By Linda Marric
In A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’ delivers one of the wittiest and most accomplished screenplays of his career. This semi-biographical account of American poet and famous recluse Emily Dickinson, features a wonderfully eclectic cast and stars Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson herself and the excellent Catherine Bailey as the outspoken Miss Vrylling Buffam. Also known as Miss VB, Buffam’s friendship with Dickinson is often credited for taking the usually introverted poet out of her sombre humdrum life, and allowing her a more frivolous side. Bailey’s other current projects involve a role in the popular and critically acclaimed Netflix series The Crown, as well as a top secret J.K Rowling project about which she isn’t allowed to reveal much.
A few days ago I had the pleasure of speaking to Catherine about her wonderful character and her scene-stealing performance as Miss VB, as well as her working experience with Terrence Davies.
Were you aware of Miss Vryling Buffam before taking on the role or did you find out about her like the rest of us through the screenplay?
CB: I’m not sure I knew who she was….I knew she was a real person, but I didn’t know much about her. Actually Terence (Davies) referred to her the other night at a Q&A as looking a bit like a sideboard [laughgs], obviously I didn’t take that too personally when he cast me in the role, but he did say that he wanted the character to be fun, so I’m sure he’ll acknowledge that he took a few liberties with whom she really was. I think we know that she was a teacher, I certainly felt that her function in the film was to bring that sort of levity and mischief and I feel like she was an outlet for a lot of his witticism.
How was it working with Terence Davies on set, was he quite regimental or was he happy to go with the flow?
CB: The thing about Terence is that he is such a combination of opposites, because he is very funny and very very playful… and enormously respectful of actors. At the same time he’s so clear and definite about what he wants, and that’s what makes him a unique filmmaker. He doesn’t compromise, he doesn’t tick any boxes for anyone else, it’s about the film that he wants to make, so in many ways he’s very meticulous and very precise, but he’s in no way a tyrannical director….he’s not unkind, he’s full of love for the process and the people working on it. So yeah, when he’s serious, you’d know about it….he is uncompromising.
Did you bring anything from yourself into the role? Were you allowed to make suggestions about the character or did you pretty much stick to the script?
CB: Do you know, I didn’t mess with the script because I feel like everything is very crafted with Terence. I think you only have to look at his other films to see that he has an influence on every single frame, every word and every syllable, and there were intonations he wanted me to use so I was very happy to be guided by him. He gave me a very specific reference for the American accent because he didn’t want it to sound at all modern. In fact, in the notes that we received we knew that there was something quite performative about the way she spoke, because back in those days conversation was a form of entertainment, so people would use dialogue as a means of entertaining themselves. So he gave me a reference for Olivia de Havilland inThe Heiress, which was a very specific American accent….it’s almost British and there’s something quite poised and rather deliberate about it, so I really tried to emulate that.
Had you been a fan of Terence Davies and his work before being cast in this role?
CB: Yes, definitely! My husband and I are big fans of his film Of Time And the City, and I had to sort of restrain myself when I first met him from totally gushing about how much I loved that film. And of course, Distant Voices, Still Lives, and The House of Mirth, and then after we’d shot the film, I did see Sunset Song as well, so I started to see this pattern of the way in which he describes female characters. It’s almost unique, he seems to really want to tell women’s stories, I don’t feel like he’s trying to make a great feminist statement particularly, but it does interest me that he does that. That he seems to have such respect and love for women, It’s such a joy to be in a film like that alongside Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle.
Your character seems to come into the film at the right moment and brings with her a kind of playfulness and joie de vivre. You deliver a wonderfully uplifting performance, how does it feel hearing people say that?
CB: Thanks! That’s really great to hear, because It’s a bleak story, so I did appreciate that Terrence did write the part of Miss VB to be a counter-point to some of that bleakness. I think what he paints so brilliantly is the pace of life back then. People lived in a totally different type of way….
You’re currently filming The Crown which has been a hugely successful production for Netflix, can you talk a bit about your role in this?
CB: Unfortunately I can’t say too much about it, but I can tell you that I’m shooting Season Two and that I think that it comes out at the end of the year. It’s a joy to be involved in something that amazing, I was watching it when it first came out and thought it would be a great project to be involved with. So, yeah I’m chuffed to be involved with it, but that’s literally all I can say without getting in trouble [laughs]
Can you tell us a bit about what other projects you’re involved with at the moment, beside The Crown.
CB: Yes, of course! I run a theatre company called BAZ production (https://www.bazproductions.co.uk), which I’ve been running since 2009. As a company we are committed to putting on classic plays in a contemporary way, and are committed to gender diversity, we always have 50% women in our cast….we’re currently developing a Kafka Piece called The Trial, and are always committed to paying our actors, so there are big gaps where we fundraise for that purpose. So that’s basically my artistic outlet, as well as the part I’m working on, on the new J.K Rowling project, which again I can’t tell you too much about, but soon I hope.
A Quiet Passion is in cinemas From Friday April 7th.