April has always been an idol of mine, I make no secret of that. It was clear from the ﬁrst time that I saw her that she was as hilarious and talented as she was beautiful. And Nicholas Hoult’s on-screen girlfriend. All the things I wanted to be. My obsession even went as far as buying clothes that emulated her character’s style (you’ll forgive me, it was 2007 after all). She was, in large part, the reason I wanted to be in Skins, though had I known how closely my experience on the show would mirror hers it might have given me pause. The fact that I now call her a friend is still a little weird for me. But since, when she interviewed me, she did me the courtesy of giving me a formal introduction, I’ll oﬀer her the same…
Actress, writer, and producer April Pearson ﬁrst caught our attention as Skins’ Michelle Richardson, the vivacious and long suﬀering girlfriend of Tony Stonem. After building up an acting portfolio, earning praise for her roles on both screen and stage, April met her husband, writer-director Jamie Patterson, and started producing her own ﬁlms. With two ﬁlms released this year, a third already in post-production, a web series shot from home at the height of the lockdown, and her IGTV series, Are You Michelle From Skins?, about to become a podcast, it seems even a global pandemic can’t slow this multi-hyphenate down.
In her latest endeavor, Making Tracks (or just Tracks in the US), which she had a hand in both writing and producing, April plays against Chris Willoughby as “A couple who have decided to take a ‘make or break’ inter-railing holiday around Europe.” As she describes it, “It’s basically vignettes of funny scenarios.” The ﬁlm moves between riotous, often slapstick, comedy, with Willoughby’s butt being the butt of many jokes, to moments of sincere, hyper-realistic romance, complete with weird and touching couple-isms, set against a backdrop that will make you nostalgic for the days when traveling around Europe was a thing we could do. “You can’t help but be inspired by the beauty of Europe,” April says “Especially from a romantic point of view.”
Speaking on the making of the ﬁlm she says “It feels like I’ve given birth; it was really hard all the time, but now I’m looking back on it I think ‘That was great. I could do it again.'” Remarkably, Making Tracks was ﬁlmed entirely on location, with a limited budget and only eight crew members. “The challenges were not knowing where we were shooting, not knowing where we were sleeping, from day to day; being mic’d up from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. Sleeping in a hostel in the same room as seven other people, trying to think what my lines might be tomorrow, that was tough. But I do, I look back on those memories and think ‘That was so cool.'” Thankfully acting has taught her to be adaptable, a skill that has proved useful as a producer. “Producing is basically about adaptation. It’s troubleshooting, it’s thinking on your feet.”
April works closely with her husband and collaborator, Jamie, who co-wrote and directed Making Tracks but is surprised when I ask if the relationship between Chris and Lucy bears any similarity to her own. “That’s so funny, I’ve literally never, ever thought about that. I have a relationship with Chris, we are friends. We have a very bantery, funny back and forth that we leaned into for these characters. But I’ve never even looked at that relationship and related it to my own.” It’s probably just as well; one memorable scene sees April reel oﬀ an unrelenting barrage of savage insults directed at Chris– the likes of which most of us wouldn’t dare to verbalize. “A lot of that was scripted, but I decided we would do some takes where we improvise. It was actually spliced together over about three or four diﬀerent takes.”
She says that she writes with the viewer in mind, “I think I’m trying to reach the audience rather than write a character. So it’s almost like that character embodies certain aspects of the audience that might be watching it.” But she’s yet to create a character or a story from scratch– “I’m in a place at the moment where I need to be collaborative. I also feel there’s that sort of imposter thing, I haven’t got a good enough story to tell, you know?” And I do know. I still don’t feel comfortable telling people I’m a writer. I ask her if that’s something she would like to do? “Not really, at the moment. I’m really enjoying having an opinion on other people’s ideas. And I really enjoy putting the right people in the right room and watching them do what they need to do.”
I ask her which side she enjoys more, the acting or producing? “I have only ever produced and acted at the same time. I’m really excited about the prospect of only producing, to see if I can cope with the disappointment of not actually stepping in front of the camera. There is something weirdly adrenaline-inducing about producing so I feel like that side of things will excite me enough. But it hasn’t been tested yet.” I understand this fear. Actors have a tendency to be covetous people and relinquishing the spotlight is hard for us. “I’m quite jealous,” April confesses, “I feel like I would give the part to an actor and then think, ‘Damn you! I want to do this.’ That’s why people write, produce, and direct so often. It’s hard to create something and just give it away.”
