Launching our Women Who Inspire blog, we meet transforming actress Mhairi Calvey, as she prepares for her second blockbuster role.

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Mhairi Calvey is a most unusual rising star. Shooting to fame with a role in Braveheart aged just five, she then stepped out of the limelight, avoiding the trap of the child celebrity. Now a sharp, funny and utterly charming woman, she stands on the precipice of fame once again, this time with years of solid training behind her, and her feet firmly planted on the ground. This is an exciting moment for Calvey, after scene-stealing appearances in projects like thriller ‘Gemini’, for which she won best actress at the L.A. Short Film Festival, and soon to be released short ‘Alan’, she’s beaten established Hollywood names to the part of Flora MacDonald in upcoming blockbuster ‘The Great Getaway’. As an actress she is instantly arresting, a natural talent with an innate ability to transform and a wealth of dedication and training. Off camera she is no less impressive, approaching her work with a passion that extends to all areas of the film-making process. We met her in her natural habitat, the BFI Southbank, to find out more about her passions and what inspires her.

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What is your earliest memory of acting?
When I was a kid I used to watch black and white movies a lot instead of cartoons, and then reenact them, I’d get all my friends round and direct them! Braveheart was the first professional part I remember really clearly. Back then there wasn’t any CGI, so there were about a thousand extras with all their props and costumes. It was a complete make-believe land, which is great for a kid. I remember at the end of a take Mel Gibson said, ‘can you go back to your mum’ through one of those big megaphones, and I was hesitant because my real mum stood behind him, and this woman playing my mum was in the other direction. So I shouted across this huge set `which one?!’ Of course, everyone burst out laughing, and I was like `what’s so funny?`

Was there ever any question about you continuing acting after Braveheart?
Yeah, I was offered the route of the child star and my parents said no. They spoke to some of the big casting agents at the time and asked their opinion, and I was very young, five. So Braveheart was the first and last film I did as a child. Then I went and had this very normal childhood, which was lovely. I grew up on a tiny island, the Isle of Arran, in the middle of nowhere in Scotland. I lived by the sea and there was no traffic anywhere, it was the perfect childhood, I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on that.

Did you find that you had quite a high profile on the island?
People would notice me, because my gran and grandad ran a guesthouse. When I was playing in the garden guests would point at me, ask for photos with me and sometimes give me money, which was nice! I found that all a bit weird, but as a kid you’re largely oblivious. I didn’t really notice it, but I can see how, if I had gone down the Hollywood side of things, I could have become quite arrogant. I remember my mum saying ‘you’re not going to be doing that film’ and being really upset at the time, but as a kid you’re upset for 10 minutes and then you’re off playing again. My mum always said that if I wanted to I’d make my way back into it again, and I think that it’s nice to have done it that way.

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How would you define success?
I think it depends on where you’ve come from, if you’ve had it quite easy then success is probably hitting the top of the game. I think anyone is successful who stays in the business regardless of what knocks they have. I know some actors who have been rejected loads and have just stuck through it and now they’re finally getting somewhere. I used to feel like I had to convince my family about my choice to be an actor, but now that they’ve eased up I don’t feel like I need to prove something, I can just enjoy being in the business. I think a lot of actors suffer from that up and down feeling, because there’s so much rejection and even when you get a part it might not actually happen in the end. So I think sticking at it is being successful in this industry! Another way of looking at it is always trying to be better than you were in your previous film, and that’s success really.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you do?
To be honest, I’ve never pictured anything else. There are other things that I love: interior design, archaeology, architecture. There are things I’m interested in, but it all links back to my job and what I’m doing. I always imagine I might use it in a role one day. That’s what I love about acting, it’s sort of a job for people who can’t make their mind up, because you get to do a bit of everything. I’ve done a little bit of directing and producing, just to see what it’s like at the other side of the camera. It’s really helped me understand what the rest of the team need from me, but directing is not my skill at all! I’ll stick to the acting for now, although I would like to do some more producing at some point.

Are there any particular women in the industry that inspire you?
I think Meryl Streep, just because she makes interesting choices, and the way she builds a character, I love the way she works. Also Jennifer Jason-Lee, who’s just done the Hateful Eight. I think she’s so brave with the choices she makes. To have the conviction to just come on set and do some really out-there stuff. I think women like that are really inspiring.

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Do you have a particular method? How do you prepare for a difficult scene?
If you get your backstory down there are no difficult scenes, really. I have a method of sorts, if possible I like to do two months of preparation for a movie, although when I made ‘Alan’ recently I had two days! But I usually like two months. I spend a good amount of time just researching, looking into the history and the period and the character. For example with Flora MacDonald knowing the clans, and what was going on with the politics of the time, reading countless books about her, and all that sort of thing. Then I spend a month actually building the character, through several exercises, which are down to Julia Carey, a film tutor that I had in Drama school. She really was amazingly talented, if it wasn’t for her I don’t think I’d be any good at  my job at all! It’s quite method really – not that I would necessarily stay in character between takes on a set.

Do you find it tough to go in and out of character?
It depends, on how focused the rest of the set is. One of the things that I like about Quentin Tarantino is he famously really focuses his set, so the actors really get to that level, he talks them into it and then calls action. But then he has loads of money behind him so he can take all the time he wants. It also depends on the character. I did a film called ‘Abduct’, and the character was written quite similarly to one I’d played before before in a film called ‘Any Minute Now’. I was constantly trying to make sure I was very different, which was a challenge. I don’t want to be the same thing on screen again and again. Angelina Jolie will play a version of Angelina Jolie in everything, she’s a great actress and she does it brilliantly, but I love the Edward Norton types who transform themselves, I would love to do something like that. I think its important to avoid stereotypes. To say, I’m not playing ‘the alcoholic mother’ I’m playing a person, and ask why are they like that? So the longer I get for research the better.

What is your favourite part of London?
St Paul’s. There’s an amazing view from the restaurant opposite the cathedral, and you can see 360 degrees around the city.

What’s the last book you loved?
The last novel I read was ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s set in Nigeria during the civil war, and my family were in Nigeria at that time, which is why I wanted to read it. The last nonfiction book I read was ‘Down And Dirty Pictures’ which is about the rise of independent film. It’s basically about how Miramax was put together, how people like Tarantino were discovered and how this new industry was built up. It’s an interesting read and you learn so much about that side of the industry, I really recommend it to filmmakers.

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career?
I think it was back in 2013. I had one of those rock-bottom years where everything goes horribly wrong, and I think it was just trying to bring myself back from that, and pull my career back. It was sort of refreshing at the same time, but it was so challenging, I went from having a flat in London to moving back in with my parents with forty five quid in the bank. That was really hard, to not quit then.

What’s next?
I’m writing a script at the moment, and I’ve got three different directors who are quite interested in doing it. That would be one thing I’d love to see happen this year, to at least get a director and producer attached. I’d love to build to the point where I can do my own films alongside getting other work. I think you have to generate your own work and business as an actor. You can’t hope roles come to you, you have to write them for yourself, in a way. I’m also helping out on the board of directors for another film company, advising them and helping them get finance for their films which is a steep learning curve and a new perspective on the industry. And of course there’s ‘The Great Getaway’ which huge, it’s so exciting.

You can find out more about Mhairi on her WEBSITE. Watch out for her in ‘Alan’ to be released this Spring and ‘The Great Getaway’, filming in 2016.

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Written by Emily Carlton

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