Interview: Jennifer Ellison revisits The Cottage

Are you a horror fan?
I wouldn’t say I was a mega-fan, but I do like horror films. My favourite, favourite one, the one that had the most impact on me was The Silence Of The Lambs. It really disturbed me actually.

Were you ever worried about playing the female role in a horror film?
She’s not the typical horror blonde running into a room where she knows she’s going to die, screaming as the knife comes through the door and whatever. She’s very feisty, she’s got a lot of fight in her and she’s the total opposite of what you’d expect. People would probably say, “Oh Jennifer Ellison’s in a horror film” expecting it to be all [puts on damsel in distress voice] “Oh, no, no!” but it’s totally the opposite.

Did director Paul Andrew Williams suggest any DVDs to watch as preparation?
No, but Paul was fantastic. We had a week of rehearsals working through what happened before the script starts. We did a lot of groundwork: Paul told me where Tracey’d been before and what her life had been like. He’s the best person to ask about that stuff because he wrote it. He was like, “She’s from this very rough family; she’s been dragged in and out of prisons visiting her mum and dad; she’s constantly having the house being raided; she’s not scared of anything, especially these two dimwits who’ve tried to kidnap her.” She’s seen scarier people at school and she’s mad because they’re just wasting her time basically.

Did you get to improvise during filming?
No, but Paul was always open to discussion. It was all there for us on the page and he’d done such a good job. He had a set way he wanted it and was very precise in what he wanted, but he really pushed and made us believe we were doing a really good job. He was fantastic to work with.

Was every swear word scripted? There were a lot…
I did keep saying, “Paul, please Paul, I don’t have to swear again do I?” And he was like, “Course you’re fucking swearing again!” When I initially started filming, with the crew all quiet and me shouting and screaming all these swear words, it was like listening to nails being drawn down a blackboard. I was like, “Oh, God – I sound awful.” I didn’t want it to overshadow my performance. But as an actress I’m there to do what the director wants me to do and that’s what he wanted. He wanted it to sound harsh, so that people would be like “shut up”, especially seeing how she dies. Obviously she is me to a degree and if I needed to I could easily turn it on, shout and scream like Tracey. She’s just got so much front. Even when she’s injured, dying she turns round and sees this big farmer with a spade, knows she’s going to die but is still like, [full, thick Liverpudlian] “What are you looking at?” It’s more front than backbone; she doesn’t care.

Originally your character was meant to be 40-years-old – did it change much when you stepped in?
It’s exactly the same. Literally just the age changed. I don’t think it would’ve worked as well, actually. It wouldn’t have been the same – what’s so comical about it is that this little petite blonde who you think is so innocent while she’s gagged and tied up turns out to have such a mouth on her and totally changes the whole thing. That’s what makes it funny and makes Peter (Reece Shearsmith) look all the more pathetic and bumbling, as she can totally take command of three large men.

Can you give us a quick burst?
I can’t! The window’s open – I’d scare everyone on the street outside!

Was it hard to watch your death scene?
It was hard to watch, not because I thought I was actually dying, but because I knew exactly how it had been filmed with the prosthetics, so I was very critical. “Will you be able to see this, will you be able to see that?” It’s so weird when you’re doing things like that. When the blood starts squirting out of my head, I was like ,“Does the head look like me?”

Were you looking forward to working with Reese Shearsmith and Andy Serkis?
I’d seen Lord Of The Rings, obviously, but I’d never seen The League Of Gentlemen. When I knew I was working with them I watched all their stuff. All the guys on the crew kept asking Andy to do the Gollum voice and, “Say ‘Precccciouuusss’ for me voicemail!” But he’s so lovely, he doesn’t mind.

How was the shoot?
The hours were extremely hard. We’d get to work and have breakfast at 5 in the afternoon, then start filming at 8 o’clock and carrying on shooting until literally the sun came up. Every single working day was night shoots. It was difficult and it was all filmed on location so you didn’t have any luxuries, you couldn’t even go to a dressing room to get warm. It was just being freezing cold in the middle of a field somewhere on the Isle Of Mann. It was pretty intense. And then trying to sleep all day in a hotel room… [rolls eyes] I was absolutely exhausted after working through the night and then you’ve got maids banging on your door, hoovers making noise. It actually drives you a little bit insane. When I was waking up, people would be going to bed! It was difficult for me to find the energy to play Tracey, to scream and swear when I was shivering, freezing cold and exhausted. For eight weeks.

Did the toughness of the shoot and the low budget build camaraderie within the cast and crew?
Oh, definitely. That part of it was amazing. The Phantom Of The Opera took a year to film at Pinewood Studios, at the total opposite end of the spectrum. And Andy had done Lord Of The Rings and King King but he’s mucking in and making us all want to work, so that’s what we all did, pulled together and wanted to make it work, to make it special. The low budget thing and shooting on location with the whole team pulling together was very similar to Brookside, actually. Otherwise totally different, but not much money etc was very similar.

What did you think when you finally saw the Farmer in all his glory?
It was weird, because Dave Legeno [a cage fighter! Ed.], who plays him is such a huge bloke. It felt like he was seven foot tall and seven foot wide, so seeing him in the outfit, with the prosthetics, towering over you was actually quite frightening at first. But you do get used to it and start offering him cups of tea.

Did you take any mementos from the set?
I did… My head! It’s a funny story: We’d been out at a do the night before, so I was in bed and we heard this banging at the door. I go downstairs at eight o’clock in the morning when I’d gone to bed about three, open the door and it’s the postman, asking me to sign for this big box. I was like, “What the hell is this?” I started opening it and it’s like something out of Se7en. I pull it open and it’s me head! So I’m like, “Oh for God’s sake” and put it on the side and go back to bed. Then my cleaner came round at about half ten, letting me sleep in, quietly opened the door to see my head covered in blood sat on the side! She had quite the scare and ran to me mum. It’s become quite the attraction now, everyone wants to touch it, lift it up and have a photo taken with it.

What have you got coming up next?
I just finished a drama by Lynda La Plante for ITV with Amanda Burton called The Commander, that goes out in December. I’m waiting for a few other things that, like The Cottage was, are waiting for finance – I’ve been cast in a film called Sold Out with Gerard Kearns out of Shameless. It’s an amazing script.

After doing Phantom are you tempted to up sticks and move to Los Angeles?
Not really. I did get shortlisted for the latest Adam Sandler movie. I had my case packed and everything, booked the flight, but literally a few hours before I was about to fly I got a phonecall saying that he wanted to go older with the role. But that’s the nature of the business and there were plenty of girls who went for The Cottage, so you can’t be bitter.