thu 16/09/2021

theartsdesk Q&A: Isabella Pappas on how 'Finding Alice' is a blueprint for bereavement | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Isabella Pappas on how 'Finding Alice' is a blueprint for bereavement

theartsdesk Q&A: Isabella Pappas on how 'Finding Alice' is a blueprint for bereavement

Youngest star of the ITV drama discusses grief, teenage girls, and getting into character

Isabella Pappas: 'If you experience grief, the show becomes much more truthful'David Reiss

Isabella Pappas was nominated for an Olivier Award seven years ago – before she’d even started secondary school. The 18-year-old now stars in ITV’s new comedy-drama about grief, Finding Alice, opposite Keeley Hawes, Joanna Lumley, and Nigel Havers.

With devastating precision and control, Pappas plays Charlotte, an only child who has to become her mother’s emotional rock when her father dies unexpectedly. 

LAURA DE LISLE: What was it like making Finding Alice

ISABELLA PAPPAS: One of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. Not only because of the cast, but because it was such an interesting set to work on. The set informs the story, a lot of the time, and that’s definitely true with Finding Alice. Keeley [Hawes], Joanna [Lumley], Nigel [Havers], Gemma [Jones], Kenneth [Cranham] – everyone was so great to learn from. It was like a crash course for acting. So I feel really lucky that this was my first big job in TV.
 
You mentioned that the set was important for this show. Can you elaborate on that? 
 
I think that’s because the premise of the show is my character’s father, Harry, dying, which is a product of this house he’s built. In a way, his dream has killed him. When you’re walking up and down the stairs, and the crew have to put crash mats underneath you, it makes you think about how we can get wrapped up in the elaborate side of things, and disregard our own safety. That poses an interesting question about Harry’s mindset, and whether it should’ve been geared more towards making a house that was safe for everyone, rather than something that was aesthetically pleasing. But I don’t think anyone can disagree that it’s a beautiful house.
 
It’s a real house, right? 
 
It’s not actually a real house! The outside is real, and the inside is constructed in the studio. The exterior is this couple’s actual home, which is amazing. But there was one bit of the exterior that they built on, which was freezing cold, because we were filming in February [2020], and there were a lot of night scenes. It was this kind of wooden box on the outside of the house, with nothing in it. There’s a lot of scenes where you’ll see us walking into the front door area, and we’re just standing in this wooden box. It’s so well-edited that it looks like a real house. 
 
There’s something interesting about the fact that the interiors don’t exist outside of the studio. Obviously that happens a lot with TV, but within the story, it’s meant to be one complete, perfect house. 
 
I know. It’s funny, because technically, that house doesn’t exist. And also, it was not smart. The sink had water, but only because it was hooked up to a water bottle underneath. There would be people pulling back the curtains whenever you’d press anything on the iPad. It gives the illusion of being a smart house, so sometimes you’d forget that it’s all fake (Pappas with Keeley Hawes, pictured below).
 
Isabella Pappas (L) and Keeley Hawes in 'Finding Alice' (ITV)Your character’s relationship with her mum Alice (Keeley Hawes) is really interesting, because you have to be Keeley’s mum, in a way. 
 
That was one of the things that drew me to the script – the parental role that my character, Charlotte, adopts. Because that’s very real, especially when a family’s going through hard times. A lot of the time, it’s the children and teenagers that step up, because they can see things so clearly. They carry less bias, especially young children. So it’s easier for her to be the adult than it is for Alice, in a weird way. I also like that she’s written as very emotionally reserved, because you see that quality a lot in male characters. Less so in female characters, and definitely less so in teenagers. Teenage girls are written as overly emotional, really up-and-down, but I’m a teenage girl, and that’s not how I am all the time. Charlotte has a really well-developed personality; the writing of her is realistic. I love that about her. 
 
I hadn’t really thought about how she’s the opposite of the teenage girl stereotype.
 
It’s quite apparent for me, because when you’re growing up in the acting industry, it’s a very obvious switch, when you go from playing children to teenagers. A lot of the time teenagers are written as all the same, which is sad, because so many important things happen in your teenage years, and it’s a time of life that should be honoured. It’s a very hard time, so there’s a lot of challenges. Charlotte’s just written really well. There’s a part later in the series where people tell her to get a boyfriend, and she’s like, “I just don’t even want to think about that.” She’s so focused on her family. That’s something that’s really nice to see in a teenage character, because a lot of the time we see them preoccupied with other things. But she’s very family-orientated, and I think that’s a good example to set. She’s a really great character. 

Do you think that also comes from her being an only child?
 
Definitely. I’m an only child, and I’m very close with my mum and dad. That’s why the story resonated with me, because [the characters] always talk about how their family was this tight-knit triangle. That’s how I feel with my family – my mum and dad are my best friends. So I really appreciate the truthfulness of this character. They treat Charlotte like an equal, which is how you are treated, in that kind of relationship.
 
Do you feel that might have detriments as well as advantages?
 
