Starting her acting career on stage in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Emily Highams joined the cast of Goodnight Mister Tom last year at Southwark Playhouse and has since predominantly moved to screen work which has seen her film as Anthea in the upcoming production of Four Kids and It. This year, Emily has already starred as the lead role in three short films – Sophie’s Map, The Boot and Off The Coast – with Sophie’s Map recently winning an award at the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival. Meeting up with Emily, we talk about being on set of Four Kids and It, appearing in the How Much of a Panda Are You advert and starring in a number of short films.
How did your acting career start?
I started about four years ago. I’ve always done acting at school but I didn’t know I wanted to do it until I started seeing musicals. I did a bit of research and went for an agency, which I didn’t actually get in to, but I decided to do a course with them. In the fourth week, they decided to take me on and it started from there. It’s been really good.
You played the role of Lucy in Off The Coast, what can you say about it?
Lucy is the main character and it’s set around the 1960s and she wants to write but she struggles. Her parents are always arguing because they’re not happy with her grandfather who’s dying and then eventually he does die and it’s about how Lucy manages to cope with his death. She’s taken one night to go and see him in another world and he tells her how she can cope with it. She gets confused at first but then accepts it when she’s at home and understands that things are alright again. It’s such a lovely story.
We had to film in this old bunker because it’s quite a dark place that they go to in this other world and it’s amazing, I don’t know how they found it. It’s an army bunker and there were people walking around it with information. We had a bit of time when we weren’t needed on set so Mum and I went to explore and it was massive. I wanted to go in the medical room and there was this really weird, unusual sound that came from a display cupboard so we sprinted out. We googled it on the way home and it said it was one of the most haunted places ever! It was honestly one of the best locations I’ve filmed in though.
I’ve worked with this director a few times before and he keeps asking me back for different projects and it’s so lovely because I know him quite well now.
What is The Boot about that you filmed this year?
I actually only finished filming that a few weeks ago but it’s about two dads, one is being bullied and they both have daughters who are best friends. The dad who’s being bullied flips out and supposedly kills the other dad so he’s trying to cover it up and hides the body in the boot of the car. The daughters need the other dad because they’re putting on a play and they need his help so the bullied dad has to step in and help them. He needs to think of a cover-up and says the car boot is broken so the daughters can’t go in there. At the end, he goes and walks into the forest supposedly to kill himself. There is banging from the boot of the car because you are made to think he is dead when actually he’s not. It’s really quite dark. I think that comes out in November.
Can you tell us about playing the lead role of Sophie in Sophie’s Map?
This was a very emotional project. Sophie’s dead and she has to help her brother cope with it and there are quite a few emotional scenes in it. When you’re filming you have to be in the moment so sometimes you just want to cry along with it. It was filmed in the middle of winter and we had a few outside scenes and it was freezing. It was just me and a boy in it and we got along so well, I don’t think I’ve ever had someone on a project where I haven’t got along with them, which is amazing. It was such a lovely story and at the end, Sophie tells her brother that he will be fine and she loves him and she knows he will be okay and when he looks away, she disappears and it is heartbreaking. It’s really sweet as well because he’s learned to live without her.
All the short films I’ve done have been quite emotional but they’ve all had meaning behind the emotion. They’re actually really good films and the writers are so talented. There have been some scripts that I’ve read where I’ve cried before I’ve even started it. It’s been a good year with short films as I’ve had three of them and they’ve all been really, really lovely.
Sophie’s Map has recently won its first award at the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival.
Is there anything you can say about filming for Four Kids and It?
It was filmed almost a year ago in Ireland and I was flown out there for a few days. Ireland is beautiful, we got to stay in a really lovely hotel and then a really lovely manor house and the gardens were beautiful. I filmed with Russell Brand and he was hilarious, I think it was his last day on set and he came in an ice cream van and drove around handing out ice creams! There were some scenes where I had to fly and I got hoisted up by a massive harness and I was so high up but it was honestly incredible.
I had a beautiful Edwardian costume which they hired from the Edwardian period and they had to figure out how to fit the massive harness underneath the costume without it being seen. There were wires coming out the back of the costume lifted up by this massive crane. A lot of it is CGI as I have fire bolts coming out of my hands.
It’s a sequel to Five Children and It and Jacqueline Wilson wrote it and it’s modernised and they travel back in time to see the five kids and I’m one of them. I was the only British Edwardian kid, all the rest were Irish because it was filmed in Ireland. There were nine of us older kids and we all got along immediately.
What do you remember about filming for the Harry Potter Studio Tour commercial?
Every job is so different but that job was amazing – I got to see the Forbidden Forest before the public! There were four of us who got to do it and there was a lot of waiting around but we had the whole studios to ourselves from about 4pm to midnight so we looked around the entire time and we saw everything without any queuing or crowds so we got really close to everything.
