Good vibes and a nice chat with an old friend – Marsha Thomason – from Oldham Sixth Form College as she shares stories about
– getting her first big break
– learning about stop signs from a Dawson’s Creek star
– reciting ‘Grease’ lines to John Travolta
– name checking Manchester on ‘Lost’
– and why her she shouldn’t have to second guess her pronunciation of the word ‘adult!’
-LISTEN TO THE FULL CONVERSATION HERE-
➤ Sixth form college!
Oh gosh I loved that sixth form college so much.
➤ I loved it as well.
That that was my favorite educational experience.
➤ Exactly the same here. It was so free..
So free! So liberal! So open! It was just incredible!
➤ And it was the first time feeling like a grown-up for me.
Yes and they allowed us that. They gave us the freedom. They us the freedom for me to fail in my first [semester] and then get it together ultimately for graduation. It was brilliant.
➤ So now, when you meet people in LA and they ask, ‘Where are you from?’ how do you respond?
Well I say ‘I’m from Manchester!’ because I am. I’m not from Oldham. I grew up in Manchester but I gravitated towards Oldham because I went to Oldham Theater Workshop from being like 12. And then you know I heard about this new Sixth Form College that was opening and I just wanted to get as far away from where I’d gone to school as possible really. So I tell people I’m from Manchester and they say, ‘Oh Manchester United!’ and I say, ‘No, Manchester City!’
➤So at least you have a response because whenever I get asked and they say, ‘Manchester United,’ I just say, ‘I’m a Laker fan!’
So tell me, when did you first move to LA?
So it was never my plan really. I don’t even know how I ended up here honestly. I started acting when I was a kid and so I guess it was always an option but I just never really thought of it. And when I was about 25 I got an American film — they cast it out of London — ‘Black Knight’ and that shot in Wilmington, North Carolina. So once I shot that film and then it came out, I came up to LA to take meetings and stuff to get representation and then I just kept coming backwards and forwards to LA.
And then I got a big Disney film, The Haunted Mansion and that shot for three or four months and I got to live in LA and I loved it. I was really lucky because I had lots of friends here already; a friend from London that had moved here and then friends that I had made on Black Knight who lived here so I was never lost, you know. People took care of me and I felt at home kind of from the get really. And I love the sunshine. And I just had this moment – I remember it well – I was in the mirror getting ready to go out to dinner and I thought, ‘Oh gosh I don’t want to go back! I want to live here!’ And at that time it didn’t feel like an option you know. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
And then while I was shooting the Haunted Mansion, I got the pilot for Las Vegas which was an NBA show and it got picked up and they sorted me out my visa and then I got a Green Card and suddenly I lived here!
So would you say the break was Black Knight? Martin Lawrence.
Yeah it was certainly my American break. The movie didn’t perform very well, it came out in November 2001. Nobody wanted to go to the cinema. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. But what’s been great is it’s had a life. It’s still on TV, you know, kids come up to me and say, ‘I love you in that movie,’ it’s crazy. It’s on all the time still and so it’s had this longevity.
➤ It was your first American film but you got to keep your accent – well, not your accent but…
Yeah not my accent.
➤ You couldn’t be a Manc princess!
No I did get to be a Mancunian on ‘Lost’ though which was really nice.
➤ Oh my god, I forgot about that. I loved you in ‘Lost.’
Thank you! Well what I was going to say is that, there was this brilliant scene with Dominic Monaghan – also a Mancunian – where we have this Manc conversation about the night and day and we name check some places in Manchester and I thought that was really cool.
➤ And what was it like working with Martin Lawrence? He’s a funny dude.
He’s a very funny dude, he’s very funny. It was fun.. but more than anything — because you know Black Knight shot in Wilmington, North Carolina which was where they were shooting Dawson’s Creek at the time, which was massive and so my driver Pam Plummer, love her to pieces, she was friends with people that worked over on Dawson’s Creek and she brought me over there. And Josh Jackson took me under his wing. He was so lovely, showed me around. It was my first time driving in America. I ran through a stop sign, he almost had a heart attack. He was like, ‘You have to stop at those!’ I was like, ‘Really? I thought you just have to kind of coast through…’ He was like, ‘No, no, no, the stop signs. You gotta stop!’
And then Vince Vaughn and John Travolta was shooting ‘Domestic Disturbance’ in the studio next door to us and so I went out with them a few times. John Travolta and his lovely wife Kelly Preston who passed away recently was so gorgeous and lovely to me and you know when I was 14 I used to watch Grease every Saturday. Every Saturday! I could quote that movie backwards and forwards. There’s a bit in it where they’re watching a commercial at the sleepover, in Grease, [sings] ‘Brusher brusha brusha, get the new Ipana,’ that’s the commercial. And the girls at my school used to say, ‘Brusha. brusha, brusha, let’s all do a Marsha,’ they were not being kind. Anyway in the school musical — I went to an all-girls school — they asked me if I wanted to be Danny or Sandy and I wanted to be Danny, so I played Danny Zuko.
