RO­MOLA GARAI ON PENE­LOPE SKIN­NER

Red - - Red Man -

Ten years ago, I walked into an au­di­tion and Penny was sit­ting be­hind the desk. The role was for a one-woman show she wrote about a young woman’s com­pli­cated jour­ney nav­i­gat­ing sex and de­ceit. At the time, it was un­usual for peo­ple to be writ­ing ex­plic­itly fem­i­nist work. Meet­ing her made a great im­pres­sion on me. In au­di­tions, there’s al­ways a desk and there is al­ways a man be­hind it, so to see a woman the same age as me there with her notepad made me think, ‘Oh, you can get be­hind the desk. You don’t al­ways have to be on this side.’

Penny is un­be­liev­ably charis­matic. She’s very self-con­tained, but ab­so­lutely knows what she wants and is very com­fort­able in her power in the room. She’s a great col­lab­o­ra­tor, but she doesn’t let any­one dick her around. I be­came an ac­tor when I was very young, and it’s a job with ba­si­cally no con­trol – you’re es­sen­tially a pup­pet. I was im­pressed to meet some­one who, even at an early stage in their ca­reer, had so much artis­tic cer­tainty and self-con­fi­dence. Years later, we worked to­gether on a play called The Vil­lage Bike, which was a trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for me. I saw that Penny had taken con­trol of her cre­ativ­ity in a way that I hadn’t. Af­ter meet­ing her, I started say­ing ‘this is bull­shit’. This in­dus­try is com­pletely misog­y­nis­tic and ev­ery­body knows it. It’s ac­tu­ally dan­ger­ous for women to work in the arts and no­body is say­ing a thing about it. Try­ing to change the in­dus­try takes so much courage, so much self-be­lief, so much more en­ergy than any man would ever have to put into his work as an artist. Meet­ing some­body who was do­ing that changed me. Talk­ing about these is­sues does have an im­pact on your ca­reer, without a doubt. You take a hit. But Penny gave me the con­fi­dence to know that the right peo­ple will still want to work with me. She also made me more am­bi­tious. I made my short film not long af­ter work­ing with her.

To­day, she’s a great friend. When we col­lab­o­rated on an idea I had for a TV show, I in­vited her round to my house. My baby was around four weeks old and I spent the whole time apol­o­gis­ing and try­ing to make tea while breast­feed­ing and con­stantly say­ing ‘sorry’ be­cause the baby was cry­ing. I felt like I was be­ing a night­mare. I re­mem­ber her say­ing, ‘Sit down. You have ev­ery right to be here. You don’t have to feel wor­ried be­cause the baby’s cry­ing. We’re go­ing to have kids and we’re go­ing to work and we’re go­ing to make it work. You don’t have to be em­bar­rassed.’

When peo­ple like Penny come into your life, their in­flu­ence gal­vanises you. See­ing women do­ing things and mak­ing things is ev­ery­thing. She has shaped my own jour­ney to­wards try­ing to write and di­rect. I don’t worry that much about be­ing good, be­cause I just think it’s im­por­tant to do things. You think, even if it’s ter­ri­ble, at least I will have done it, and other peo­ple and my kids will see that I’ve done it. You have to live boldly in or­der to try to change the struc­ture of our gen­der re­la­tions so that a fu­ture gen­er­a­tion of women won’t be at all sur­prised when they walk into a room and see an­other woman sit­ting be­hind the desk.

‘Talk­ing about these is­sues has an im­pact on your ca­reer. You take a hit’

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