Lauren McCrostie on celebrating peculiar in new Tim Burton film

Lauren McCrostie. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Lauren McCrostie. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
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It’s time to fly your freak flag, Lauren McCrostie tells Janet Christie, as the young star prepares for the release of Tim Burton’s new movie celebrating the peculiar.

That’s me!” Lauren McCrostie tells the sales assistant in her local bookstore in south London, as she points at a book cover that replicates the poster for Tim Burton’s new film.

lauren mccrostie shot by Debra hurford brown hi res

lauren mccrostie shot by Debra hurford brown hi res

The woman looks doubtful.

“No, really,” says McCrostie, touching her strawberry blond hair, “I’m wearing a red wig in that picture. I know it doesn’t look like me, but it is me!” she says, jabbing at the image for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, released at the end of this month.

McCrostie plays Olive, one of the peculiar children, with her flaming red hair and powers of pyrokinesis, or the ability to control fire, in the film version of the best-selling novel by Ransom Riggs. Directed by Burton, with a screenplay by Jane Goldman, alongside McCrostie, it stars Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Ella Purnell, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Dame Judi Dench and Samuel L Jackson.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children follows the story of 16-year-old Jacob who arrives on an island off the coast of Wales and discovers a refuge for youngsters with special powers. He thinks he is “just ordinary” but discovers he was born to protect them from the Hollows, who have been hunting them for centuries for their powers.

I didn’t realise that after a job there might be a period where you don’t work for a time

Lauren McCrostie

McCrostie’s irrepressible urge to tell people that she is the girl in the curly red wig in the film’s promotional images stems from her need to establish that it all really did happen. That going from sixth form college to starring in a Tim Burton movie, without any drama college training, wasn’t a dream. For her those posters are irrefutable proof that the events of the last two years are real.

McCrostie is recounting the bookshop incident from earlier that morning when we speak and her excitement that she’ll soon be able to watch the film for the first time, bubbles over.

“I saw the movie poster on the cover of the book and had to tell her. I’m still really getting used to it and trying to take it as it comes, but it’s so exciting. I’ve had this dream all my life. When I was making the film I kept thinking, ‘Is this happening?’ Now it’s coming out, so it’s true. It did really happen.”

McCrostie, who lives in Dulwich with her mother and younger sister always wanted to be an actor but didn’t pursue the usual route of drama college.

Lauren (left) with the peculiar children in Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children. Picture: Contributed

Lauren (left) with the peculiar children in Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children. Picture: Contributed

“I didn’t do any formal training,” she says. “This fell into my lap.”

“I did do some Saturday morning classes and at school we would play drama games sometimes. I also used to put on shows with my sister for my parents. We danced and sang and did impersonations. I used to do Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link.”

It was her choice of sixth form college, the St Marylebone School in central London, alma mater of Naomie Harris and Lily Cole, that was her route into acting.

“The BBC came to the school looking for people to audition for plays, so I did. I sent across my picture and they asked for a video. I sang, spoke, did a little jig – it’s the most embarrassing video I have ever recorded – and there have been a lot of those.” She giggles.

“But the director Carol Morley liked me and I got a part in her film The Falling. That was an amazing first experience and introduction to the industry. It was my last year of school and it showed me what I wanted to do, which wasn’t getting good grades, it was working on a film.”

McCrostie starred alongside Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake and Mathew Baynton, in the BBC film about a mysterious fainting epidemic at a girls’ school. Praised by critics it was nominated for Best Film at the London Film Festival in 2014. McCrostie followed it up with a handful of short film appearances.

“After The Falling I got an agent who sent me to auditions and one was for Tim Burton. I only went because I thought it would be good to meet the casting director. I never thought I’d get the part. It was way too big for me to be considered for. They said I was interesting, but I didn’t hear anything for seven months. I was busy with my school work and exams and wasn’t thinking about it, then my agent said, ‘Do you remember Miss Peregrine’s? Do you think you could go to Tim’s house?’ I said, ‘Yes, I could do that’. I was freaking out! He wanted me to go to his house! This was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to me.

“I thought if I went I could say I have been to his house and shook his hand and he said my name and looked me in the eye. It couldn’t get better than that. I could die happy.”

But it did get better than that. Burton did indeed look her in the eye and was struck by what he saw. A month later she got the call to say she had the part.

“He said, ‘Can I see your eyes?’ and he came up to me and looked straight into them. They are a bit different, with a blue ring, then a green one, then a bit yellow then more green and then the pupil. The eyes are important in the story, because the Hollows want to eat the eyes of the peculiar children.”

“When I have said to people I’m in Tim Burton’s film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and that I’m one of the peculiar children, they go, ‘Oh yeah’. ” She laughs. “But I’ve grown up with my face and I’m used to it. I’m very pale with ginger hair, well strawberry, but if I said that at school people would say, ‘Shut up, ginger’. My dad’s dad was born in Scotland, so that’s where it comes from, but I’m actually more Kenyan than Scottish. My parents were both born there and a lot of my family still live there, but people don’t believe me when I say that.

“People think I’m a bit weird in general. I have an odd sense of humour, and I’m a bit of a grandma. I listen to Desert Island Discs and crochet and sew. And I like to go to bed early,” she says.

