TV Stalwart, Karen Bryson, Switches Acting Gear in Science-Fiction’s ‘The Carrier’ Premiering at This Year’s Raindance Film Festival

Karen Bryson

Karen Bryson

Perceptive, knowledgeable and industry savvy, Karen Bryson communicates intuitively, valuable skills about the art of being an actor. Graduating from LAMDA (London Academy Of Music & Dramatic Art), this passionately spoken actor has clocked up quite a CV of work – placing her frequently in much treasured productions on British telly. ‘The Bill’ (1997-2004), ‘Bodies’ (2004/05), ‘Holby City’ (2001/06) and the revered ‘Shameless’ (2008/13) are some of the classics which demonstrates quiet, tactical manoeuvres in her career – which has paid off. Most recently, Karen appears in the sci-fi dystopia, ‘The Carrier’. This independent production premiers at Raindance film festival. We dropped in on Karen’s busy schedule for a catch up…

‘The Carrier’ is your first return in a long time to film…

Yes it is and it was amazing to do it. The telly bits were kind of rites of passage. They’re a great way to get to know the TV world and work fast. Some of the other stuff, which didn’t necessarily put me on the map, I enjoyed doing, because they were edgy and they told a story. Things like ‘Bodies’, which was written and produced by Jed Mercurio, was hugely successful. ‘The Carrier’ was something that I was really drawn to because even though it’s a sci-fi thriller, it wasn’t all panic and two dimensional characters; no, no, no, this was character-led. I was approached by Megatopia Films, Luke Healy and Anthony Woodley and they said well look, would you be interested in playing this part (‘Maria Adams’)? I was aware there wasn’t masses of money, I was aware that it’d be a tough shoot, but when you’re doing independent film you know you’re doing it for the love of the script and I actually fell in love with the script, because it’s really character-led.

I was also interested in the concept of what lengths would you go to survive, I’ve always been interested in that. When we identify with film we always identify with the hero, the one that takes the chances and saves people. What I find interesting is the human condition. What would Karen Bryson do in a real situation like that – and I don’t know! I don’t want to say that I’m gonna be the hero that saves people, I don’t know, and that’s the interesting bit about being an artist. I can explore that without having to be in the situation and that’s the question I’ve asked myself for twenty years.

Did The Carrier help you think about what you might do in such climatic situations?

Yeah, because it’s a life and death situation. It’s about a pandemic, which is sweeping the nation and there seems to be no known cure. These characters end up at an airport in a decommissioned plane. Unfortunately somebody has the infection and it’s on the plane. People go to all sorts of lengths to protect their own lives. The natural leaders come forward the humanitarians come forward. Something about the human condition in a group, allows something to come out in particular individuals.

The Carrier is outside of your usual genre – and not just because it’s film. Was this a conscious choice; was it about the characterisation of ‘Maria Adams’?

I’m just gonna back-track in terms of genre. I’m an actor and I should be able to do to anything that people throw at me. I’ve worked long enough in this business and I’ve trained hard. I went to LAMDA and they teach you to think outside your box. Unfortunately the business says, ‘oh we think you should be doing this’ and people get pigeonholed and it can be hard to get out of. But if you give an actor a new challenge they will find a way of making sure that they fulfil that challenge and do a good job…any actor worth their salt. I’m lucky that I’ve been given opportunities where I can flex my muscles to do what I want to in various genres and I want to continue to do so. The characterisation was a major thing. I’m trying in my career not to be too pigeonholed. So doing things like ‘Shameless’, I took a chance. Normally I’m like the posh one. So people are still shocked when hearing that I’m not northern!

the_carrier_posterKaren indicated earlier that the set was tough and shot in the confines of a plane…

It was really cold! We did night shoots…frah-eezz-ing! But you just say, ‘fine’. I’m telling a story that I absolutely wanna tell, that I think’s important on many levels.

The Carrier premiers at Raindance, how well do you think festivals support independent film?

