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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own