Older actors know all about the fear of the slow decline of their careers but occasionally a woman of a certain age sends a sign of hope and inspiration.
RiverTribe meets Rachel Fielding, who found Oscar success at over fifty.
When Actor Rachel Fielding began teaching drama at the Vineyard School in Richmond she felt a deep sense of fulfilment. Her pupils were well-adjusted and eager to learn. Her two boys were happy to have a Mum at home most of the time and she was delighted to live and work in a part of the world she loved.
After all, she had enjoyed success most thespians never have. After gaining a place at the National Youth Theatre aged 16, she immediately went on to play first Ophelia and then Desdemona in NYT productions. After graduating from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, she threw herself into acting in the 1980s and 1990s. She played alongside Richard Harris in Pirandello’s Henry V. Then came the iconic TV drama, This Life followed by Nasty Neighbours, released at the Venice Film Festival.
In all, she had worked hard. If running a local drama group in Richmond was where she would end up, that wasn’t such a bad place to be. After all, Rachel was the wrong side of 40, and the prevailing wisdom told her the best parts might soon start to dry up.
“My mum was a constant source of support for me. She died when I was 33 but she had always said do not sacrifice your family for your work. I took her words very seriously and I was happy to have my life.”
No-one, least of all Rachel, expected her biggest achievement to be ahead of her, and that it would come after the age of 50 in a climate where older women face ageism and a dwindling supply of good scripts.
So, when she headed down The Cut, close to Waterloo Station, to audition for a low-budget, live action short film she had no idea that a year later she would be in Los Angeles and the film, The Silent Child, would win an Oscar.
“Yet, when I walked into that room and I knew within ten seconds that this was something special,” said Rachel, who at 51 exudes the kind of beauty which comes only comes with a strong sense of identity and confidence built on decades of personal development.
“As soon as I met the cast and crew I knew I wanted to be part of this extra-ordinary film. They were really lovely, self-effacing people. Yet, you could feel the sense of power and purpose in the whole project. I had never before felt such a strong feeling. I knew it would be a great film but it never entered my mind it would be win an Oscar.”
The Silent Child centres around a profoundly deaf four-year-old girl named Libby who is born into a middle-class family and lives in a world of silence until a caring social worker teaches her communication through signing. Rachel plays Libby’s mother. Libby is played by six-year-old Maisie Sly.
The film is written by former Hollyoaks star, Rachel Shenton, who also plays the social worker. It is directed by her partner, Chris Overton.
Rachel Fielding says, “I live part of the week up in Surrey and part down on the South Coast where my youngest child still goes to school. I lead a very quiet life so this was incredibly unexpected but the truth is as I have gotten older I have become much calmer and more confident. I know who I am. Motherhood gave me tremendous confidence. I found it a really enriching experience which has changed the way I view the world. It certainly influenced the way I played this role.
“I honestly believe this is a great time to be a middle-aged actor – it was always fine for men but now I think it is happening for women too. It seems to me there is a new movement in this direction and I feel very proud to be part of it.”
Rachel, an Associate Director of the NYT, believes that the growth in independent films could help stop bullying and sexual harassment in the film and entertainment world, since low budget films do not rely on hierarchy and therefore the scope for predatory behaviour and corruption is far less.
“The scale of sexual bullying which has been revealed over recent months is appalling. I had only one small suggestion of inappropriate behaviour but I know many women who suffered. Smaller projects aren’t supported by big power structures – so everything has to be done very professionally and efficiently.”
The Silent Child was made in just ten days with fewer than half a dozen actors and had a budget of £10,000. Maisie Sly, who is herself profoundly deaf, was accompanied on set by her entire family, who are also all deaf. They stayed together in a rented house while other actors and crew were billeted nearby.
Writer Rachel Shenton bought special resonance to the production. Rachel’s father was left partially deaf after Cancer treatment and died two years later when she was just 14. In an unexpected irony, Rachel Fielding’s mother was a speech therapist.
“The whole experience had so many symbiotic strands. Everything seemed to fit together in a fateful way. It is an exceptional film. I am proud to have been part of it.”