Jennifer Ward-Lealand relishes a rare role in new movie Vermilion

Photo by Michael Rooke.

Actors Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Emily Campbell talk about their real-life bond while making the film Vermilion, released in cinemas today.

“Not that I’d ruled it out,” says Jennifer Ward-Lealand, “but to be honest, I kind of thought I wouldn’t be doing any more films. I had this whole other life. Maybe 75 per cent, maybe 80 per cent of my career has been on the stage.” 

That’s largely because over the past three decades, the stage has offered ample scope for her talents. But there’s also the elephant in the screenwriters’ room: good film roles for women remain vastly rarer than good roles for men. So when she sat down with film-maker Dorthe Scheffmann in a bar off K’ Rd a few years ago to discuss a project, Ward-Lealand had an open mind but low expectations. That changed fast.

“What attracted me to the character was that she’s such a complex person. It’s quite rare as a mid-50s woman to be offered a role like that. For there even to be a role like that. I thought, well that’s something I could bring all my life experience to. The pull inside this woman who’s a creative person and a mother. You want to be the best mother you can be, but also you have this incredible urge to be doing what you ought to be doing in the creative sphere.” 

Darcy, the central character in Scheffmann’s film Vermilion, is a composer whose successful artistic career has put strains on her relationship with her daughter Zoe, played by Emily Campbell. The mother-daughter bond was very easy to create on film, Campbell says, because she and Ward-Lealand already had a relationship going into rehearsals.

Watch the trailer for Vermilion:

“Jen was my teacher at drama school. I graduated from The Actors’ Program the year before, and she’s on the artistic board there — she took us for stagecraft and singing, she was there the whole way through the year in varying roles. So when I went in for the recall audition, it was just the loveliest thing to see her face; it felt very familiar, very comfortable, and I felt very well taken care of. She was wonderful all through the shoot in that she let me do my thing, but also guided me in a way that it felt like I wasn’t being guided — leading by example, and giving me permission to ask for things, instead of waiting for someone to tell me I could yell if I wanted to yell, or ask for another take if I didn’t like the takes we had done so far.”

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In the film, a lot of the work of raising Zoe has been done by Darcy’s closest women friends, who are played by Theresa Healey and Goretti Chadwick. Ward-Lealand has known both of them for years.

“We didn’t have to go and do workshops to establish a rapport, it was already there. And I loved working with Dorthe. I love the collaborative nature of her work; she really values the artistic contributions everyone makes. And also she knew these characters so well, they’d been in her mind for so long. She could just come up and give me one very little subtle note and it would awaken something in me. It was so good seeing female relationships and friendships play out, because I don’t often see our life reflected on the screen, the life of me and my friends, that incredible bond between women. Women’s friendships will see you through thick and thin.”   

Vermilion, in cinemas November 8. Jennifer Ward-Lealand also stars in Silo Theatre’s Here Lies Love, November 22-December 8, at Q Theatre.

This article was first published in the November - December 2018 issue of Metro.

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