IN CONVERSATION WITH EMILY SEALE-JONES
WORDS ANDREA WARD - PHOTOGRAPHY FILIPE PHITZGERARD - POLAROIDS COURTESY OF EMILY SEALE-JONES FROM PERSONAL ARCHIVE
At the age of twenty-years-old, Emily Seale-Jones moved to New York City to study method acting followed by a move to Los Angeles this time to study film. As she will later share, Emily’s life was one of constant movement and excitement which have indeed influenced her personality and identity as a creative. She moved back to London at the age of twenty-five where she has been working to establish herself as a writer and actor.
For Emily, two of the major sources of creative information for her were cinema and photography which came later on into the picture to cause a deeper understanding and refinement of that which she had been discovering and developing throughout her life. While living in New York, Emily wrote and directed the web series ‘Frankie and Emma’ which became the trigger project for her career as a director. Today, Emily is working a new and exciting project with the BBC which will be released next year.
As the current lockdown started to ease, we had the chance to meet with Emily to chat more about her upbringing and the things that informed her as a creative, in one of the most male-dominated industries in the world. Emily talks about the challenges of being a woman in the film industry and the major issues she faces within it, and, if being a woman wasn’t hard enough in the film and TV industry, being of a mix-raced decent makes things even more challenging. Emily speaks candidly about these issues and what how much “perception” plays a part when in the TV/Film business.
Andrea Ward: Tell us about yourself; where were you born and do you still live in the same place/city? Emily Seale-Jones: I’m half South African on my father’s side and quarter French from my mother’s and I was born at UCH in the middle of London. I grew up between London and L.A and spent the holidays in South Africa with my dad’s family. At the age of twenty I moved to New York to study Method Acting and then moved to LA to go to film school. At twenty-five I moved back to London and I now live in Hackney.
A.W: Oh wow, that’s a very exciting life. How was it growing up for you, especially with such a diverse background? E.SJ: My parents are in the film industry, so mine and my brother’s childhood revolved around their work, which never stopped. If my parents were working on a film (dad’s a music composer and my mum handles music production) we would hang out at Abbey Road until our nanny came and got us. When they had to be in L.A we’d move out there for months at a time, some of the best friends I have to this day were made then. Growing up in that way gave me the feeling of freedom and a sense that anywhere can be home.
A.W: What most inspired you growing up? Did you have any ‘heroes’? E.SJ: I never had any heroes, I always wanted to be an actor since I can remember, but there was no one actor that I aspired to be like. I guess what most inspired me was my brother and our close friends; my brother is extremely funny, and a natural storyteller and our youth was spent trying to make each other laugh and creating other realities in our imaginations.
A.W: That’s so sweet! Tell us a funny/interesting story from your coming-of-age. E.SJ: When I was a young teen I was hanging with my brother and we wanted to try weed at a party we were having at our house (our parents left us alone every weekend). I wanted to go with him – instead of being dropped at a café – but my brother being the responsible elder sibling wasn’t on board. After a lot of hassling, I managed to convince him on a compromise; let me come along and I’ll hide in the trunk of the car during the ‘transaction’. He couldn’t wrap his head around why I would want to do that, but he was bored of the debate and it was getting late. So, a block from the ‘drop’ he pulled over and I got in the trunk. To this day I believe, that had it not been for the rogue spider waiting for me in that dark confined space, the plan would have been flawless. However, what went down was my bro pulled up to the already agitated dealer, and just as the ‘transaction’ began, the whole car started to shake (as I aimlessly tried to escape the locked trunk) and my muffled shouts were just audible above the running engine. Suffice it to say the vibe quickly shifted from weird to dark; the dealer bolted, and my brother was pissed. I am big enough to admit, I’ve had better plans.
A.W: Oh wow. This is the kind of scene I could see happening in a movie like Superbad or Project X. What would you say has informed you the most as a creative? E.SJ: Film – and then later on photography. When I moved to New York the guy I was dating watched two films a day. He was at film school and was being introduced to so many different genres and styles of movies from all over the world and watching them opened my eyes to the art of film-making. I began watching films that I liked several times, each time with my notebook in hand, pausing and rewinding in an attempt to analyse and deconstruct the films narrative structure, its visual language, the aesthetics, the tone – everything. That’s when film turned into my passion, instead of a career.
A.W: And how did writing and directing come to happen?
E.S.J: While I was living in New York I decided to write what turned out to be a 50-page script. I was missing my group of friends, and my brother back in London, and so one day, I began writing.I chose a bunch of good memories from my teen years of our group adventures and then I created a scenario, the ‘vehicle’, with which to tell them. I didn’t do anything with that script, it was just for me. Five years later I wrote the web series ‘Frankie & Emma’, because I had a three-month break between acting on two movies and I wanted to act a comedy role (I tend to get cast in dramas) so I wrote the role I wanted to play. That was the first time I wrote a script in order to make and direct it. I’ve written and directed ever since.
A.W: We know you are currently working with BBC3 on a new project coming up next year; can you share anything about it with us? Just a sneaky peak? E.SJ: I wish I could share more – but for now I can say that it’s a thriller, I’m working alongside three insanely talented writer/creators and I’m super excited about it!
A.W: We can’t wait to watch it! Now looking a bit at this year and what has been going on; the world was hit by the unprecedented COVID pandemic which has definitely changed how we do life. How has your life and work changed or adapted during this time? E.SJ: On the work front not a whole lot changed – although writers’ rooms are a lot less fun over Zoom. But this whole thing has been so surreal, not just because I had COVID19 before lockdown began (I lost my sense of taste and smell for three months and its only back at 80% now- my fear is it may never fully return) and not just because over the course of lockdown I lost my grandfather, then my grandmother and then my dog, although those three deaths have changed me. But also, because I am seeing the world in a pretty stark light; how fragile we are, how dysfunctional our political system is, how prevalent structural racism is, in this country and abroad, and I’ve come out of lockdown without the rose-tinted glasses, I can see things a lot clearer than I could before.
