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June 2017 / People / by Liz Skone James

Taking Flight

Acting will always be Emily Taaffe’s first love, but after writing her first short film, she has discovered that the joy of storytelling comes in many forms

There’s few who won’t recognise our cover girl Emily: if you’re not currently watching her in BBC Two’s thriller Paula, chances are you saw her in last year’s War and Peace – she starred as Katya. Then there have been appearances in a host of other television shows including Death in Paradise, Call the Midwife and Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. And with starring roles at the National and the Open Air Theatre under her belt, she’s a familiar face to theatregoers, too. But first and foremost, Emily’s keen to talk to me about an altogether different project. Her first foray into writing: a short film called Little Bird, which is close to her heart in more ways than one.

In fact she’s fresh off the plane from premiering it at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and feeling – aside from jet lagged – over the moon about its reception. “We were so pleased with the feedback we received. It’s such a prestigious festival, and we were in the amazing company of extraordinary filmmakers, so it was quite the privilege, really,” she smiles.

Little Bird tells the story of a young woman joining the Women’s Royal Naval Service in 1941 and explores how far she will go to create a new life for herself. Emily explains that it was inspired by her own grandmother’s sister, Christine, “who left Ireland in the 1940s and was never heard from again.” In fact, her story only came to light a couple of years back when her son made contact with the family in Ireland. “My aunt had a knock on the door, and a very distinguished English gentleman was standing there, and he said: ‘I think we might be cousins’,’’ says Emily.

He was able to shine a light on what had happened all those years ago. “Christine had gone to England where she had joined the women’s branch of the RAF. She went to Egypt as part of her service, and married a serviceman in Cairo. And when they were demobbed they came back to England and had two children. And she told her children that she was an orphan and that she had no family whatsoever to speak of. Unfortunately anybody who might have known why she made that decision is now dead, so we will never be able to find out the story behind it,” Emily explains.

This intrigued Emily, who confesses, “I’m a big nerd, basically! I’ve always been really fascinated by history and by stories, so I went to the Imperial War Museum and I started reading lots of first-hand accounts of women who had joined up to serve. There were so many brilliant books and first-hand accounts and letters home. And what kept coming through to me, really strongly, was that for so many of these women, the war presented a means of escape. It was a chance for them to broaden their horizons and have a set of experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to explore.” It was, essentially, a hiatus in history; and for Emily it became the germ of a story.

Given that this story was about women, Emily was adamant that it should be told by women. “There have been so many reports about how women and men graduate from film school in the same numbers, but then, as the years go by, the numbers of women drop off incrementally and there are fewer and fewer women working in the industry,” Emily tells me, continuing. “I think that there is a real laziness, a cultural bias that means you go back to the same people again and again, and often they are men. This was an opportunity to prove that if you looked a bit harder and dug a bit deeper, you could find these very talented women and bring them together.” And she did just that, with a final shoot crew made up of 80 per cent females.

Spurred on by the feedback from Tribeca, Emily is looking to develop the film into a longer-form project – specifically a television series. “Although the inspiration for this story came from a personal story for me, there are so many more incredible tales and adventures that we are really interested in exploring and telling,” she explains.

These things obviously take time and this is, of course, a long-term goal, but for Emily, the appeal of acting is that there are always stories to be told. “I love the opportunity it gives you to look at life from a different angle: the opportunity to be in somebody else’s shoes and to explore the world from their perspective,” she tells me.

Right now, that story is Olivier- and Tony-award-winner, Conor McPherson’s psychological drama Paula, which is currently showing on BBC Two. The three-part series, in which Emily plays a police woman, is about the fallout in a young chemistry teacher’s life after her one-night stand with a good-looking but dangerous ducker and diver. “The director was wonderful and it was a really great team, so yeah, I’m excited to see how it all turns out,” she smiles. I’m amazed that she hasn’t seen it already, but she explains: “It’s funny, the thing with television, which is very different to theatre, is that I will be watching it along with everybody else.” No spoilers for me, then!

Like most actors, Emily started out on the stage, with roles in her local youth theatre, so, though she is coming to appreciate the excitement of television, theatre will always be her first love: “There is something incredible about the immediacy of when you are on stage and the audience are reacting and you’re getting to tell that story in a very pure form.” It comes as no surprise, then, that when I ask what she considers to be her breakout role, Emily does not even have to think before answering. “Playing Daphne, the lead at the Olivier, in a wonderful production by Mark Ravenhill of a Terry Pratchett novel [Nation]. It was a dream come true. In the real sense. It was everything I hoped it would be and more.”

Of course, any job that keeps her here in London is already off to a good start. “I’ve lived in London for twelve years now, so I consider myself a Londoner,” she grins. “I love it because you can never be bored. There is always something that you could be doing or seeing. We’re really spoilt in terms of the culture, and it’s such a great atmosphere. And I love how many green spaces there are…” I press her on favourite haunts. “I love how each different area in London has its own distinctive feel and energy,” she explains, diplomatically. “I do love The Southbank, though. I love walking along from the BFI to Festival Hall; there’s just so much along there. And I love going to The National Gallery and The Royal Academy. I love the Summer Exhibition there.” But she is, she tells me, happiest when she is “at home with my husband and my dog, just curled up on the sofa.” No doubt catching up on the latest episode of Paula. Simple pleasures.

Photography Andy Lo Pò
Photography Assistant Tori Ferenc
Hair & Makeup Lynda Darragh using MAC cosmetics