What have Tunisia and Scotland got in common? Not immediately obvious is it? Well, it was that interesting combination that compelled me to reach out to Tunisian-Scottish actor Aiysha Jebali on Twitter. A couple of DMs later and it was apparent that she’s a passionate and staggeringly motivated actress who was more than happy to spend 20-odd minutes of her time talking about her acting career and her role as Abigail Copperhead in David Lawson‘s directorial debut A Clockwork Heart (2021).
Not only did Aiysha provide a fascinating interview with me about her diverse roots and journey into independent filmmaking, she also talked with incredible passion about why she became involved in fellow Scottish filmmaker David’s first film.
Jebali reveals how her time in LA and travelling around the world helped to shape her as a person and an actor, as well as boosting her self-confidence. She offers her views on whether budding actors should undertake formal training in their craft or get life experience first.
Aiysha also explains how she approached this short film with virtually no words of dialogue and why the devastating global pandemic hasn’t impacted her professionally as severely as it could have.
UPDATE: Since this interview followers (and, indeed, even casual observers) of Film Forums or Aiysha Jebali on social media will have noticed that she has become one of the main presenters. So, this is what she was like on the other side of the camera…
FF: So, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? I understand your parents are Tunisian and Scottish… Is that right?
AJ: Yeah. So, I was born and raised here in Scotland, in Aberdeen, and my father is Tunisian and my mother is Scottish. I grew up in a small town in the Shire, in the northeast of Scotland. I was raised here but we would always go back and forth as well to Tunisia. So both cultures have been a really big part of my upbringing.
And I grew up always acting and dancing and being creative, writing poetry, that sort of thing.
FF: Who was your inspiration for getting into acting when you were growing up and who’s your inspiration now?
AJ: I don’t know if I can put my finger on a set inspiration, because acting was just always a hobby for me when I was a kid. I went to community theatre and things like that. I just did anything that I could get my hands on, and film acting…I kind of fell into when I was 18 years old because someone contacted me when they were starting a film group. And they were just looking for someone local that might be interested in doing something, basically. So I was like, ‘Yeah! Why not?’ And then it just evolved from there and I realised how much I love it.
I always find that such a hard question, because I kind of just did acting because it was fun and because it allowed me to be someone who was confident, I guess, because I spent most of my life being quite shy and quiet and almost socially awkward, really. And then acting allowed me to come out of my shell and so did dancing. So that was more what inspired me; it was more about my creative side being able to be free without judgment without caring what people thought.
FF: What is A Clockwork Heart (2021) about and how did you come to be involved in it?
AJ: So, A Clockwork Heart (2021) is a fairy tale story about a young female character who is not entirely human; she’s a mechanically engineered being. And it’s about her journey; discovering what emotions are and what they mean. Because she only understands things from an intellectual standpoint, really.
I found the role really interesting as well because it was a type of role that I’d never played before. For me, it highlights quite a lot of humanity, actually, but in a very simple and enjoyable little story. The writing really sits well, because it’s actually what a lot of people go through, like real people, you know, whether they can or can’t show emotion and what’s acceptable or unacceptable and things like that.
So it was quite nice to see it played from that point of view, from an Android’s point of view.
I got involved with that project because David Lawson and I have known each other for about the last 10 years. I was one of his first model subjects and he was one of the first people that ever wanted to take my photo (I’m not really a model, it was just kind of to help local photographers). He also works with my cousin. So, you know, there are close connections there.
When he wrote this piece and decided that he wanted to get into filmmaking – because this was his first film, his debut – he asked me if I wanted to be involved, if I’d be up for it, and obviously I was because I really enjoyed working with David, the last time, so why not?
FF: You have very few lines of dialogue in the film so it’s more about your screen presence and expression. So how did you approach the role on that basis?
AJ: To be honest, for this character, I just tried to be as numb as possible because she is, after all, like, an Android, you know, so everything is about data, it’s not about feeling. So usually when you audition for a role, you need to show emotional range; people wanted to know if you can cry on cue, or if you could realistically portray anger, whereas in this case, my character has no idea what those things are.
For this role, it was a case of how unemotional could I be but still be convincing enough to pass as a human being. So it was just different, I guess, very different from anything that I’ve done before. And I really, really enjoyed it!
