Thea Sharrock
Photo by Christopher Gabello

Thea Sharrock: “Deal with it and reflect on it afterwards”

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Short Profile

Name: Thea Sharrock
DOB: 1976
Place of birth: London, United Kingdom
Occupation: Director

Ms. Sharrock, it’s been said that in theater, the time when the lights go down but before the curtain goes up is a magical moment for performers. As a stage director, would you agree?

(Laughs) Oh, God. It’s amazing. I used to watch Richard Griffiths waiting in the wings for exactly that moment. He as his character would go on stage with a lit cigarette. And he always went up and down on his toes just ever so gently as he prepared to go on, and then the house lights went down and he got a nod from the stage manager, he would light the cigarette, take a huge inhale, and then walk on. I would hear his amazing voice coming out with the first lines and… It was magic. It is magical.

Do you think our emotional reaction to theater depends on this kind of realness or spontaneity?

Listen, I still think that the best and the most moving performances I’ve ever seen have been the best performances I’ve seen live. Theater can be absolutely deadly when it’s not good enough. But when it’s good, it can be phenomenal because you’re so present and you as an audience are playing an active part in that actor’s performance that night. And of course, on screen, that’s never going to be the case.

These days, is it rare for theater to really impress you now that you’ve been directing for so long?

I have high expectations, as we all do, all of us who work in on stage and all of us who have been lucky enough to work with great actors. But in theater, there is nothing like being surprised by how moved you can be by somebody.

“It’s an extraordinary thing, that balance of confidence and vulnerability that acting requires.”

How do you go about getting that kind of work out of your own actors?

If there is no trust within a company, you’re just not going to get the best out of people. That’s the one and only way to work. Early on in rehearsals, actors will often ask very big questions, “How am I going to do this particular bit? How do we make that bit work?” And if you don’t know, you always reassure them that you will find out but more importantly, I think it’s really crucial to say that you don’t know.

Did it take you a long time to learn that?

I learned that pretty young, actually! I tell my actors, “Together we will find out, and when it comes to opening night, we will absolutely have answered the question.” And I hope that it’s made me very approachable and made actors feel like they can ask all the questions, you know, and that they don’t have to have the answers to things when I ask them something in the same way.

So there was never any pressure to prove yourself as the omnipotent authoritative director figure?

I’ve never felt like that. Everybody’s different but for me that’s not a drive at all. I’d never really been one to take too much time to worry about that pressure. I find you have to just go into a situation and deal with it and reflect on it afterwards; that way you have a much clearer mind, and you get better work both out of yourself and of everyone who’s working with you. It’s an extraordinary thing, that balance of confidence and vulnerability that acting requires. And to be able to bring out both of those qualities in someone, you need to make them feel safe.

You once said that with the best actors, there is no ego in the room.

(Laughs) It’s a great achievement when the ego is not present in the rehearsal room… But I’ve also worked with some amazing actors who obviously have a huge ego, it’s just if the ego gets in the way of doing the work, that’s when the trouble begins.

You’ve directed many film stars — Keira Knightley, Kevin Spacey, Daniel Radcliffe — on stage. Does the concept of ego change in those situations?

The film actors that I’ve worked with on stage have been some of the most receptive actors that I’ve ever worked with. They’ve felt so released by being given time to be pushed and to fail at certain things — fail, that’s so dramatic, I mean to try something and maybe it’s not perfect, but we’re allowed to try again. They’ve really loved that process. They love being in a place where a director can constantly keep pushing them and helping them to stretch their performance. And knowing that because they get to go on again tomorrow night and do the same thing, they can find something new and make it even better.

Recently you’ve made the move from stage to film. Can you still experience those types of performances on a film set?

Yes, you absolutely can! When an actor is just completely in the moment… You can feel it. It’s palpable. All the crew can feel it too. It’s a real privilege to be around that and to yell cut and know that you’ve absolutely got what you were looking for. That’s a very pleasing feeling.

“It’s the risk factor that, weirdly, keeps you feeling safe. It keeps you on your toes and you know that you’re working.”

So the experience of making a movie is equally fulfilling as directing a stage production?

Making a movie is just exponentially bigger! At all times, you have to be completely in control of every tiny detail, as well as the overall entire story from start to finish. In prep, you can explore as much as you want and you can have as many questions to ask and decisions to discover, but once you start shooting, you need to have it all in your head. It’s constant questions. As the director, you have to know what you want so that you can give everybody the answer that they deserve when they ask. It’s a much bigger budget, relatively speaking, so it’s a much, much bigger machine.

You once said that the smaller budget of a theater production allowed you to take more risks and be more inventive. Are you still able to take risks with a bigger film production?

(Laughs) I don’t think the risks ever stop! However big the budget is, it doesn’t mean that the risks go away — it just means that the producers hang around more! I think you always have to have risk when you’re creating a piece of art because without that, I don’t understand really what the drive is to succeed. It’s the risk factor that, weirdly, keeps you feeling safe. It keeps you on your toes and you know that you’re working when the risks are very evident around you. The risks are still there and, in a way, they kind of have to be.