Modern family: What happened when an actress spent five years with four unknown children on camera?

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The actress Shirley Henderson spent five years acting with the children – real-life brothers and sisters – for a film about the prison system. It was an extraordinary experience, she tells Charlotte Philby.

There is one scene in Everyday, the new feature-length drama by Michael Winterbottom, that sticks in my mind. It isn’t my favourite – there are many to choose from – but it is hard to forget because, as it played out in the shiny screening room at London’s Soho Hotel, I was overwhelmed by a barely repressible urge to stand up, reach out and take Ian, the male lead, by the throat and shake him until he turned blue.

Commissioned by Film4 as a snapshot of how love can survive the deepest of separations – in brief, a man is sent to prison leaving his wife alone to raise his kids – Everyday was filmed over an extraordinary period, a full five years. Alongside Shirley Henderson and John Simm, it stars four real-life siblings – normal kids without so much as a single acting lesson between them – who grow up in real-time over the course of the film.

The scene in question comes about half-way through. Ian (Simm) and his wife, Karen (Henderson), are sitting opposite each other in the prison visitors’ room, separated by a sheet of glass. The look she gives him in the opening shot says it all.

The last time you saw them together, the couple were sitting next to each other on the sofa in another, less austere prison visiting room with two of their four kids by their side. Back then, I already felt hostility towards Ian because of what he’s putting these kids through, but at that point the other, more forgiving, half of me also wanted to give Ian a hug, because you could see what this was doing to him, too; plus, you realise from the fact that he’s doing a five-year stretch and that this is not a high-security prison that whatever he has done (you never find out, as Simm himself says “It doesn’t matter, that is not the point”) it was probably a relatively minor crime.

Besides, at that stage, when you saw the tears shining in Ian’s eyes as he holds his boy at the end of the visit, before he is led back to his tiny cell to lay on his bunk-bed and stare at the ceiling for another 24 hours, a part of you thinks whatever the crime was, you don’t care; rather, what concerns you now is what happens next, because what use is this man to his children and his wife while he is in here?

Given recent comments by the Government about prisoner rehabilitation and the future of the criminal justice system, this story, which will be shown on Channel 4 in a couple of weeks, comes at an interesting time. Yet, Winterbottom, insists, this project was never about crime and punishment. What interests the British filmmaker, who has cast Henderson and Simm in a number of his previous projects – including London-based drama Wonderland and his ‘Madchester’ movie, 24 Hour Party People – is getting us to think about what happens next to the families involved; once the damage is done, how do two people withstand such a separation?

That is why, in the scene in question, you want to hit Ian. You find him and Karen sitting a metre apart from each other with this stupid glass cage between them and little prospect of another day-release any time soon – and all because Ian thought it would be a good idea to smuggle a “tiny” bit of hash back into the cell with him after his last day-release. At that moment, you are not thinking about Government reform or the intricacies of the prison system; what you’re thinking is what an idiot, how are these kids going to get through another year without a dad to kick a ball around with, to keep them in line and to give their mum a moment’s respite from the daily grind? Henderson, her big brown eyes resolutely dry, sums it up: “I can’t do this,” she says, “it’s too much.”

Yet, somehow – and this is the crux of it all – she does. Against the odds, working two jobs to pay for cereal and clothes and occasional trips to the seaside, and finding emotional intimacy the only place she can (with another man), Karen gets on with it; she holds them all together, because if she doesn’t then no one else is going to. Triumph over adversity.

That, as Shirley Henderson says when we meet at a bar in central London, along with the four real-life Kirk siblings who play her children (Stephanie, 14, Robert, 12, Shaun, nine, and Katrina, eight), is a sentiment that applies to some extent to the making of the film, as well. “If someone were to say to you, ‘You’re going to spend the next five years making a film’, you’d think, ‘No, I can’t do that’,” she says. “But then when you’re in it, you just do.”

The youngest of three growing up in a working-class family in Fife, Henderson studied drama in Kirkcaldy on the same course as Ewan McGregor (with whom she later filmed Trainspotting) and Dougray Scott, before going on to study at London’s Guildhall. From there, it was the National Theatre before bit-parts in TV (not least, BBC’s Hamish Macbeth) led her to film. Aged 35, she became the oldest actor to play a Hogwarts’ student – the wonderfully-named Moaning Myrtle – in the Harry Potter films. At five foot, with big brown eyes and freckles where lines should rightly be, she looks more like a teenager than a 46-year-old woman, but don’t let that fool you.

While you can’t help but think glossy Hollywood directors have missed a trick by failing to cast Henderson in a leading role, there is a quiet intensity to her performances that makes her a natural choice for the likes of Winterbottom and Shane Meadows.

