Wide angle: The green, green grass of home
Saturday 04 October 1997
After Twin Town, Marc Evans's febrile debut, House of America is another attempt to update the cosy image of Wales with scabrous, Trainspotting- style grunge. No warm welcome in the valleys here, but you will find such national icons as Tom Jones and Sian Phillips cropping up in its story of madness, incest and cultural dislocation.
Phillips plays an unbalanced matriarch given to sly violence and pyromania. "It's always disconcerting, to say the least, to play someone who is mad," laughs Phillips, "but it's more difficult in a movie. On stage you can chart progress through rehearsal. On film, you're just doing snatches of the various different stages, often shooting them backwards."
Born in Wales, Phillips won a scholarship to Rada at 20 and has not lived there since. What was it like to return? "We were shooting the film in the rural west, very near where I grew up," says Phillips "At the time I was playing in A Little Night Music at the National, so I'd occasionally have to go there straight after the show. One night I fell asleep in the car. Hours later, the driver woke me up and we stepped outside. lt was pitch black but I knew exactly where I was. I said `I'm in Cwmllinfell aren't I?' and he said, `Yes, how did you know?' It was the smell, you see, the smell of my childhood. I was standing on a little patch of common where I used to stand when I was 15 years old. A very strange feeling".
But the Wales of Evans's film depicts a wasteland of open-cast mining and unemployment and the gothic, clapboard "House of America" symbolises the family's escapist dreams. For the cast, though, it became a nightmare. "The land around it turned into a swamp," says Phillips, "because it was Wales, you see, and it rains there almost all the time."
Despite such discomforts, Phillips "enjoyed the experience enormously because, although I am Welsh and I speak Welsh, I'm rarely asked to make films there."
In the past, Phillips has worked with the likes of Scorsese and Milos Forman. Not bad for a girl who turned down film contracts with Ealing, Paramount and Columbia while still at Rada.
"Things were different then. My teachers would have been appalled. It didn't take me a minute to decide that it wasn't what I wanted. I needed to learn how to act on stage. Anyway, the parts were very limiting; at Ealing it was all big skirts with petticoats and ponytails, and I've never been that kind of girl".
She even worked with David Lynch, on Dune. "I loved David Lynch. He was such a regular guy," recalls Phillips. "He wore the same white shirt buttoned to the neck every day, and he ate the same at every meal. Always chicken sandwiches. There's absolutely no trace of where those films of his come from".
Currently taking a rest from Marlene, her one-woman show, Phillips remains impressively busy, writing the first volume of her autobiography and doing a spot of filming for a Screen One - "I'm dead most of the time so it's rather restful. Kind people keep coming and warming the bloody water in my bathtub".
`House of America' is released
on 10 Oct
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