Just ahead of Series 2 launching on Channel 4, we sat down for a panel discussion with star-writer-creator Roisin Conaty; co-stars Caroline Ginty, Karl Theobald and Damien Molony; plus series director Andrew Chaplin, hosted by Brett Goldstein.
You spent a very long time making the pilot, then developing the first series and getting it to air. What was the process with Series 2? Did you always know what was going to happen? Was it easier or harder to write?
Roisin: I think it was just as hard, but for different reasons. Once you've established the characters you can go with them. I did think writing the second series would be easier, but I didn't find it so at all.
Did you feel pressure because Series 1 was so good?
Roisin: I felt pressure just because I had to write a second series, I don't know about "so good"! I try to do what I've read people on the internet do when they write shows [she laughs] - I have a whiteboard and none of the storylines on it for Series 2 are in the show! So I have to leave room for a little chaos...
You've been promoted now, upgraded from E4 in Series 1 to the main channel this time. Were there different parameters for that?
Roisin: To be fair, the pilot went out on Channel 4 and then I got commissioned for E4, so I always felt it was more a Channel 4 show, and they were really good and let me write what I considered a Channel 4 show but for E4. They didn't try to make it more youth orientated. But it's still a niche show, comparatively, so you feel a bit more exposed being on the main channel. My mum will watch it - she doesn't even know what E4 is. She does call the show FaceTime, as well...
Caroline plays the part of Roisin's flatmate - in real life, as well. When you get home after a day filming, are you like "oh God did I do okay"?
Caroline: Uh, always! Because I'm a needy actor! When I get home I'm all "Was that okay?!" And Roising will always say-
Roisin: "NO! No breakfast for you."
Caroline: Lock me in a cupboard...
Roisin: I think it's more that she doesn't get a break from the show. She could be having a really nice day, get in, and I'm there stressing about the next day.
Caroline: But it's quite nice you can come home and discuss it as well. It's always in your head, but you get an opportunity to speak to someone else who's also there and has a vested interest.
Roisin: People really hated coming round though!
Damien, you're very sexy in this. Your and Roisin's characters finally kiss in this series: when you have a scene like that, do you plan it? How do you prepare for it? Or is it "let's just have a go"? It can be very electric!
Roisin: I'm pretty tense; Damien's like a proper actor. Damien's a bit like "Oh it'll be alright, we'll just do it..." but I'm like "DON'T FILM ME FROM THE SIDE!"
Damien: I think, being on set that day, we weren't sure which way we wanted to go with it. There was a version where we don't kiss - deleted scene - but it's a really tender moment. It took a whole series for these two, who have a real attraction to each other, to get together. And then she's torn away from him, so cruelly.
Karl, you are also excellent - congratulations! This series you have a sidekick, and you're also excellent together. I wonder what it's like to suddenly find yourself part of this double act? How did you get on?
Karl: Well, we're going on tour! See us on Broadway - we're doing a musical.
I keep myself to myself really. Locked in a bathroom, downstairs. Then when I'm called onto set I come up.
But you didn't meet her before she was cast?
Karl: No, I had no say in that. I met her at the read-through, then on the first day. She's great. We were lucky that it worked so well.
Andrew: It's worth saying, that was Elliot's first job out of stage school so she was shitting it when she turned up on set and there are all these great people. I could see she had the fear, but she's so brilliant in it. We've all been saying how she's going to be a star.
Roisin: The therapy days are really hard. Because those scenes feature in every episode we film them really tightly together. It's not a lazy, relaxed shoot. It's "NEXT OUTFIT! Let's go!"
Andrew, this series seems to have gone up a notch. It was already very beautiful looking, but Series 2 we've got shots through the eyeballs, incredible arty dance sequences... Did you have more money? Were you simply more ambitious? How did you make all this work?
Andrew: Well - there wasn't more money. The schedule is mad on this show because Roisin writes such an ambitious script. We have 5 days per episode, so try to pack all of it in, it's not like a traditional sitcom where you're just in the flat or whatever: there's 3 or 4 days of that, then we're out on the road and it's all shot on location. To try to get round all these different places - and push the flashbacks, which we've always felt is a thing that defines the show and we try to really push them into a different world to heighten the experiences, rather than just bolt them onto the location - to get all of that into the time we have is...
Andrew: Yeah, carnage. So we didn't have any more time, nor any more money, but we were very aware of the step up to Channel 4 and wanted to test ourselves really, and keep upping it.
Roisin: The eyeball was a spicy move! I didn't know about that till we got into the edit and I was like "what's this eyeball thing?!"
Andrew: So I do hope we've managed to up it. It's exciting to see.
Something I think is amazing about this show - not like much else - is it's really quite psychologically deep. All the characters are three-dimensional; everyone's very rounded and you really care. There are quite profound observations about human beings: but it's also fucking funny. You have these wild, broad sequences, then very real, emotional things. I wonder if you have a rule, Roisin, because it all works and balances. Is it just a guess and hope it comes together? Do you think "oh we can't do that, it's too much"?
Roisin: The thing I've always wanted to do with GameFace - the ambition, I don't suppose it always reaches it, but what we discuss a lot - is that mix, both belly laughs and making you feel emotionally invested in the characters. I think that's the hardest thing: normally one goes or the other. You get naturalistic stuff and you lose the ambition for a big laugh. Sometimes they don't fit. I'm a stand-up and it feels really weird to kill a big joke, but sometimes you have to. The choices you have to make, because it would take you out of it and make you not believe in it.
