views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Honest to God With... Lara Heller
5th May 2013

We at Views From The Gods are always willing to champion those who we think could be the stars of tomorrow. And whether it's in writing, directing or performing, moving from fringe theatre to the world of professional film is an undoubtedly daunting task - doubly so if you plan to relocate thousands of miles away.

Lara Heller

Photography supplied by Lara Heller

One such actress, who is taking the bull by the horns, biting the bullet, and all those other idioms, is Lara Heller. After an unconventional upbringing, the former law student followed her dream and has starred in a number of great films, including The Set Menu. After winning first place in an accent award from the CCP casting body, she is now about to go universal, jetting off soon to film a feature in Canada.

Here, we chatted about her passions, making the leap from theatre to screen, and some of her unorthodox acting methods...

VFTG: With a story like yours, it's always good to start at the beginning. So you were born in Brighton. Where did your love of theatre begin, and what there was your first move...?

LH: I started on the stage aged four in England in a nativity as an angel - probably about as English as it gets, all the kids singing out of tune and parents weeping with joy. Then I moved to a mountain village in Germany when I was five and had to learn in German. A great way of learning German was by watching German TV shows and films from the 50s and 60s in German. I didn't see live television until I was nine years old.

VFTG: Did that make you think differently about the way that you act?

LH: Yeah, it has impacted me. When I aspired towards acting in my childhood mind, I was thinking of Grace Kelly, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Sidney Poitier. That's what started my love of film. When you see projects like Ben Hur or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, who would not fall in love with film and theatre?

VFTG: Then you performed classical plays in Luxembourg at a young age...

LH: This was a monastery on the border of Belgium. The monks let it out to people from the Central School of Speech and Drama. Usually those teachers teach students students who are 18-plus and have the life experience to be pushed emotionally and they do this special course tailored to all adults, but I discovered it, and I was about 14 and they accepted me. That's where I was introduced to classical texts, to Shakespeare, to clowning, improvisation. I loved it. It really enriched my imagination.

VFTG: Fast-forwarding slightly, then you decided to study law. Why would you do that and not go straight into drama school?

Lara Heller

Photography supplied by Lara Heller

LH: Good question. I grew up in Luxembourg - the population is 500,000. It was so safe and small I felt if I went straight into the professional world of acting at 18, it would have been pretty tough. So I was accepted into the London School of Economics. I figured out in my first year that a year and a half of the time at university is holidays, so in that time, I was in every and any drama course I could find. Anywhere in London, Brighton, when I went back to Luxembourg for holidays. The other one-and-a-half years of the course was just a few hours a week. I really feel I got a drama degree from LSE and just did law on the side.

Lara then moved from LSE into a postgrad course at Arts Educational Schools in London, who count Julie Andrews among their alumni. While there, she learned to work in a more focused way with different theatrical techniques, such as the Stanislavski method. But there was one interesting technique that she has used again and again...

LH: Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man based his performance off an animal, and this is something that we did. I had to be a meerkat for about two months, then I had to be a wild boar for another two months. I was pretty much Timon and Pumba during my time at Arts Ed. It's amazing how every person you look at when you've studied animals has the tempo of an animal. Maybe they're quick and light and energetic, or they are slower and more grounded like a warthog.

VFTG: What would you consider to be your big break so far?

LH: I think it was the play Chez Jacques shown at the Cannes Film Festival. This was a play created by Fabien Riggall, the brain behind Secret Cinema. He's done some unbelievable projects. He was casting for this play that was set in the late 50s. He needed a cast that could speak both French and English fluently and slip in and out of the two so the audiences wouldn't know what nationality they were. We had more than 300 people come on the opening night. My character, Sylvie Attontoni, was a little like Sophia Loren or Brigitte Bardot.

VFTG: Was it a straight play or was it a site-specific, interactive piece?

LH: We'd interact within the cast and bring the audience in as well and have to improvise with them. To the extent that a lot of people at Cannes during the publicity phase thought I was the rather flamboyant and eccentric Sylvie.

Lara Heller

Photography supplied by Lara Heller

Following Chez Jacques, Lara began working on film projects with film schools from around London. Her first, a World War I drama, was screened at BAFTA to a wonderful reception. A positive end to a rewarding shoot for Lara. She then took on Set Menu, in which she had to play a woman at various stages of her life. We wondered if this was difficult.

