Actors are sometimes accused of being detached from the real world — their luvvyish concerns somehow removed from the nitty gritty of daily existence.
This accusation could certainly not be aimed at Anouska Mond — particularly during the making of iLL Manors, an uncompromising look at life on the streets in east London. The filming of her role as a crack-addicted prostitute being dragged through the streets of the city by the drug dealer she owes money to, was so realistic and intense that bystanders, unaware that a film was being shot, began to shout from windows for the violence to stop.
Mond recalls: “A lot of the shooting was done on location in Forest Gate at five or six in the morning and the particular scene in which I’m being dragged screaming and crying — people didn’t know what was going on and they obviously thought I was being beaten up for real. It actually helped in my portrayal of the character.”
iLL Manors is the debut feature film by rapper and actor Ben Drew, who is better known as Plan B. There are six stories, which have been fragmented, then interwoven in a style reminiscent of Pulp Fiction. But this is more than designer violence. Drew has drawn heavily on his own east London background, and all the stories, which relate to gangs, drugs and (sometimes extreme) violence, are things he has himself experienced, or heard about from friends. The back-stories of the main characters are told partly in specially written raps which form the soundtrack.
Mond, who features in two of the stories, had few expectations when she turned up for an audition four years ago. “I met a guy called Ben in Camden who was trying to get a short film made. He wasn’t famous then. I auditioned for the part and got it. They did explain to me at the time that they were trying to get funding for a feature but I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought that maybe I’d get some material for my showreel.”
Shortly after the audition, Mond went out to try her luck as an actress in Hollywood. Two years later she got an email from the producers asking where she was. In the intervening period Drew had hit the big time as a recording artist and funding was now in place for the movie.
“I had no idea how big he had become while I was in the States,” says Mond in a Manchester accent untouched by her time in London or Hollywood. “I’d been out of the loop but I was determined that no one was going to take the part from me.”
She succeeded, but her challenges were far from over. The part of Michelle was demanding in the extreme. Even now, nearly two years after shooting finished, Mond has problems watching her portrayal. “Now I almost feel like an outsider looking in. At certain points I had to turn away and not watch — seeing some of the sexual scenes was very uncomfortable.”
It is also far removed from Mond’s own world: “I didn’t have any direct experience of that type of thing. I’m a Jewish girl from Manchester.”
Although crack whore Michelle is a million miles from Mond’s upbringing in the south Manchester suburb of Hale, the actress grew to like and empathise with her character.
“To be honest, I connected with her straight away. She’s a young girl who fled an abusive home and ended living on the streets of east London, and became addicted to crack. Everyday life for her is about stealing, borrowing and prostituting herself to fund that addiction. I latched onto her vulnerability — that’s where I felt the core of her character was. It’s connected to her sense of loss.”
Mond did heavy research into both crack addiction and prostitution — both online and by watching documentaries. This serious approach is echoed by Drew, who carefully places all his characters in context. It should be added that none of the characters, perhaps with the exception of Michelle and a small-time drug dealer played by Riz Ahmed, seem to display any redeeming features.
Mond admires Drew’s perfectionism. “He was great. He is extremely dedicated to his craft and very inspirational. He knows what he wants and he won’t stop until he gets it. He has great vision.”
She adds: “The fact that this is his directorial debut is less important because he has acted in so many things before. He is able to get on the actor’s level and interact with you. He’s come from a Forest Gate working-class background so this is a world he knows.”
The film’s action is juxtaposed against a background of the Olympic stadium. This is deliberate, says Mond.
“The government wants to portray the good side of the London in the run-up to the Olympics. Ben wants to show the other side. He’s not saying that one is more true than the other, just that they co-exist and the other side should not be ignored.”
Mond, who is 28, is now hoping her own period of struggle as an actress is over. She says her ambition to act goes back as far as she can remember — she recalls walking around the kitchen in her mother’s shoes pretending to be a film star, and she resisted pressure from her parents to go to university in favour of attending drama school.
“As an actress you’re always in and out of work. I’ve done everything — bar work, waitressing, I’ve worked as a PA. About a year and a half ago I set up my own mobile nail and beauty business so that if I had an audition, I could drop everything and go — I didn’t have to work around someone else’s schedule.”
However, with the opening of iLL Manors she hopes that the work will continue to come in. And she is not particularly worried about becoming typecast in such grim roles.
She laughs: “I’m hoping that people who know me in real life will be able to see the difference.”