Laurence Jarlett speaks to writer and actor Rebecca Reeves, along with lead actor Titana Muthui about their new film Contenders, their start in Scotland, and the enduring importance of curiosity. Contenders is a sci-fi short exploring two young women’s search for truth in unsettling circumstances.
On meeting each other
Titana and me both went to Royal Conservatoire Scotland. I was in third year, she was in first year and we actually met properly outside of RCS at these poetry nights called Nellie Bly that happened at the Old Hairdressers near Central station. And I was writing at the time, writing some sci-fi themed poetry down, which I would perform to theme tunes and scores from popular T.V shows. And then Titana was also at those nights and sharing her pieces, and that was where we started going “I really rate what you do, and we should really collaborate on something.” So that’s how we first met, and then we started going for a lot of wine down bath street. But it’s still quite a new, beautiful friendship, really only since last Christmas.
Yeah, because I remember having a Skype call with Rebecca, and we just really connected as friends and just had similar ideas about similar circumstances we were going through.
I’m still at the Conservatoire, about a quarter through my third year, final year. I’m studying BA acting. I was on a trip to the Edinburgh fringe with my class mates, and I thought, Edinburgh is so beautiful I have to study here, so I went to Edinburgh college for a year, and then I heard about the conservatoire…
I still struggle calling it that.
Yeah, well I saw a lot of people were auditioning and I thought, wow, this must be a huge deal and so I had to do it! So I auditioned… and got in. It felt like a big deal. So I just kind of ended up staying in Scotland, moving to Glasgow, and I just, really love it so much.
Shout out to the Rum Shack because it’s such a good place; that’s where I lived actually, South Side, and that’s where my grandad’s from, Victoria road.
Yeah South Side is great!
On imagining ‘Contenders’
I’d had…because I read a lot of science fiction I’d had ideas brewing for a while, and when me and Titana met, we were trying to figure out what it was we would collaborate on. Initially we were going to do a poetry project, but I was slowly creating this world for the poems to live in, and it just kind of took off into this film, which actually was a beautiful process, cause as we were developing the characters, it evolved really nicely with Titana in mind. The poems were quite long, they would last a cinematic score, maybe four or five minutes, but then because I’d been writing and drafting up character pieces, it all started merging into one. So one of my poems, ‘Contenders,’ I guess I took that title and a lot of its themes as the basis for this film.
For a lot of people that word ‘contenders’ is about competition, and contenders has a competition element but not necessarily a negative one. It’s kind of for the people who I notice, in real life, who are having to compete within the welfare state. So, this story follows the every day Joe Bloggs, who is considered a ‘contender.’ I still get apprehensive when I speak about Contenders, especially before we go into production, because I have a lot of fire, so much fire about this subject, that talking about it is a huge practice. Even the pitching process was a huge learning curve, learning about what to reveal! You have so many ideas but you want to leave it to the audiences to experience.
On their characters, Theo and River
As a minority, it is…how do I say this? Characters for minorities are hard to come by, unless you want to play the antagonistic, or angry black woman. They put us into roles as actors which are less challenging for us to reach. So, with this project, I’m so, so happy that young girls see someone with my complexion on screen, can see that there is more to being a black woman; they can see a familiar face. And it also relates to colourism as well; it is not usual to see a dark-skinned woman expressing complexity on screen, and especially in sci-fi. So, Theo is just this beautiful, magical character that isn’t defined by her skin tone, but by her mind and curiosity, that young black girls can see and feel represented.
I find often when I’m reading books which I really love, like a Phillip K.Dick, where the story and the themes are so, so good, but then you’ll get a female character that comes in and there’s a curiosity in it, but it’s a curiosity directed toward them, not coming from them. It’s mainly a curiosity to their aesthetic I think, and that’s where they become two-dimensional. Well maybe you could just follow the story through their eyes, that’s something I think we have to keep pushing through, the curiosity not being about the characters themselves but experiencing curiosity through them, and that’s what I think is interesting. That’s what’s interesting about, well anyone, but specifically about these two characters; it’s exciting to follow them and experience how they say yes to things.
On the ubiquity of dystopian fiction
I think the reason why there’s a huge demand for those stories, and I really do believe this, is that there is a power the public wants, to have a discussion base that’s outside of politics and decisions that are being made for them that are coming to play. For instance, I remember thinking when I was younger, after seeing things like DARPA in America developing advanced robots, I remember looking at those videos—and they’re not actually that scary looking at them now—but seeing them and thinking, ‘oh my god, I didn’t get a say in those being built!’ Whatever the purpose behind building them was, once they start existing, that’s it. So, I think there’s a lot of feeling in the public that so much is out of our hands, and so of course that creates fear. Stories like Black Mirror, and Handmaid’s Tale, which we all watch together on a Saturday night, on Netflix all together across the globe are some kind of stimuli, some kind of arena for us to have a conversation.
On curiosity and truth
I think the ‘things I know to be true’ element is a big driver behind all of this, as someone who feels like they’re still constantly unlearning things they’ve been told. And now, the more I converse with different people, the more I realise what we don’t know about the world, the more I learn there’s something else ..so walking through this forest in Yorkshire, someone told me that trees release a chemical when they’ve been chopped down that actually communicates warning to other trees in the area. We write off things we don’t know as ‘crazy’ all of the time, but we do experience on—a very small level—things we cannot explain. I do think that curiosity, that openness to things we don’t understand is vital to the progress we make, especially with the planet, because we don’t know it all, we really don’t know it all. The fact that people are practicing astral projection, and that Einstein was talking about parallel realities a century ago…synesthesia! All these things which you go, or someone once went, well what is that? We suppress it. There’s this culture among us where you have to play down experiences: “I don’t believe in ghosts…but I saw this;” “I’m not spiritual, but I felt this.” This kind of stunting of something that actually we need to explore a bit, before we can move forward or even have the right empathy for any other creature.
This film is for the people I’ve been speaking with, who over the past few years have had to offload on to me about what they’ve experienced. I had a guy at a Kwik-Fit in Yorkshire the other year, who when I had to pull in after blowing a car tire, after a little small talk he nearly burst out crying, a fifty something year old man, just saying, “we’re all not going down the right path are we?” That kind of crisis which happened in front of me is common; it definitely leaves a mark. Everyone is attuned to something, everyone’s bubbling, people are worried and fearful now, so it’s just trying to filter that into something tangible…I’ve given it a bash.
REBECCA REEVES is a British actor and writer from North Yorkshire and currently based in London. She trained as an actor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where she was awarded the Laurence Olivier bursary from SOLT.
Reeves has been developing her debut film Contenders over the past year, working closely with both established collaborators and emerging artists in the UK industry including the film’s protagonist and lead actor Titana Muthui from South Africa.
TITANA MUTHUI will be entering her final year of training at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland. She is ‘a born freeSouth African/Kenyan woman.’
Titana won Best Actress at the Feda Festival in her stage debut at the Nelson Mandela square theatre in Sandton Johannesburg. The award was for her role, Lady in Orange, in For coloured girls who have considered suicide where the rainbow isn’t enough.
Titana is currently featured on the rolling stone page under belle and Sebastian’s new music video; We were beautiful.
You can also see her featured in Vogue Italia 2017.