Skeleton in Emily Taaffe's family closet inspired her to script acclaimed short film set in World War II
Emily Taaffe reveals to Julia Molony how the disappearance of a great aunt in 1940s set her on a journey of discovery that resulted in a production now being turned into a TV series
Emily Taaffe, the actress best known for her role as Katya in the BBC series War And Peace, sits crisply upright at a table in the airy breakfast room of a London hotel.
She is delicate and finely drawn, with translucent skin and pale eyes. But there's a discipline apparent in her dancer's posture, and in the clip of her well-structured speech. She seems to be made of silk and steel.
It's not a surprise that she is often cast in period pieces (Ripper Street, Call The Midwife, The Borgias). There is something somehow a little old-world about her.
She has a special affinity, too, with the ghosts of the past. They are the subject of the short film Little Bird, which she wrote almost on a whim, and which has, rather to her surprise, established her as an important new writing talent. It was Imelda Staunton who put the film on the map when she read the script and was so impressed she offered to star in it - a huge coup for a micro-project by a novice scriptwriter. It has been on the programme at Tribeca in New York and the Galway Film Fleadh and is currently being developed into a television series.
Taaffe stumbled upon the subject for the story when a skeleton was unearthed in her own family closet. In the 1940s her grandmother's sister Christine disappeared and was never heard of again until the day a few years ago when a young man turned up at her aunt's door saying that he was Christine's son. She, it transpired, had joined the war effort, lived in Egypt, then married and settled in England. She told her children that her own family were all dead. Until this day, no one knows why Christine decided to sever all ties from the people who raised her and embark on a whole new existence. "She just disappeared. My mother says that my grandmother used to say: 'I wonder whatever happened to our Chrissie'. It is sad, actually," Taaffe says.
The discovery got Emily thinking about how the opportunity to serve in World War II provided women who felt trapped the chance to escape the constraints of their lives and reinvent themselves. "I just had this image of a woman at a sink, looking out the window and wanting to get out. Folding up her apron and deciding to go...that claustrophobia."
Little Bird is inspired by her great aunt Christine, but it's not her story. Christine's decision piqued Emily's curiosity, and she began digging around the subject. Her career in television was taking off at the time, and during gaps in filming she'd visit the Imperial War Museum, which is close to her home.
"I had all this time, so I started to go there and look through their archives and their first-hand accounts of women who served in the Wrens... I thought: 'My God, all these women and all these stories'. I was fascinated by these ordinary women who had these extraordinary experiences. They went to war and did these amazing things and transcended boundaries. And then the war ended and they had to get back in the kitchen. For so many of the women it was just about escaping. From whatever they were... it could be an aristocratic woman living in a gilded cage, or you were an engineer's daughter from Leicester doing elocution lessons in your bedroom to try and move up in the world... and then I started thinking about identity and how easy it would have been just to leave everything behind."
It's not an impulse she's ever shared particularly. Hers was an idyllic childhood. She grew up in the wilds of Louth, the youngest of five children. Her father ran the pub Dolly Mitchells near Slane in Co Meath.
"It was lovely. Middle of nowhere. Very rural. Lots of books, lots of animals. My mother always said, there's no such thing as being bored, get out and entertain yourself," she says. She was raised with the firm conviction that "I do whatever I wanted and be whoever I wanted as long as I worked hard enough. And I was an avid reader, and I still am. And I think the reason I became an actress was that ability to put someone else's shoes on and look at the world through someone else's eyes... and I think wanting to get out and see the world came from that early love of books."
She studied drama at Trinity and went on to LAMDA in London, cast in her first stage role at the Liverpool Everyman before she even graduated. But there have been some ups and downs.
"After that I came back to London and there were a few months when I was second choice for loads of things," she says. "I got really worried. That's happened since and it doesn't get any easier. A few months of nothing or nearly nothing."
This is partly why she's interested in being part of what she calls "the creation of work" as well as just the performance of it. Sensing that she had stumbled upon a rich seam for narrative thanks to her great aunt Christine, she first tried writing Little Bird as a short story. When that didn't quite work, it was her husband Ben Schiffer - a successful television scriptwriter - who pushed her to think of doing it as a short film. She and Ben went away together on a digital detox holiday and "it all came out in a rush".
At the front of her mind in writing was the dilemma faced by women of that era who, driven by curiosity or ambition, bridled against the restrictions imposed by the social mores of the time. She was preoccupied with the question of "what might you be willing to leave behind to get what you want, and what does that say about you".
"I'm 33," she says. "I'm living in London. If you look at my grandmother's life and my life and how in the space of those generations things have changed, it's like night and day. And I've tried to think: 'how would I feel?' Your spirit would be the same. If you have that adventurous spirit in you - that's not because I was born in this generation, that would have been in me if I had been born in 1850. And I'm just lucky that I happen to be born in a time when I can give expression to that."
Little Bird explores the tension between the expected but often suffocating course of marriage and motherhood, and the desire to establish an identity in the wider world. It's a dilemma which still has resonances today, especially for an actress whose career is on the up, but who is also wondering about having children. Consequently, it's something she's given quite a lot of thought to.
She first met Ben as an undergradute at Trinity College, though they didn't date then. "I always say I was too square and he was too arrogant." They both, apparently, readjusted somewhat in the intervening years, so when they bumped into each other in London six years ago things took off. Last year they got married in the forest behind her parents' house in Louth.
"I'm 33 and you're thinking: 'OK, well if I could just get my career in this place, so I might want to have children in X amount of time', and then work it backwards… which men just don't have to do. I mean they might do it, but they certainly don't have to."
When she raised all of this delicate and complex scheduling with Ben, he seemed nonplussed. "But I'm like, well, you don't have to think about that in the same way that we do. It's a balancing act, and women get judged for it a lot more than men do. You see it in every walk of life, they're judged for having children, they're judged for not having children.
"This is the age when you are starting to break through," she explains. "Then you take a couple of years out to have children, and then your partner is earning more than you, and childcare is expensive, and the hours are so long, and you're not going to see your children and what kind of quality of life do you want them to have and suddenly, you're not going to go back or you can't go back or five years have passed."
Ben, for his part, has been exemplary in his handling of his wife's new career - a valuable sounding board but not too meddling… "really, really supportive. He's just great. Don't get me wrong, we do get on each other's nerves", she says with a laugh.
She hasn't, she stresses, come to any magical solution to the problems facing women in the film industry today. And with the writing strand of her career now flourishing, it's an issue that is likely to become more pressing.
"I think if more could be done around supporting parents going back into the workforce, then you would see the imbalance start to correct itself."
But she plays down her own small part in trying to redress that inequality. Little Bird was made by an all-female cast and crew, a quietly radical notion given that approximately only 2% of film directors are women. Sewn into the concept was the ambition to create, even in a small way, networks and work opportunities for her female peers, and also for herself. "I make no bones about it, I want to play really great parts and this was something… there was no way I was going to give it to someone else. It was something I really wanted to play … there's certainly an aspect of my personality that wants to be more involved in the creation of those things, rather than just coming in at the end and taking those parts."