I wanted to watch something where at the end of the episode people would be invested in the storyline, having a strong plot. You try these things, and there are episodes where we've got it really right. In the edit you pore over every joke and every bit of storyline and I'm really critical - I want it to feel real. If Marcella was a bit like Wile E. Coyote and it doesn't matter what happens to her because she'll just pop back up, I think it would become a bit exhausting. It can't be all chorus, you need the lulls too.
I just wrote a show I'd like to watch. There are lots like that: we try to make it believable, but without sacrificing the laughs. You do occasionally see something and think "nah, that's too big" - you sometimes have to leave that apple on the tree because it's going to fuck us elsewhere.
Roisin, I think you're wonderful in this as an actor - but you're also the writer and creator. How is it for you on set? Are you an actor, or is your brain always conscious of what else needs to happen? And for everyone else, do you feel she's very present with you or thinking about moving on? How is it compartmentalised?
Roisin: Once I get into the scene, I try as much as possible to be present. Andrew is there to be the eyes and ears of the set, to come in and say this or that isn't working. But I am very aware; if I'm doing a scene with someone and we're running out of day, I know what we haven't got.
It can hard to compartmentalise. But I think that's a good thing as well. Andrew, and the actors, will let me change something on set. Maybe edit a line, or just trim it, go short on the day... It really is a mad shoot, it's so ambitious and Andrew wants to make it look so nice. There's not much time to get 'into' any one thing because you're thinking "what's next, what's next". It can be sort of discombobulating. But good.
Damien: You're acting in it, but also sometimes at night we'll get rewrites. She can be writing new bits of script, and she's mindful of what's happening in the edit - there's so much work for you to do. But she's got great sounding-boards in Andrew as director; Izzy the producer; Charlie, who's script edited... It's amazing what you've done.
Roisin: Izzy is amazing. And Andrew - it's a very live floor; Charlie who executive-produced the first series and is still all over it; Ben [executive producer] is very close as well. I do have lots of support I can go to. And the cast. It's nice in the second series, you can talk to them more. Everyone's very supportive and hands-on, trying to facilitate it so I don't feel all of it. But there are some days where things haven't worked and of course it's my face and my name on the show so I don't really take anything lightly. So I'm probably quite intense to be around...
Speaking of your face, you do really good faces and you have one particular one I call the 'Oh shit! Sudden chaos face'. I wondered if you every just do reactions, filming your face to slot into the edit if needed? And is there a list of faces you do?
Roisin: [Laughing] A list of faces!
Andrew: Well, your fast eyes...
Roisin: Oh yeah - I've got a theory that comedy actors who are good have fast eyes, and I've got fast eyes, so I can do fast eyes quite a lot. I know it's not much of a sell... No, we don't plan by faces though. We try to get that in the performance. Andrew might use other language like "that was a bit big" but it's not "face eleven!". My face moves quite fast so we always have enough in the edit - any emotion you want, in any scene, you can go to!
Andrew: Roisin can also talk faster than anyone else I know, so.
Roisin: Always thinking about the edit. Get ten pages of dialogue done in one minute.
If you get a third series, do you plan to develop and explore the other characters further?
Roisin: We're still editing Series 2 it's so tight, so I'm not thinking about any potential third just yet! But of course I'd like to. I think it's a great cast, and the characters I'm quite proud of that they feel a bit more developed again this series. It'd be nice to take the heat off Marcella a bit, but yeah, we've not even finished making Series 2 yet so will see how it goes. My brain won't go there yet.
In American shows, characters are allowed to be funny and for other characters to find them funny. In British shows they generally are funny to the audience without realising it in the show. It's nice that in GameFace there are characters actually making jokes within the world, and others laughing at them. Was that intentional?
Roisin: Oh, thank you. I was just trying to write people I thought Marcella would hang around with, really. She'd want people who're funny and make jokes. I find it odd when there are friendship groups or families where no one ever gets on. Of course that can happen at times, but I think you can still do it in a funny way. I just tried to write characters Marcella would genuinely be around and want to spend time with. She thinks she's funny and enjoys that in other people. It wasn't a big considered thing, but I do like seeing people laugh on screen. I like seeing people respond to jokes, not having them fall flat, and not see people not acknowledging if they've been slammed or something.
You utilise swearing really well in the series. Do you have restrictions on how many you're allowed?
Roisin: Oh man, you should have been in the edit the other day. We had to close the door. So we've got two "cunt"s in the first episode, which is quite a lot really. Later on in the series there's a "cunt"; we were saying things like "do we want to spunk our cunt now?" because we're only allowed I think three "cunt"s... I think it might be illegal. I think someone gets involved, just because I've written a joke...
Andrew: Apparently it gets passed up to the head of Channel 4 and they have to sign off the cunt-count. It goes up beyond the comedy department. We imagine them sitting in their big mahogany boardroom going "Yes! No!..." - but we managed to get two through in episode one, so hooray for us.
Roisin: I think it's just sparingly. We do have two in that one episode, but they're both good, I thought. Occasionally you realise you've sworn too many times and have to write it out - edit, edit. Glad you like the swearing though!
Published: Wednesday 17th July 2019