Making her West End debut in the transfer of Emilia at Vaudeville Theatre, Saffron Coomber was part of the all-female cast, which saw her be nominated for Best West End Debut at The Stage Debut Awards 2019 for her portrayal of Emilia 1. Saffron has worked extensively in screen, with one of her first major roles as Sapphire Fox for three years in Tracy Beaker Returns on CBBC, and among her recent roles, she has filmed for Flack, Strike: Lethal White and Small Axe. In 2015, Saffron started her training at RADA, and soon after graduating, she booked her first professional stage role in A New and Better You at The Yard Theatre. Taking time to speak with us, Saffron tells us about making her West End debut in Emilia, training at RADA and filming for Small Axe.
You played Emilia in the stage show Emilia, can you tell us about your time in the production?
Being a part of Emilia was a dream come true for me. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm articulates matters that are so close to my heart that when I first read the script it felt like she had written it for me, and I know that is the effect when watching it too. To be able to work with a cast and creative team of women was a real honour and privilege. I learnt a lot, laughed a lot and wish I could do it again!
What was Emilia like to play and how did you prepare for the role?
Playing Emilia 1 was an interesting challenge because naturally when you approach a character, you want them to be all ready and ‘cooked’. But since I played her from when she was seven up until she was twenty-eight, my job was to consider her growth period. What I found helpful was mapping the physical journey from child, to teenager, to adult. I found the element of fire fun to play with in this regard; a flame she has with her from the beginning. In my chunk of time, the main focus was discovering her voice; her personal and poetic. So, I wrote sonnets pre-rehearsal and during to explore that process. It was important to me to explore motherhood, so I made a ‘baby’ that included a hot water bottle and a pillow with various stuffing to give it a good weight. It would always be with me, to and from rehearsals and at home. Sounds crazy but I wanted to be able to identify with that weight and warmth that you hold so close every day, and the physical and emotional loss when that is no longer the case. I find music very helpful. Finding a ‘scent’ that reflects the character is something I like to do as I get to know them. I read Emilia’s collection of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, read as many books as I could about her and the times she was living in and tried to visit as many places that were linked to her and her time period. Niall McDevitt took us on a fantastic walking tour through London where Emilia and her family had been through the years. I would recommend it to anyone if the option is still available!
How did it feel having the show greatly received and making your West End debut in the transfer at the Vaudeville Theatre?
Honestly, it’s been my dream since I was a child to perform in the West End. I feel nothing but gratitude to have made my debut in a play that I feel so deeply connected to and with a cast of warrior queens. It was humbling to see how the audience reacted to the show every night, whether someone took the time to say how much it moved them or seeing the championing of the show on Twitter as important and a must-see. It really felt like we started a movement and it makes me so happy to see the new lives it was getting in schools and globally.
What was it like telling the story at each performance and working alongside the rest of the cast?
I was always excited to tell the story each night. When you work with such spontaneous and open people, it’s always going to be fresh and that is what I love. I always aim to be open to new discoveries, no matter where we are in the course of the production – they still happen right up until the last night! But of course, some nights you feel more open than others. But for me it’s always important to remember the story – it isn’t about me and my process. It’s about keeping the spark alive for my fellow actors and giving the story to the audience. How I ‘feel’ doesn’t matter. I had such utter trust in my fellow actors, and there comes a point when you have to trust all the work you’ve done personally and through the process too. I knew I was surrounded and supported and so I just wanted to enjoy it!
The role led to you being nominated for Best West End Debut at The Stage Debut Awards 2019, how rewarding was it hearing the nomination?
It was very surreal! Again, I just felt like many dreams of mine were being fulfilled. It was a wonderful surprise and I felt flattered at the recognition. It’s an honour to have someone champion your work. To be considered amongst such a wealth of talent was a reward in itself and my mum and I had a great night!
What was A New and Better You like to be part of and can you tell us more about the show?
A New and Better You was my first professional theatre job out of drama school. It was a piece of new writing by Joe Harbot, and a great challenge, as there were no named characters or scenes. So the process really was trying to find out the where, who, what and how of the play. There was a lot of experimentation and I find that very exciting in a rehearsal room. It was liberating to not have anything ‘nailed down’ as we worked. It left us open to possibility and like I’ve said I think that’s very valuable as an actor!
You’ve been cast in upcoming TV series Small Axe, what was this like to film?
