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No Acting Required

To find the lead for his directorial debut, The War Zone, Tim Roth placed an advert in a London magazine, specifying 'No Acting Required'. Freddie Cunliffe landed the part -- and changed both their lives.

By Brian Logan

Freddie Cunliffe: Tim Roth was my favourite actor, even before I worked with him. I liked the Mike Leigh film he did, Meantime, and some of the more obscure stuff, like Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. And Gridlock'd -- entertaining, but with a message as well, I think.

I hadn't done any acting before The War Zone. I did a lot of DJ-ing, in my own bedroom, mainly, and was interested in photography: I knew I wanted to do something creative. I left school at 16 after I finished my GCSEs, and The War Zone cropped up soon after that -- it was good timing, really. As soon as I started acting, I realised that was what I wanted to do.

I walked into an open casting for The War Zone. I saw the advert in London's Time Out magazine. I had to read an extract from the novel, although I didn't know at the time which book it was. They said, 'Come back again' and gave me a script, then I met Tim Roth and it all went from there. I suppose I was a bit nervous meeting Tim. But he made me feel really comfortable; he's a down-to-earth guy.

We filmed in March and April 1998. For two weeks, we were in London, and for six we were in Devon, which was very bleak, very cold and very windy, just as it looks in the film. Our rehearsals, to begin with, were about getting to know each other, rather than strictly running through scenes. They were about bonding.

Ray Winstone, myself, Tilda Swinton, Tim and Lara Belmont read the script together and discussed the issues that would come up in the shoot and how we were going to deal with those problems. We became very good friends on the set -- we still see one another now -- and we all knew we were doing something really good.

It wasn't at all obvious to me that this was Tim's first directing project; it was like he'd been doing it all his life. He's made a lot of films; he knows the ropes. Because he's been an actor, his way of directing is to show you and talk you through things. There's a simple scene where I'm walking down a corridor, but I had a lot of trouble with it. So Tim did it himself and played it back on the monitor, and straightaway, I could do it.

He's a perfectionist -- he wouldn't stop until he got the perfect take. It was hard, but if he hadn't pushed you that little bit further, you'd have hated him for it in the end. I respect him for that.

In my favourite scene, Lara and I are in the car coming back from the hospital. It was a tricky scene, with very emotional dialogue, and suddenly I knew I'd pulled it off, I didn't need Tim to tell me. You've got that instinct when you've pulled it off, and it's the best feeling in the world.

Acting is something I want to pursue, but I don't see my career panning out like Tim's. What's for me is what's for me -- everyone's different. The War Zone has changed my direction; it's also made me realise that life can be very enjoyable. It's not about money: you realise you can contribute something really worthwhile.

Tim Roth: The first time I saw Freddie was on a video from a casting director. As soon as I saw it, I knew he was the one.

I wanted the audience to see somebody who could be their son. Somebody that was going through a certain stage of life, which Freddie was going through -- you know that age, the raging hormones. And I didn't want any movie-star crap getting in the way of his world. I wanted someone very real, yet someone fascinating, really quite beautiful to look at.

Our first meeting had to be all about him. Because I was giving him a lead in a film -- not just any film, but something with a huge emotional range. We were all going to be in hell, and I wanted him to know that he could trust me, that I'd take him through it. Freddie chose to do this, and I'm flattered. It's an extraordinary leap of faith.

As a first-time director, it was the best thing for me to be working with non-actors. I think it was important for Ray and Tilda, too, to see how good these guys were. Because most of the time, as an actor, you're trying to unlearn the process. Freddie and Lara didn't give a shit about the process -- they were dealing with you on a completely raw level, and getting it right. They're not acting; they just stand there and do their thing and get on with it. That was our whole thing: No Acting Required.

I believed Freddie had it in him. I had faith in him, even when he was holding back, that in one more shot he might get it right. That's tough, bloody tough on me, bloody tough on him. Freddie always had to be still -- no acting required! -- and it drove him up the wall. But I was seeing the magic, I was getting it on film. I was always having to stop myself saying, 'It's so good!' It's lovely to see your actors fly.

Freddie did the hardest job, being the backbone of the film, being the quiet one. He takes the audience through -- he is the audience -- and at one point, he hands us over to the pain. His was beautiful, gentle and very subtle work, which a lot of actors who are considered great are not capable of, because they're too busy 'acting'. Working with Freddie reminds me of my own inability as an actor.

Freddie has to hold on to his talent, not let them take it away. The machine that surrounds this business is so ludicrous and so scary, sometimes. But if you're strong in yourself, and if you've got a lot of friends -- and Freddie has 70 new friends in the cast and crew -- you'll survive.

I'm pleased now because I have two passions instead of one. I went through a phase of being completely disillusioned with acting. But Ray slapped that out of me. Now I'm going to work with Werner Herzog, who's an extraordinary film-maker and has been quite an inspiration in my life. So the buzz is back, and directing is a buzz, too.

I want to keep the same team for my next film. Freddie might be in drama college -- by the time he gets out, I'll have a film for him, if I can. Or he may be off on another tangent, doing whatever he may do. But I want to keep the family together. This film changed my life. He changed my life.

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