LH: The stage from when I was 17/18 was very easy, that was just a few years ago. To play a new mother, I've got family friends that have just had children and I see the love in their eyes. The challenging part was not to play the 80-year-old because I've grown up with my grandparents in my house. But playing 60 - that was a challenge.

VFTG: You weren't channelling any animals in that, were you?

LH: Actually, I was thinking about a deer because she was considered to be very elegant, a warm character and very like that energy, so I studied the movements of a deer. There are strange layers to characters.

Lara has most recently filmed a movie called Brad, by Russian director Nat Derwin. She plays the young mistress of an Irish crook, whose relationship badly deteriorates. And earlier this year, she auditioned for the US pilot season, for shows on both mainstream networks and smaller, lesser-known channels. But rather than fly out to the US, she rather unusually auditioned via Skype.

LH: It's a great process. I'm recording some really fun things and working with all sorts of different accents - Ohio, Chicago, California, New York, Bronx accents. I love accents and languages. But on Skype it's different. Meeting in person you can really pick up the energy of the room, but via online submissions, its harder because they don't get to see you in the flesh. But if you use those few minutes effectively, it can still be as powerful.

VFTG: When you get something given to you to audition for, what's your thought process about wanting to do it? Is it the story, the characters, the ensemble?

LH: The overall story is what pulls you in initially and it's good writing that excites you, but if I see something challenging, with interesting locations like a jungle, where I can also use my physical training, that's exciting for me. If there's a foreign character, maybe French or Italian or from a part of America with unique accents. It's those cultural complexities and details that I like getting my teeth into.

VFTG: This may be me being incredibly cynical, but you're going to America, which doesn't have, let's say, the most polite relationship with the Middle-east. Does that worry you that you may get typecast or there may be some very lazy thinking there?

LH: My experience, within Europe, has been that every single person has seen me differently. One director will say: "Oh yes, you look Italian." Another will say: "You look French or Russian," and another will say: "No, you're Middle-eastern, I know it!" Because each person sees you differently, and you're comfortable with an accent, I think you're not too limited.

As well as her extensive travel, mixed-heritage background, love of Shakespeare and improvisation skills, Lara has another ace up her sleeve - a keen interest in extreme sports. That gung-ho attitude seems, at first, to be at odds with the other side of her character. Which side would win out? Doing a classical film, or a modern, Tomb Raider-style piece?

Lara Heller

Photography supplied by Lara Heller

LH: I suppose if you're sitting in a beautiful patisserie in France, you'd like to try one of every cake, wouldn't you? The more Shakespeare pieces that are made, the better because it's such rich writing and I'd love to be involved in those. But then again, I like doing stunts, I like fighting. I grew up on a farm, so I'm used to playing in the mud, in the forests, rolling around, dealing with animals. I've been skiing since five and figure-skating for 14 or 15 years. When you compete and when you have a Russian coach shouting at you when you've fallen and you're black and blue, it toughens you up and you start enjoying those sports. So any sort of fighting, action-based role, I'd say yes to that in a heartbeat.

VFTG: Given your wealth of experience, is there any advice you'd give to anyone wanting to leave fringe theatre behind and give it a go, as you're doing?

LH: Have a really good network of friends from all sorts of industries surrounding you, and the closer you are to your family the better. An actor gets a lot more rejections than any other profession. They say you've got to have the skin of a rhino and I think it's true - it's personal, it's difficult, challenging. You have to enter this profession being aware that when you go into something as public as this, you're not only going to get praise but criticism. Don't get disillusioned with the craft because it's something very pure - and whatever anyone's experience, the craft is always there.

VFTG: Okay, so we've looked at your past, now to the future. My final question is simply: "What would be your dream role?"

LH: There are so many talented writers, directors and actors out there at the moment, and I adore films from all eras. But if there were films like those that Audrey Hepburn did, I'd adore doing them. Things like Roman Holiday or Hitchcock's films like The Birds. If there were rom-coms like Pretty Woman, I'd love to be involved, or even films like Indiana Jones. Films embracing 3D such as Avatar, those too are very exciting. There's such a spectrum and I really just want to explore as much as possible.

Lara's next feature, The Cut directed by Fstih Akin, will be released next year. Check out Lara's short film, The Set Menu, and all her latest news at laraheller.co.uk.



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