LONDON — Thea Sharrock, a wunderkind of British theater who’s directed the likes of John Hurt, Keira Knightley and Daniel Radcliffe, has found a new love: The big screen.
The award-winning Sharrock was once Britain’s youngest theater director when she took over London’s Southwark Playhouse in 2001, aged 24, before becoming artistic director of the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill.
Of late, she’s moved from stage to TV, and now she’s on to her first feature film, “Me Before You,” based on the romantic novel by former newspaper journalist Jojo Moyes. Starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin as a star-crossed couple, it will open in the U.S. and U.K. on Friday.
With such history, why push her luck in Hollywood — or Pinewood for that matter?
“It’s all Sam Mendes’ fault,” says Sharrock, referring to her fellow early achiever who now divides his time between the stage, the big screen and TV.
The blond, tomboyish director is half laying down on a sofa at the Soho Hotel in London (it’s clearly been a long day promoting the film) and talking about her shift from the stage to the screen.
“Sam gave me an amazing opportunity of directing his ‘Henry V’ on TV for his company Neal Street and the BBC. I never ruled out directing ‘Henry V’ — don’t get me wrong — but it wasn’t a natural one that I saw coming, and I loved that he was bold enough and brave enough to bring it my way,” she says of the Shakespeare history play that tells the tale of the once-wild Prince Harry who would eventually prove his mettle and conquer France.
“I mean, a girl doing ‘Henry V!’ I love it! So I did that for Sam and I loved it; it was my first time behind the camera. It was off the back of that that I got an American agent and then we started looking at film scripts together and this was the one that grabbed us.”
A different sort of battle unfolds in “Me Before You,” which is based on the New York Times bestseller about a posh, angry young Brit who is paralyzed from the neck down following an accident and a sweet working class waitress who’s hired to be his carer. Moyes also wrote the screenplay.
“I loved the simplicity of the love story of two people who should never have met but then take each other on a journey that they didn’t see coming. It’s incredibly English; I also loved that. We do class over here like nobody else, and there’s a kind of old-fashioned quality to it that reminds me of films that used to be made a lot — and I don’t think there are any films like this at the moment,” says Sharrock.
The film has received mixed reviews, with disability activists voicing their discontent about the fate of Claflin’s character and other critics arguing that the issues around his disability were not tackled boldly enough. Both Claflin and Clarke have been widely praised for their performances, however.
Sharrock says that what she tried to do was give space “to two people going on a journey together who are shoved into each others’ lives when they shouldn’t be. In the middle of this film is a very big subject and equally I think it’s very brave to take this topic on and we were very, very careful to not in any way pass judgment, but to say ‘This is one man’s voice’ and that’s a very important message within the film.”
Asked about some of the fundamental differences in directing actors on stage and on screen, Sharrock says the process is more or less the same. “You work very, very closely with people to try and create the best performance that they can give.” The big difference is that “you’re looking at a chunk, rather than the whole, from start to finish in one go.”
Sharrock, a married mother of two boys who turns 40 this year, said that now that she’s spent time behind the camera there is no going back. Like Mendes, she says she wants her career to take in a variety of acting media.
“I would love to strike a balance, and keep both mediums going. I’m always a great believer in going project by project. Sometimes I love the fact that it takes one phone call with someone saying they have the rights to something and asking if I’m interested for me to say, “Oh I love that play, I’ve always wanted to do that play!” Who knows what the phone call is going to be?”
The theater has consumed Sharrock since she was a teenager. “I went to the theater all the time and I just immersed myself in it. When you’re a kid you don’t really know what a director is, so if you love drama you just get up and act in it, too. I look back now and I realize that it was always me who was suggesting that someone should wear red trousers or wait just two seconds longer before coming in — that’s how I was thinking.”
She took a year off between the end of high school and Oxford, working both at the National Theatre and at a theater in South Africa. She had an administrative job at the National whose director at the time was Sir Peter Hall. It was an intoxicating time: She recalls a young Patrick Marber, the British actor and playwright, handing her a then-untitled play, which would eventually be the stage hit “Closer.” It debuted at the National, moved to Broadway in 1999, and was later made into the film by Mike Nichols.
“He was on attachment, which meant that he was writing for the National, and he came in on a Friday afternoon, but my boss wasn’t there. He said he was going to hand in the script and asked if I would read it and I said, ‘sure.’ So I took it home to read it. I loved it. That was the kind of world in which I was immersed,” she says.
It was no wonder Oxford paled in comparison: “It wasn’t so much the academia; I mean, I loved my tutors, but I guess I just felt like I had grown up a bit and was ready for the university of life.” She dropped out, moved back home, and assisted “four or five different directors — all men, for what it’s worth — and then right at the end of that, the last director said to me, ‘OK, you’re ready to do it, you should think about doing your own.'”
Soon after, she won the Young Director of the Year Award and got her first production, starting off in a 50-seat theater in South London with a production of “Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill. The play eventually made it to the West End.
Although she enjoyed her time as artistic director of London’s Southwark Playhouse and Gate Theatre, Sharrock says she’s not going back down that route. “I did it for six years — five of which I didn’t have children — and the thing about running a building is that it is 24/7. It’s like having a family and what I loved about doing it is I felt I could absolutely be with them and give them everything I had,” she says.
“That is one of the biggest challenges of having children and wanting to be a working mother, but also wanting to be very much the primary carer, I guess. My husband is amazingly supportive and brilliant with the kids. He’s in the theater business. But, you know, I wanted to be a very active mum and although putting on a movie and making a movie is long and takes a lot of time, for huge chunks of it, you’re in control of that time. If you’re lucky you can carve out a little bit of holiday time before and after. But when you’re running a building it’s really hard to take that time away.”
Her upcoming projects include a play, a new musical, and a couple of screenplays she’s eyeing. She’d really like to do “one of those big emotional Americans, like Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill. Tennessee Williams is another one. The plays that really get you are when an actor just goes there, and it’s just heartbreaking.”