‘We have lost a great actor’ -An appreciation of Katrin Cartlidge from director Mike Leigh


[September, 2002 The Guardian]

Katrin Cartlidge

Katrin Cartlidge, who died suddenly at the weekend aged 41, had her first leading role in Mike Leigh’s film Naked. Here he remembers her passion, talent and humour

By Mike Leigh

At the Toronto film festival last weekend, the dreadful news of Katrin’s untimely sudden death spread like a shockwave. We were all utterly stunned. Many of us knew her personally, others only from her many screen performances. Yet everybody felt they knew her, and everybody loved her. It happened to fall to me to tell Juliette Binoche. I was unaware she was soon to start work with Katrin on Walter Salles’ new film. She was bereft: she had not yet even met Katrin. At the question session after our own film, a member of the huge audience asked me about Katrin. The audience was palpably shocked.

Film festivals are not all like Cannes or Venice. They come in every shape and size. Many of the best are modest, uncompetitive affairs, where audiences and film-makers mingle intimately. Katrin loved these especially, and attended many of them: she was always a popular participant. Some of us were lucky enough to spend time with her at the friendly film festival at Sarajevo only a couple of weeks ago. Her work on Manchevski’s Before the Rain (1994) made Katrin a Balkans heroine long ago, but since No Man’s Land last year, she has become a veritable star in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Katrin Cartlidge
Katrin Cartlidge

And here she was in Sarajevo, where they idolise her, radiant and sunny, with her long hair and famous infectious laugh, and her little rucksack on her back, chatting with members of the public avidly, watching all sorts of films, having genuinely serious spontaneous discussions with young film-makers. She was fascinated and ever inquisitive about the city, the recent war, and above all the people; endlessly enthusiastic about everything, not least the food, and characteristically happy pottering around the old town, rooting out cotton scarves and leather slippers.

One of our joint duties was to introduce the late-night open-air screening of Naked to an audience of 2,500. Much to Katrin’s amusement, the interpreter asked me what I was going to say (Katrin knew I always improvise). I told the woman not to worry, I wouldn’t say anything she couldn’t translate. While waiting to go on, Katrin suggested I say something untranslatable. I volunteered, “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves (etc).” Katrin said that if I’d recite that, she would utter a long sentence in Serbo-Croat, picked up while shooting No Man’s Land, which she duly demonstrated. This turned out to be the foulest of obscenities; but the great joy of Katrin’s delicious sense of humour was that we didn’t need to bother with the dare itself – just savouring the wheeze was enough.

I adored her twinkling anarchy. During the Sarajevo trip, we attended a reception given in our honour by the British ambassador in the garden of his official residence. From time to time, as we chatted with various film-makers and diplomats and their wives, I would catch sight of Katrin giving me a naughty conspiratorial anti-establishment wink, as if she was about to perform some dastardly republican deed.

Katrin Cartlidge
Katrin Cartlidge

Katrin was occasionally given to sophisticated practical jokes. When she was on the jury at the Edinburgh film festival, she sat in the row in front of another jury member and made enthusiastic noises throughout the screening of an obviously atrocious film, much to her colleague’s bewilderment. As the credits rolled, she jumped up, turned round, and chortled, “Gotcha!”

It is my privilege to have worked with Katrin on the film that led to her career, unique amongst British actors, in independent European and American films. Naked was not her first film, but Sophie was her first leading role. I had known her for a number of years and had admired her theatre work. (She always recalled my visit to her theatre studies class at Parliament Hill school, where, typically, she remembered her delight at the short shrift I gave her unfortunate teacher.)

She had often told me how much she wanted to act in films, especially in mine. Of course, lots of actors say that sort of thing, but it was only when I started to work with Katrin on Naked that I began to realise there was more to it. She took to the improvisation and character work instantly, easily and with extraordinary commitment and imagination. Other than in the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre, she had had no formal training, but you would never have guessed it (Drama Centre London turned her down, and that put her off). And my abiding memory during the long rehearsal process is of her endlessly exclaiming, “This is such a gas.”

On the whole, even the most intelligent actors don’t pay much attention to the filming itself, far less to the nature of film performance in relation to the whole process. But, as Simon McBurney said in his moving obituary in this newspaper, Katrin believed “in the process of cinema as well as the product”. It turned out that she had originally wanted to go to film school to direct, but had decided early on that she should first find out about acting. And, despite her inspired, genius ability to lose herself in the character and to behave as an actor should, she also had the objective eye of an artist. For that is what she was, in the broader sense of the word, and in the way that most actors are not. She drew her inspiration not only from life and people and experience, but also from painting and sculpture and much else, including world cinema. She often talked to me about her eventual move into directing. I am in no doubt that we have lost not only one of our greatest actors but also one of the most interesting new directors of the future.

But the depth, scope, range and sheer electricity of Katrin’s acting was phenomenal. Had she continued, she would most certainly have become, over the next 40 years or so, one of the true greats. Her tastes and sensibilities were both classical and yet alert to the contemporary pulse. And her acting was always informed by her compassion, her courage, her humility, her gravity, her humour, her sexuality, her sense of justice, her acute observation, and her deep-seated suspicion of all forms of woolly thinking and received ideas.

We worked together only twice after Naked. In Career Girls, her remarkable achievement, for which she won the Evening Standard best actress award, was to play the immensely complex Hannah at both 20 and 30. Others in the cast had to do this too, of course, but Hannah’s behavioural complexity made Katrin’s characterisation phenomenal.

She was mostly unavailable for Topsy-Turvy, but was desperate to take part, in however small a role, “just for the gas of it”. So at the last minute, she came in and gave her delicious madame in the scene where Sullivan visits a Paris brothel. And when she showed up to contribute her cameo, she had been to Paris to do some pretty thorough research.

Her co-lead in Career Girls was Lynda Steadman, who was very ill during the shoot. Naturally, everybody was as helpful as possible, but Katrin took total responsibility for her comrade, and without compromising her own work, was so caring and so very strong that Lynda was able to deliver a beautiful and flawless performance. For, as has been said in many places during this sad week, Katrin was a truly loyal friend, and was universally loved.

I still find it impossible to believe she is gone, that I will never again meet her for lunch and have that special free-flowing Katrin conversation, at once profound and hilarious. But the hardest thing of all is to face the unbearable truth that Katrin Cartlidge will never again make her magical contribution to my films. This devastating fact leaves me very sad indeed. It is a terrible loss.

Source:  https://www.theguardian.com/film/2002/sep/13/artsfeatures.gender