Arts & Poetry, Faith

When Films and Faith collide

Alastair McIver talks with the London based actress Emma Rigby about life in Hollywood, coming home, and faith

It’s hard to overestimate the achievements of someone like Emma Rigby, who has fought her way up the ladder from humble beginnings to a place of Hollywood movies and A-list fame. She had a blossoming post-Hollyoaks, pre-Hollywood career which included leads in prime-time TV series’. Becoming Human, Ripper Street and the critically acclaimed Prisoners’ Wives.

So to reduce her achievements to a simple ‘Hollyoaks to Hollywood’ soundbite would be doing a grave disservice to the actress herself, whose struggles to achieve in the competitive world of movies is a testament to the God that she acknowledges has journeyed with her every step of the way, even in the dark times.

“I am not from a family that is in the industry,” she says, “and I am not from a family that had lots of money. Drama training and education didn’t exist for me.  So Hollyoaks was a huge opportunity for someone like me who comes from a place of no opportunity and I was very blessed to have received that. And of course I responded to it. When something is presented to you, you take it and you make the best possible use of it.”

And that she did, with international consequences.

After her British TV successes, America beckoned and while others have tried and failed, Rigby’s steely determination and focus to succeed in the world’s toughest movie environment took her on a four year journey that saw her cast in some major film and TV roles such as The Physician, Plastic, American Violence and the ABC mega-series, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, playing alongside such stellar Hollywood greats as Sir Ben Kingsley, Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Denise Richards, Downton’s Ed Speelers, Game of Thrones star Alfie Allen and many more.

You would have thought that most actors would be satisfied with such career highlights at such a young age. But for all her success, Emma knew she was struggling. She was feeling estranged from the God whom she grew up with back in St Helens.

Looking back on the decision to go to America, it was an experience that caused me great fear and anxiety, being there alone and not having the right support network and no one to guide me. That was a dark time for me, my health suffered, and I was unhappy. I was in a place of vulnerability,” she recalls. “I had a four year period where I chose to move away from my faith, not intentionally, but I think in retrospect that I had to have that vacuum in my life in order that God could fill it with His love.

And little did Emma know that He had observed her struggles, and heard her cry for help, a need that God responded to by bringing her back to the home she craved.

The last job I did in England was Prisoners’ Wives on BBC 1, which was a real blessing and a great learning experience but ironically the last job I did in the US made me realise that I wanted to come back to the UK and return here.

She arrived back in the UK at the end of 2016 and after doing one or two auditions for prime time UK TV dramas, she accepted an invitation from long standing friends to go with them to a Christian retreat in a remote Pembrokeshire hillside for a few days, a short break that was about to make a huge impression on her.

I went on this retreat to Ffald y Brenin in west-Wales with some old friends, people who I hadn’t seen for many years. At the retreat, I had an experience and was presented with things that were new to me. I had this deep re-engagement with God, and I decided that from that moment, my faith was going to be the biggest part of who I am. It’s nothing I needed to be scared of talking about and today, my faith is an absolute feature of my daily life. I spend an hour in the morning listening to worship songs, reading, reflecting and praying. Throughout the day I live my life with God so it is not just one hour, but its 24/7 and I embrace that. I find that by being alone with Him, my faith has led to a real transformation in how I live my life.

That dramatic four days in this 27 year old’s life changed her outlook completely, it seems. Today, Emma has peace and perspective on the industry which she loves and which, she believes, will give her so much more.

“I’m extremely driven and absolutely committed and I’ve always felt like there is no other option for me,” she explains. “At the retreat I was completely cut off from the only world that I have known. We were in a remote area, with no phone signal, and a real disengagement from life. I remember we went on a beautiful walk into the hills; normally I would never have the time because I would be thinking I should be doing something else. And my shoes got really muddy and I remember thinking that it was such a joy and a gift to be alive and to experience God’s creation and realise who He is.”

As if to affirm His presence to Emma in her life, God immediately blessed her with TV work in a remarkable way and with timing that could only have come from Him.

I was being driven back to London in the car and the wifi signal was slowly returning. I turned on my phone and the first thing I saw was an email from my agent which said, ‘yes, you’ve got the job’.

That job was playing the lead in the final episode of Inspector George Gently, opposite Martin Shaw. More TV work was to follow, including a major part in the hit TV series Endeavour. The ever-loving God, it seems, was certainly re-opening the UK doors to Rigby in a prime time fashion, something that she acknowledges as His amazing provision.

So what next for this great, London based talent?

I absolutely want to work in the US again in the future and I want to win an Oscar and, having worked with Ridley Scott, I want to be doing incredible work with the Hollywood greats, Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen. I want to do work that I love that makes me happy and that means working with people who are passionate, with people who I am in awe of, so I guess that is my ultimate ambition, to win an Oscar. But I want to do that so that I can be in a position to make choices, to have opportunities to do things that I really want to do, connect to a much wider audience and that is the end goal.

And she is in a much better place to achieve that ambition, it seems.

In the past 6 months I have changed in every respect because of my faith. I know that I am not going to compromise, Before, I’ve not done what I’ve wanted to do but have done what I’ve been told to do. You have a million people with opinions about what they think you should do and as a person who wants to get on, I listened because I always wanted to do the right thing. But now, I realise that what others think is not important because I am content now with my faith. God is always on my side and that is what I love. He is for every single one of us. He created each of us uniquely and with Him infinite possibilities exist. I feel like I have made so many mistakes but to God that doesn’t matter. He absolutely forgives me, He made me, He loves me and wants only the best for me and that’s the way I choose to live my life now. And for me the only person that matters and I answer to is God. And in God I now understand my true purpose which was beautifully said by Mother Teresa ‘God had not called me to be successful, but to be faithful.’ I too strive to serve others in any means I can, always.

Such declared faith in such an industry is not common, but Emma is not frightened to share with others of what the Lord has done in her life. We might all do well to remember her and other Christian actors in our prayers from time to time, as they seek to bring God into the turbulent, often God-less world of TV and film.

God is always on my side and that is what I love. He is for every single one of us.

‘When Films and Faith Collide’ was originally published in Liberti magazine, Spring 2018

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