For an incredibly busy man, Adam Pearson is generous with his time. On Good Friday this year, his one day off that week, Adam met up with us to discuss his experiences on the astonishing Under the Skin.
Pearson, who has the condition neurofibromatosis, plays a young man ensnared by Scarlett Johansson’s predatory alien. One of the many questions the film throws up is how would a being with no concept of beauty react to facial disfigurement?
Over a lively hour in a Croydon Caffe Nero, Pearson gave us the lowdown on the (literal) pain he went through in getting the role, lazy stereotypes movies and TV apply to disfigurement, and working with one of Hollywood’s brightest A-list stars.
Electric Shadows: A question you’re probably sick of answering, but your condition is neurofibromatosis?
Adam Pearson: Yeah, type 1. It’s a genetic condition, affecting chromosome 17 of the human genome. It affects roughly 1 in 2,300 people, putting it just within the definition of rare disease, that being 1 in 2,000.
It causes excessive body tissue to grow on nerve endings causing non-cancerous tumours called fibromas. This can occur anywhere on the central nervous system. Mine are mostly on my face, but I’ve also got one on my hand and one on my arse that I don’t show for legal reasons. I’d love to, but a court order says I mustn’t.
ES: You’ve had this since you were a young boy?
AP: It’s a genetic condition so I was born with it. But it didn’t manifest until I was 5 or 6, which in terms of this condition is quite young. It normally doesn’t develop until you hit puberty.
ES: And you have a twin brother with the same condition, but which manifests itself differently?
AP: Yes, Neil has short-term memory loss. And while genetically we’re identical, things have turned out quite unidentical if that makes sense. (laughs)
ES: Is there treatment for this?
AP: There’s no “cure” but you surgically remove as much excess tissue as possible in a process known as debulking procedures. But, because the tumours are wrapped around blood vessels, nerve endings, et cetera you can’t get everything without compromising feeling and function.
So it’s a case of six monthly meetings with surgeons and doctor, see what needs doing, performing a “snatch and grab” and getting the hell out of there again.
ES: To be honest, that sounds tough.
AP: You get used to it, and now it’s a case of free rent, free food and free drugs when I’m in hospital.
ES: So how did you get involved with Under The Skin?
AP: I was at my “job” job; I’m a casting researcher for Channel 4 programmes. Changing Faces – the UK’s big disfigurement support charity who I do a lot of campaigning with – emailed me.
The film company had been in touch with them and they wanted a guy with a disfigurement to play a role, preferably 30-40 with manual labour experience. So I thought, I’m one out of three, that’ll do.
The only piece of concrete information in the email was the name Jonathan Glazer. As a business grad I’d written papers on his Guinness and Levi adverts so I was already a bit of a fan boy.
I sent an email as a bit of a joke and they called the same day and asked for an email paragraph about myself. I didn’t have time so I sent my CV, which is quite media and twatty in places. The first line is “My name is Adam Pearson and I’m the best in the world at what I do.”
Two weeks go by and I hear nothing so I think, that’s that then, opportunity gone. They then contact me and ask if I can put a clip on YouTube for Jonathan to see. I upload this really arrogant clip and think; if this doesn’t get rid of them nothing will.
Three more weeks go by and I got a call saying Jonathan wanted to meet me for coffee. On the way to that meeting I got hit by a car on Tottenham Court Road and broke my leg. So the first time Jonathan saw me I was under a taxi, in my pants, surrounded by paramedics.
We had the meeting a day later while I was in UCL awaiting surgery, high as a giraffe’s arse on morphine and I apparently got the job. I remember none of this!
ES: Did Jonathan tell you what you said?
AP: He said to me, “I didn’t realise you did your own stunts” and apparently I replied, “Well, I can’t get a fucking stunt double”. I got the job and it’s all gone horribly well/horribly badly depending on what type of person you are!
ES: Did you work on your character with Jonathan?
AP: Yeah, the character’s not in the book. There were many drafts of the script and the first was based directly on the book. They subsequently got a team of scriptwriters working on it before they got the film they actually wanted to make.