Small Axe is another project close to my heart. Not only did I get to work with the living legend Steve McQueen, but I, again, got to tell the kind of story that made me want to act in the first place. I am a black mixed-race woman, my Jamaican heritage stemming from my mother’s side. I believe the Black British perspective is lacking in the canon of the media. We often see African American history as being interchangeable with Black British history, yet when this happens, we miss out on the nuance and specificity of what it was/is like over here for black people. I felt like I was able to give a voice to my family’s experience. I enjoyed asking them about growing up, finding out more than I thought I already knew. It’s the same feeling I got when I watched Nine Night at The National – that punch to my gut at the void in these stories in the mainstream. Of course, we have titans like Winsome Pinnock, Roy Alexander Weise and Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway who bring these stories to our stages and our consciousness. And thank God for them! But what makes me excited for Small Axe is the breadth of reach the project will have. I could recognise my own family members in these characters and I hope it will be the same for them when they watch it.
What can you say about filming for Series Two of Flack?
I honestly think Steph is my spirit animal. She is who I aim to be. She is fun, bright, confident and intelligent. It was a joy to play her and it was a joy to be on set again. Flack was my first professional TV job since I left drama school, so it was wonderful to be back. Oliver Lansley is a fantastic writer and really so kind. The first time I met him, he told me he had bought a copy of Emilia for the women of his Flack team and he got each Emilia (myself, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins) in the season! Thank you, sir!
What was it like on set of Strike: Lethal White?
Strike: Lethal White was so much fun. I worked with some stellar people and I learnt so much. I got to do some stunt work and Flick is so different from the other characters I played last year. I had a particular connection to her, her sense of vulnerability was something I was interested in and how someone comes to be so masked through their need of acceptance and love. Don’t get me wrong, she is a badass! And certainly does not make great decisions. But I really enjoyed exploring the darker aspects of this character and how she is in no way perfect (who is?).
As a side note, I’d love to shout out Gary Davy, as he was the casting director for Small Axe and Strike: Lethal White, so I am indebted to that lovely man!
You appeared as Sapphire Fox in Tracy Beaker Returns, how was it being involved with a show like this?
Tracy Beaker Returns was an experience I’ll never forget. I grew up not only reading the books but also watching the original series, The Story of Tracy Beaker. I couldn’t believe it when I found out I got the role. It spanned across three years of my adolescence. I feel privileged to have been able to work from such a young age and at such a volume. I acknowledge that not everyone has that opportunity and I felt so lucky to be there. It was tough at times being so far from home (it filmed in Newcastle from July to October) and balancing GCSEs at the time, but I have some priceless memories and some excellent laughs. Kay Purcell was like my second mum and she is just brilliant in every way.
Having appeared in Cuffs as Bethany Hawkins, can you tell us about filming your role?
I really enjoyed filming Cuffs. Bethany was like my alter ego. She was very different to me but I admired her big gyal attitude. I got to do my first stunt where I attack an officer with my high heel and then get pepper sprayed. I really do enjoy getting in the middle of things! Everyone on set was so friendly and I adored working with Shaun Dooley. I couldn’t have asked for a better on-set dad. He really helped me embrace an actor’s own process on set. We would improvise before we shot a scene and I hadn’t done that before. He made me feel brave to do it and it has since stuck with me!
Had you always wanted an acting career and can you tell us about training at RADA?
Since I can remember, I have wanted to perform. My sister and I would make up stories and plays and dances for our parents. We went to many different Saturday stage schools, the one we were at longest being Theatre Street in South London. I owe everything to Laurence and Claire! RADA had always been a cloud nine idea to me when I was in secondary school though my drama teacher, Miss Banks, was always encouraging. And then we made it! I have been reflecting on my time at RADA and how invaluable it was. I really wouldn’t be where I am now without it. I learnt so much, more than I realise but the beauty of the training is that it has armed you for whatever situation that the industry could throw at you. Often you don’t realise you have the tools until you need them and then there they are, ready to go!
Have you seen any TV shows or films recently that you would recommend watching?
I think This Is Us is a beautiful series. It speaks to the hopeless romantic in me whilst also exploring important issues of race and relationships. It doesn’t shy away from the big, challenging topics and I think that shows it’s got heart. I have just watched The Mandalorian and absolutely LOVED IT. What I love about the revamp of the Star Wars franchise is the casting. It is so diverse and accurate to character. I absolutely fell in love with Cara Dune, played by Gina Carano. You believe that she was a warrior and is formidable in combat. Her story is intriguing and doesn’t centre around being a love interest! She is a whole character by herself, lethal and deadly, able to hold her own against the Mandalorian. Let me in!
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