up movement. I hope in the future that more people will talk about our work, our inspirations, our drive, rather than our looks. A revolution is happening, and I want to play my part in it.
Written by Nicola Coughlan
Published June 29, 2018