Starting her screen career playing Keri in the final series of CBBC show M.I.High, Julia Brown has continued her success appearing in shows including Shetland and The Last Kingdom. Julia has recently finished filming for World on Fire, a new World War II drama series due to be released later this year on BBC, playing one of the lead characters, Lois Bennett. We met up with Julia earlier this year to chat about her role in M.I.High, appearing as Molly in Shetland and the upcoming release of World on Fire.
What’s your best memory from your time in M.I.High and who was your character Keri?
My character Keri was genetically created to be a vessel for the mastermind and was then taken into protection by the spies at the school who find that she is in danger. They tried to put her into mainstream society but she was a bit different to normal humans because she was hyperactive and very ditzy. My favourite memory was running around in costumes all the time. It was exhilarating getting to act like a kid even though I was sixteen at the time. It was a serious job so playing and finding my way in the industry at the same time was great.
Were the scenes filmed in sequence and what do you remember from the first day of filming?
All the scenes are completely out of sequence. We were doing thirteen half-hour episodes but we shot them in three blocks. We would do episodes one to four in the first block but they’d all be mixed up. The first day of filming was all a bit alien to me, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had the rehearsals and met the other actors and some of the crew but I had no idea how a TV set worked. I didn’t know how big it was going to be and there were so many people on set – someone was always moving your hair or fixing your microphone. I was a little overwhelmed by everything but it was so exciting. Everyone was so great at coaching us and helping us through it all because they knew we were younger, so it was just super exciting.
Was this your first major series to film and how long were you on set?
Yes, it was my first ever job. We did three weeks prep meaning we were there sixteen weeks in total with five/six day weeks. I was in pretty much every day with the three other spies. We were lucky as we had lots of scenes. It was pretty hectic but luckily it was over the school summer holidays so I didn’t miss too much school because, at that time, I was still studying for my exams.
What was Shetland like to appear in?
Shetland was amazing. Shetland is a place that I’d always wanted to go to but I don’t think I would have gone had it not been for the job. I learned so much from Stephen (Walters), Neve (McIntosh), Dougie (Henshall) and Mark (Bonnar). They were all really kind, they realised that I was the youngest one in that series so they all gave me industry nuggets of wisdom. It was a great introduction to adult drama because I was in every episode but I wasn’t a huge lead role. I think it would have been a little overwhelming had I gone into a lead role in serious drama straightaway.
Can you say more about Molly and what drew you to the role?
Molly looks like a typical, grumpy teenager but she’s stricken by grief and has had to grow up quicker than others her age. Her mum’s identical twin sister was murdered when they were sixteen so she’s grown up looking through the eyes of her mum and sometimes she has quite a negative outlook on life. When the so-called murderer gets released back into society, she doesn’t understand why her mum wants to gravitate towards him. She harbours resentment and fear but attempts to come across as a bolshie young woman who is independent and strong but, in truth, she is fearing for her life because she knows this man might be dangerous. It was nice to play with the contrasts of what fear might feel like inside versus what it looks like on the outside.
How much did you know about the series before being cast?
I read one episode and I knew the outline of what the story was going to be with her mum and Thomas Malone (the convict). No one from the cast, apart from Dougie, knows who’s actually done it until the very end as the last episodes were held from everyone. It was tense because we thought ‘what if it’s one of us’! It was interesting to know some portion of the story but not know how it was going to end. It meant that we could play our characters’ journeys truthfully without hinting to the conclusion of the series.
What was it like acting alongside the rest of the cast which includes Douglas Henshall?
Incredible, my on-screen mum, Neve McIntosh, is now one of my best friends and like a big sister to me. She was super fun on and off set. I got to do some fun flashback scenes with Mark Bonnar and only a couple of scenes with Dougie but I spent a lot of time with him off set and he told me many fascinating stories of the industry. Stephen Walters, who I played against a lot, was like no one I’d ever met before, he is incredibly talented and is such a warm, kind person. We’d go from a really tense scene on set and then off set he’d teach me about taxes and everything I needed to know as a young actor.
How different was it filming M.I.High and Shetland?