“Olive is a wonderful character. She’s a paradox because she’s fire and connected to anger, fury and destruction, but I saw it more as heat and warmth. She was fun to play. My friend made me an Olive playlist that helped me on the way to set, put me in the right place. Because film is non-chronological, music can help you get back in character. There was Evelyn Knight’s Powder Your Face with Sunshine, Dinah Shore’s Buttons and Bows, Agnes Obel, swing trombone music and a lot of French songs. I made a book of Olive facts too, and picked a perfume – Assolo, a very brassy, crisp, dry, acrid, like sunburnt grass smell.”

Unlike Olive and the other children at Miss Peregrine’s, McCrostie doesn’t have a peculiarity or special skill that she can think of – “I can wiggle my ears independently, is that a peculiarity?”

If she could choose a special power, McCrostie would go for invisibility so that she could hear what people were saying.

“I’m just so nosy, or as I like to say, inquisitive. There’s an invisible boy in the film but you can see his clothes. I would want invisible clothes too, so I could people watch, which I love, and do things like stay behind in an audition room, to see what they really thought about you. If you’re doing something wrong, you want to know so you can move forward. Plus, you’d be able to find your Christmas presents…”

Like many artists and creatives, McCrostie is dyslexic, something she shares with the film’s director.

“On set Tim would tells us he was dyslexic, which was why he was explaining things in a certain way. For me it was great having him as a director because he would say something in a really visceral way that I could digest easily because it was a visual image, not a monologue. He would explain, and I could easily envision it, and hopefully embody it.”

From stunts to scenery to finding her character, McCrostie drank up everything on the sets, learning as she went along, as filming moved from London to Cornwall, Blackpool to Antwerp, where the house that doubled as the school is located.

“I was absolutely spoilt to work on my first feature film with the names that I did. My favourite day was when Dame Judi Dench came in. She’s lovely, an amazing woman. She touched my shoulder and I tell everyone I haven’t washed it. I have really. Every time I spoke to her I blacked out and can’t remember what she said. I wonder if that happens to her a lot. She must think everyone is stupid. And working with Samuel L Jackson, that felt surreal.

“I had the best time. It didn’t feel like working. I was getting to do everything I wanted to do and doing it with people who I really liked, making new friends, going to amazing places and learning. And getting paid. How is this possible?”

Part of McCrostie’s fear that the whole Tim Burton experience may have been a surreal dream that went from “Is this really happening?” to “Did this really happen?”, results from the fact that after the film wrapped a year ago, everything went quiet.

“This year has been everything but working on a Tim Burton film. It’s been waitressing, childminding and teaching drama students.”

She had envisaged the life of an actor as being a little more fast-paced in terms of finding roles and acting jobs than this.

“I didn’t realise that after a job there might be a period where you don’t work for a time. So not working this year, waiting for the film to come out, I have really been able to reflect on the experience and gather how amazing, lucky and blessed I am to have been given the opportunity to do what I like.

“I was given a high and a low, and that’s what this industry is like. I’m thankful to have got this lesson so early in my career. I’m prepared for what’s to come. I don’t want to be defeated by the industry because a lot of people are, and it’s a really hard industry to be in. I love it so much and I’m ruthless about what I want, but this teaches me that I can’t always be like that, that I have to be patient.”

Rather than slump into a depression about not working, McCrostie kept herself busy. We’re chatting at 11am but already today she’s packed more in than most twenty-year-olds would manage in a week.

“I finished my online course on ethical fashion, went for a walk, watched the Olympics, did yoga, did some gardening, posted a letter and went to the bookshop,” she says. “I like being productive,” she adds, somewhat redundantly.

“It’s probably because I’m dyslexic and creative that I like bursts of activity. So I’ve been filling my time and taking acting classes, studying techniques, trying to improve. I didn’t have the opportunity to train and I would love to, but it’s such a controversial topic. Some people tell me to go and do it, and others say don’t.”

McCrostie is still mulling over the conflicting advice, considering herself to being of an indecisive bent. “It’s really difficult because everyone’s different and there’s no one answer,” she says, but I think she’s too hard on herself. When it comes to how she sees her future she talks decisively and clearly with a sense of where she wants to be heading in life, and ordinary isn’t on the agenda.

“We are forced in the culture we are growing up in to envisage going to school, then university, getting a job, then married. It’s a regimented thing and I don’t want my future to be like that. I want to be able to do what I love, being busy and working creatively. I love acting and I’m really excited to see what’s coming next, whether it’s good or not.”

One of the messages of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is “escape the ordinary, embrace the peculiar”, something McCrostie has taken to heart.

“Yes!” says McCrostie. “I want to escape the ordinary, and the peculiar is what makes you different. I think we are who we are and there’s only ever going to be one you. You only have one life to live and a finite time on this earth, so you need to embody the best version of yourself and what you want to do. We are only going to get one chance. There’s no point in emulating someone else. You have to do not what your parents, or school, or government wants, but what you want. Don’t be ordinary. Be peculiar.”

As for when the next job comes, McCrostie is open to ideas but would love to experience a mix of roles and genres, from film to theatre.

“I love film but I also love the immediacy of theatre. I want to play every kind of character, to work on something like Noah Baumbach’s mumblecore films or with Denise Gough, who did People, Places and Things and won the LES Award, because I think she’s amazing.”

As for the immediate future, McCrostie is looking forward to actually seeing Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children and observing how she performed.

“I’ve seen one scene so far, so I’m as clueless as anybody else what it’s like. I can’t wait to see it. It was an amazing opportunity and a dream to work with such a visionary creative as Tim Burton on my first feature film. And I still keep thinking, “Is this really happening?”

It’s really happening. And the proof is coming to a cinema near us.

• Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is on general release from 30 September