Jethro Skinner is a British actor from “sheep and cider territory” just out of Glastonbury. Now Brixton-based, a couple of years ago he received a message from New Zealand director Ivan Barge, asking if he’d be willing to travel to Auckland to star in his short film Madam Black. Jethro gladly made the trip, and the short has been enjoying acclaim on the festival circuit since its release earlier this year. It tells the tale of Jethro’s character Marcus, who runs over a little girl’s cat then concocts an elaborate way to avoid admitting to his crime.
A staunch believer in doing work that switches one’s soul on, Jethro has acted on a wide range of projects – including Plus One, which won him Best Actor at Kinotavr Festival, Russia’s equivalent to Cannes. As he explains to Sarah, his adaptability stems from a straightforward, driving desire to “be a useful cog in a story I believe in”.
How did you come to work on Madam Black?
I got an email from Ivan on Christmas Day a few years ago saying, It’s a bit random but I saw you in Sign Language and I’ve got some money for a film. If I paid for you to come to New Zealand would you come and act in it? To which I wrote, Yes please. Then I had an amazing two and a bit weeks in New Zealand; after the five days filming I did 1500 kilometres in five days around the South Island in a campervan, on my own. Zoomed around the South Island. So it was a really random meeting, but just the type of thing you like, really.
What was the shoot like for you?
What I really remember was that I was tired and a bit jetlagged, and a bit uncomfortable with the weather. Basically, I arrived on – whatever it was – a Tuesday, and we were shooting on the Wednesday. I’d had no time to get used to being in this hot, foreign country. I think that sort of made the character. This guy was someone struggling with the climate, and the people and, you know, everything. Was just a bit energetically exhausted. I think that lent itself to Marcus’, grump levels slightly. It’s such a weird thing to think you’re flying around the world to film this strange, bizarre not quite rom-com about a guy who kills a cat. I was tired and grumpy and fed up, just from the jetlag, and confused. But then, nicely, I think over the five days, as I settled a bit that also lent itself to the character having a little journey himself.
The premise of the film is quite bizarre. Aside from the promise of a visit to New Zealand, what drew you to do it?
My overall mission statement of life, I suppose, or work, is that I just want to be a useful cog in a story I believe in. There’s a sort of decency to Madam Black, a growth of decency that happens to my character through his interactions with the little girl, Tilly, and I just think that’s the shit I believe in, and I like. I suppose if you watch Sign Language, they’re quite similar – not much happens, but somehow the humanity is so strong in it, that it’s powerful on its own.
Was there a catalyst for you reaching that MO, or has that always been your take on things?
I suppose I come from relatively switched-on, hippy stock and I probably culturally have been led to think like that, as well as my own realisation. I just feel better about myself if I’m making stuff I believe in.
You do a fair bit of theatre work as well, right?
Yeah I do. I want to do everything. If it involves acting and I can find a way of believing in it then I’m very happy doing it. But theatre is sort of, instant pleasure but low wage. Whereas I’ve done a couple of adverts this year, which are surprisingly hard work but silly money. You just keep the juggle going really.
When did you start acting?
I went to drama school at 18, so I’ve been an actor since I was 21, but I was doing youth theatre and stuff like that when I was younger. Acting is the thing I can do with which I feel the most of me is in use. There are other things that give me pleasure, but all parts of me can be used when I do the acting. That’s why I feel it’s magic to me, really.
There are a lot of people who, for whatever reason, don’t end up living that way. It’s a fairly unique choice to make.
I’ve had loads of shit jobs, and they now make me feel ill, thinking about having to be spending all that time doing something that has so little reference to what you might believe in. My real feeling is that, if I look at the people who have carved out a little life doing what they want to do, the only difference is that they chose to do that. You could say that other people don’t have the belief or the talent, but I’m not sure it’s to do with talent. I feel that somehow some people get privileged enough to fancy their chances in doing the thing they want to do. Part of me, that’s not quite conspiracy theorist but – feels that the rulers don’t want everyone switching on like that, so they have to keep most of us believing that we’re incapable of carving out a world that results in us doing what we want to do. I think everyone could do it, it’s just that most of us are being discouraged to believe we could.
And it’s hard to do it! Consistently, for long enough that it’s working.
I get that all the time, Oh it must be really hard. I always feel slightly like I have to argue it somehow. The reality is that, if I look at my life, anytime that true hardship has appeared, it’s been psychological. The reality of whether there’s funds to pay your bills, or whether you can eat – those things rarely, in the UK, and looking at my friends and family, and other artists – the crunch time where you can’t survive barely ever turns up. The hardship is in your own psychological journey with it. I still feel like a loser, I still have times where I just realise I’m not where I feel I should be. And other people are winning and all that ego and nonsense. That is a hardship, but it’s a psychological hardship. If you can get beyond that in your own mind, then the reality of hardship is rare.