They are absolutely of paramount importance. For a team of people to get together to make an independent film for about a year-and-a-half, you need absolute dedication, getting funding and getting the right actors. If you’ve got a name attached, making sure you’ve got that name that is free. I mean it’s a whole quagmire of stuff you get to before it’s even seen at a festival. And festivals like Raindance, which have built such a reputation, it’s a real opportunity for those dedicated team of filmmakers to make a mark and say something. Usually in independent film they look at subjects that big Hollywood blockbusters aren’t allowed to. A writer could write something and the big industry could say we’re interested in this film, but by the time it even gets to making it, it becomes a totally different product. They will pull apart all sorts of stuff to make it so that it’s a blockbuster and it sells. I’m not saying all Hollywood blockbusters aren’t interesting, but independent film is where it makes a real difference in terms of the power of the business; being able to tell another perspective, being able to look at stories and give a voice to situations which we might not think about. That’s what’s amazing about independent film.

Many actors make the tracking of their careers appear seamless, effortless, how would you describe your career expectations thus far?

I learnt quite early on to try and get rid of expectations. Not saying that I don’t dream big, but this business is full of ups and downs. It’s a tough business and to get your head in the right mental space is paramount of importance. I’ve seen this business destroy people because of expectations and not meeting them at the timelines they’d set for themselves. Give yourself a break. You have to think big and you have to be ambitious, but it is a matter of saying, ‘I’m going to try my hardest and that’s all I can do’. There’re so many things out of your control. It’s so fickle that you have to keep a reasonably strong constitution otherwise this business could swallow you up and it could be steeped in disappointment.

So how does you fortify your  own constitution?

I am a big Yoga fan. Having that space on my own where I’m not thinking about anything other than being in my body. That’s one of the things that have been proved invaluable in terms of getting (my) head in the right space.

That said about expectations, do you have career landmarks?

There were a couple. Firstly, my first jobs in theatre. I was absolutely astonished that someone would pay me to do something that I’d loved and wanted to do since I was a child, that was extraordinary to me; I was like ‘…and I get paid?!’ I did about eight or nine years of a lot of theatre and really honed my craft. The next landmark would be starting to get the TV stuff.

What are your perceptions of the industry and its development?

My perception of the industry is unfortunately at times it needs a bit of a shake up in terms of thinking outside the box. I think the business goes in trends about what they think viewers want to look at and the ones who are crazy-great are the ones who take risks, are the shows, which take risks. So, for example, ‘Orange Is The New Black’ (2013-). That’s a Netflix original series. Now what show had this many women and a diverse amount of women – even a transgender woman!? Netflix took a risk and now look! I was involved in Warwick University’s black and Asian involvement in Shakespeare (2013/14). I remember in the 80s and 90s a real big effort to do ‘colour-blind’ casting, where it was about the personality and not what you physically looked like. It meant that black and Asian actors had a chance to play major roles without them being specific, so not just ‘Othello’. Then it stopped…it stopped! So of course you’ve amazing women like
Dona Croll and Diane Parish…then it stopped! It’s like the industry went, ‘box ticked…’ Then it reverted back. It was like an elastic band. Now, there’s a real conscious effort to make a difference and you’ve got TV companies committing to making diversity part of a major initiative.

Karen Bryson as 'Avril Powell' (2008 - 2012) in Channel 4 series 'Shameless'

Karen Bryson as ‘Avril Powell’ (2008 – 2012) in Channel 4 series ‘Shameless’

Isn’t this disheartening for young people coming into the business seeing the industry going around in so many cycles?

It is scary, this is what I meant about the whole mental thing. We’re now seeing changes but it takes time. Debbie Tucker Green for one. I remember her writing short plays that used to be attached to other plays. Now boom! It seems her work just popped up – no! She has worked really, really hard and has a kind of single mind in terms of ‘this is what I want to achieve’, which is really great and now she’s doing brilliantly. But people think that she’s just popped up. I’m not saying don’t have ambition, but be mindful to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start over again regardless of the cycles. It takes a big constitution to be in this business no matter where you’re from actually, but especially from a diverse point of view, you’ve got lots of obstacles that you need to kick down or swerve past.

