Kiss Me First: Interview with Simona Brown, who plays Tess
Your new drama is Kiss Me First – could you please explain a bit about the show?
It’s about a group of young people who I suppose come from troubled backgrounds. They meet in the online world of Red Pill, as avatars, in a place that has been created by Adrian (voiced by Matthew Beard), who is kind of their leader. Unbeknown to them, Adrian is using Red Pill as a way to groom them, to manipulate them to do what he wants for his own gratification.
You play Tess. How would you describe her?
I really enjoyed playing Tess, because she’s quite uninhibited and vivacious and fun, and there’s something electric about her character. But then she’s quite layered, and we quickly discover that she’s battling with mental health problems. She has also been isolated from her former friends and family, and is subject to intense mood swings which can see her manically up, dancing in a club in pursuit of meaningless sex, or overcome with angst and self-contempt. So she’s quite a complex character.
She forms a very close relationship with Leila. Can you explain a little about that please?
Tess and Leila both have both endured loss, and are both quite emotionally isolated. I think they recognise that in each other, and I think that’s what bonds them. Tess reveals her light and her darkness to Leila, and unlike her former friends, lovers, even her family, Leila still wants to be her friend and stick around. She doesn’t try to change her or to control Tess. I think that’s quite huge for her. I don’t think she’s ever had that from anyone other than Adrian. And Tess lures Leila out of her shell, and challenges her to explore her sexuality and her sensuality, and this is a huge milestone for Leila’s who is quite controlled, shy, conservative character. So I think they nurture each other.
A lot of your scenes were with Tallulah Rose Haddon. How did you find working with her?
Tallulah is fun to work with. She’s a kooky, eccentric character, and we’ve become close friends. She’s very, very, different, like the complete opposite, to her character, which is quite interesting. We supported each other, because the show really called on us, and we were like each other’s rock during the shooting process.
What’s Tess’ relationship with Adrian like?
Before Tess meets Leila, Adrian is her only friend – or so she believes – and she looks to him for guidance and reassurance. Adrian has a way of making Tess feel special, like the chosen one. He’s almost God-like for Tess, he’s the creator of her blissful refuge, and that gives him huge influence over her. But he can also take her bliss away, and leave her stuck in the real world, which she finds quite unbearable.
You also worked with Ben Chaplin on this series. What was that experience like?
Ben’s fun! He’s a very giving actor; he just brings a great, playful energy on set. He made me feel quite comfortable, even though initially I was going in my head “Oh my God – Ben Chaplin!” I felt encouraged and supported by him to.
It’s based on Lottie Moggach's book – did you read it, or would that have been a distraction?
Initially, I was going to avoid reading the book, because I didn’t want it to influence my character development, and I’d heard that it was quite different to the show. But one of the other actors really encouraged me to read at least the first half, and I ended up reading the whole thing. I was really informative, it gave me a lot of insight into Tess’ character. It showed me lots of intimate details about her that I could infuse into my work on screen. I also did research into bipolar disorder – I read books on how it is to live with bipolar, which was really insightful, and helped me understand Tess much better.
So much of the show is amazing virtual reality graphics. What did you think when you first saw Tess’ online alter-ego, Mania?
It was surreal. It was really weird, being an avatar, an animated version of myself, watching my voice come out of her, or seeing small mannerisms and inflections that I have, or that I gave my character, come out of her. I didn’t know what to expect, but the attention to detail was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Right down to the eyelashes, and the eyelids fluttering. It was amazing, I was overwhelmed.
How did the team go about creating Mania? What was it like working with AXIS?
I worked with AXIS a little bit – they were there for the motion capture. We took hundreds of pictures of me from every conceivable angle, and then we worked on capturing a variety of expressions, from excited to anguished, feeling pleasure and pain.
Combining live action with a computer generated virtual world must have made for a different filming experience – can you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, it did. For the first three or four weeks of filming, we covered motion capture, all of the virtual reality, so our first days on set were in these really unflattering grey suits with dots all over our bodies, and this huge mechanism attached to our heads with a motor that makes a noise right by your head. It was weird. And we had to imagine that we were in this idyllic, blissful virtual world, which we’d only seen pictures of, so we really had to use our imaginations and immerse ourselves in a world that we didn’t really have much idea about.
Azana seems to be a cross between gaming and social media. Are you interested in that area yourself? Are you a gamer, or do you use social media?
I can totally understand the attraction of gaming; it’s a form of escapism. I used to be quite a gamer, I was really into The Sims. So this was amazing, when I heard that I was going to be an avatar. Do you know how many times I’ve made avatars myself? So I was really looking forward to seeing how they developed it. I can totally see the appeal, because I can remember spending hours, days, on Sims, creating my own little world that I could control. I used to spend days without brushing my teeth in the summer holidays, playing Sims. And for this generation the ante has upped due to virtual reality. And people are quite obsessed with social media. So merging those two aspects could create a real desire to immerse yourself in a game.