FF: Tell us about your time in LA where it sounds like you trained a lot in stunt work and acting as well as taking in the festival scene?
AJ: LA was an amazing experience. I went to do a course with Tim Storms, which is Patrick Stewart‘s stunt double, and also Terence J Rotolo who has done a lot of different action movies as well. Once upon a time he was the villain in Power Rangers which, if you’re my age, you will love that and appreciate him!
So, we did our Level 1, where we were doing wire work and roles onscreen fighting, things like that. And that was tough. Like, that was really, really tough! I grew up doing martial arts and I grew up competing but this course really broke me! It challenged me to my max, but I loved it! Freaking awesome! There’s a video of me on day three where I can’t even get into bed. One of my course mates decided to video me struggling to get into bed and wow, I’m a mess! It was a lot of fun.
Alongside that we also got to have acting coaching with Katt Shea. She was the director of Poison Ivy (1992). And working with her was, like, a dream come true to be honest because that’s one of my favourite films.
I think that that film really showed Drew Barrymore as an adult; that was her transition from being a child actor to being a heartthrob.
A lot of the time as actors, we can get caught up in overthinking things and she really just ripped me right out of that, really pulled me out of my shell. She made me really focus on being raw, being in the moment and being authentic. She had lots of exercises and techniques which I still am using. So yeah, I thought it was an amazing experience.
And while we were there as well, we happened to be there at the same time as the AFI Film Festival was happening. So we didn’t have passes or anything like that, so, unfortunately, we couldn’t go to any of the screenings. We were able to go to the Roosevelt Hotel, and go to some networking events there, which was really fun.
Me and my actress girlfriends kind of blagged our way into lots of different parties that we had no business being at, to be honest!
So, when I decided to go back for my birthday a few years later, I wanted to make sure that I could definitely be part of the AFI again. However, as some will know, passes are expensive and there was no guarantee that my charm was going to work the second time around! When I was looking to buy passes I saw a little advertisement saying that you could volunteer at the festival. I thought that would be a really cool way to experience the inside, you know, so I went for it and I was accepted.
I volunteered for 7 or 8 days and I got to go to a lot of screenings. That was our payment for volunteering. And then also we were ushering people and kind of seeing how all of the organisation works. There’s so much that goes into such a big festival. It’s amazing the manpower that’s required to make that happen.
There’s also a lot of networking opportunities. So it was great, I got to meet a lot of directors as well. A really amazing experience. It made me want to go to more festivals, whether I was in a film at that festival or not. Getting your hands dirty and getting involved is the best way to learn.
FF: If you could choose to work with any two actors in a movie, who would you choose and why?
AJ: So, if I was to choose any two actors, I guess it would have to be Jim Carrey, because he was my idol growing up. I absolutely loved him as a comedy actor but also, every time he did something serious as well. I just think he’s a genius. He’s so talented in every way. I think he’s very, very inspiring, and creative. So it would be an honour to work with someone like him. I think I would faint if that was an opportunity that came my way!
The other person would be Michael Caine. He is phenomenal. I think that he’s one of the realest people on camera, like, you really believe every word. Like, he’s not acting, you know, he’s very grounded. The books that he wrote on acting in film completely changed the way that I approached my acting as well and really helped me in my journey.. So it would be wonderful to work with him.
FF: Yeah, I’ve seen a few interviews with him, and also clips of him showing other actors literally how to stand, how to stare at a camera, where to look, where to be compared to the other actors on set etc.
AJ: It’s the focus with everything he thinks about everything down to the smallest level. But it’s those little things that really make the difference when you’re acting on film. Yeah, he’s phenomenal.
FF: Yeah, that’s fascinating. With hindsight, what, if anything, would you do differently as an actor? Would you go to film school? Or perhaps do more acting coaching before you embark on a career in film, etc?
AJ: To be honest, no, I don’t really believe in changing your journey. I think whichever journey it is you’re on, that’s the one that you’re meant to be on.
However, if I was giving advice to someone, then I would definitely say to look at all of the possibilities.
I think that it depends sometimes on the position that you’re in. For example, acting coaching costs a fortune, headshots are like £400 – £500; your membership to Spotlight, it’s like £150/160; your membership to Equity… You know, all of these things that you require to be a professional actor, they either take time, or they take money, and for me, it was time, because that was my journey.
