Actors, Creative Talent in Europe Brace for New Rules on Set Post-Coronavirus

Kaleem Aftab

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Ariyon Bakare had his carry-on luggage packed and ready to travel from his London home to Prague where the second season of Amazon Prime TV show “Carnival Row” is filming. Then, the actor, who plays Darius, received the call that filming had abruptly stopped because of COVID-19. “I have no idea when we will start again,” says Bakare.

Elsewhere, writer-director and “Riot Club” actor Aki Omoshaybi was excited his directorial debut, “Real,” which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival was gearing up for release in British cinemas.

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“We were going to release it in November last year, but because that’s a busy time for awards movies, we postponed it to April. We were booking with programmers and putting money into advertising,” he says.

Now, that cinema release — which was essential to streaming and ancillary deals — doesn’t look promising.

After the initial shock of determining how the fallout of a global pandemic will affect our immediate lives, the question of how creative talent such as actors and directors survive the next few weeks, months and possibly longer, is beginning to emerge.

“In a way, it’s not unfamiliar for us, this ‘out of work’ thing,” says Mark Stanley, who stars in the films “Run” and “Sulphur and White,” released in the U.K. on March 13 and yanked from cinemas a week later. “You tend to prepare for it and have a bit of money for when the storm strikes.”

But many are not so well prepared. “Some have signed on for universal credit, others have stopped paying rent and some will have to apply for supermarket jobs,” says Stanley.

As actor Akin Gazi points out, one of the big problems is that the go-to options normally available for film industry workers during turbulent periods are limited. “It’s so standard for actors to work in the service industry in downtimes, and that is not available to us.”

Gazi was in final negotiations to play the lead role of a Syrian refugee who is a compulsive gambler in Jonny Wilson’s “Jenie,” which was due to shoot this summer in South Africa. “At the moment, the film is not happening. There is talk of October or November, but I don’t have anything else lined up, and honestly, I’m really worried,” he says.

Bakare remembers the impact of the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America Strike: “The strike was only three months long, but it seemed to take the film and television industry two years to get back on track.”

Olivier Award-winning actor and Tony nominee Denise Gough predicts the virus will similarly impact the industry in myriad ways.

“I’m speaking from a position of privilege. I have work on the horizon. I’m on a series (to be announced) scheduled to start shooting in July, which now has a September start date pencilled. Four years ago, I was broke and friends were paying for my lunches, so we have to think of helping our filmmaking family,” says Gough.

Shifting shoot schedules

The timelines mooted by governments and the science community suggest the two to three-week “pause” implemented on shoots may not suffice.

Many European countries are on full lockdown until mid-July and some airlines have announced they don’t expect to fly in April and May. With so much uncertainty about when a modicum of normality may return, scheduling shoots in the summer is challenging.

Production designer Gábor Nagy says, “I worked on ‘Maggie’ with Arnold Schwarzenegger, (where a) zombie virus meant we recreated a world of isolated homes. Now, I’m living it.”

Nagy was meant to be working on the film “Panama,” about the 1989 U.S. invasion with Morgan Freeman, but those plans quickly went awry.

“I got booked on a Friday, and by Monday, they (had) pushed it to the fall. The insurance wouldn’t insure Morgan Freeman because he’s 82, so that went away. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Nagy.

Cinematographer Timothy A. Burton, who photographed Fred Wolf’s “Drunk Parents,” had just finished a job on Netflix’s Hillary Swank space drama “Away,” which he shot in Vancouver, Albuquerque and Houston.

The irony, he says, is that people are turning to their television sets and computer screens for entertainment. “Watching Netflix, Amazon and Hulu is the very thing getting people through isolation (but it’s) happening at the same time as more than 100,000 film workers are at a standstill. We are all worried about it. How does it affect the future of (the industry), and when does it restart?”

“I’ve spoken to my British agent and American manager and everyone says that everything has stopped. Don’t expect to hear anything for a few weeks,” says “Real” star Pippa Bennett-Warner.

An additional concern is that the Covid-19 shutdown comes just as one cycle of production ends and another is due to begin. Bennett-Warner adds, “If you are not on something over Christmas, then it usually picks up in April and May. Now I think we might start auditioning in June and July. I wonder if August, which is usually dead, will be a busy month.”

“What worries me a lot is that the U.S. government (perceives) the global entertainment industry (as) elites who make a lot of money, but that’s not the case. Most of us are just blue-collar film industry members,” says Burton. “I know my union is voting on whether to suspect our dues, which I think will be helpful.”

How production could change for actors

Gazi notes his agent’s advice that more auditions will focus on self-tapes from now on. “That would be a shame because (while some) actors prefer the self-tape process, others, like myself, prefer to meet in person.”

When things do restart, Bakare says there will be a rush to produce content. “Some will be forced to choose between jobs they are currently attached to, and that will open opportunities for others.”

But how will these sets function if Covid-19 is mitigated rather than suppressed, with no vaccine on the market?

Bennett-Warner warns there may need to be more consideration of intimacy choreography in the future.

“You have to kiss people and all that stuff. I’m just hoping we will eradicate the virus before we get back on set. But I’m assuming it won’t be (fully gone). When we start on major productions, we have to do medicals, and I wonder if you will have to do a coronavirus test.”

Nagy notes, “When 9/11 happened, we couldn’t venture close to government buildings or go into studios and they searched our cars.

“I predict that, for a while, we shall work with masks and it’s going to be a much more health-conscious environment, especially towards actors. Whoever touches the actors, such as makeup and hair, are going to have to be extra careful, at least until there’s a vaccine and it’s more like the common flu.”

Burton believes short-term productions will also have to change.

“We may lower the number of people on set, with fewer folks around the actors, as the actors are completely irreplaceable versus someone like myself and the director in some situations,” he notes.

Gough says she hopes the break brings about some positive changes, too.

“We are going to have to develop a way of working together; that means we take care of each other more on set. We have to be more conscious of how we treat each other because lives are now at stake as opposed to egos,” she says.

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