Karen, will we ever get past using the ‘R’ word?!

Oh gosh. I don’t know. I’d like to think that we would be in a world where that’s not as relevant as it is now. Weirdly enough, thinking that things are impossible is not a good way to live. I was doing another interview where I was talking about role models and Obama (POTUS) being the case. You and I grew up in a world where we thought, ‘yeah right!’. A place where we have a black president or a person of colour (as president) would be in my children’s generation, I never though would it be possible. But for youngsters growing up now, that is the new norm. That’s what I wanna see.

We couldn’t do this interview without discussing those Emmy wins for Viola Davis Regina King and Uzo Aduba. Karen says laughing…

I’ve just put my hands up and said ‘Oh Yes!’ I tweeted something from the Emmys (saying), ‘One word!! YAY!’. It’s incredible, absolutely incredible. Funny enough, when I won the Screen Nation Film and Television Award and somebody said to me ‘do you still think it’s relevant that they have awards ceremony based on ‘race’?’, I needed to make sure that I answered this question properly. I said Okay so we could look at MOBOs, we could look at the Asian Music Awards, we could look at even the Scottish BAFTAs. (But) There’s obviously a reason to celebrate where the mainstream are ignoring. We can wait for the mainstream, or we can try and encourage and support and celebrate what’s happening in our community and it’s important to do so. The enormity of Viola winning on that level and being so absolutely, beautifully, eloquent in her speech on top of that is incredible. She’s not a tits-and-arse black lady, in that you’re objectifying her in a kind of way, no, she’s a solid, full-on actor who’s been working for years. When Meryl Streep won her award for ‘Doubt’ (2008), she mentioned Viola Davis in her acceptance speech. There’s a wealth of talent like Regina King and Shonda Rhimes producing work for a diverse cast and making her dramas interesting. Now she’s got Hollywood actors knocking on her door.

Etienne, Elba, Oyelowo, Harewood, Jean-Baptiste…Karen, if you got the (USA) call would you leave us?!

Yes, and I’d be one of those actors that doesn’t stay there, just does the job. I’m not feeling living in America, I’m from here, my family’s here my husband’s here. I would want to do the job and then come here. To be honest I would love to have the opportunity, quoting (the) Viola Davis speech, I’d love to have the opportunity HERE! Tell stories here. I was born here. It’s a shame that we’ve all had to go off. Unfortunately the opportunity is not here.

You speak passionately and determinedly, where do these emotions come from?

I’ve always been like that, quietly. Obviously having to talk about it, I sound passionate, but it was always quiet. So in school when they said ‘No’, you know (the) careers talk, they said ‘you’re not gonna be able to get into acting why don’t you take typing GCSE?’ … … … Exactly! In my mind I thought I’m not letting go of that. I have faith in my passion to tell stories to be authentic as I possibly can and feel that I have got, in my tiny way, something to offer and to contribute to the business and help to pave the way like the guys before me did. I’d love to be one of those people that can encourage young people.

Looking at the development of her career, what do you see for her future?

There’re loads of other things I want to get involved in; writing a little bit more and creating work as well. TV’s a great platform I‘d love to do more TV definitely. I’d love to do a couple more films with very different characters that throw people off the scent of ‘I just do one particular thing’. I‘d love to get my teeth into something meaty and also some strong telly where characters are brilliant!

The Carrier premiers at Raindance on Wednesday 30th September, 21:15 at VUE Piccadilly and Friday 2nd October 12:10 at VUE Piccadilly to find out further information / book tickets go to:



 interview with Karen Bryson  for the british blacklist by Jennifer G. Robinson / @Grace4ully


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