So myself, Jonathan and Scarlett met up a couple of times before Glasgow to discuss the character and where it fit into the film, and to get ideas on our conservation in the van and where it could go.
My big thing is I would never get into a van if offered a lift by a stranger, so the question was how we could play that so it would look natural.
The good thing about the film is it’s difficult to tell who is an actor and who isn’t. Which could mean either the acting is really good or really bad!
ES: Is it because everyone’s a great actor when they’re not being filmed? The guys coming on to this beautiful woman behaved that way because they weren’t aware of the cameras?
AP: Yeah, but I think the guys who knew they were being filmed were trying to come on to this lady, not just the guys who didn’t know they were being filmed! (laughs)
ES: Were you around for other parts of the shoot?
AP: I wasn’t, I was there when I needed to be and at other times at the hotel in Glasgow. I met a few of the other guys on wardrobe and back at base. I got on well with Paul (Brannigan) the guy Scarlett meets in the nightclub and I spent a lot of time with Jeremy (McWilliams), the guy on the motorbike (a mysterious “protector” to Johansson’s alien).
Jeremy’s a former Moto GP champion. They couldn’t find a stunt rider so they went with a racer.
ES: How many days did you work on the film?
In terms of shooting days we did five in Glasgow for the van stuff and two in Elstree where we did the sinking into the abyss.
ES: That moment where Scarlett Johansson’s victims walk into that tar-like lake is incredibly striking. How was it achieved?
AP: It was all legit, done with lighting and cameras, no CGI. There was a black marble floor and in front of it a tank of black molasses-like substance. Below the liquid there is a grate on hydraulics and you walk onto it as it slowly lowers. I also had diving weights on my ankles to stop me floating up because the stuff is so thick it could support someone’s weight to a degree.
It was done in three stages, the final one being where they pulled me right under.
ES: And how was that?
AP: I was cool with it. I had a layer of barrier cream on to stop the stuff sticking to my skin, although it still took ages to get off. So I went under, and could hear Jonathan yelling, “Get him up, get him back up!” I did feel like I was under there for a minute!
ES: How did you approach the conversation in the van?
AP: It was largely improvised. We developed bullet points for why he shops at night, et cetera. But, a lot of it was improv, including the, “This isn’t Tesco’s is it?” when we get to the house. That was me winging it.
AP: We’d been driving for 6 hours by then, Scarlett had stalled the van twice and I was a bit pissed off anyway because it was cold and I was just in a bad mood for that take.
ES: So it’s true that working on a film set isn’t glamorous?
AP: Well, it was a lot of night shoots, so nothing like the misconception that you’re all sitting back doing cocaine between takes. We did do a lot of waiting round. Michael Caine once said he did the acting for free, but charged for the waiting round. It’s like that.
ES: Okay, important question – is it Scarlett JO-hansson or YO-hansson?
AP: Do you know, I’ve no idea! I say both. But she does hate ScarJo; the lower end glossies use that. I’ve read interviews where she says “No one calls Robert Downey Jr ‘RoDoJo’, why call me ScarJo?”
ES: Although RoDoJo does have a ring to it…
AP: I know, RoDoJo could really catch on! We should put it in the blog and make it a thing.
ES: How much time did you spend with her before shooting the scenes?
AP: We had a couple of lunch meetings and got to know each other. You can have a good concept, but if there’s no chemistry then it shows. So we got used to each other, got that rapport and a rough idea of where the scene was going.
ES: I have to admit when I was planning this interview I was thinking of questions around any worries you had about being exploited. But, then discovered that was a misconception you’d had to deal with when working on Channel 4’s Beauty and the Beast.
AP: Yeah, the day before we started filming we were on the front page of The Sunday Times with that programme, them saying it was exploitation. We had to phone people the Monday morning saying, don’t worry, it’s bullshit. Luckily no-one dropped out.
ES: I almost fell into the same trap, thinking if anyone with a disfigurement is cast in a film it’s for exploitation reasons.
