Film / Interview

The Cut: Emmett J. Scanlan on the inclusivity of film and rethinking ‘normal’

From a soap opera villain to comedy wisecracker to a 1920s gangster, we meet the many faces of Emmett J. Scanlan.

Emmett J. Scanlan is in a good place. Straddling the worlds of film, TV and streaming, the Irish actor is one that seamlessly moves between projects, mediums and genres most recently starring in Harland Coben’s dark Safe on Netflix, Sharon Horgan’s comedy Women on the Verge, and announced as a new character in the enduringly popular Peaky Blinders. Since leaving Dublin eight years ago he has worked steadily, and following almost 20 years in the industry, has witnessed much needed change and steps towards inclusivity, something that he continues to champion. With a slew of projects on the horizon, we sit down to talk embracing change and why you’ve got to find your own dance.

What is your earliest memory of film and what was the childhood film you could watch over and over again? 

Earliest memory is watching Jaws or Nightmare on Elm Street from the ripe old age of eight. I was reared on horrors. My mum loved them and I was her watching partner. But as a child the movie I watched over and over again was funnily enough not Dawn of the Dead but rather The Jungle Book. It was a VHS pirate copy. For your younger readers they won’t have a fucking clue what that is so they can google it. They got time on their side, I ain’t explaining it. Anyway, this bloke would knock on our door with a bag full of VHS tapes and my dad would buy some. The jungle book was the one I would watch over and over again. But after the king of the swingers song the tape would always go fuzzy and end abruptly. So for all of my childhood and most of my adulthood, Jungle Book ended after that song. I remember one time watching it, a proper copy this time. Must have been in my late 20s early 30s. Anyway, I watch it to the very end for the very first time and was disgusted that the little shit Mowgli pisses off on Baloo. I hated it. I still to this day prefer my childhood copy, so that’s the one I keep in my head… at all times.

You’ve just signed up to be in the fifth season of Peaky Blinders, what is it about the show that has made it such vital watching, in your opinion?

The cast, the look, the direction, the bravery, all of it is on point. Season after season, it gets better and better. No easy feat. It is one of the great tv series of our time. Proving itself Year after year. It’s pure art. But all of that success starts with the birth of an idea in the head of a genius. All of it starts with Knight a pen and his pad….. The storytelling by Steven Knight is sensational, it’s gripping. Without him there’s nothing. On a side note, I don’t watch me. I just can’t. But I’m a massive Peaky fan. Who isn’t? So what to do? This is like me loving chocolate but being lactose intolerant… I know I’ll enjoy it, but at what cost?

You’re also starring in Women on the Verge, what drew you to the part?
The fact they asked and I was available. That to me is how the universe or energy works. If they didn’t ask I wouldn’t have heard about it. If I wasn’t available, it wasn’t meant to be. From an artistic point of view, the fact that it was a Sharon Horgan project made saying “yes” infinitely easier. I think she’s remarkable. In hindsight so many other beautiful acting reasons and the people I met as a result. I’m delighted it’s been so well received too. That’s why I got into this game in the first place… it sounds cheesy but it’s nice when something you can do –  in this case Women on The Verge –  makes someone happy. What a job if that job gets to brighten the day of someone who maybe needed it most…. We ain’t saving fucking lives here, but maybe, just maybe we can touch a few in the process. If we’re lucky.

Why do you think it’s important that there are more series with women’s voices at the forefront?
What a sincerely boring place life would be if the only point of view or only voice we heard was our own. Or people who looked like us. Putting women in a position men have marinated in for so long is sublime. Why? Because we get to hear their voices, listen to their stories. Voices and stories I didn’t even know I was missing, or thought I was….stories that inspire, voices that educate. Art isn’t black and white, it’s a selection box of colour. And we’re all part of that same box. So please, more female writers, directors, actors, whatever the fuck… But for the love of god not for female sake, cause that serves no one. For talents sake, cause that serves everyone. And there is so much of it out there. I’m surrounded by these powerhouse women. I see them everywhere I look. It’s important everyone sees the same.

The film industry has gone through a huge transformation in the past two years – do you think it is becoming a more inclusive industry? And what other changes do you think need to happen?

