Arts & Poetry, Charity, Faith

Acting out her passions

Alastair McIver hears how actress Amanda Root is using the creative gifts to help victims of trauma

If you’re going to take a look at actress Amanda Root’s IMDB profile online, can I suggest that you sit down in a comfy chair, pour yourself a cup of Burundian coffee (or, depending on the time of day, a nice glass of chilled Chardonnay) and expect to be wowed! You won’t be disappointed and you won’t be able to rush it.

It’s long. Impressively long.

In an industry which has its fair share of casualties and in which you can easily drop off the radar, Amanda has developed a formidable career catalogue that has spanned 30 years and which shows no sign of slowing down.

She has performed some iconic roles on stage and screen opposite some of the industry’s best known international performers, rubbing shoulders with a veritable Who’s Who of many of the greats of stage and screen including Meryl Streep, Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes, David Suchet, Damian Lewis, Wendy Craig, Dominic Cumberbatch, and so it goes on.

If it moves and breathes, she’s acted with it and her portfolio reflects the number of prime-time favourite TV dramas that has made Amanda the go-to actress for TV casting directors.

You can check out her credits on such family favourites as Foyle’s War, Sherlock, Casualty, Midsomer Murders, A Touch of Frost, Poirot, Law and Order UK, DCI Banks, Death in Paradise, New Tricks, not to mention numerous TV mini-series,’ including the Forsyte Saga, Jane Eyre and last year, The Black Prince.

30 years on, she is one of the profession’s survivors, rich in talent and in-demand, whether on stage, screen or radio. And she remains upwardly mobile.

It all seems a far cry from her humble upbringing in Colchester but like all success stories, Amanda and her brother benefited from a stable childhood and two supportive parents, neither of whom were actors.

My dad was an accountant and my mum had done some amateur acting when she was a child, but she didn’t pursue it. Actually, my mum became his secretary when he ran his own business That said, they were both very creative and supportive of me going into the profession. I’ve always had a love for performing and as a child I was always dancing…ballet, tap and stage, and this progressed into acting. So I really followed that path from a very young age and knew that I wanted to be an actor. I did as much performing as I could at school, studying drama at A/O level before joining the Essex Youth Theatre which preceded me going to drama school. I was so blessed to get my first agent, Jeremy Conway, who took me into my first roles. My first job was at Leeds Playhouse (now called West Yorkshire Playhouse) but very quickly after that I was auditioned for Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), playing Juliet opposite Daniel Day Lewis’ Romeo. I was also lucky enough to be auditioned for Hermia in The Dream, and we toured those two shows, after which they took them to Stratford upon Avon. Then came the opportunity to play Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. So that was the start really. I was given a fantastic platform upon which to build my career.

As a young and aspiring actress, arriving on a career path built upon solid foundational opportunities was always going to be beneficial, and Amanda suddenly found herself in the fast lane, her career moving forward in spectacular fashion.

She was an actress in demand but arguably, her big ‘breakthrough’ moment came in the mid 90’s when she was approached to play Anne Elliot in the critically acclaimed period drama, Persuasion, playing opposite Ciaran Hinds, Corin Redgrave, Sophie Thompson and Fiona Shaw. She had cut her teeth in several small and big screen classics in the 1980’s but Persuasion ‘put her on the map’.

“The 80s was an important decade for me moving into films,” says Amanda. “I’d done a fair bit of television before but I think Persuasion really opened the doors for me. People began to look at me in a different way, I think. It made me more visible and started me on a path as a ‘period drama’ person, something I am trying to break away from (as we spoke, she had just concluded working on the gritty TV drama Unforgiven) but it was an amazing opportunity.”

Indeed, the period dramas, which remain hugely popular even in this day and age, set her up for even bigger movie roles.

The Iron Lady was one such film. She wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to play alongside Meryl Streep.  The 2011 film, about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, won the American her third Oscar, and for Amanda, it was another bit of icing on her extremely impressive career cake.

“Ah, The Iron Lady,” Amanda fondly recalls.  “To have a chance to work with Meryl Streep was extraordinary, because she was able to go out of role, into role, out of role at will. She had the accent and all that entailed. During takes, you would think that she would take herself aside and be very quiet and keep the accent in readiness for the next scene…not a bit of it. The iPad came out, she was chatting away in her American accent, joking with people. I was very impressed by that. I had this scene with her, and it was literally like meeting Margaret Thatcher and Meryl Streep at the same time, because she was so like Margaret Thatcher. There was this extraordinary kind of respect I had…you know, whatever your political views there is respect for Mrs Thatcher, and yet I also had this enormous awe for Meryl Streep so I was able to really play that sense of awe that I needed for my part, actually. It helped me in the role itself.”

And the beat goes on.

As we spoke, Amanda was about to start rehearsals for the Chalk Garden at this year’s Chichester Festival, a six week run playing alongside another national treasure, Penelope Keith.

Of course, in a profession which is competitive and challenging, not to mention all-consuming, Amanda’s is not ashamed to acknowledge her Christian faith as being absolutely fundamental to her life and career.