I heard Ryan Gosling describe in an interview once how, as an actor you’re constantly walking the line between premonition and delusion. Believing in yourself enough to keep going with it as a career, but also wanting to be able to recognise if and when it’s time to stop pushing.
I think the delusion is an absolutely necessary part of being a creative, to have some level of what could be called delusion, that it will happen. It will turn out. To drag my family through a sort of self-imposed poverty is certainly viewed by lots of people as being completely mad. And occasionally I view it as mad. In the darker times, in the harder times, I think, what am I doing? I could have easily got a job, we could make this whole operation easier, but then the extraordinary, amazing gigs turn up. Also, it would appear from personal experience that the closer you get to big rock-bottom moments, then something extraordinary happens. Mega gigs turn up. I’ve had two massive, massive gigs, and they both came out of months of absolutely no money, and me having to think, do I have to rethink everything? And suddenly the gods sent signs – just keep going, keep doing it. And trust, to go back to my other point, that the reality of hardship is a lot further off than the mind would have you think.
I guess it’s also that question of, is it actually madder to do a job – if you can help it – that ends up driving you mad because you’re not being fully yourself?
Yes. But I feel that’s Western cultural capitalism. I tell young actors, or young creatives: the first thing you’ve got to do is just get cool with being poor. Find out why it’s ok. Get a bicycle, start learning music. If you can get a garden, get a garden. Work out ways in which you can not mind not having the thing that you’re endlessly being told you should have. Then you can start to give yourself the platform to be the creative you want to be. By starting at the bottom, and not feeling like the poverty you’ve chosen is crippling. If you can create your own pleasure, and find your way around things then you’re truly free. But if you’re forced to buy into the idea that you’ve got to buy all this stuff to keep happy, then you’re unlikely to be able to go and be poor for a few years to start your creative adventure. I think that’s what Sign Language is all about in a way, that’s why I liked it, because I could relay to the camera to wake up and see what’s around you, and you don’t need all this other shite. I suppose it’s just classic hippy ideas, but I enjoy keeping on about them.
Any intelligent creative will work out that the only true pleasure they get is from the act of creation. Not even from the results of their creation, but just from the act of them doing the bit that turns their soul on for whatever reason. That makes them feel whole. It’s almost like it’s worth enlightening ourselves away from chasing any of the reward, knowing that the reward is just the act of doing it. Sorry, I’m going to get deep and meaningful now, but if we are the universe’ means of experiencing and expressing itself, if that’s what we have this opportunity to do, then to find yourself suffocating in something you know hurts you, and is shit – I just think come on, you have one life. Don’t do it! But that is an extreme privilege. I have endless debates with my mum about the notion of privilege, and what it really is, and who is privileged. Because I feel so excessively privileged to have the self-belief that I’m going to go do what I want to do. That, you could argue is the ultimate privilege.
What was it like to star alongside a dead cat?
The cat was fine. It was never smelly, it was always well-behaved, fantastically well-behaved. It was always nice shooting in public places with the cat. But my main memory was hanging out with Pearl, who plays Tilly. She hugely out-cooled all of us adult actors. She was the dude on set. And she’s got that beautiful female quality whilst being a seriously tough boy.
And how was travelling around the South Island?
I mean, I realised – you shouldn’t really do it. Burning around it in a car in five days. I picked up a lot of hitchhikers, and I picked up some Germans who were doing the same journey in a year. I just felt like I was a bit of a fraud. Also, I’m not sure that driving around the South Island is how to do it. I like cycling. Cycling and walking would be the best really. I felt like the whole thing was just a strange blur of the finest scenery I’ve ever witnessed. Sort of surreal. I’d be zooming to a sight that I’ve never seen the likes of and might never see again, and then get in my car and zoom to another one, completely different an hour later. I just wanted to be wild. It’s funny – in New Zealand there’s nothing that can hurt you, no species that will come and get you late at night or anything, yet it was still spooky being on my own. It’s a nice reminder that we’re so rarely on our own. It was still interesting how easily I would drive off a track and park up for the night, and get my guitar out for the night. How quick it was to just be scooped by the big emptiness. I realised, even though I fancy the life of being a cowboy I’m probably not as tough as I think I am.
Update April 16, 2016: Madam Black is currently touring the US festival circuit, including stops at Cleveland, Nashville and Tribeca. Follow the adventure.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.