AP: Ah, we had that chat day one, it’s the first conversation you have with a director. Just because I have a disfigurement I’m not going to burn Gotham to the ground while raping Scarlett Johansson. That’s never going to happen.
But, it was such an honest take on how someone with no foreknowledge or prejudice would react to me and that creates a really interesting juxtaposition. There is how she sees me and how the audience sees me, leaving a lot of room to spark debate.
There were articles saying, oh they’re exploiting this guy. No, they were paying me, I know that much. And I was a 26 year old man at the time, working in media, aware of every trick in the game, so I knew exactly what I was getting into.
There was some talk of dubbing my voice. They got a guy from the Isle of Man, this Scottish actor, to try and do my voice. But when they watched it back they thought, we miss Adam, so took it out again.
ES: How were you when you heard that?
AP: I was cool with it because I understood it as a creative decision. The concern was the film set in Scotland, but they’ve suddenly got this guy from South London who rocks up out of nowhere.
ES: Scarlett’s “protector” bundling you into the back of the car looked pretty rough.
AP: Oh yeah, and we wanted it to be! What you see is a little cut down as there was an actual scrap in there.
Jonathan told me, come over the fence, you see Jeremy and don’t know if he’s friend or foe so just stagger towards him and he’ll then pick you up and carry you off.
On the second take he got us back to our points, told Jeremy same again and then walked over to me and said, “Just fight him”.
So Jeremy goes to pick me up and I stick him in an MMA style headlock to get him down to the floor. But, he’s got full biker gear on and I’d just recovered from a broken leg the day before, so it’s hurting me more than it’s hurting him!
He eventually wrestles me off the floor and carries me off, Jonathan yells cut and we’re just like (breathes hard) and I said, “You had no fucking idea that was coming did you?!”
ES: Great if that could be on a deleted scene on the Blu-ray.
AP: We’ll see! And then they threw me in the car boot and he does those two or three fake punches, the last one of which actually hit. I was trying to play dead with sharp pain shooting up my ribcage and then he slams the boot shoot and the bracket is about an inch away from my head.
He drives off in like 0-60 in five seconds with me in the back. It was a fun scene though, a lot of time spent walking naked around a Scottish cul-de-sac.
ES: Was it early morning?
AP: Running through the field was, and late morning for the stuff with the boot of the car. And every time Jonathan yelled cut, they had to get the car back in position. So I spent a lot of time in the back of that car, sprawled out like a Roman Emperor with a hot water bottle over my balls!
ES: A potentially offensive question. So, a nude scene with Scarlett Johansson?
AP: People keep telling me I did that and I am like, oh yeah, that really happened.
ES: It was slightly surreal?
AP: I wanted to be respectful. She gets enough men leering at her without me doing it at work. The whole time at the back of my head I’m thinking, this is Black Widow. She could kick my teeth down my throat in what would be the most one-sided fight ever.
So, I’m thinking, make eye contact, make eye contact and when they yell cut go back to your starting position and try not to stare at her boobs.
ES: Did you improvise the line, “I must be dreaming?”
AP: No, that was scripted. The stuff in the black void was all scripted.
ES: What did you think of the film when you first saw it?
AP: Well, I’m in it, so hell yes! No, it’s really good. And incredibly divisive; it’s 5 stars or 1 star. No one’s ever going to give this 3 out of 5.
Jonathan Glazer is one of the best creative minds the UK has. It’s unsettling, thought-provoking, and the fact there’s no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes yet you’re still engrossed is testament to how well he made it.
And I like hidden camera filming so it has a sense of what Beadle’s About would have been like if it was really fucked up.
ES: I read a previous interview of yours where you said movie facial disfigurement is typically associated with villains. We were trying to think of a hero with a facial disfigurement and came up with Harry Potter, and even he covers it up!
AP: Yeah, and his scar is a horcrux so it’s actually a symbol for evil on the hero character.
ES: But, do you think attitudes are slowly shifting?