I got to see Buckbeak and I was able to touch him, I have no idea if we were supposed to. It’s weird to think that we were some of the first children to see the forest. I remember my drama teacher was looking for school trips and because we had to wear our school uniforms for the advert, she saw the uniform and was like, “oh my gosh! It’s Emily!” and she came and told me the next day. I don’t tend to tell people what jobs I do but I absolutely loved doing it. It makes me smile thinking about the amazing opportunities I’ve had – I’ve worked on really dark, sad films and then I’ve had Harry Potter, which are completely opposite ends of the scale!
How was it filming the How Much of a Panda Are You advert?
I absolutely loved filming for Edeka and WWF. The environment and what we are doing to our environment is something I am very passionate about. The advert is all about everyone making little changes to help the world we live in. It could just be recycling more or saving energy, we can all make a difference if we tried.
For the commercial, I had to travel to Manchester to meet Shaun Harrison, who is a leading prosthetics artist and has worked on Harry Potter, Star Wars and lots of huge films! He was amazing and I loved having moulds fitted to my face. It’s an experience I’ll never forget and I even had a cartoon character made into me which was amazing!
Can you tell us about being on tour with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
It was amazing. I’m still best friends with some of the other actors that were in it, even though it was quite a while ago. Everyone was so lovely and everything about it was amazing. One day, the flying car broke and they had to stop the show so we finished really late but it was so funny! I worked with Carrie Hope Fletcher and she was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, she’s so, so lovely.
What was it like being in the cast of The Secret Garden at Ambassadors Theatre?
As soon as I got into rehearsals, it was very different to what I expected, but I quickly adapted and I made loads of friends who I now keep bumping into at auditions! The actual musical itself was incredible. There were other actors playing Mary Lennox so it was cool being able to sit down and watch what was happening. I couldn’t stop smiling after performing at the theatre, I just loved every second of it.
How did it feel playing Ambassadors for your West End debut?
It was really nice and then being able to share it with the rest of the cast was also amazing. There were eight Mary Lennoxes and we shared the role over the entire summer, so that was cool.
You were in the ensemble of Goodnight Mister Tom, what was this like to be part of?
It was nice being in the ensemble because you got to see the main parts but also do a lot in the background. I played Mr. Tom’s dead wife, Rachel, and it was so weird playing a ghost. I then played the visiting officer and it was really nice because I got to play a range of different parts. I got to look after the younger actors and they were all so sweet, adorable and well-behaved, I don’t know how they coped with everything, they were amazing.
Did you know the story before being cast?
Yes, I read a lot and this has always been one of my favourite books so when I first heard that British Theatre Academy (BTA) were casting, I really wanted to go for it. I ended up booking it and I was over the moon and I couldn’t believe it. I was too tall to play one of the children but I was so lucky to be cast in other roles.
How was it performing at Southwark Playhouse?
It was actually very, very hot because it was the middle of summer so we were all sweating! Southwark Playhouse is not like a normal theatre because there are two stages and they’re both quite small and intimate, it’s just a really lovely space.
I also got to see Bring It On, which was on the other stage, and it’s one of the best musicals I’ve seen, it was so, so good. It was nice being able to see other shows BTA were doing there.
How is it auditioning for theatre work?
I was always the wrong height for theatre as I was a bit too small or a bit too tall but I’m happy with the height I’m at now. I got to the final five girls for Jane Banks in the Mary Poppins UK Tour and I got to meet Cameron Mackintosh and sing and act in front of him. It was actually really hard after as I found out on my way to Disneyland Paris that I’d ended up not getting the role as there were four roles and five girls left and I was the one that didn’t get it and that was hard. At first, I didn’t mind not getting the role, it was when I found out everyone else got the role that it really hit me hard. I wanted it so much as you grow so close to the character through the audition process and you learn so many lines and songs. It’s really harsh but you have to learn to deal with rejection, it doesn’t get any less horrible, but you learn to pick yourself up and move on to the next thing.
Can you tell us about your training?
I train at Guildford School of Acting on Saturdays in Drama and Dance and the training there is incredible. The teachers are all so lovely and talented and they’re all getting jobs in the West End or going on tours.
I also train at a different dance school – All Stars Theatre Academy in Reading – for ballet and competitions and we’ve just been in the All England finals. We got to them finals a few years ago but I couldn’t do it because of my acting – it was between me and two other girls and they said I had a chance but I was dropped at the last minute and didn’t end up doing the finals so it’s hard, and they won Gold!
I am currently training with a company called District 64 Arts Academy and hopefully going to the Edinburgh Fringe festival with them next year!
Have you got any upcoming roles you can talk about?
I’m in the middle of filming Off The Coast, but other than that, I don’t have anything lined up. I sit my GCSEs next year, so a lot of revision will go into them, but I’m still willing to do any acting job, I’m not going to stop.
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