Simon Merrells has enjoyed success on the stage, in television and on the big screen over the years and he is set to return to the big screen with Index Zero.
Index Zero sees Merrells team up with first time feature filmmaker Lorenzo Sportiello and will be receiving its international premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival at the weekend.
We caught up with the actor to chat about the film, the challenges of working on a piece with limited dialogue, and the exciting projects that he has on the horizon this year.
- You are about to return to the big screen with Index Zero, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Index Zero is set in a not too distant future, where the world and ecology has collapsed. We find these two characters called Kurt and Eve and they are semi-feral but fiercely committed to each other; they are human animals who are surviving in this desperate wasteland. You realise that they are on a journey towards the great barrier of Europe, which contains a sustainable city inside and a sustainable world.
Only people who are considered sustainable - who can produce and have an index of sustainability - are allowed in. My character is considered sustainable but, in this world, a pregnant woman is not because there are no natural births anymore and birth is only through artificial means. It transpires throughout journey that Eve is pregnant and by the time we reach the barrier, she is ready to drop. But then the two characters are separated.
The film is about not giving up on your partner; Kurt will not give up and will do anything to get back to her and give them the life that they came to find. There is very little dialogue in the film, but the connection between the characters is what makes it.
While the story is sci-fi, at its base, it is a love story between these two characters. I hope that is something that is the main connection that people will have to the film and they will be able to see the connection the two characters have with each other.
- You take on the role of Kurt in the movie, so what was it about this character and the script that was the major draw when you read it for the first time?
I was just intrigued by the possibilities of developing these characters. We had a week before we started filming - we didn't rehearse in the conventional sense, but we created this whole world that they had come from. We talked about what had happened to the world, what their experiences would have been like, how they first met, how they behave around each other.
We looked at wolves and we looked at dogs in packs and the way that they behave with each other. We explored the idea of two animals appearing to be together even though they are not in each other's arms or they are not paying attention to each other all the time but there is almost a symbiosis between them; they are almost two halves of the same thing. So we went down that route with the characters.
They hardly say anything unless it is absolutely essential, so when they do say something it resonates. Therefore, we had to develop this language between the characters, this non-verbal communication from looks to the way that we touch each other that would suggest our relationship. I found that really fulfilling as an actor and it became a kind of non-performance - which sounds unusual because, as an actor, you are meant to perform in some way or another.
We became very unaware at times that we were being filmed or on a film set. I am proud of it for that reason. I can now watch the film and watch these two characters on their journey and not feel that they are Ana (Ularu) or I, which is quite something to reach that point with your own work.
- You have mentioned that there was limited dialogue, so how did you find that challenge? I imagine that you haven't worked like that too often during your career.
No. Film isn't the stage. I have just done a TV series where my character has wonderful stuff with great swaths of speeches; fantastic stuff but it couldn't be more different. With Index Zero, it was the other way around.
You realise that when people are in an extreme situation, everything boils down to basic elements of food, shelter, comfort, hope, reassurance, and love; all of those things get boiled down to their essentials. That is the story of the characters in the first half of the film as that is their focus; to project each other and survive and not very many words are needed.
At first, it was a challenge but then we both loved that and we both loved not quite knowing what was going to happen in a scene and we used some improvisation. We would just ask 'what would the character do?', 'what are they going to do in this situations,' and it was very exciting to work like that.
- Index Zero sees Lorenzo Sportiello in the director's chair, so how did you find working with him? As this film marks his feature film directorial debut.
You would never know that he is a first time filmmaker as it is like he has come out of the egg as a readymade auteur. The guy knew exactly his vision - down to the last shot - and he had total command of the technical aspects. At times, he was blunt but he was very very good with the actors with his notes.
He would spot a trixie moment or he would spot something that he didn't quite believe in; some people might have let it pass but he wouldn't let it go until the take was right and he was convinced that this was happening for real and it wasn't being forced. It was challenging but really exciting to work with a director like that. I think he is going to go on to do some very interesting work.