➤ And then you met John Travolta!
And then I met John Travolta! And Vince already knew that I was a big fan and that I’d been in Grease and all of that. And everybody had had a few drinks, ‘Yeah come on! You got to do it for him!’ and I’m sat next to John Travolta doing, ‘Danny.. Sandy! What are you doing here?’ all that and he’s crying with laughter. He’s delighted! And he was just so warm and so kind and I loved it and I just remember sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my god if 14-year old me knew that [I’d be here],’ you know, he was just a delight, he really was. I haven’t seen him since but it’s a gorgeous memory.
➤ Let’s talk about your first big break in the UK then. Was that ‘Prime Suspect’?
Well yes, I think so because I mean when we were at Sixth Form College, I don’t know if you remember, I went to shoot this film, it was a BBC 2 film called ‘Safe.’
I went to London to shoot it and that really was a game changer for me in terms of my realizing the kind of work I wanted to do and really realizing, ‘Yes, I do want to be an actor!’ I’d done some kid’s stuff, ‘The 8:15 From Manchester’ when I was 14/15, but that was just you know that was fun and silly and whatever.
But ‘Safe’ was about homeless kids in London and I was working with Bobby Carlyle and Kate Hardy and Aiden Gillan and all these incredible actors and Antonia Bird directed it and she was just so gifted and wonderful. She passed away a few years ago but it was just an incredible learning experience and I just realised in that moment, ‘Oh god, yeah this is what I want to do!’
And then ‘Prime Suspect,’ which was just a few years later, I would say that was my big break because I mean, you know, it’s Prime Suspect, you know.
At the time, I was shooting it, I used to work in Pied a ‘terre on King Street in town – the shoe shop, and this was the first Saturday I hadn’t been there in I don’t even know how long. And we were shooting in, I want to say, Cheetheam Hill, somewhere like that, for Prime Suspect and then we heard this big explosion and it was the Manchester bomb. And I would have been in town and you know I mean thankfully nobody was killed and very few people were injured. I just remember I was with Helen Mirren we were shooting a scene and we heard ‘Boom!’ we were like, ‘What was that?’
But yes, ‘Prime Suspect’ I would say was it was a turning point for me for sure.
➤ So just generally, what’s it like being a girl from Manchester and having that sudden move to Hollywood? Did you feel like it was sudden or did you feel like it was more gradual?
No, it felt really gradual because you know, so many people pack up their bags and leave wherever they’re from and come to LA with nothing but their pot to piss in and I was really lucky that I came with work.
➤ That’s what I mean! You probably met a bunch of Brits trying to make it there, trying to you know just blag the visa, whereas you went there legit. Did you appreciate that?
I was really lucky. I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time. You know, these things are happening and I was kind of like, ‘Oh wow! Oh wow!’ you know all these things were happening but I didn’t realise just how lucky I was. For example, I auditioned for the ‘Las Vegas’ pilot and I’d never done a pilot season before. I was shooting a film, I happened to be here, they sent me the script, I auditioned for it twice, I got it, we shot it, it got picked up, it was on the air! That is not how [it normally goes.] These things are so tough!
➤ You didn’t go through the failures that loads of people have to..
No, I mean, I have since. You know, I’ve definitely done pilot seasons where I haven’t got a pilot or I’ve made a pilot and it hasn’t gone to series and I’ve had the heartbreak of that. But at that time I didn’t know that. Because in the UK, you audition for a thing and you get it and then you make it and then they put it on television. There’s none of the gamble.
You know when I did ‘Playing the Field’ I remember I auditioned for it and I sat at a desk with the script! I mean you don’t sit at a desk in America, you stand up and they film you…and I mean they do that more in the UK now as well but it was a different time, it was just very relaxed and very easy in a way. I didn’t know it was easy but in retrospect just to sit at a desk with the sides, I don’t even have to be off-book!
➤ What kind of culture differences did you notice outside of the industry?
Well the fact that when I would say, ‘Could I have some water please?’ I couldn’t be understood until I said, [American accent] ‘Could I have some water please?’ You know, little things like that.
To me, because of the movies and television, America was New york, LA and Chicago. And I remember when I was shooting my first night this guy dropped me off at my house — he was working on the crew on Black Knight — and he told me he didn’t have a passport. And I said, ‘Why don’t you have a passport?’ and he said, ‘I got everything I need right here!’ I remember thinking, ‘Wha…aat?’ you know.
I mean I live in a bubble here in Los Angeles there’s no denying that but this country is a whole lot!
➤ But you know I kind of see it from their point of view in terms of you can get all the different landscapes in the US. If you want snow you can go somewhere in the US. If you want hot you can go somewhere in the US.
That’s what’s so great about California, you go in one direction and there’s a desert and then you go in the other direction there’s snow.. and then the beach. I love California!
➤ Have you lived anywhere else?
I lived six months of the year in New York when I was doing, ‘White Collar.’ So for five years I would spend six months in New York shooting and then six months back at home in LA.
➤ How’d you find New York?
(Listen to the full conversation on the podcast)