Valentine’s Day was cold and damp as I climbed aboard my train for London. The wind whistled through the under-carriage as we pulled from the platform. Sipping my coffee, I thought about the day ahead. It had been just over six months since I had appeared in the last Gsus Lopez film, and today we began pre-production on the next with a photographic shoot for the promotional poster of ‘Out’. I had done this many times before for different films and shows, but this time it was different; I would be playing a woman.
The script described Mary as a middle-aged single-mother who had brought up her two young children in a suburban, gossip-ridden village somewhere in the English countryside. A little brow-beaten, she was nonetheless proud of herself and her children until to her horror, her now teenage son returns for the weekend from his new life in the city to come out as gay to his family. Casting a man as Mary on the premise that she is both mother and father to her children was a clever twist. For an actor, Mary was a dream role, but as they say in this business, ‘You’re only as good as the last thing you’ve done'. If I’d got it wrong it could spell humiliation, so the pressure was on. I’ve worked dressed as a woman more times than I care to count, as a female impersonator on stage, in film and on telly. But these roles have always been ironic; look like a woman but act the geezer, that’s the comedy. I’d had lots of lovely comments from the transgender community about the fabulous dresses and shoes I wore on Big Brother’s Bit on the Side, but essentially I’d still been employed as a bloke in a frock. Mary would be different; I would be playing the real thing.
The photo shoot went well. The long chestnut wig looked real and makeup was done by a professional. When I first glanced at myself in the mirror it was odd. I was used to theatrically big eyes and lashes, huge puffed luscious lips in exotic colours and lashings of blusher. But this was very toned down, with smaller eyes and nothing much else but a little lip salve and sensible eyebrows. My immediate reaction was that it was under-done, that it would not be believable. But as I stared at my reflection, my concern turned to wonder. For the first time, I was actually seeing how I would look as a real woman and not just a comic parody. It was fascinating! On the train journey home, I sat opposite a very elegant lady in a beige knee-length pencil skirt with a matching jacket and brown shoes. I found myself studying her posture and slightly mimicking her in the way she sat, the angle of her head, the parallel slant of her legs; one crossed over the over balanced on her tilted heel. Despite sitting in a relaxing train chair, she had her back arched to allow all of the movement from the carriage to be taken by her hips, remaining still and poised from the waist upwards. I don’t know whether she was aware of my intense observation, but I did suddenly notice the confused gaze I was getting from the man sitting next to her! I spent quite a few hours in front of my full length mirror working on my own composure. Feet forward, elbows in, head and shoulders back and jaw down. The differences between impersonating a woman and actually being a woman are subtle but essential. Any mistakes would really notice in close-up on a fifteen-foot cinema screen and there’s only so much that can be done with makeup, costume and prosthetics.
On our first day filming on location in a little village called Wye, a worn-looking woman approached from a tatty block of flats and asked what role I was playing. ‘Oh, well if you’re an actor, that’s alright then’, she scowled. I didn’t much like the implication that it was only OK for me to be a woman if I was acting but not if I was just being myself. But filming at the beautiful apartment in West London was great fun. The simply brilliant Oliver Yellop who played my son Oscar called me Mum around the set, making it easier for me to stay thinking and feeling as a woman. Even the crew called me Mary. A visitor to the set one day suddenly called me Jeff, which threw me a bit. A few weeks later, I watched the finished film at its cast and crew screening. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but great fun. I just hope my female friends will think I did them justice!