My introduction to Jamie Robson was through a series of confusing emails (due to our similar names) between The Fountain, myself and Edinburgh Short Film Festival, which I was reviewing at the time. As luck would have it, he had a spare ticket for the Festival’s Opening Night at the Filmhouse. My introduction to his acting was in one of the films shown that evening, My Loneliness is Killing Me. His introduction to me as a writer was my review of another ESFF evening, where he was on the post-screening discussion-panel.
It seems we had a connection: I liked what he said; he liked what I wrote!
Another connection proved even more fruitful: poetry. With plans in development for a Burn’s biopic, with Robson playing the Bard, we decided on an interview. We discussed a broad range of topics from acting, film theory, philosophy, Burns the man, and Burns the film-plan. It transpired that the last of those subjects was the least-discussed, as we slalomed our way through the others at break-neck speed.
Passionate about acting and film in both theory and practice, Robson flits from thought to thought like a white-water kayaker. Our conversation was bound to be fast-moving, since this actor’s knowledge and passion are backed up by extensive research. Perhaps this was due to his leaving school early; finding acting later in life led to a need to prove himself by absorbing as much knowledge and information as possible. For Robson, acting is a “sort of spiritual practice,” though he acknowledges a degree of luck in having been involved in several successful projects, as his IMDB profile boasts.
A basic link to Burns is that of Robson’s birthplace. Growing up in Dumfries and Galloway, Burns seemed to be in the blood already. Burns was also a working class chameleon; he knew he was from a lowly background, and was doubly-motivated to prove himself. Letters sent from Burns to his friends read like modern-day text messages, whereas those sent to people of higher standing, according to Robson, are quite different.
A Burns biopic that settles on the usual themes of drinking and womanising would be too simplistic. Using academic research and expertise, it would enrich public understanding of Burns poems; focusing perhaps on one particular period of his life or portraying his idiosyncrasies and paradoxes may give a version of Burns the public don’t get to see. As Robson put it, there is a “playground mentality” of wanting to be a “hero” when playing characters; Robson would rather play someone who “just wants to get by.”
This might move the audience or viewer from sympathy to empathy – a key element in Robson’s craft. We all ‘act’ in our daily lives, but the job of an actor is to observe, to philosophise, and to push at boundaries. In My Loneliness is Killing Me, Robson chose to portray a character battling with issues of sexual identity as a ‘straight-acting’ man. Again, this seems to sum up his approach to film-acting: it is often the smallest gestures that reveal character.
This was much the same in an earlier film starring Robson, Blue Christmas. Here there is a clear relationship between actor and director, Charlotte Wells, and a collaborative approach that will be the case as they both work on the Burns film. While film is very much a director’s medium, it’s important for Robson that everyone has a vision. By adding small unscripted touches when filming, he often earns a co-writing credit in his work. Acting is about taking risks, and being vulnerable.
I asked, then, how he felt about playing a real character, even if the emphasis will be away from the standard image. Robson is not a ‘method actor,’ although he has researched every style. Acting isn’t a matter of imitating; it is experiential. The viewer is not simply indulging in voyeurism when watching a film; they are part of it. Nonetheless, an actor must ‘expose’ themselves. While we all act in real life, and we have to be diplomatic too, whereas acting is just ‘there’ – no hiding.
When I gave that old line about art being ‘the lie that helps us to see the truth,’ Robson replied that we must “live the lie truthfully.” He described two types of truth: the upper-case and lower-case. The job of the actor – and the script – is to allow the air to move and punctuate these separate truths. Given that there has never been a full-length biopic of Burns, both Robson and Wells are enthusiastic about representing the poet and the person; a commitment to both sides of truth.
For all his fast-moving thoughts and garrulous ideas, I concluded that Jamie Robson is a touch enigmatic. Watching Blue Christmas I found myself drawn into his character, and yet mystified by what was going on beneath the surface. Somehow, out of the extensive conversations that I’m told occur between this director and actor, the result is a carefully-sculpted piece with long, lingering shots, and carefully-crafted detail. There was a strong Lynne Ramsay vibe too, which certainly entices me. I am sure that I’ll be keen to review the Burns film-project when it comes to fruition.
Somehow I don’t imagine Mr Robson would let me refuse!