When Marli Siu was promoting her breakout film the high school zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse, in 2017, the actor from Forres on the Moray coast was always being asked what she would do if there were an apocalypse. While no one’s talking zombies, the current pandemic has got us thinking about survival.
“I would always say I’d get straight up to Forres to my mum’s,” says Siu. “She grows stuff in her garden and it’s the middle of nowhere. But I haven’t actually followed my own advice,” she says.
“I did think about it, but she’s got my grandad there, so I didn’t want to bring London germs up. I’m just staying down here right now,” she says speaking over Zoom from London.
“It’s not a zombie apocalypse,” she smiles, “but in the way it’s spread so fast it follows what happens in movies.”
So does she have any useful suggestions for a response to the current crisis, based on her experience in Anna and the Apocalypse?
“My character hides in a cupboard with her boyfriend’s gran for the entire film while the rest are fighting off zombies, so I don’t think I’m the best to ask. Although she was OK, so maybe that’s not bad actually. Hide in a cupboard, good advice.”
On a roll
Unable to do the usual promotion for two films and a TV series completed before lockdown, she can only watch as her fictional self plays a variety of out and about teenagers. Enjoying a riotous day trip with school pals in Edinburgh in Our Ladies, racing around Fraserburgh in a souped up Honda Civic in Scott Graham’s Run, and in the TV series Alex Rider, jumping on snow buggies in the French Alps.
With Alex Rider, an adaptation of the second book in Anthony Horowitz’s bestselling teen superspy adventure series, made by Sony Pictures Television and available now on Amazon Prime Video, for the first time Siu has impressed her young nephew.
“Ten-year-old boys are not usually interested in most of my weird films, but he loves the books so it’s the first time I’ve done something he thinks is cool.”
Siu plays Kyra, opposite Otto Farrant as Alex, with Game of Thrones’ Benrock O’Connor, Vicky McClure, Ronke Adekoluejo and Stephen Dillane also starring, as the teenage agent becomes embroiled in strange events at an exclusive school.
“Alex gets sent to the school undercover and meets Kyra who immediately sees through him. She’s a bit intrigued by him and he can’t figure her out, but when they realise they can help each other because they’ve both got great skill sets to survive in these circumstances, they figure out what’s going on.”
All of the exteriors of the school were shot in the snowscapes of the French Alps, the first time Siu had worked abroad.
“It was great fun. We had to go on snowmobiles to the top of the mountain because it was too steep to go up in a car. There was a ski lodge at the top where they had set up base camp and it was so high up you couldn’t get down by yourself.”
Ideal for hiding from coronavirus if the cupboard is full of teenagers and their grans avoiding zombies.
“Yeah, you’d be fine, you wouldn’t even know that corona was happening up there,” she says.
Also streaming now is Run, Scott Graham’s film about broken dreams in a small town, which premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival in March.
Growing up in Forres, Siu understands the pull of big cities and the small town teenage desire to escape, a theme that runs through Our Ladies too.
After living in Hong Kong until she was four with her Scottish mum and Chinese dad, she moved to Forres because her mother loved the countryside.
“My mum grew up in Edinburgh but wanted to live in the country so I had a very, very country childhood. I was always dying to get to a city, couldn’t wait to get out, but actually Forres is a lovely, lovely wee town.”
While Run is set in Fraserburgh, the girls in Our Ladies hail from Oban, and in both dramas, music plays a big part. Our Ladies goes for 1990s exuberance, while Run is inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run advice to ‘get out while we’re young’ and what happens when you don’t.
In Run Siu plays Kelly, alongside Mark Stanley, Amy Manson and Anders Hayward, a pregnant teenager considering her future. Finnie is her boyfriend’s dad, who missed his chance to leave and 20 years on, goes joyriding once more.
“Kelly gets in thinking it’s Kid (her partner and Finnie’s son) and he’s stuck with this teenage girl all night, but it forces Finnie to see things from another perspective. She is this young girl who is really in love and really excited to be starting her own family. Finnie lets his guard down and starts to feel a bit hopeful, just watching her.