If you can get into a good drama school then go for it. Because you’re going to work with amazing people, you’re going to have more opportunities to get yourself an agent from showcases… there’s just generally more opportunities.
However, it is expensive and that obviously was a barrier for me. But now, I know a lot more about funding opportunities. So, to young actors looking to start, I would say: do your research. Just because you’re from a working class background, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have those things. It’s just about how you get there.
I think that time and life experience can play a huge role in your acting abilities as well. I’ve traveled all over the world, I’ve met all different types of people. When I read a script, a lot of the time I can immediately think of someone that I know that matches that character, and I can almost base it on them, if you know what I mean? So I think that I definitely took the journey that I was supposed to take. But there are definitely ways that you can improve.
I think that I would have loved to do more training. I would have loved to do more work with more acting coaches, like Katt Shea, for example.
So those are experiences that a lot of people, a lot of actors, might not have, you know? They might not be able to delve into themselves to find the character that they’re playing. I think it went the way it was meant to go and it continues to.
FF: You mentioned there that you used to be maybe a little bit socially awkward, shy, whatever. And then you just mentioned that you travelled around the world and you’ve met different people. Do you think that sort of helped build your confidence in tandem with doing that?
AJ: Yeah, definitely, I think throwing myself into the deep end definitely helped.
I have a young friend of mine, she’s not an actor, but she had the opportunity to go to Portugal just to work when she was about 19. And she was quite similar to me. I said to her, ‘Do it! No question. Don’t be scared. It will work out. Just go for it! When she came back, she was like, ‘I totally understand what you mean now. It’s opened my mind completely!’
I don’t feel like I have to just go along with people now; I can really just be my own person. A lot of people that know me, they say, ‘Oh, you’re so confident!’ and things like that. I wouldn’t say I’m confident, I’m just quite blunt, you know what I mean? I’m kind of a ‘take or leave it’ sort of person. Don’t think that that means I don’t get nervous. I get incredibly nervous, especially in large groups and things like that. But I’ve learned ways to keep that under control, and to give the appearance of still making sure that I am taking every opportunity that I can possibly find.
FF: That’s great. So it sounds like a great by-product of becoming an actress and getting into the film industry and networking. So that’s amazing if it’s provided some sort of personal development as well, you can’t really complain about that!
As an emerging actress what challenges are you facing during the pandemic? Are any roles cropping up for you or are you finding pretty much all the doors are closed at the moment?
AJ: [Speaking in October 2020] Personally I’ve actually had a few auditions and things like that. I’ve had audition offers via self tape, which is great to see. Because before it was more that you would have to travel to London or Glasgow to have an audition, which can be expensive.
And, again, for a working class actor, that’s a huge expense if you don’t know that you’re going to get the role. Obviously it’s something that you have to do; you have to invest in your career.
But right now, people are more open to self tapes, which is fantastic, because that means that you know whether you’ve got the job or not and you’re not having to spend £150 on flights or whatever and however much on accommodation.
My regular job…I was one of the many thousands of people who have been made redundant, being furloughed… So it’s been rough, but in different ways. I wouldn’t really say from the acting perspective…I think if anything it’s opening some opportunities; it has given me the chance to be back on social media a bit more and drumming up interest in what I’m doing and things like that. So it’s six and half a dozen as we say.
So, for me, it’s actually not closing anything. It’s been opening opportunities for me and hopefully when it comes time to shoot, it will be safe to do so.
FF: And finally, what are you working on now and next, and what are your ambitions for the future beyond COVID, if there ever is a beyond COVID?
AJ: Let’s hope! For me, I think what I really want to focus on is film acting. I really want to do more films, particularly feature length films. I’m looking for principal roles and leading roles. I really did want to just see more opening up in general in the acting community, and that’s not just for myself. I mean, I would like to see more female protagonist roles that have depth.
I would like to see more roles where your race isn’t relevant to the script, and therefore I can play them, you know, or where I could represent what I actually am, rather than always playing a race that isn’t entirely my own. So, like, I’ve been cast as everything, to be honest, everything except what I actually am. So it would be nice to see some more diversity of roles. So that would be what I would love, and to be part of creating that as well.
Film lover. Coffee hater. Raising a newborn during a global pandemic and interviewing indie filmmakers in between nappy changes.