AP: I don’t know. I think facial disfigurement is an incredibly lazy shortcut to signpost villainy. It’s a huge part of the James Bond canon – Sean Bean in Goldeneye, Bardem in Skyfall, Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. It doesn’t do work you’re trying to do any favours!
ES: And in the books, Bond does have a scarred face, but this has always been omitted from the films.
AP: Yeah, and the only big actor who has any kind of facial scar is Harrison Ford and they typically make mention of it in all his films.
Another example people use is the Orcs in Lord of the Rings. In the books they’re described as mongoloid; there’s no reference to any scars or disfigurement. But, in the film Peter Jackson scars up them and I’m like, that’s not in the book Peter!
And Bilbo Baggins is the Johnny Knoxville of Middle Earth and he’s not even bruised!
ES: You’re a comic book fan and it occurred to us that comics have depicted physical difference in their heroes for decades. Although naming conventions aren’t particularly sensitive The Fantastic Four’s Thing and X-Men’s Beast are heroes.
AP: I think there’s both. For every Beast there’s an Arseface (from Preacher) or The Joker or Two-Face. With comics there is that separation from reality. It’s a story on paper so people can disassociate and suspend disbelief easier than with a film.
But, I’m a comic book fan. I’ve got to pick up the Justice League New 52 Vol. 4 from Playnation today!
ES: Since Under the Skin your life’s become busier?
AP: Yeah, lots of interviews about Under The Skin. I didn’t think the film would be as big as it has been. I thought it would be two weeks in the cinema and people would forget about it. Turns out I’m happily wrong.
And all my friends have seen me naked, which is wonderful. No-one’s made eye contact for a while… I keep having to say I’m up here guys.
ES: In the film Scarlett Johansson comments on your hands. They’re good hands.
AP: Yeah, yeah. My mum likes my hands. I dropped a flight case on them last week packing up music gear and took some skin off. But, other than that I’ve got the hands of a God.
ES: Has your mum seen the film?
AP: She’s not seen it. She’s supportive up until a point. And HD cocks and balls is that point.
ES: Do you have an agent?
AP: No, I self-rep, I like control. Plus, I don’t know enough about that world to make a good choice. The only agency I’ve had dialogue with is the one that represents disabled actors and performers. And I think the easiest way to get typecast is to go with an agency that’s already typecast its books.
ES: The way you’ve approached this does make you a bit of an inspiration.
AP: Maybe. I’ve been nominated for a National Diversity Award in the category Disabled Role Model. But, if they’d been in that room watching Scarlett and me having a bit of a joke off they never would have nominated me for anything!
I’m cool with it, but I don’t really like the word inspiration. It’s a bit of a wussy thing to say in a way. Here’s a disabled person doing normal things, good for him. But, if it’s helping people feel good about themselves I’ll roll with it.
ES: Fair point. But, are you pleased there is an award like this?
AP: Oh, absolutely. It’s good to honour people’s work in a minority group. The term multi-cultural Britain is thrown around a lot, yet there is an attitude of we should embrace diversity, just not in public! (laughs)
Where we are now with disability onscreen is where we were with portrayal of black people fifteen, twenty years ago. It’s heading the right way, but incredibly slowly.
ES: But you’re helping that with the shows you’re working on for Channel 4.
AP: Yeah, I’m casting The Undateables series 4 at the moment. And it’s such a good show; I love being involved with it. If you have someone with a disability on the crew it gives the whole thing much more authenticity.
It’s good this wasn’t a bunch of white middle class people in a room making a show about what they think disability is, because they’re probably wrong…
ES: And those sorts of shows can either be overly-sensitive and patronising or go the other way.
AP: Yeah, those kinds of programmes normally fall into two categories. The patronising, violin, hugging and crying, or “Check this shit out, Jimmy was born with a shark for a left arm!” But, I would like to cast that show.
ES: As you’ve been in one of the most memorable alien movies, who is your favourite big screen extra-terrestrial?
AP: E.T. Best alien ever. That was the first film I ever saw that made me fall in love with cinema. I adore it…
Thanks to Adam Pearson for this interview.
For more information on Changing Faces, click here.