Diary of the Driven: an interview with horror actress, Sophia Ellis

Steve Wilson interviews horror actress, Sophia Ellis, about her love of the British horror film industry and her work on the independent film The Zombie Diaries (2005) ...

Remember the British horror film industry? Oh yes, we had one, and not just our most famous studio Hammer either. But Amicus and Tigon sank into the mire of the 1970s, which also saw Steptoe and Son Ride Again as the biggest money-maker for Hammer. And then there were none.

Since then it has been up to the enthusiasts. People who take advantage of cheap digital equipment, knowing that the semi-public funds are only given to big-budget films for all the family, rom-coms and costume dramas. People who make films for the love of the genre, never knowing when, or even if, their finished item will ever make it onto a real big screen. People who are driven to do what they do. People like Sophia Ellis.

I meet Sophia in a crowded London pub, far too noisy for a serious interview to take place, so we head for a bagel bar. On the way she is surprised when I ask her how her head felt last Sunday, until she realises that interviewers actually do research, and that from her internet presence I have divined that last Saturday was a big birthday for her. Apparently she eventually made it home – at three in the morning.

In the bar it becomes clear that there is a slight tension between what I am expecting to do, which is to interview a horror actress, and what she wants to do – and has been doing for over 2 years – which is to promote The Zombie Diaries, an independent British movie filmed in 2005. Naturally I ask her about Romero’s Diary of the Dead and she tells me:

“We were half way through filming when it was first announced. At first we were worried, but then decided it could work for us. There’s even a photo of Michael (one of the two people behind the film) handing a DVD copy to George Romero at a festival.”

Well, whether it was a similarity with what was expected from Romero or not, something has worked. After its 2006 premiere in Letchworth, where most of it was filmed, The Zombie Diaries has been picked up by Frightfest for a more formal outing (if you count an attempt at breaking the world record for a ‘Zombie Walk’ formal!), and has headlined at festivals as far flung as Austin, Texas and Brazil. But I’m determined to find out more about the actress before concentrating on the film, so I ask how she got involved in the industry, and why horror?

“I started acting at 12, but went on to do a ‘sensible’ degree, then decided I should go for what I wanted to do. I was at an international school at Aberdeen before Uni, and found I could do a lot of accents.”

As a result Sophia has done a lot of voice-over work, and while her half Spanish ancestry has held her in good stead, she finds that she is usually asked to do Americans. She was the voice of the knife in a slasher-movie parody called .. really .. Going For A Slash, and starred in High Street: The Musical, performed for Transport for London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Determined to enter the industry by any route available, she freelances at ITV in various behind-the-scenes roles. She learnt at Granada, where she worked at the time, that her boss was about to create Alien Autopsy: The Movie, in which she had a small, uncredited part. Then she trains me in one of the most important skills in the British entertainment industry – being able to tell Ant from Dec!

“Ant is the taller one with the big forehead, and they always stand so that you see Ant on the left and Dec on the right.”

Now I know! (Note to non-UK readers: in the UK, being able to tell which of this light entertainment duo is which is quite an achievement).

As she moves from Alien Autopsy to explaining how The Zombie Diaries came into being, one important thing to remember emerges: the independent, mostly straight-to-video, British horror industry is not being created by amateurs. Co-directors, co-producers, co-editors and co-writers of the film, Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates, are – like Sophia herself – industry professionals. But, just as George Romero before Night of the Living Dead, they found that the only way to get their project made was to do everything themselves, and Sophia was involved from the beginning.

“I was asked to audition, and then worked with them from the casting onwards. It was an education in aspects of the industry I hadn’t experienced before, in what happens before the shoot starts.”

The film is, as the title suggests, supposedly made up of amateur footage made during an infestation of zombies, in this case caused by a mutation in the bird-flu virus. There are three separate sections, showing different groups of people surviving at different points in time after the plague hits the UK. One result of this is that there are no overall stars – since each actor only appears in one segment – and as Sophia appears in the final part her placement in the cast list belies the depth of her involvement. She explained her character.

“Anna is a bit of a tomboy, a bit feisty, wanting to prove she can be as tough as the men. At one point the male cameraman is too scared to enter a barn. I just get out my gun, go in an tell him to follow me.”

I try to imagine her as a tomboy and fail. I have no problem imagining her as feisty!

But why, I ask, is she still promoting the film two years later – then understanding dawns.

The DVD releases of a small independent film can’t be done at once – making and distributing them costs money – so the process has been rolled out into one territory after another. The Zombie Diaries has topped DVD charts in Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg and made the top 10 here in the UK. It has just been released in Australia, and now there is only one territory to go – America!

And, as for Sophia, when she isn’t promoting the film she is preparing for Valentine – The Quintessential Vampire. This is to be a three-hander comedy play about a vampire who gets queasy at the sight of blood, his tougher sister, and the new love of his life, Haley, to be played by Sophia.

“I read the script and thought it was great. We’re doing an industry read-through shortly and hope to get it placed in London before taking it to Edinburgh next year.”

Obviously a believer in the project, Sophia turned down the lead role in Forest of the Damned 2 to concentrate on Valentine, which means we won’t get to see her in the sequel to a movie about naked bisexual female monsters (dammit!). But the director, Ernest Riera, still wants her to be in a future project.

And, as we leave the bagel bar and she heads for the bus stop – no limos for our horror stars – I realise that Sophia is exactly the sort of person our horror industry needs; not only beautiful and talented, but also driven to succeed. Both for the work she is in to succeed – and to contribute whatever she can to that work – and for the horror industry she loves so well to succeed. And horror is her genre. A regular at Frightfest regardless of whether anything she is in will be shown, she explained, “I love being frightened, even though I frighten easily! That’s the whole thrill.”