Nina Conti: The acclaimed ventriloquist on the seductions of acting and throat-singing


I struggled for 10 years as a jobbing actor Dad [the actor Tom Conti] was always very helpful. He said acting was about being real. It's a simple view, but it's difficult if you are not getting work in the first place. I felt a bit of a fraud calling myself an actor as I had so little work.

Acting is seductive It looks so much fun. I did dally with other things. I did pupillage in a law firm, but I didn't like the look of how many files the lawyer I was working with had to take home every night. It looked like a hideous amount of work when actors were having nice lunches and discussing books.

My puppets are far more liberated than I am Ventriloquism is a useful way of expressing myself. I could be talking to a couple in the front row [at a gig] and my monkey puppet Monk could say the man doesn't seem to love the woman very much. I would never say that. Or Monk can say very lewd things. We all have lewd imaginations, Monk just gives voice to them.

I was ridiculously over the moon when I was nominated for a Bafta It was for my documentary Her Master's Voice [about ventriloquism and Conti's relationship with the late actor Ken Campbell, who died in 2008, bequeathing Conti his collection of ventriloquist dummies]. I funded it myself and everyone worked on it for nothing.

Ken Campbell was a huge influence on me – and still is I still find myself wondering, what would Ken do? He was such an extraordinary force. He was a great cultural signpost and I didn't want that to end, so in a way this film was bringing me closer to him again.

I see myself still being a ventriloquist in 50 years The problem is that I am running out of Monks. I've only got a few left. They were a toy, but they have been discontinued, so I'm trying to find the creator. I've got lawyers working on it at the moment.

I don't always know what to think Having a puppet is a way of having opposing opinions – I say a thing; he says the other.

My older daughter talks to Monk She is nine and treats him respectfully. I try not to use the puppets at home so that I can maintain a work/life divide, but they are great fun for the children.

I'm going to learn Mongolian throat-singing One time Ken sent me for a day course but I didn't quite master it. I remember him saying that he was going to put some money aside in his will for me to go out and learn throat-singing in Tuva in Mongolia. That didn't happen so I'll have to self-fund that, too.

I'm training to become a giggle doctor It's a kind of hospital clown who changes the atmosphere on the ward and helps recovery. It's about making patients laugh but also much more.

Improvising is hard but it gets easier I've recently filmed a sitcom with Monk called Family Tree, directed by Christopher Guest [of Spinal Tap fame]. I had to improvise with all these greats, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard and Ed Begley Jr. I play the kind of person I would be if at eight years old I had had a disturbing experience and was told by a therapist to get a puppet because I don't speak.

life is batty and bonkers And too lovely and weird. Approach it with curiosity.

Nina Conti, 39, is a ventriloquist, film-maker and actor. Her documentary, 'Her Master's Voice', has been nominated for a Bafta; the results will be announced next Sunday. Her live show, 'Dolly Mixtures', is at the Soho Theatre, London W1 (, from 6 to 25 May. 'Family Tree' airs later this year

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