Priyanga Burford is a film, TV, theatre and radio actress now appearing in the play Eyam as Katherine Mompesson at Shakespeare's Globe and as editor of The Herald, Amina Chaudury, in the BBC's journalism drama Press. Here she tells Mandy News about how she got her start, how she prepares for a role and what actors can do to succeed in the industry.
Priyanga, how did you get involved in acting and what took you into the film and TV world?
At the moment, I am playing Hermione in A Winter's Tale at The Globe, and currently rehearsing a new play called Eyam, set in a village in Derbyshire in 1665, also at the Globe (because they also do new writing there). I'm also in Press, which is a new series by Mike Bartlett for BBC1.
I got into acting by doing what everyone does: plays at school and drama classes. I just really enjoyed it. I'd never really thought it was an option for a job because I didn't come from a background of acting or the arts.
I hadn't really been to the theatre until I was 17. I had an amazing time at the National Theatre's production of Hamlet. That blew me away and I started thinking that maybe I'd like to do that for a living.
I went to university, then drama school and then I became professional actress, which I have been for about 20 years now.
When you first got into acting how did you go about getting an agent?
I was very fortunate because, in the final year of drama school, they have shows where the entire audience is just agents invited by the school. Unlike a lot of people, I didn't have to find ways to get my face out there on my own. I had a lot of help from drama school.
Press is now on BBC iPlayer – tell us a little bit about how you got involved with that and the show itself.
Before there was a TV adaptation of Press, Mike (Bartlett) did an adaptation of his own play, King Charles III, for TV, in which I played a politician called Mrs Stevens. Through that, I met Mike and we got on well.
When Press came up it was just the normal process. The part really came off the page for me: an interesting, complicated, layered character and I thought I would love to have a go at it. I did a self-taped audition, met the director, producers, casting directors... the usual process.
What was your process of becoming Amina Chaudury for the show? How do you normally lift the character off the page?
I think it's different for each thing that you do. I'm an actor who works quite a lot from instinct when I first read a part, but I also do lots of research.
For Press we visited The Guardian and The Mirror. We also met Lisa Markwell who was editor of The Independent on Sunday and got the chance to talk to her.
We were all very keen to understand the world of the press, the day-to-day life of a journalist and what it actually means to do the job, day-in day-out, the processes it involves, how it affects your personal life and the rhythm of your day.
The rhythm of the day for an editor was particularly interesting for me. I play the editor of a newspaper called The Herald and I wanted to understand that, so I had my own chat with the editor of The Daily Mirror and with Lisa. It was just fascinating, I feel very lucky to be able to visit these different worlds because of my job and find out about how different things work.
When you were researching the role of an editor did you take any characteristics from the editors you met?
Not as such. It's interesting because they're not the clichéd hacks that have been portrayed before. They're really nice people who are very passionate about their work – they're very dedicated.
It doesn't matter which paper they work for, they're really driven people and actually very easy to talk to. It was funny for them I suppose, being interviewed for a change, and asked about themselves and what they do.
It was great going into conference, which is a morning meeting with all the newspaper's heads of department and the editor. It's where they decide what's going to go in the paper that day, what's going to run and what's not, which pages different stories are going to be on... We got to go to those meetings at two very different newspapers. The conferences were very different and that was fascinating.
But as far as the characteristics go, no it's not based on any of the people I met, because the people I met were just people who are really dedicated to their work. They weren't that clichéd sort of Tyrannosaurus image. They weren't sitting around with big cigars, drinking whiskey for breakfast and shouting at people. It was really quite the opposite; they were great to talk to, very open and actually very friendly.
As a mini-series, what sort of schedule did you work to? How much time went into pre-production and the shoot itself?
On a production like this, it’s much shorter for the actors than, for example, the art department or any of the heads of department. They've all been working for months and months beforehand, figuring out locations and all of that.
I can't remember the exact length of time we had but it was enough to visit the newspapers, rehearse, think about the characters, go window shopping with the costume designer and talk to the art department about what my house might look like. All of that stuff was really valuable for me in thinking about Amina and who she was.
During shooting, what were your days like?
Yeah they were the normal 12 hour shoot days. We did five-day weeks which is really nice for everybody. We had a weekend; I think it's important that people have lives and they can get away from work.
As a miniseries, was it shot episode by episode or more like one long piece?
They tried to do it chronologically but because locations had varying availability it couldn't always be like that.
You've always worked in the different mediums of acting. Do you have a preference or could you describe if you have a different approach?
I've worked in film, television, theatre and radio. I've done voice overs for video games: all sorts of things. I don't really have a preference because they're all quite different with different demands.
I feel like the things that I do on screen and on stage are quite different. There's a different speed. In theatre, you tend to have more time to think and talk about things with your director.
Small screen is a much faster process so you have to have a slightly different approach to that. There's a lot more work done on the day.
I don't have a preference. People ask that a lot and I can't answer because I just like acting.
Is there anything else currently on the horizon that you can tell us about? You're in pre-production for a film called Second Skin?
Yes, that's right. It's a short film which I'll be doing at some point in the next couple of months. I haven't really talked about that yet, I'm just trying to get my head around this play.
It's a fantastic series of monologues for women of different ages, set in the near future and that's all I'm going to tell you.
There are some really, really fantastic actresses taking part in it and I'm really excited about it. I can't wait but I'm keeping that in the back of my head for the moment because my head space is taken up.
With regard to the new play can you tell us a little bit about that?
It's called Eyam which is the name of the village in Derbyshire where it’s set. It's 1665 and England was still in chaos from the English Civil War, so it's a political and social mess.
Into that mess comes the further mess of the plague, so we're in an England that's already on its knees and the plague just makes it worse.
I play a character called Catherine Mompesson, who was a real woman – I went to Eyam and saw her grave. She was the wife of the vicar who had just arrived in Eyam to take over the running of the parish. As they arrived to do their work, the plague arrived too.
They had to see this village through making a really extraordinary decision to quarantine themselves from the rest of the country, so no one left and no one arrived. They decided that they would die together and not let it go any further, probably saving thousands of lives. It's a true story, you can still go and visit the village.
And how long is the play on for?
We open on the September 20 and finish on October 14. All the details are on the Globe website.
What advice do you have for actors wanting to get into film and television?
Work really hard - it's not an easy job to do or to progress in. You've got to work really hard. Relationships are really important – it's a very network-based career so don't p*** off the people that you're working with.
It's really important to be kind and generous with co-workers because it's very difficult to be creative in an atmosphere which is negative or tense. Remember everyone around you is trying to do their best and they are not necessarily there for you.
Just really work hard and try to work with the best people that you can. If you believe in yourself and your talent and you enjoy what you do then keep going.
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