“Kelly’s the opposite of Finnie, but he’s so relatable to many men that struggle to vocalise how they feel. Hopefully lots of men who watch will relate to that, and I hope that it’s helpful to see that on screen.”
It’s not until his son asks ‘why can’t I have what you have?’, a family and live in the town and be happy that Finnie appreciates what he has.
“That’s what I think is so lovely about what Scott has done, because there are a lot of films about trying to get out of small towns and moving to the big city and that being hope and escape and that being happiness.
“But I grew up in a small town, and the girls I went to school with who had kids and got married young are really happy. That’s one of the best things you can do with your life, have a family and be in love. I don’t know why that’s looked down upon or seen as you’re too young to know better. I guess teenage pregnancy is a different thing, but in Run, Kelly really wants a family, and is quite mature for her age.
“Scott has told a hopeful story about small towns that’s uplifting. You have to just let your kids make their own choices.”
As a member of the generation who have come of age during Covid-19, does Siu think they will have different aspirations as a result from previous ones?
“Oh my God. That’s a terrible generation to be… or maybe not, actually. I’m really proud of my generation. And we’re not unique in surviving something like this. I do think that maybe the style of communication with our generation means there are a lot of people who are really active and political and thinking for themselves. Hopefully with this generation there will be people who will figure out a way out of coronavirus.”
What the joyriding teenagers in Run have in common with the teenagers in Our Ladies is the exuberance, adrenaline, and emotional rollercoaster of youth. Just as the schoolgirls make the most of their freedom in the capital, Kelly in Run has an abundance of energy that spills out.
“She just starts screaming, or swearing or dancing,” says Siu. “It’s like girls on my school bus screaming for no reason, or playing music really loud on their phones. There’s this energy that just spills out of them.”
Because she’s not so far from her teenage years she remembers what that’s like and found the joyriding scenes fun to film.
“I knew I was supersafe when they were filming me in the car because there was a professional stunt driver for the really dangerous stunts and for the rest Mark had spent time really getting to know the car and roads. It was really exciting – handbrake turns and getting really close to the edge of the harbour. I did get scared watching it though.”
In Our Ladies, Michael Caton-Jones’s adaptation of Alan Warner’s cult novel The Sopranos, about a school day trip to Edinburgh in 1992, Siu does a lot of singing as Kylah, ‘who had a voice but was devious too’.
“It’s funny because I used to hate singing, I found it terrifying and always said to my friends I will never have to sing in my job, just act. And it’s been in every job.
“I was so sensible in high school. I wasn’t cool like Kylah but I can totally relate to coming from a place where there’s a cafe and a chippy but no Topshop or HMV, so going to a city is so exciting. All the different bars and nobody knows who you are, you can do what you want. I definitely appreciated getting to a big city but it was more school rugby trips to Murrayfield. I didn’t like rugby but I fancied a boy who did,” she says.
Due for release in April Our Ladies has been delayed to the autumn, depending on when and how cinemas re-open or how films are released.
“I hope it’s out in cinemas ‘cos it’s a really fun film,” says Siu, “the kind of film it would be fun to go with a group of friends and have a drink, celebrate getting to be out and enjoying yourself. After corona we’ll be just wanting to have a night out and do that.”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Just before lockdown she was in the National Theatre production, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, based on the Neil Gaiman book.Nominated for an Olivier Award, it’s what she hopes to return to as it moves to the West End.
“That was my first time ever at the National and that was a bucket list job for me. It’s about a boy dealing with grief, who meets a girl who brings him back to her house where her grandmother and mother turn out to be magical beings.”
Choreographed by Stephen Hoggat who did Black Watch – one of the first plays Siu ever saw – it contains a lot of physical theatre and puppetry.
“It was the fittest I’ve ever been doing a job. You need to be, to manage that level of movement. He just makes beautiful theatre and it was a very visual show, with Katy Rudd the director making everything come alive. We were doing workshops to adapt it for a West End stage with scenery when we had to stop because of the lockdown.
