Anna and I went to high school together (one which, much to my disappointment, was nothing like Saved by the Bell). Anna wasn’t one of “the” popular kids, but she was “a” popular kid; she was liked by everyone, teachers and students. She was always smiling, she had an infectious energy, and she could make anyone and everyone laugh. Her charisma and natural flair as an entertainer was apparent to her parents before she could string full sentences together, so they enrolled her in a local drama club at just three years-old. Anna grew up on stage and went on to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), before landing a leading role as a bad-ass female warrior, Princess Helle, in the feature film, Viking Destiny (available on Netflix).
I spoke to her this evening about her seemingly fearless quest to pursue her passion. As always, Anna was candid, raw, hilarious, and she shared some wise advice for those thinking about their future career.
As someone who followed the more ‘conventional’, academic route after high school, I’m often impressed by people who had the courage to do something different.
Many children have a ‘dream’; or an idea of what they would like to be, and it’s often something far more creative and ‘fun’ than that which most of us end up doing. We’re taught to think ‘practically’ and we end up tailoring our choices towards options that are more ‘realistic’ because we think we could never succeed doing that other thing.
Did you ever fear that you weren’t going to make it as an actor? Did you have a plan B?
For me, it wasn’t so much a fear of not making it as an actor; it was just about working out how I was going to get there, but I never had a “Plan B”. Acting is what I grew up doing, it was a real passion for me and it gave me a sense of joy and fulfilment that I couldn’t get from anywhere else. I knew that becoming an actor wasn’t going to be easy, but I was up for it…I didn’t ever doubt whether acting was a ‘realistic’ option for me; I had that gut feeling – that was just ‘it’.
There were definitely times when grandparents, teachers and other adults would direct me towards more ‘conventional’ careers, as so happens with most people. I can appreciate now that I’m older that that’s just a protective mechanism; they want to shelter us from disappointment and see us thrive rather than struggle. I do understand that. Thankfully, my parents were hugely supportive of my acting. My Dad drove me across the country for auditions when I was applying to drama school; I had a great support system from him during the audition process, from friends, from everyone who had cast me, and peers that I had acted with growing up. My Dad is a very honest and direct man and he had always said to me “I wouldn’t be here encouraging you like this if I didn’t think you could do it”, so that cemented a lot for me as a teenager.
Were your parents particularly strict about school? Did they ever try to steer you towards something more academic?
The parenting surrounding school felt strict at the time; studying at home was compulsory and our screen time was monitored – for a lot of people that would sound strict. But it wasn’t an approach to school in itself, it was my Dad’s outlook in general. He always taught us to commit fully and to do our best in whatever it was that we were doing. For him, school and drama weren’t mutually exclusive, he expected me to commit myself to both and to not do anything half-heartedly.
So your parents were generally very supportive. What would your advice be to someone who feels that ‘gut feeling’ you mentioned but doesn’t have the same support from their parents or the people around them?
I would say, all the more reason to listen to your gut. If everyone around you is trying to discourage you from something and you’ve still got that fire in your belly – that’s something worth listening to. I say pursue it, commit to it, give it your best shot, but only to the extent that it is making you happy; do what’s best for you.
If you really want it and no one is giving you a shot, then create your own opportunity. I was offered the chance to record a music album (which felt insane at the time), but that opportunity only came about because a producer heard a song of mine that I’d uploaded onto the internet. Song writing, singing and playing the guitar are ways that I stay creative in between acting roles. I recorded my own videos, put them out there and thankfully, someone with the right resources and in the right position saw it. So start creating and start opening doors for yourself! It can never really be a bad thing.
And where did your confidence come from? Were you not ever afraid of what other people would think?
I never perceived that people would judge me negatively for wanting to be an actor. It was a blessing to have quite the opposite. A lot of the people I had acted with or that had seen me act were always very encouraging. If anything, it felt like there was an expectation that acting was what I would do. Thankfully, that expectation aligned with what I wanted so it served as affirmation as opposed to pressure. I thought: if they believe I can do it, and I want to do it, how can I be afraid?
Especially as young adults, a lot of people are influenced by what their friends and peers are doing, and they fear that they’ll get left behind if they don’t follow everyone else down the same path. Did you?
I think a lot of people just want that university experience and are interested to delve into a particular subject further, and that’s great! My brother as an example though didn’t see the appeal in paying to learn about something he wasn’t absolutely sure about; he wanted to learn and earn straight away, which is also fair enough. Now he has his own flat, a car – I don’t even drive!
I truly believe nothing is wasted, whatever you decide to do. Every decision, whether it was perfect or not, leads you to the right place eventually, or shapes the version of yourself that can handle the eventuality.
But, I personally knew what I wanted to do, and going to university wasn’t the best way for me to pursue that career path; going to drama school was. So, I didn’t feel on the back foot at all, I didn’t feel that I was being left behind because I didn’t feel that I was on the same path as my peers anyway.
