Long read: Natalie Clark stars in Scotland's first festive film, Lost at Christmas
Who doesn’t need a feel good festive film to cheer us up over the holiday? How about what’s billed as Scotland’s first Christmas film, a low-budget indie romcom about two strangers stranded in the Highlands on Christmas Eve who team up to try and get home for Christmas whatever is thrown at them - heartache, snow ...and Cullen Skink.
Lost at Christmas stars Natalie Clark and Kenny Boyle, and is a full-length version of film-maker Ryan Hendrick’s 2015 Bafta-nominated short Perfect Strangers from his own company, Magic Monkey Films.
Putting the feisty in festive is Glasgow-based Clark, who has years of experience on screen in BBC’s Still Game and Royal History’s Biggest Fibs, in film with Love Bite with Ed Speleers and Timothy Spall, the latter of whom she teams up with again in Gillies MacKinnon’s forthcoming The Last Bus, while on stage last year she toured with Rapture Theatre’s The Browning Version.
In this romantic comedy, Jen and Rob are two strangers who team up after finding all their partners wanted for Christmas was not them, and after getting lost in the snow, find a room at the inn - the real life Clachaig Inn in Glencoe.
There an assortment of Yuletide avoiders including Sylvester McCoy (The Hobbit), Sanjeev Kohli (Stan and Ollie), Clare Grogan (Gregory’s Girl), Caitlin Blackwood (Doctor Who), Frazer Hines (Outlander and Emmerdale), Karen Bartke (Scot Squad) and Nicolette McKeown (Convergence) have planned to sit out the holiday in peace. But the blizzard blows in Jen, in a Miss Santa mini-dress with faux fur trim and red and white striped Elf tights, and accidental travelling companion Rob, who is frozen by romantic rejection and an inability to navigate despite possession of a watch with compass and a Duke of Edinburgh gold award.
“It’s about that Christmas spirit thing, how even though you’re not that type of person, you can get caught up in it,” says Clark. “People are either going to take to Jen or they’re not. I tried to play her as grounded as possible, so as not to annoy the audience, but at the end of the day she is Christmas loving, and she is dressed like a Christmas cracker.”
Most of us have been there, avoiding the tinsel and tatt of the season only to wind up wearing a Christmas jumper, Santa hat with our hands in the air like we don’t care at Christmas. Jen just gets to that point a lot faster than most.
“Originally she was supposed to be dressed sexy to go and visit her boyfriend. But that’s not how I saw the character and anyway, when the costume arrived, the busty model wearing it on Amazon, well, that is not me… Jen is quirky so we ran with that in terms of the costume and it also meant I could get extra layers on underneath - thermal tights underneath the stripey ones, layers of jumpers under my red coat, heat pads...I literally had about ten. It was freezing.”
It’s fair to say that Rob doesn’t take to Jen at first and there’s a fair amount of tension built up in Team Get Home For Christmas by the time they arrive at the inn.
“I have known Kenny for years,” says Clark of her co-star. “We did a play together years and years ago - Titus Andronicus, which was very different - and as soon as we came together on this project, we realised we were very much on the same wavelength with how we wanted to approach it.”
It’s fair to say that 2020 has been a challenge for everyone so the film chimes the right note for this Christmas in particular, despite being filmed in blissful ignorance of what was to come at the start of the year.
“My favourite thing about the film is it was right before lockdown. In January we were in Glencoe for two weeks filming and went back a few times in February for some pick up shots so I got to live in a hotel in Ballachulish in Glencoe; a big group of us all living together, having dinner together, socialising and working in close proximity, and the owners Katie and Guy went above and beyond, giving us the run of the place.
“When you think of what we’ve gone through this year, it’s such a lovely memory to have from 2020. We literally just slipped through the barricades.”
On top of Covid there’s an awareness that even on a good year, Christmas for everyone isn’t all beige buffets and rocking around the Christmas tree.