Very different. I think with M.I.High, as the four of us were the centrepiece, we got away with messing around a lot and there wasn’t much pressure because what we were doing was for kids so it had to be light-hearted and fun. Obviously, the subject matter in Shetland is much more serious, so I had to think about my character a lot more and be respectful to other actors and their process. I think it was great for me to start in children’s TV so you could play whilst learning.
How was your experience on set of The Last Kingdom?
The Last Kingdom was fantastic and getting to work abroad was a brilliant opportunity. I was out in Hungary for filming. I wasn’t a huge part and in the end, they ended up having to cut some scenes which was a shame. I’d never seen sets on that scale before because everything I’d done had been in a studio or in smaller locations. For TLK they had built a village in the countryside of Hungary. There were hundreds of extras and live animals everywhere. It was so impressive and the attention to detail, even in fast scenes, was incredible.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I love going out with my friends eating and drinking. I do a lot of reading and yoga to relax. I love music; I like to sing and I have just had the opportunity to sing on an acting job which was a double bonus! I love to travel but it’s difficult planning a holiday as an actor because of last minute castings and opportunities. If I can block off time, I’ll try to pick a new city to explore. Learning about different cultures is one of my favourite pastimes.
What was your first experience in acting?
I acted from a young age in school plays and then got involved with stage schools in my local area (Edinburgh), and after that I went to a musical theatre school called MGA where I did dancing, singing and acting. I’m so lucky to have had a great drama department at my school, George Heriot’s, and the teachers really encouraged us to do drama outside of school as well. They had an extracurricular club and we put on four productions a year. They didn’t hold back on giving us challenging plays at a young age so I think I was able to test myself and grow a passion for acting in my youth.
How do you get into the mind-set of the character you’re about to portray?
My process has changed quite a lot as I’ve gotten older because I’ve become more serious about it. I’ve noticed the importance of doing lots of research. If it’s based on a historical event I’ll research to try and put myself in the mind-set of someone living in that time. If it’s a contemporary story and I haven’t experienced something similar, I might speak to someone close to me that has or I’ll write letters from my character to other characters to try and absorb myself in the character’s thoughts. For Shetland, I read stories about people who had suffered severe trauma and grief. A lot of improvisation helps, like working with another actor and coming up with a scenario and thinking about how the character would listen and respond. Any activity that I can do to immerse myself in the character’s world makes the words on the page much easier to speak as them rather than as me.
What’s been your most challenging role so far?
The one I’ve just done actually, World on Fire, which is a World War II drama and the first series is spanning the first year of the war. I was playing one of the leads, Lois Bennett, who is a Manchester factory worker and singer. I was lucky to grow up with stories from my grandparents of World War II. I also had a great history education at school, I just didn’t know the minor details of what these people had to face day by day and the research I did before the shoot taught me so much. Taking on that role was so challenging because I knew I had to do my research properly, I couldn’t take it light-heartedly. I was also singing, I had copious jazz songs to learn and record in the studio. It was a dream role for me but I realised that I had to do it properly. The show’s release (September 19) is to mark the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II so there’s going to be a lot of exposure and we’re lucky as a small percentage of the viewers might be people who were alive at that difficult time. It was so important to get it right, it’s a big responsibility, but a great one.
Are you able to say how long you were filming for World on Fire and how excited are you for the release?
I filmed for four months, we started prep in September and we finished filming at the start of March. I was in pretty much every day. It was an ambitious schedule because they shot in two locations at once – Prague and Manchester. At one point, they had lots of units going at once to get everything done. It was the most incredible, fast-paced four months that now I’m not sure what to do with myself!
What are you hoping 2019 brings for your career?
I’m really excited for the release of World on Fire, I hope that’ll be a springboard for me. I’ve been really lucky in the last two years, I feel like the ball’s started to roll for me. Hopefully there will be another series of World on Fire, it would be a great pleasure to go back and tell more of our characters’ stories. I hope for more acting opportunities and to meet new people, I’ve been so thankful for who I’ve met this year and I hope that those friendships in the industry continue. Hopefully I can take a nice holiday too!
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