I actually remember my Dad saying to me that drama school might make me feel “like an alien” because it wasn’t something anyone I knew was doing. And I thought…I’ve always been an “alien”; I’ve never been one to blend in, that’s not my comfort zone.
Things seem like they flowed really smoothly, especially considering how incredibly competitive it is to even get into drama school, never mind LAMDA!
No, not at all, I’ve definitely experienced rejection; I was admitted into LAMDA after my third round of applications. After the second, they offered me an 8-month opportunity on their foundation course, after which I was accepted onto the full 3-year course. In fact, the first time I applied to drama schools, I only applied to small schools; it wasn’t until the second round that I gave the bigger-names a go.
Self-doubt and self-preservation definitely held me back at the start, even though there was no plan B. I had more fire in my belly the second time. I took a year out to realise there really wasn’t anything to lose. Having things at stake is often a made up fear; it’s often not actually true. Even now that I’m in the industry, rejection is constant! I was down to the final two for a super cool villain role in a Netflix series last year and they picked the other girl; it sucks but it’s human to not be right for every single thing.
It’s interesting that not getting into drama school the first time made you hungrier for more the second time, as opposed to discourage you, especially at such a young age. How did you use that initial rejection as fuel?
I think again, it was a case of listening to my instinct. I took a year out, during which I taught drama and worked in retail, before applying to the next round of applications. I worked with some great people who had been working in retail for years and were happy, or at least happy enough, to stay where they were. Their job wasn’t something they necessarily loved, but it didn’t have to be. They had other things in their lives that made them happy and they were content enough to work jobs that allowed them to enjoy their present lifestyles.
I can’t stress enough that some difficult, high flying goal is not the right thing for everyone. I sometimes wish that what I wanted to do involved a more peaceful and linear trajectory, but that experience really reinforced the fact that for me personally, it was going to take something more to make me truly happy, even if the journey was going to be more complicated.
I couldn’t help but feel that I was meant to be somewhere else, doing something else. I knew what it felt like to love doing something and I knew I couldn’t be happy unless I was doing that. So, this experience motivated me to try even harder and I applied to bigger and better drama schools the second time. Only about thirty people are offered a place at LAMDA every year, but my mindset had suddenly shifted from ‘could it really be me?’ to ‘why shouldn’t it be me?’
You’re in an inherently competitive industry where very few people ‘make it’ – how do you maintain your confidence?
Obviously, we all have those days where we feel less confident; the life of an actor isn’t always as glam as people think. One year you’re the lead in a movie, you’re attending premieres, you feel credible, your work is being respected…but there’s an interim period between roles that all actors experience. During this time, you’re just doing what you can to get by, and it’s not necessarily something you enjoy, in an environment where you’re respected or deemed anyone important. It’s those times that are frustrating; when you know you have so much more to give than your current role. But, ultimately, this is just part of the journey. This is what being an actor means so this is what I’m willing to do.
You have time, especially in drama school, to work out what you do best. There’s a lot of roles that I’m not as well suited for as other actors; there are tonnes of women out there who could play the girl next door better than I can, and that’s okay. I’m not hard on myself in that respect, some roles just aren’t meant to be played by me; I know where my strengths lie. Once you accept the fact that you will obtain and play the roles that you’re meant to play, it’s smooth sailing. It relieves you of pressure. You go into the room, you show them what you’ve got, if someone else is better for that character than you, that’s not your fault; you wait for your moment. Remind yourself there’s no rush.
It’s similar for a lot of jobs…you sometimes have to try a few different things before you find what your niche is, and once you find it, it’s easier to feel more confident, because you know you’re playing to your strengths. A professional football player might never be a great striker, but he could be the best defender out there. Everyone has their own unique strength; that thing they “give for free” that just comes with the package.
What three pieces of advice would you give young people starting their careers?
1. Commit to it – Whatever you decide to embark on next, commit to it wholeheartedly, be passionate about it. Everything requires hard work and you’re going to have to overcome challenges, so give yourself the best shot; don’t stand in your own way. Make a choice and tunnel vision on it to start with; it’s the only way to see if its right for you.
2. Embrace the possibility of change – Doing one thing and moving on to another doesn’t mean you’ve failed at the first thing you tried. Do it for as long as it makes you happy. If it no longer does, you do you, move on to the next thing and commit with passion again. It taught you something, right? Nothing is wasted.
3. Make peace with the journey – Success isn’t always instant. It’s important to buckle up, enjoy the journey and embrace whatever it’s going to teach you. There’s not a ticking clock that says you have to have done a particular thing by a particular age. Remember who you’re doing it for. It should only be for you.
Also, your career isn’t everything; it might be important, but it’s only one part of your life. Invest in your friendships and relationships, and find time to enjoy the things that are good for your heart; be present. Love your hobbies, your home, your daily interactions. If you’re always looking ahead you’ll miss stuff. I have a sign stuck on my bedroom wall that says “be better today”. I still find it hard to do, but having that daily reinforcement has been nothing but positive. Try to live tomorrow, better than you did today.
You can follow Anna on Instagram @annardemetriou