“The film seems more relatable because of that,” says Clark. “I would be lying if I said that I’ve loved every Christmas, because there have been moments when having ‘you must be happy’ forced down your throat was overwhelming. In this film you have this hotel full of people who have tried to escape that. Then Jen turns up…”
“The cast is an eclectic mix of people but not only does it work on screen, we all just gelled. Everyone was very aware it’s low budget, we had two weeks to try and film a feature, and came in fully prepared to give it 100 percent. There was not one ego on that set, so it all fed into this lovely group chemistry. The most fun was the Christmas dinner scene because it was the full cast and there was lots of improv.”
Even filmed on a low budget over a fortnight, the film looks bigger thanks to its Highland location and expansive landscapes, the mountains and glens looking particularly scenic with a Christmas cake icing of snow.
“We had an amazing director of photography in John Rhodes, so you’re cutting a lot of corners having someone that experienced, and he draws a great team on board with him. The other thing is the landscape we have in Scotland does most of the hard work for you. It’s stunning regardless of the weather, whether it’s gloomy and dramatic or the skies are clear, so visually the film looks stunning. Even if you take away everything else, the film’s a wonderful advertisement for visiting Scotland.”
As well as the real thing, a lot of fake snow is used, but it’s genuine icy that made driving hazardous for Clark, trying to steer a classic Marcos on icy roads.
“When we’re out driving in that big landscape, most of that is genuine snow. I had only passed my driving test about four weeks prior so… Well, I drove the Marcos on the first day, did a test drive, which was an experience shall we say, then it was decided that in order for me to be able to act the scenes in the car I wasn’t going to be able to drive at the same time.”
A tow truck was brought in and green screens used, about which Clark is still embarrassed. “I felt really bad about that,” she says, “because that was not in the plan.”
The Uddingston-based actor does self-deprecating, as well as laughing, a lot, whether it’s about driving or acting or singing, the latter of which she also does in the film. Given that Jen has been lugging a guitar case since scene one and hasn’t flung it away in a snowdrift as she trudges along, a tune was always on the cards.
“I love singing - but not in front of other people,” she says. “That scene was quite traumatic for me,” she says and laughs. “My throat kind of closes up. I think it’s a complete lack of confidence in my voice, but the cast and crew were super supportive. I remember after I sang the first time I was a wreck, and Sanjeev came up and gave me a big hug and said that was really beautiful and I thought ‘ok, I can breathe now’. I was originally supposed to play the guitar too but it was a little bit advanced for me, so I had to mime the guitar playing. Ryan said, ‘she’s not supposed to be Lady Gaga and she’s very vulnerable in that moment,’ so yeah, I think it does work.”
With Lost at Christmas released Clark is now waiting for The Last Bus to be released.
“Timothy’s [Spall] character is making a last journey, travelling from Land’s End to John O’Groats and I play an Irish nurse, one of the many people he meets. I’m going to offend the whole of Ireland with my accent,” she says. That was a great job with Timothy Spall, and also shooting in Scotland. You can feel the experience in him. He’s been in so many things, Harry potter for goodness sake. He’s very generous, gives you everything he has in every shot. And very collaborative and supportive.”
While The Last Bus makes its way through post-production Clark has been weathering Covid with corporate jobs while theatres and filming are closed down.
“There’s not a lot happening out there and it’s quite difficult,” she says. “I’ve been lucky and managed to pick up two or three corporate jobs but I’ve got a lot of friends that haven’t even had auditions, so I know I’m lucky. I’m just kind of plodding along and hoping with the news of the vaccine, that things next year will take a big upturn.”
Clark takes a long view, having been discouraged from becoming an actor by the guidance teacher at school, and has learnt to cope with the uncertainties of the profession.
“They told me to be realistic and be a drama teacher, but I loved being involved in theatre in all aspects so I went to university to do stage management. They kept making us watch films and while watching Top Hat with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers I thought ‘I have to go and try and be an actor’, so I dropped out and trained at Motherwell College, then plodded along as a jobbing actor for years, got involved with the Strathclyde Theatre Group at the Ramshorn Theatre and through that and being persistent and saying yes to whatever came my way essentially, I just kept on acting.