And there are other sacriﬁces you have to make when producing your own work: “I will put every other close up ﬁrst. Or I’ll send the sound department home because they have a long journey and then I will be left to perform one of my big, emotional scenes in silence, knowing that I can ADR it at a later date. And as much as that sucks on the day– I would much rather have a moment like that recorded for sound– I need the sound department to be safe on their journey home and back with us tomorrow.” But there are also beneﬁts to being in control. As an actor, “Even when you’ve done a job, and you’ve been paid to do it, and you’ve done your best acting, it might be completely diﬀerent in the ﬁnished product. It’s in the hands of someone completely remote to you, you’ve got no control over it whatsoever. You might not be in it at all.”
Speaking of a lack of security, is she worried about the future of the independent ﬁlm industry in a post-pandemic world? “I think as an overall ray of positivity, independent ﬁlm makers, and artists in general, are one of the most resilient and resourceful groups of people. And we will ﬁnd a way. It might mean that we have to have side hustles to prove that we can do something that is essential to the economy at the same time as doing this silly thing called art. But we will still be able to create. There was never really any funding at the indie ﬁlm level anyway and we’ve made it work before. It just makes it a little bit harder.”
“It’s weird that Making Tracks has come out now, at a time when we can’t travel. When we made it in 2017, we completely took for granted being able to work in Europe and just go from country to country with no care for visas. It’s actually going to be a historical ﬁlm in that respect.” And it may well be the last of its kind; independent ﬁlms are so vastly underfunded that often ﬁlmmakers struggle to pull together a budget that can cover basic production costs, let alone travel permits and COVID protection policies. “But hey ho, we asked for it… Brexit, not the pandemic!”
Adding yet another string to her bow, April also took on the role of makeup designer for her other recent release Tucked; an award-winning drama that “Explores the relationship between an aging drag queen and a young non-binary performer.” She explains that the ﬁlm was inspired by an experience her husband Jamie had at a drag bar, “It was the end of the night and the performer was doing one last song. She took oﬀ her wig and just stood there and sang ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from Les Misérables. It was such a powerful image. Growing up in Brighton and having those inﬂuences around his whole life made what he was writing so genuine; Tucked is a look at the people in this city and what they represent.’
“We shot it in ten days,” she says and I am astounded. “We had already made three ﬁlms together as a team so we have a kind of shorthand which allows us to work eﬃciently. But I underestimated the time the makeup would take. The fact that we were shooting out of sequence meant I’d have to drag them up and then un-drag them multiple times in a day.” But the success of the ﬁlm hinged on one thing; the relationship between Jackie (Derren Nesbitt) and Faith (Jordan Stephens).
“Jamie wrote it with Derren in mind, they had worked together before. But Derren and Jordan had never met. We were all praying that their chemistry would be right.” Thankfully, it was. Their friendship feels entirely authentic and deeply touching. “Immediately they just clicked. They wound each other up the whole shoot but it made for really interesting viewing. That’s kind of the whole point of the ﬁlm, watching these two people who come from completely diﬀerent worlds interact.”
“It’s a feel-good movie,” she asserts. I tell her I cried through the entire 80 minutes. “That’s because you cared. And that’s a really hard thing to achieve. I want people to come away feeling like they really cared for these people who have for such a long time been othered.”
So, how did this transition from acting to producing come about? “I go on a family holiday to Edinburgh every year to watch people just making stuﬀ happen. It was being inspired to take a show to Edinburgh that propelled me to produce and that was the ﬁrst thing I did, I produced a show called Threesome.”
Threesome is a comedy about a couple, played by Chris Willoughby and Gemma Rook, trying to navigate their ﬁrst three-way sexual experience. The show hilariously climaxes (pun intended) when April appears sporting a strap-on appendage of ridiculous size only to discover that the couple has ﬂed. “When we did take it to Edinburgh that was a real achievement. It was that experience that changed my attitude from waiting for the phone to ring, to realizing that I needed to make the jobs happen if I wanted to hang in there. The last time I was a gun for hire was a long time ago.”
Incidentally, it was after a performance of this show at the Brighton Festival that I ﬁrst met April. Or so I thought until, while researching her for this interview, I came across a blurry photograph of the two of us standing awkwardly in a dark room alongside Skins alumni Hannah Murray and Ollie Barbieri. They all appear to be sober. I do not.