- Index Zero is going to be playing as part of the official selection at the Edinburgh International Film Festival - which gets underway tomorrow - so are you heading to the festival? How excited are you to get up there?
I am really excited. When we wrapped on the film there were lots of post-production problems and, for a while, we didn't know if it would get finished. Heroically, Lorenzo and his people did finish the film with a completely new edit; we saw for the first time in Rome, which was extraordinary for me and Ana.
Lorenzo has spent almost every day for a year grading, cutting, writing the music, and all the other stuff that comes in post-production and he had been doing it almost alone. For Ana and I, all we had were our memories of the shoot and to see it up there was a very powerful experience for us. That was the film's Italian premiere and the reaction was wonderful.
This is a different arena and Edinburgh with be the film's international premiere - that only happens once. It has become a very important film festival and we are very proud to a part of it amongst such a selection of good work. I actually forget that it is supposed to be a competition but I don't feel that it's a competition but more of a celebration of filmmaker's art. Because we have been included in it, I feel that we have already won.
- How important a platform have the festivals become in recent years in giving smaller budget movies an audience?
I think that they have had an effect because they do give a platform to films that may not have had one otherwise. They introduce new talent to the world in an arena and a timespan when many people from the film world are all in one place.
People don't just want to sit on laurels and have the same - no matter how good the pool of stuff being seen it - people in this industry are always interesting and excited by new voices, visions, and talents.
I think that the festival circuit is absolutely vital to give a platform to films and show people's work - if that breeds any commercial success afterwards then that's fantastic. It gives film a chance of a life I think.
- Away from Index Zero, you have moved between TV, film, and theatre throughout your career, so how does working in the different mediums compare? How important is it for you as an actor that you can move between them?
It has been an extraordinary last few years. I had done bits and pieces on television over the years in England but, to be honest, I would have always thought of myself as a theatre actor. My most fulfilling experiences have been on stage but, in the last few years, things have got really interesting for me in terms of TV and film.
I have been incredibly lucky to work abroad in exciting series and Spartacus was a game changer for me. It changed me physically and it also changed me in other ways. I was thrown this golden ball, this important lead role in a very successful series and I was like 'I had better run with this.' I felt ready for it and working with a great team of people helped enormously.
In recent years, I have been really happy to be in this pool of TV and film work and I have realised the possibilities of it. Of course, I will always be in love with the stage and would love to do a play again soon, but I have been having so much fun with what you can do on film, with the camera, and just how playful you can be. I have really loved it.
- Finally, what's next for you going through the second half of this year?
I have just wrapped on the second season of Dominion, which is an NBC sci-fi series. They have really pulled out all of the stops with this second season and I am really excited about it. I felt like I was on a movie set every day. I had a great character and a character where, once again they went, 'you can do what you want, it depends how daring you are.' And I was like 'cool, let's have a play,' and the fantastic producers and directors on the show really responded to that. I am really excited about that coming out and that premieres in July on Syfy Channel.
Straight after that I did a really interesting project for Sky 3D. They have had 3D cameras in a deserted da Vinci gallery in Florence and they have filmed all of these extraordinary works of art in 3D with 3D technology. They had mixed that with drama and this one-man show and follows my character Lorenzo de' Medici.
He comes back from limbo and starts to remember the years he ruled Florence, the artists that he knew, the battles he had to go through and what was important to him; he was one of the prime figures in the birth of the Renaissance. That was also shot in 3D, so that was a whole new technology for me. I am also excited for that and it is going to be shown in cinemas around the world. It has been a pretty interesting year so far.
I am going to Italy in August to work with Roberto Cinardi, a friend of Lorenzo Sportiello, on another science fiction project. It is shorter feature but it is a really really cool script. Italy is full of many talented young filmmakers. I just go in the direction that life seems to take me at the moment; I am not tied to one place, working with lots of different talented people and am in a lucky zone at the moment.
Index Zero plays at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 20th June and 21st June at Cineworld, Edinburgh.