A.W: Would you say this has been the one upside of the pandemic, for you personally? E.SJ: Something that I’ve learnt after lockdown was declared, and the general panic and claustrophobia subsided, but before my dog died – let’s call it ‘the sweet spot’ – I was writing, but not too crazy deadlines or because I had to, but because I wanted to. I wasn’t stressing about the future because I couldn’t – because I had no idea what the future was going to look like and I began to notice that the smallest things brought me joy. Holding my dog while he snored, watching movies with my partner, the sun, nature...I would spend so much of my day-to-day existence stuck in my head, planning the future, stressing about whether I’m doing enough to achieve what I want, to the point where I don’t even see what’s in front of me. So, I’ve learnt the joy that can occur by simply being in the present, and I know that sounds wacky, and I’m not saying that I’ve become super present, I’ve just learnt how good it can feel when I manage to be present, even if its fleeting.
A.W: Besides writing and directing, is there anything else you are really passionate about? E.SJ: I love acting. I’ve acted since I was 14 and that’s what I trained in for 4 years; there’s nothing like it.
A.W: The film and TV industries are still heavily male-dominated; how do you feel being a young female director in the industry today? E.SJ: Yes, they are still male-dominated. Because of my gender I have to work twice as hard and think about every choice I make, twice as long as my male counterpart, because these industries don’t cater to me like they do to them. And the rare times when being female is acceptable because it fills a quota (which doesn’t feel that dope anyway) I am then faced with the judgement from my male colleagues that I have somehow been given an unfair advantage, as if they as white males (for the most part) don’t have, and haven’t always had a tremendous advantage from the moment they were born. Often my accomplishments are overshadowed by the message that, my success, is never simply due to my talent, capabilities and hard work. And that isn’t chill.
A.W: What has been the biggest or most recurrent challenge you’ve faced in the industry? Would you attribute it directly to the fact of the different male-female challenges in the industry? E.SJ: Yes, for sure. My biggest challenge has always been the fear that in meetings or with networking events or on projects, I am being heard in exchange for something else. The constant worry that if I am too much myself (how I dress or make jokes, or even smile) that I could ‘give off the wrong impression’ and be treated like a sexual object, rather than the professional that I am. At the same time, I also have to make sure that I don’t come across too detached or stand offish because this could be deemed ‘cold’ and I could fall into the ‘bitch’ category.
A.W: Is there any piece of advice you could give to young female creatives who are about to enter the film and TV industry? E.SJ: Gender equality will happen. Never stray from your passion, if that is film or TV or whatever it is - do not let fear stop you from doing it, because your voice is unique, your voice is powerful, and you have the strength to be heard. No one can take that from you, no matter how hard they try.
A.W: Amidst the BLM protests and wake; how do you see the creative industry responding to the issues of social and racial injustice? Is there more we can do as an industry?
E.SJ: The industry is broken when it comes to social and racial injustice – not even ‘broken’ because that implies there was a time when it was not broken. It is broken – in front of the camera and behind the camera, it is broken in the stories that are told and the people that are telling them. I think Reni Eddo-Lodge courageously highlights, the structural racism within this industry, in her book (‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’) “Those who are coded as a threat in our collective representation of humanity are not white. These messages were so powerful that four-year-old me had already recognised them, watching television, noticing that all the characters that looked like me were criminals at worst and sassy sidekicks at best.
A.W: Yes, I can totally see that. I think Reni has hit the nail on the head! Do you see a way for that to change? Especially considering that it has always been broken? How do you fix something that has never been right? E.SJ: Generations of women before mine stood up in the face of uncomfortable truths, they took courageous actions and they forged ahead in order for me to have a ‘seat at the table’ and in turn, the women around me will stand strong and speak out, so that the future generations of women will not only have a seat at the table – but will be accepted and treated as equal to the men around them.
A.W: What has been the most recurrent thought in your mind during lockdown; considering all that’s been going on in the world? E.SJ: I’m so lucky.
A.W: A hopeful statement to the future... E.SJ: Rome wasn’t built in a day but with a little fire it could have been destroyed in one.
A.W: Favourite F-word? E.SJ: It’s gotta be the ‘F word’ (fuck) - just cause it’s the most used.
A.W: Okay, let's do a quick-fire round. A perfect place: E.SJ: Anywhere with dogs.
A.W: Three people (dead or alive) you would like to have dinner with: E.SJ: Zazie Beetz, Angela Davis and Annie Leibovitz.
A.W: A hero:
E.SJ: My (late) dog Cougar, that guy taught me so much about what’s really important in life.
A.W: Summarize life today in three words: E.SJ: Exciting, unpredictable and terrifying.
A.W: A song that best describes your mood today: E.SJ: Wendy Rene ‘After Laughter’.
A.W: A childhood Tv show/movie that has stuck with you through adulthood:
E.SJ: ‘The Game’ – David Fincher.
A.W: A female role-model: E.SJ: Michaela Cole.
A.W: A place to go back to: E.SJ: Tokyo.
A.W: A place to go for the first time: E.SJ: Borneo.
Tea or coffee? E.SJ: Coffee all day everyday – 5 times a day on average.
A.W: Some words of advice to your younger-self: E.SJ: Don’t waste your time worrying about what everyone thinks, no one really gives a shit about what you’re up to!
A.W: Your favourite quote: E.SJ: ‘In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer’ – Albert Camus.
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