“It still blows my mind that there are 15-year-olds in America that are ﬁnding Skins for the ﬁrst time and coming out to their parents or addressing their own self-harm issues.” It would be fair to say that, like myself, April has a love-hate relationship with Skins and the lasting aﬀect it’s had on her life. “I hadn’t really addressed any of the ways that Skins is still aﬀecting me until maybe the last two years. At which point, I realized that it is my experience. And I can be truthful to that and also live my life.” I had a brief and shocking insight into April’s world when I asked Instagram what questions they’d most like me to ask her. For the record, no, she’s never had a nose job and yes, I’ve seen them and they’re perfectly normal.
“Nobody teaches you how to deal with nationwide fame overnight. For so many years I wanted to run away and pretend that it was a diﬀerent person. I used to straighten my hair so I wouldn’t get recognized because I hated it so much.” Not that you’d know it; April is always kind and welcoming when approached by fans, which is all the time. “As you now have experienced, now that we’re BFFs for life and we hang out in the real world. And every time somebody says ‘Are you Michelle from Skins?’ I’m like ‘Yeah, but look! It’s also Franky from Skins!” I’ve only ever once been recognized while in April’s company and even then it was because they saw her ﬁrst. “It’s because you look like an angel and in Skins, you didn’t. You looked like a French boy.”
“It was Sharon Rooney [of My Mad Fat Diary fame] who taught me to say, ‘But my name’s April, what’s yours?’ And it allows me to have a moment to let them know that there is a diﬀerence between who you think I am and who I actually am standing in front of you. Basically, all the conversations I’ve had with my guests on Are You Michelle From Skins? have been about owning that moment.” In April’s IGTV series she talks to guests who, like herself, have become associated with a particular character or time in their lives. “It’s a way of connecting to the people that follow me by talking about what they want to know, which is Skins. But it’s also about disconnecting who Michelle from Skins is from who I am now.’
Season One saw her in conversation with the likes of Tom Hopper, Dani Harmer, and Skins co-star Mitch Hewer (although she assures me during the course of the interview that I was her favorite guest). “The most surprising part of the experience was that everybody I wanted to interview said yes. I’ve been talking about doing it for about two years but when the lockdown happened and everything moved online everyone was slightly more accessible.” Season Two has just begun with Georgie Henley, of the Narnia franchise, as the ﬁrst guest. Her dream guests include Art Attack’s Neil Buchanan, Bradley from S Club 7, and James Michael Tyler best known for playing Gunther in Friends. ‘The tricky thing is trying to navigate people’s egos. Nobody wants to be thought of as a one-hit-wonder. But it oﬀers them an opportunity to talk about that experience in their own words, maybe for the ﬁrst time.”
It’s true, my interview felt cathartic and long overdue; certainly, the most candid I’ve ever been about that period of my life. April’s empathy and patience as an interviewer creates an environment that allows her guests to speak honestly, leading to conversations that are both enlightening and moving. And it’s been a healing process for her too. “What I’m doing is helping me so much that I almost don’t mind if nobody watches it.” For the record, her interviews have so far amassed over 250k views. “I’m getting the opportunity to talk to some amazing people about something that I can completely relate to. I’m having conversations that I should have had years ago.”
“Aspiring to people in the industry is hard.” She admits, speaking about the value– and the challenge– of not comparing yourself to others; something I have also struggled with. “And being inspired by them is one thing, but you have to know you’re never going to have that trajectory because that’s theirs. I reached a point where I felt like I needed to say goodbye to the dream I had of what acting was going to be. It’s hard though because I want to be somebody the industry would deem a success.”
I see you as successful, I tell her. “Do you?” I say yes, I see you as somebody who said “Okay, maybe things aren’t going the way that, for a while, I anticipated they would but I’m not going to give up. I’m going to make a shift in myself and in the way that I approach this.” And then you actually did it. There are not many people who can say that they’ve done what you’ve done. She laughs, “Well, we both think of each other as successful. That’s cute.”
So, who are the people that really inspire her? “My mum, my sister, my best friend Rochelle. She works at a sexual violence clinic in Bristol and is the most amazing person ever. I think that was something that didn’t occur to me until I stopped reaching for success. I realized that being like somebody like Jo Glazebrook, my colleague at the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership is actually the coolest thing I could be.”
“This is going well.” She says, “This is a really good interview. I’d read this.”
Making Tracks is available to purchase on Amazon, iTunes, Sky Store, and Google Play. Tucked is available to stream now on Netﬂix. Original interviews from Are You Michelle From Skins? are on April’s Instagram, with new live episodes every Monday at 8 pm, and will soon be available as a podcast.