For sure. It’s a lot of pressure, especially in her scenario. She’s under immense emotional strain, which causes her to shut down, because that’s her way of coping, whereas her mum’s way is to let everything out. I think in relationships, when one person becomes emotionally vulnerable, the other person often has to assume the role of the rock. Unfortunately in this case, Charlotte is the rock. She does eventually crack, which was very complicated, but really interesting, getting into her psyche. 

There’s a scene in Episode Two where Keeley’s character says that she’s more like a man than a woman, because she doesn’t have friends. And Charlotte says, “Stop, Mum, what are you talking about?” She’s always the voice of reason. One thing I love about her is that she’s not written as a female character. She’s written as a person. She could equally be played by a boy, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference, because her role isn’t inherently stereotypically female. Society’s moving forward, and I think there should be more characters that don’t necessarily represent all the characteristics of one gender. Simon Nye and Roger Goldby [co-creators, with Keeley Hawes] did an amazing job at creating these characters. Joanna’s character also exhibits more stereotypically male characteristics; she’s more assertive [than her husband], she has more control in her relationship. You see all of these different types of women, but none of them is stereotypical, which is so important. That’s real life! 
 
Finding Alice’s tragicomic approach to dealing with death is pretty unique. Were you surprised by the reaction to the show? 
 
This show pushes the boundaries of a Sunday night drama. It doesn’t conform to one genre, like a lot of the best shows being made at the moment. I think that’s more interesting, because your life’s not a comedy, or a tragedy, or a romance. It’s all of these different genres at once. I would say to everyone: wait until you’ve watched all of the episodes before you form an opinion. The greatest review I could ever get is the messages from girls my age on Instagram saying, “My dad died last year, and you made me feel like it’s okay to not show a lot of emotion, and it’s okay to make jokes. Everyone thought I was crazy, but now I’ve watched the show, and it makes me feel like people actually understand.” 

If you experience grief, the show becomes much more truthful to you. It was made to help people who are grieving, and people who haven’t yet. It gives you a roadmap that says, “No way of dealing with grief is the right way. Every way is unique to a different person, and every way is okay.” Humour is a way of coping, now more than ever. We need to stay open-minded about that, because everyone experiences grief in a different way. You never know how you’re going to react until it happens to you. There’s a line in Episode 2: “Dying was what other people did,” and that’s really how it seems, until it happens. The show deals with that really well. I know it’s not going to be everyone’s thing, but I’m really happy, because it’s touched a lot of people and helped them through grief. If you stick with it and watch all the episodes, you’ll go on that journey with us, hopefully.
 
Isabella Pappas in 'Finding Alice' You were brilliant in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse. Did doing that play inform your performance at all? 
 
Definitely. That’s also a story about grief, but a different type of grief. Cassidy, my character in Appropriate, was also very un-stereotypical. There were a lot of "likes" written into her lines, but when you unpick the dialogue, she’s also emotionally – not numb, but reserved, held back. I’m happy I’ve got to play these parts that aren’t overly emotional all at once. It’s almost more effective to hold back the emotion until the very last second. That’s how a lot of people behave in real life – not everyone is super in touch with their emotions. 
 
For that part, and for Finding Alice, I made journals, and I wrote as the characters. Everything from the moment they were born until the moment the story starts. That really helped inform it. I found, comparing Charlotte and Cassidy, they’re very similar characters, from two different worlds. There’s kind of a continuation in a different universe, of Cassidy in Charlotte. 
 
Do you do anything else to find a character?
 
For Appropriate, it was tiny things. I felt like a fringe would help me feel younger, because I was a 17-year-old playing a 13-year-old. I started trying to dress like her when I went into rehearsal, because our styles are very different. I made a playlist of 200 songs, which I’d listen to before the show every night. Backstage, I’d try to stay in character, just listen to my music and try and not take it so seriously, because the character didn’t take life too seriously. I really enjoyed that.

With Charlotte, her costumes really inform the way she is. They’re all very covered up, and loose – they don’t show her figure. She hides in herself, which is part of her dealing with grief. It definitely changes the way people present themselves. She has a line: “I don’t want it to look like it’s all about me.” That’s very important, because a lot of the time when people are grieving, they’ll shy away from making themselves look nice. Changing something about yourself can really help you get into a character. Charlotte has a fringe, too, which hides your face. She’s quite a blunt character, so it was just straight across. She’s not very laidback, so her hair’s not going to be all messy and down. Keeley’s character has more wavy, carefree hair, because she’s more all over the place at that moment. I love costume and hair and makeup. They’re tiny things, but they inform the character. 
 
Up to this point you’ve mostly done theatre. Are you looking to move towards TV now? 
 
Theatre will always have a place in my heart; I love the rush of being onstage. But recently, because theatre’s slowed down, 99 per cent of my auditions are for films and TV. Which I love too, I love the nuance and the tiny facial expressions that change the whole meaning of a scene, which you wouldn’t be able to see onstage. Each has their advantages, and I would be happy to do both. I just want to be able to act, you know?

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