Sulphur and White’s Emily Beecham on taking on her most challenging role yet…
You’d imagine some acting roles require little deliberation, while others come with greater responsibility. For actor Emily Beecham, Sulphur and White was surely the latter. Based on the true story of former city trader David Tait, the film chronicles Tait’s early life suffering childhood sexual abuse and explores the huge repercussions trauma and secrets can have on our lives. Beecham plays Vanessa, married to Tait (Games of Thrones’ Mark Stanley) with Anna Friel and Dougray Scott as Tait’s parents, with the film’s title referring to the species of butterfly Tait sees through the window during one traumatic abuse scene. An uncomfortable, harrowing and powerful film, it’s already prompted much-needed discussion and awareness on the subject of abuse, something Beecham is grateful for. Here, she explains what she hopes audiences take from it…
Given that the film is based on a true story, how important was it to give an honest portrayal of what happened?
It was quite daunting because it’s such a massive weight of responsibility. David was on set, watching the process – he said he found it difficult and some days he’d have anxiety. But he told himself it’s a message that’s important to tell, to help others and get rid of the stigma. We constantly had discussions about the dynamic between Vanessa and David, because their relationship is so important. David says he wouldn’t be here without Vanessa’s unwavering love, understanding and patience.
The characters come across as incredibly realistic and complex, presumably because they are real…
Yeah and he [David] is very open about everything that happened and brutally honest about himself. You just want to do a good job for them. I thought what was super important about Vanessa was she has a very uplifting and nurturing quality. You feel very good in her presence.
Working on a trading floor, she must have been tough, too?
Yes, well she started very young, and said it was a fun and exciting environment. We went to trading buildings and it’s very fast-paced and adrenalised – lots of people crunching stress balls, eating sugar and drinking coffee. Vanessa said she was slightly intimidated by David when she met him. He was very front-footed, quick and determined and there was something about how he pursued her – he was enigmatic.
It struck me that some of his behaviours in today’s world would probably have been flagged as concerning, which says a lot about how the conversation around mental health is changing?
It’s a really good time for this to come out, because awareness around mental health and abusive experiences is really changing, yes. It’s so important to get rid of the stigma, especially around sexual abuse – it’s such a toxic thing that can carry on through generations. It’s a really worthy subject.
What do you hope audiences take from the film?
An understanding and awareness that people are complicated. Understanding for each other, and hopefully for anybody experiencing something like this, to feel it’s a positive thing to open up, and not let the experience destroy you.
The film shows there’s strength in vulnerability, doesn’t it?
Yes, and let somebody support you, you know? The NSPCC are supporting the film and they get lots of calls from children voicing their concerns about abuse or neglect. Young children aren’t always able to recognise something is ‘wrong’ and, as David did, carry abuse as a dark secret that was ‘his fault’.
Parts of the film are very harrowing. Was it hard to switch off?
Well, we were always thinking about David and his story. It was quite empowering to feel the aim is really positive, even though it’s harrowing. And Vanessa didn’t know about it until the end when everything changes for her. She’s a very compassionate character – even though she’s going through her marriage breaking down and the affair, she gains so much understanding.
How was it working with Mark?
Mark did such a good job – he’s such an intelligent actor and had such an amazing understanding of the character. It was really amazing watching him work and we had a good friendship so I think that helped – it was really important to have that playful chemistry and trust.
Was the broader theme – of the damage secrets can do – something you related to?
I think we all go through that. When we’re younger we feel alone and it’s not until you get older you realise we’re all very similar, and these feelings are universal. Obviously David’s is a much more extreme experience but I think you have to confront yourself and encourage yourself to be fearlessly open – to see your secrets, and know they’re appreciated when you’re honest about them. That’s what I really like about acting. I grew up in a town obsessed with grades – a very suppressive environment – and then got this opportunity to be an actor, where honesty really is the most important thing. That’s really liberating.
It’s also interesting how the notion of success changes throughout the film – and from person to person – isn’t it?
Yes, and David’s idea of success definitely shifts. He just wanted to get ahead and achieve and do things, and I think it was more of an addiction running away from these dark memories. Eventually he realises he’s got to nurture his family and himself. Vanessa’s a very grounded character.
What’s your personal definition of success?
I think it shifts as you grow older and you learn about yourself. For me, it’s just to be at peace with what I do and love what I do. To do things that feel true to myself and not betray what I believe in – to live my life in a way I feel like I’m doing something positive.
What’s next for you – any must-do’s on your bucket list, career-wise?
I fantasise about working with Lynne Ramsay – she’s such an incredible director and I love a lot of her early films. I’d love to work with Andrea Arnold – she works in a really interesting way with lots of improvisation. Mike Leigh, obviously. I did a workshop with both Andrea and Mike, and I found those experiences really invigorating – you discover really interesting things from that method, it feels really alive. They both don’t focus on the product, they focus on the actual journey, which is really rewarding.
Sulphur and White is out in cinemas from 6th March. To make a donation to the NSPCC, head here