“It’s probably just been in the past few years that I’ve managed to get more high profile work which makes it slightly easier to get seen for things but it’s a very, very difficult industry to break into.
“There have been a few times where I have thought ‘right, I’m going to walk away from this’, but the minute I make that decision I know straight away I can’t. I don’t want to. I love it. The fact I’m still getting enjoyment from it is the main thing. It’s such a hard life and such a hard job, if you’re not enjoying it, don’t do it.”
Another thing that makes Clark employable is her interest in all aspects of stage and screen. As well as acting she’s stage managed on productions.
“I’d do the lights, everything, and I think that means as an actor and I’m not walking in and thinking ‘oh this is all about me now’. It’s not. I’m just one of the parts of the machine, just one cog and it would be totally disrespectful to not take into account all the work that everybody else is doing. “It’s fascinating, the whole breakdown of it,” she says.
As well as being a familiar face from advertising campaigns for RBS, Aldi and Specsavers and a natural voiceovers, Clark works front of house and on admin at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro and it turns out her chatty, amenable manner turns out to be the perfect skill set for temporary work doing Track and Trace.
“From jobs I’ve done outwith acting to pay my bills, I’m used to talking to people. It’s lovely to chat to people and I can do it from home. You’re having to find out where they’ve been and who they’ve been with so you’re getting a real insight into their lives. Some of them, especially people living alone, they’re loving having someone to chat to.”
Since making the film Clark now travels with an emergency box of water, thick blanket, heat pads, cereal bars and tinned salmon (“I do love a bit of tinned salmon”) in her car but she won’t be needing it at Christmas as she’ll be staying put in Uddingston.
“Generally my Christmases are very family orientated. I’m still living with my folks anyway so that’s who I will be spending Christmas with and my brothers will visit because I think up to three households will be allowed. I think we’ll just have a quiet Christmas, so not a huge amount will be changing in that respect, but it’s the little things in the build up that will be missed. Normally go into Glasgow city centre and soak up the atmosphere and the Christmas markets,” she says.
“I have lovely memories of family Christmases, a big Christmas dinner in the house, sitting in the living room with my Papa watching Star Wars, and I remember the year I got my bike which was my first love - gorgeous, pale blue, I just loved it.”
“We’ll have dinner and exchange gifts, then our main tradition is to watch a Christmas movie on Christmas Eve.”
Will she be watching Lost at Christmas with the family?
“They’ve seen it,” she says. “They might watch it again, but normally on Christmas Eve we watch something like Scrooged or Miracle of 34th Street and then on Christmas Day The Muppets Christmas Carol or The Grinch.”
As for music, Clark has recently rediscovered Judy Garland singing the original lyrics of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas [written in 1943 for the film Meet Me In St Louis, released in 1944].
“I love Meet Me In St Louis but the words struck me because they’re slightly different to the versions you usually hear. It’s all about how next year we’ll all be together if the fates allow and next year it will be fine and we just need to muddle through just now. I just think it’s so fitting for this Christmas. Usually I would have said George Michael, Last Christmas, but this year’s different.”
For next year Clark has a couple of possible projects in the pipeline.
“One’s a live podcast in the vein of Saturday Night Live, but that’s early stages, and Kenny [Boyle, her co-star in Lost at Christmas] has got funding from Creative Scotland for a project which I’m going to be doing with him. Other than that, it’s wait and see.”
For now, she’s about spreading a bit of festive cheer and if that means wearing stripey tights and a Santa dress she’s all for it.
“As long as someone walks away from Lost in Christmas thinking that lifted my spirits a little bit, I got some enjoyment and escapism from that, that’s job done,” says Clark.
You’d have to have a heart colder than McFrosty the Snowman not feel the Christmas spirit spilling over on screen. As they say in the film ‘Tis the season.’
Lost At Christmas, on UK release now and Digital Download here