The increase in opportunities for women led shows and people of all colours is exciting. It’s beautiful to be perfectly honest. You just need to look at the movies and TV that are coming out to see the benefit of it. I think we have a responsibility and because we can reach so many people, we can also lead by example. We live in a world that loves to compartmentalise things. We fear people messing with our idea of what “normal” should be. And normal is just a word made up by people who fear change. Change is good. Change is needed. It’s essential for our education, our development, our compassion. Lots more to do. But we’re moving in the right direction. Don’t get me wrong we still live in a world that perpetuates that type of archaic thinking but more so than not we are living and loving in a world that cultivates its opposite. Or at least I do. I want to see all of us, men, women, black, white asian, fucking green, coming together to make the best art we can make. That’s all. I want to me around like minded beautiful people making art: so long as you come from a place of love and not hate then let’s get this pony show on the road…. No other colour or sex matters. The Beatles said it best when they said “all you need is love”. Come from that place and the rest will fall into place.

What do you think of the state of the British film industry, is enough being done to safeguard the talent?

I don’t know mate. I don’t think I’m equipped enough to answer that, but I will say this, from my own experience, the talent in this country, in Britain, the actors, directors, show runners I’ve been blessed with working for since moving over here, are the kind of people that could stand on any stage in any part of the world and be a force to be reckoned with. From my own experience as an Irish lad who came over to Britain in 2010 I am hugely appreciative of the industry here. The fact that the British people, you guys ,have invited me into your country and by default into you television sets and into your homes, is not only brave (cause I may not leave), but truly humbling. I feel so welcomed by you guys. It was here that I felt at home. So were I feel you guys are cultivating your own talent and you have SO MUCH to cultivate, you are also so welcoming of others who come in, and that is inspiring to experience. Id love if we could stop boxing ourselves into this category and that category, British or not British, and just embrace everyone and everything…. Can we just safeguard talent? Can talent be the nation we strive to protect? Can that be the question we try to answer?

You’ve worked across mediums – film, TV, Netflix – what do you see as the future of entertainment consumption, and is this variety as an actor exciting or nerve wracking?

So long as the future ain’t VR and CGI we’re fine. If it is, we’re fucked. Or at least I am. I’ve been blessed to have worked across all mediums and each has its place and each is exciting. I mean the gap between TV and film is becoming so small it’s hard to tell the difference anymore. No more do we have a dividing line between TV actor and a film actor as all actors are cross pollinating their seeds into every digital orifice. The quality of TV is insane these days. You don’t need to drop 20 quid on a ticket and some popcorn for a night out. Nights out are now nights in. The choice is at times endless. The opportunities at times infinite. That doesn’t scare me. That turns me on. Of course you wanna be part of show that is talked about, that makes a difference, that sparks debate, that’s edgy and at times divisive. Making art to me is therapy, cathartic and an ultimately painful process, I would like to think the time I put into it is making a difference to someone other than myself. Cause if it’s just myself, it means nothing. It’s stagnant. It’s decay. It’s death. There has to be a giving process. We give everything or nothing at all.

Which role that you have played has taught you the most about yourself?

Myself. I’m still playing it. Still trying to figure this shit out. Every person I meet is my superior in so much as I learn from them. The same goes for the roles I play. I learn from them all. I have had some insanely good experiences that have made me grow professionally and personally, but so have the dog shit ones. I am constantly learning and evolving outside of set and in between takes… I’m learning shit about myself all the time, always just a novice. Hell, just talking to you guys, and shooting with the gorgeous maestro that is Rankin I’m learning.

Throughout your career so far which fellow actors have you looked up to the most? 

The ones that have been kind. Talent is beautiful and sexy, but kindness is inspiring. That shit inspires me. I look up to those who are kind.

And have you received any valuable advice?

I’ve had the advantage of working with some insane actors. I would at times turn up on set even when I’m not in on a certain day just to watch them play. Both during scenes and in-between. To educate myself. Everyone has been so different in their approach. You gotta find your own dance. What works best for you. I find the most interesting performers are the ones who are most free. That offer little resistance. That allow themselves to be lost. Easy to say; very difficult to implement. It takes a vulnerable person, a person who isn’t afraid of sucking, to bear hug the shit outta that process. Or maybe who IS afraid but does it anyway. That’s what I have learnt from the teachers I’ve worked with. That’s what I try to do. Even though the art is in NOT trying. Sometimes I lose myself, sometimes I don’t. Whatever happens is what happens. No resistance and move on… to those teachers I thank them. Move like water. Best advice.

What are the three films that have inspired you the most as an actor?

No idea. I’ve so many that I owe mention too, that to whittle it down to three would do the rest an injustice… But I will say that ROCKY got me into this game.

Who is your cinematic hero?

Stallone was my hero growing up. Rocky was my movie. To work with him, to come full circle? That would be poetic.

Women on the Verge airs Thursdays at 10pm on W

1 November 2018