In the flesh she is polite, articulate and composed; journalists in the past have commented that she is fiercely protective of her private life, but today she is open and warm: “I don’t have family,” Henderson says, “for me [the Kirks] became my family.” That is what filming  intensively over half a decade (more than half of their lives, in the case of Katrina and Shaun) will do. “There was one time,” says Sarah, the children’s actual mother, “when Shaun came into the kitchen and said ‘Mum’ and we both turned around…”

Some women might have found it difficult to hand over their kids for a few weeks at a time, but Sarah understood what was involved from the start. And so, for five years, when the  call came – sometimes giving them just a  week’s notice – the film crew (four of them, f including the director) would descend, and from that moment until they left, Winterbottom’s imagined world would inject itself into nearly every aspect of their lives. Not only was the story filmed in their real-life home, with their real-life stuff scattered about (“We weren’t allowed to tidy up before the crew came,” Sarah recalls. “We weren’t allowed to decorate for five years…”), it was also filmed at the children’s schools with their friends and teachers.

How do the kids feel about the film now that they have finally seen it? “It is different to what we were expecting, there was lots that was taken out and lots that we hadn’t seen being filmed,” says Stephanie, who at 14 is the  eldest sibling. Watching themselves grow up on screen was a surreal experience, she admits. Now they all want to pursue careers in acting, and Henderson rates their chances: “They are just a very down-to-earth family, there are no airs and graces… Working with children in this way [with improvisation] is great because they don’t have the same hesitations as adults, they are not censoring themselves.”

Now that it is all over, the ripple-effects are still being felt in the Kirk home. The day we meet, the whole family has driven down to attend the premier at the London Film Festival, which must seem small beer since returning from last month’s Telluride Film Festival in Colorado: “We all had to get passports,” Sarah says. “We’d never even been on a plane before.” Katrina, the youngest Kirk, was just three years old when a casting director and producer turned up at their school nearly six years ago in search of a non-theatrically-trained child to star in a film. She and Shaun, now aged nine, have never known a time when they weren’t making this film.

“I knew from the beginning that it would be a love story and that the couple would still be together at the end, and that the structure would take place over a series of visits,” Winterbottom says. He also knew he wanted it to be filmed in north Norfolk, where the director – whose past works range from 9 Songs, the most sexually explicit film to be given a ratings certificate in Britain, to The Road to Guantanamo, the acclaimed docu-drama from 2006 – has a second home and knew the landscape would allow for the sort of lingering shots he wanted to contrast with the sense of claustrophobia created by the close-ups inside the house and prison. But that was as far as his planning went.

In typical Winterbottom fashion, there was no script, not even a story outline for his cast to mull over. Rather than telling his actors what to do, Winterbottom lets the plot emerge out of what they come up with while filming. “With Michael,” Henderson says, “you film so much… he edits everything down, sometimes taking out huge chunks of dialogue because he’s got it all in just one look… It could have gone so many different ways, there will be, like, two or three possible films in there.” As far as the kids were concerned, they were expected to carry on behaving the way they would behave normally, but within certain circumstances, which would be loosely described to them by the director.  “It is a weird one, it’s hard to know how much they are acting and how much they’re not,” Winterbottom recalls. “I’m not quite sure how we got them to do that.”

Considering the Kirks didn’t have so much as an hour’s drama lesson to their names when they were selected, at that time aged three to 10 years old, this level of improvisation was a risk. Not to mention what might have happened had one of them decided at some point over the five-year process that they no longer wanted to be a part of it. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. The  effect of seeing these children grow up on screen makes the film all the more compelling.

As well as the childrens’ real home and school, the film is shot inside a real prison, with real-life prisoners and wardens – which the filmmaker says presented its share of difficulty. “There were privacy issues because you can’t show anyone who doesn’t want to be in the film.” But it also meant that whatever happened in the film is what would happen in real-life,  like the kids being patted down and sniffed by dogs on the way in, and the warden breaking up the couple’s hug on a visit. What was remarkable about the prison experience, Henderson notes, is the wearing down; how even the  rigmarole of signing in and being searched –  so daunting and alien at first – becomes  second nature.

John Simm says the experience of spending days on end (sort of) incarcerated with offenders and staff was an eye-opener: “Twice a year I’d get the call and it would be back to prison,” he recalls. “I spoke to a lot of real-life prisoners and they all said the same thing: ‘The worst thing is that first night when your door slams shut for the first time…’ That sense of remorse… I don’t think it is the cushy existence that some people suggest.”

But the prison itself, Winterbottom insists, isn’t the focus here. The real message is the small mistakes with far-reaching consequences, the little things that happen in a day that on reflection are the big things – a young boy holding his brother’s arm, the sound of sausages sizzling in a pan, corn swaying in a field. These are, after all, Winterbottom  concludes, “the everyday moments that  make up a life”.

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