The Virtues

The Virtues: Interview with Helen Behan (Anna)

Category: Interview

Explain a little bit about The Virtues, and who you play

I play Anna, the sister of Joseph (Stephen Graham). I think The Virtues is about what makes us human; It’s about heartbreak, loss, separation, and how we deal with negative thing; whether we choose the right path or the wrong path. The joy of working with Shane was there was a lot of time to rehearse and develop the character, so I discovered the character of Anna as we went. She’s got a good heart, she’s got great resolve.

Obviously you’d worked with Shane on This Is England ’88 and ’90 – how did you end up working with him originally? You’re not from an acting background, are you?

No, but husband says I’ve been acting my way through my whole life. I did plays at school and loved acting but I didn’t go after it. Other thing happened and I became a nurse, which I still am today, and had a family. 

I met Shane when he was in Ireland visiting a friend on holiday. I was in my local pub, and my friend pointed him out as the director of one of our favourite films, Dead Man’s Shoes. I thought it was so unfathomable that he would be here. I thought the planets had aligned to bring one of the best directors ever to my local. I went up to him - he was there with his wife and his friends - and we just ended up having a great night. So I wanted to meet him firstly, so I asked him what the possibility was for a job and he said: “Can you act?” I said: “I don’t know.”

I wrote down my details on the back of a receipt, and then forgot about it for a while. Always hoping, but thinking “Ah, he was just being polite.”

The phone rang two months later, and he brought me over to England for an audition for This is England ‘88. I remember thinking “What have I done? I’ve asked for this, and now I’m going to be totally out of my depth.” But he was so welcoming and easy-going, and he just put me at ease. He just told me to go in and chat to Vicky [McClure]. He let us talk for about 20 minutes, and after that he sat back in the chair, folded his arms and said “That’s it, you’re in.” And he continued to give me support, and with The Virtues he’s given me a meatier part, I suppose because he thinks I’m ready to take on something a bit more challenging. Shane and I are now great pals.

Was this role written with you in mind?

He did speak to me about it a few years back. We talked for a long time about the idea he had for this modern-day nativity-type story, kind of a companion piece to Dead Man’s Shoes. He mentioned it to me, and I always knew it was on the back-burner, but I didn’t believe it until he called me. He’d often ring me and tell me he was laughing a lot when he was writing it, because he was putting a lot of me in her. He said he always had me in mind, and I always hoped it would materialise, but you don’t want to hope too much.

Are you still a nurse?

Yes, I’ve just come from work, where I tend to see around 20 or 30 patients. I work in a capacity that, if something comes up with acting, I can put down what I’m doing and go to it. So I’ve left myself open for this side of my career to flourish, and drift away from my Florence Nightingale stuff!

This is a lead role in a big drama – do you think it’s going to change things for you, and do you want it to?

I never think about things like that, because I don’t want to anticipate something that may or may not occur. The truth is, I’d love it. This is what I want to do. The more opportunity I get – especially with somebody like Shane, the hungrier I get to delve into different roles. After the very first job I did with Shane, I said “If I ever do another thing with Shane, I’ll die happy.” And it’s that constant roundabout of “I’ve done it, I want more, I want more.”

Stephen has described the scene where you talk in the bedroom as feeling like you both transcended the room. How did you arrive at those performances?

I thought, “How am I even going to go up against Stephen Graham!” But, Shane and Stephen and I had talked about that scene. I wrote a letter from Anna to Joseph, and I started to read it to Stephen in rehearsal, and everybody got a bit emotional. Rehearsal sessions felt like group therapy – we’d sit and talk about the characters and then inevitably end up talking about our own stories. When I started to read this letter, and Stephen started to respond to that, Shane said: “Stop. Whatever is coming there is what I want, don’t give it away now, keep it for the shoot.” So, I thought we were on the right track. We both knew where we were going to go, but we didn’t explore it word for word. When we were setting up to film it, there was a tension in the air. Stephen looked at me and said to Shane: “I think we’re ready.” And Shane just let us run, we did it in one take. He let the cameras go for what seemed like ages, but he wanted to let it naturally go wherever it would go. Shane facilitated that. He is so invested in capturing the drama, it’s infectious; You want to be invested in it.

Did you draw on any of your own experience in your performance?

The circumstances were totally different, but I had, in my own past, connected with a brother. So, in performing Anna, I knew what it was like to see somebody that I knew I was related to by blood, that had my same genetic make-up, but was a stranger to me

It was a very happy experience for me, while for Anna it is more traumatising because of everything attached to it in her and Joseph’s story. While I tapped into my ability to find the brother in the stranger, emotionally it was other things from ‘group therapy’ -  otherwise known as our rehearsal process - that helped me enormously in the role.

It’s clear from you and others that working with Shane is an extraordinary experience. Do you worry that when you go on to other things that Shane might have slightly ruined acting for you, because nothing will ever be like working with him?

[Laughs] No! I know what you’re saying but I think it’s been the greatest lesson in how to want to be a good actor. We had so much fun on this and it was so painful. It was such an up and down undulation of emotion.

I’ve worked on other projects and nobody else works in the same way. I’ve learnt so much from Shane I can adapt to how the other directors work and still try and invest the honesty. That is s what he has taught me.

It’s been a very great luxury to have time to explore the character, which I know you don’t always get on other projects. It doesn’t stop me wanting to try and deliver under different circumstances. Absolutely not.

Do you shoot an enormous amount of stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor?

Devastatingly, yes. Loads. He has this great idea; Wouldn’t it be funny if we did this… So we try it and it goes great. But then, whatever way the episodes are cut, if it’s not integral to the story, even if it was a joy, or really painful, to shoot, it just doesn’t make the cut.

This is my third shoot with Shane, I’ve learnt anything is possible and he always has the good of the story in mind. If it’s not absolutely integral you have to be prepared to lose it. I’d quite like a DVD of all the stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor actually...