“But when people are allowed to go to the theatre again, that is a show that’s just really fun and moving, a beautiful show that appeals to adults and children. Neil Gaiman does that well, talks about adult subjects that can be really dark, but in such a fairy tale way that kids can understand. And it is scary, but it’s real.”
Since Gaiman has come up, what does Siu think about his flight to Skye to lockdown in his home there?
“Is he in Scotland?” she says. “I didn’t know that. I mean, everyone would love to be in Scotland wouldn’t they? When the s**t hits the fan? I can see why people want to come – it’s one of the best countries in the world,” she says, diplomatically.
Blazing a trail
Leaving Forres for Edinburgh where she studied acting and English at Napier University, Siu has been making a name for herself since she graduated in 2015. The same year she was nominated for a BFI Fresh Blood: Best Under 25 award for the short film Scoring and in 2016 nominated for the Ian Charleson Award in Dundee Rep’s Much Ado About Nothing. She won praise in the George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance in 2017 and was named Screen International Star of Tomorrow in 2018.
“That was hugely helpful for me because I didn’t go to drama school and it’s hard for everyone to get into acting; it’s a tricky business. So that was a huge turning point for getting auditions.”
After lockdown, Siu hopes to start work on an independent Scottish film, which is still at the funding stage.
“Hopefully it will be OK to go. It’s another story from Scotland, based on a book, and it’s one of my favourite things.
“There’s so much talent in Scotland and there have always been incredible films coming out of it, but I get sad that you watch Braveheart and it’s Mel Gibson. So it’s great that there are loads of Scottish producers and actors and writers telling their own story, I think that’s very important. Like Run – there aren’t many films set in Fraserburgh where you get to hear that accent and dialect, and that’s important.”
Now that we’re into the third month of lockdown Siu has developed a routine of exercise during the week and relaxing at weekends, embracing taking things a little bit more slowly.
“I guess lockdown is just really teaching everyone, especially me ‘cos I’m really bad at it, to slow down a little bit. In normal life you feel you need to keep running, as soon as one job finishes, you have to get the next. But when the whole world pauses, you don’t need to.
“You can sit still and read a book or draw a picture or just enjoy life without being ‘what’s next?’. We’re all massive planners but lockdown has taught us that you can’t, so figure out what you do when you can’t plan.”
Instead she’s been watching TV and recommends a bit of comedy with Schitt’s Creek on Netflix, Normal People, Studio Ghibli and lots of reading.
“That’s a great way to escape. I’ve read one of Patti Smith’s books – so good! She’s just such an incredible person. She’s an artist and didn’t try and push towards something, she just is who she is. She’s a good person to look at at the moment.”
“And there’s a book I love called Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang about Chinese immigrants to New York, different generations’ stories. That’s incredible. I’m half Chinese, second generation, and grew up in Scotland so I didn’t really think about the sacrifices that people make, leaving their whole lives behind in hope of getting better lives for their children. It’s a beautiful book.”
Siu’s mother is from Edinburgh and her father from Hong Kong where they lived until she was four and her mother returned to Scotland and settled in Forres.
“Because I grew up in a Scotttish setting I didn’t really think about being half Chinese. It was interesting getting into acting which likes to put people in boxes and I started to think about being half Chinese, half Scottish, with half my family living in Hong Kong. My dad would come over every year when my sister and I were young and take us travelling, until he passed away a few years ago. We were very lucky to be able to do that I realise now, especially under lockdown.”
Where would she be right now if we weren’t in lockdown? London, Hong Kong, tearing up the night time streets of Fraserburgh, hitting the bars and clubs of Edinburgh or on a snowmobile in the Alps?
“To be honest I’d love to be in Scotland. I love my family. I’d love to be in the Highlands of Scotland with my mum. Most of my work at the moment is down here, but when I grow up and get married and have kids, I might move back.”
Alex Rider is available on Amazon Prime Video now.
Run is out on DVD and VOD and can be downloaded on Amazon, iTunes and screened on iPlayer.
Our Ladies is due to be released in early autumn.
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