The thing about the renowned English stiff upper lip is that it rarely spills secrets. And Lord knows, we tried to get Amanda Berry, chief executive of the venerated British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta), to reveal a few in-house, undisclosed snippets on the potential favourites to win this month’s coveted trophy. She smiles, but nothing more.
Visiting Hong Kong and Beijing with casting director Nina Gold, Berry found time in her packed schedule to chat, partly in the flesh and partly via a long telecom chat. Many topics floated in the air: diversity in film, inequality in pay, Asian actors left on the fringe, the royal family’s involvement, comfortable shoes.
Bafta crops up on the radar only during award season for most of us in Asia – so what else does the institution do?
We’re an educational charity. We exist to promote excellence, which is ultimately for the benefit of the public, but I don’t want to over complicate it. It’s best known for the glamorous award ceremonies, but we do over 200 educational events in the year. We have a number of new talent schemes and scholarships. We have branches throughout the UK, and in New York and Los Angeles. And a branch in Hong Kong, and we’re expanding into China.
How important is the Asian audience for the British film industry?
It’s incredibly important for Bafta and the global film industry. Every day we’re reading about more cinema screens opening in Asia, the awareness of global cinema is growing in Asia. It’s a very important path. Equally, the awareness of the cinema produced in Asia is important.
Trends are changing in the West. Fewer people go to the cinema, people watch on their electronic gadgets instead. Are you a traditionalist?
I am. I think films are made for the big screen and whenever possible I like to go out but, equally, the number of films being released is huge. So it’s almost physically impossible for people to see every film released in the cinema. That there are lots of ways to see films is a really good thing, as what cinema needs is an audience, in whatever form.
Diversity on film has been spoken about ad nauseam for the past few years. has it been all talk and no action?
We are, as an academy, absolutely determined to improve diversity in our industries. And we’re taking big steps for making change. To be eligible in the British categories of the awards, we need to see that a film has indeed embraced this. I was really heartened by how open producers were in the UK to making the change; we got a lot of support from the film industry. I had an e-mail from the US that what the UK is doing is trying to be implemented in Hollywood. It hasn’t all been chat, the numbers are there. I’m pleased that the action we’re taking is being embraced by the industry because what we’re really doing is trying to make the industry more accessible.
The industry seems remote, inaccessible. For those on the outside, you can’t get in.
We have this one initiative called Breakthrough Brits, and it’s an initiative I’d like to take globally, and it works across film, television and games (supported by Burberry). We identify people early on in their career, people who are working with them who say, “Look, they are a rising star, they’re absolutely terrific.” We’re not just shining a bright spotlight on them for one night only, we give them a year of mentoring. We ask them, who’s the director you most admire, and we reach out to that director and see if they can mentor them. We’re trying to open the doors wide.
How does the diversity programme help Asian talents?
When it comes to Asian actors in British films, for example, one of the reasons we wanted to bring the casting director Nina Gold to Hong Kong and China is that her knowledge didn’t extend to Asian actors, understandably. She couldn’t believe that there are no casting directors in Asia – how does that work? How are movies cast in China? So to bring her out to Asia, do masterclasses, to explain her role in the industry, we’re building a link. We did a dinner in Beijing where we met Asian talents, agents to actors and actresses, so now she has that relationship. So now we have a great casting director who has a greater understanding and link to Asian talents and the contacts she needs to start to build her database for Asian actors. It will start to change, it’s the lack of awareness at the moment, so we’re doing what we can to grow that awareness.
Gender inequality in pay, gender inequality in positions of power – lack of female directors, for example – are these being addressed too?
Yes, I think it’s very important that when we talk about diversity, it’s not just about ethnic minorities but also about gender, disability, socio-economic background. So yes, gender is very high on our diversity agenda. But salaries are not something we get involved with, it’s not something I have knowledge of, but in our society generally I’m reading every day about the disparity between men and women in salaries.
British actress Naomie Harris shines on our January cover – you’ve known her for a long time.
Oh, that’s a brilliant cover – what a terrific pick. She was a nominee in our rising star award (nominated in 2007) and she’s somebody we did recognise very early on, we’ve had our eye on her for a number of years. She has worked with us and supported us immeasurably – I do hope you see Moonlight. She’s extraordinary in it.
Can you spot a diamond in the rough early on in a film career?
That’s where we’re so lucky. People are noticed by our jury of industry experts early on. We’re surrounded by people who are constantly looking out for that next generation of talent, to bring them to our attention as well. We have a number of initiatives to recognise talents.
Any particular actors who have surprised you when you’ve worked with them?
With Bafta, there are so many. Let’s just start with the first person we brought out to Hong Kong, Eddie Redmayne. He was a rising star nominee, he had a small body of work when he came to Hong Kong with us, but within that following year he went on to win the Bafta and the Oscar for his performance in The Theory of Everything. He’s an actor who constantly surprises me as he keeps changing direction with his career and choices. He’s been very supportive as an actor, and he’s also very prepared to give back.
Another is Colin Firth, who flew to China with us. He’s not only a greatly respected actor but he’s also produced two films; Loving and Eye in the Sky. Colin attended our new talents dinner in Beijing, he was part of the film festival that we did in China. To go back to how Bafta is involved in working with Asian talents, it’s about growing the awareness of British film producers of Asian cinema and actors. Whether it’s events in Asia with Nina Gold, or Colin Firth – who’s also producing and acting – we’re all going to benefit from that.
How involved is Prince William with Bafta?
The royal involvement with Bafta is incredibly important. Four out of the five presidents have been members of the royal family. When Bafta opened its headquarters in Piccadilly, part of the funding for that building came from the Queen and Prince Philip, who donated royalties from the documentary about them to Bafta. Prince William has been a brilliant president, he absolutely believes in what Bafta does, he’s incredibly supportive of young talent. We have three scholarships in his name. We’ve done several events with him and the Duchess. We did an event in Scotland not long ago where we met young game designers. They came to interact with the video-game designers, played their games. Before that, he’s helped us with fund raising several times. He’s supportive across the whole range of what Bafta does.
What’s keeping you up at night?
At the moment, it’s the [Baftas] nominations list that’s keeping me up – they’re going to be announced next Tuesday, there are late nights and early starts, no sleep. Then, after the announcement, attention moves to where are all the nominees? Can we contact them? Can they come to the event, because the film awards are a truly global ceremony and we need to see their schedules to see if they can come, not come? If they can’t come, we have to film them wherever they are. The list of guests who can’t come gets smaller and smaller, which is indicative of the respect the people have for the award ceremony, which is wonderful.
To end on a light note, Joan Rivers famously said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but what you wear that night.” What are you wearing, Miss Amanda Berry?
[Laughs.] I’m incredibly lucky that Burberry dresses me for the awards each year, so that takes a massive amount of pressure off me. You’ve just reminded me that I haven’t put my dress fittings in my diary yet. The older I get, I find that no shoes are comfortable. I’ve tried to resist high heels but I feel I’m not properly dressed on a red carpet unless I’ve got high heels on. Joan was so right, it is what you wear that night.