“My faith is 100% important for me and in my industry, I have found that it really helps not to hold acting too tightly,” she admits. “Yes, you commit to it and focus on it, but my faith gives me a perspective which I think if I didn’t have, would not keep me so fulfilled. If I was always caught up in pursuing attention or getting the best role all of the time, it would be frustrating because the industry doesn’t work like that. I think that I am at a place now where I am not as ambitious as I used to be. I’m so grateful for the roles I’m given, and the opportunity to work with people, and to enjoy it for the process rather than the product of being famous or the next best thing which, when you are younger, you can focus on too much.”

Given her seemingly relentless schedule, many in her industry and outside of it might be surprised to know that away from it, she runs a charity for traumatised women in her ‘down time’.

It came about as a result of something that God planted in her at a young age, and then reminded her about later in life.

I remember watching something when I was a child, something I saw on TV. I saw people doing something with art, and thinking, ‘I’d like to do that for children who don’t have opportunities.’ And these days, it’s become quite fashionable for the arts to be used in therapeutic recovery programmes. But at the time, that went on the back burner, but as I came back to my church life, I remember thinking that was what I wanted to do, and asking myself, ‘why aren’t I doing that’, and that was the start of Talitha Arts.

It has been common knowledge for many years that singing, dancing and drama are beneficial to the recovery process of victims of abuse, as well as those with mental illness, but the arts is relatively new in the world of therapeutic recovery.

Talitha Arts, as the charity is called, is looking to be part of that recovery process by training actors, performers, artists and others to deliver therapeutic ‘wellbeing’ workshops to women in hostels and in recovery. It is something that Amanda strongly believes in.

I think that the arts have a huge potential to change lives, to have an impact. When you see a great work of art, a painting perhaps, there’s a moment when it can just transform something in you. And theatre can do that too. I think that we try to embrace all of the arts, and it can bring out the child in someone who perhaps hasn’t had a childhood. Engaging with art and the arts can do that. I do believe with all my heart that God created us to be creative and story can be an amazingly impactful way that God engages us.

Amanda oozes passion and it is easy to understand why and see how Talitha Arts has grown since its inception in 2010. It became a registered charity in 2015 and now boasts a team of practitioners from her profession and elsewhere who deliver therapeutic training and restorative days for women in hostels and dementia homes, in Jersey, London, Birmingham and overseas. It’s a process that sees confidence rebuilt and dignity restored to those who have been used and abused, as well as those who suffer from dementia. The demand has been overwhelming and the response rewarding and life-changing. Indeed, there is a waiting list of homes which have approached Talitha Arts for support, but, as a young charity, it can only work within its people and financial limitations.

Amanda wants to see Talitha Arts grow in order to meet the overwhelming need for restorative workshops, though she recognises that growth has to be incremental as and when people and financial resources allow.

“My vision is to see the three current the hubs grow and for more to spring up,” she says. “We are hybrid, just a group of actors and performers, artists and musicians coming together to deliver this. We are unique in many ways because we have these blocks of free time and my hope is that the industry picks up on this approach both nationally and even internationally. We can’t do it all at once but we hope that we may eventually go into other areas such as hospices and prisons, places where the need is. It’s not necessarily all about whether we work with victims of domestic violence or victims of trafficking or people living with dementia. It’s what we can bring to anyone who is vulnerable.”

That passion to help some of the needy in our society was acknowledged by Prime Minister Theresa May in late 2016 following her winning an annual Points of Light award. Indeed, the Prime Minister wrote a personal note to Amanda acknowledging her work in the community. 

Honoured as Amanda was, she recognises that while awards are a great encouragement, they don’t heal broken lives.

In fact, Amanda has been nominated for a Tony award, which, she admits, “I’d like to have got because my mum was with me at the time and my husband but sadly, it wasn’t to be. I don’t really watch or follow the awards because I don’t really see myself as the person who is that award winning person. And this is a very superficial profession. If you want to succeed in it you have to throw every part of your being into it and an award is a point of reference but who I am as a creative person is more important. I sculpt, I teach people, I can do a bit of dancing, and drama, and I love directing. I am so much happier now recognising who I am rather than being a striving actor. I’m happy where I am, serving God as best I can with the skills that He’s given me. It’s important that I use my skills, my acting, not in an indulgent way but just enjoying who God has made me to be, which then enables to me serve others.”

And her work continues apace. Whether performing on the stage or in front of the camera, or training teams in a church hall to become practitioners, or running workshops with groups of women looking to her and her team to help them recover their confidence and dignity, Amanda Root will honour her calling. The future looks bright.

As she says,

I’m amazed that we have come so far, so quickly with such a gifted and committed team of volunteers and practitioners. I’m amazed that I can recognise fully that it’s not about me but what God has grown and I look forward to seeing what He is going to do with it in the future. The challenge for me is to always bring it back to God and make sure that we are doing what He wants, listening to Him as we go.

‘Acting out her passions’ was originally published in Woman Alive magazine, Summer 2018

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