Emily Piggford is the most present person you’ll ever meet. She’s the kind of conversationalist who isn’t afraid to pause before a response—aka the ultimate sign of someone who can’t do small talk—and she unpacks any subject with the same fearlessness she applies to her work as an actor on shows like Hemlock Grove, Killjoys, and That’s My DJ, for which which she was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award.
Who knew Instagram Stories could lead to such a philosophical debate about opening yourself up to the joys and sorrows of random strangers? With Emily, you’ll know just how the conversation got there. Read on to learn more about her creative process as an actor, and how she makes the most out of each new location and experience.
Between films, TV, and theatre, you’re incredibly busy. What’s the first thing you do when you start a new project?
I research everything I possibly can about the project to give me context to work with. Before I go into an audition, I’m always on IMDB looking up every single director, associate producer, and executive producer. That’s how I familiarize myself with the team, and figure out what the intention of the piece is.
It’s fun to read a script for the first time and be able to see myself in the role very clearly. As I read, it’s like I’m watching the movie play out in my head. I think about how I can translate who I am, and what I have, to the performance. That’s how I slip into character.
It’s so cool how you translate the imaginary into a real world that people live and interact in.
With TV, the physical elements of the character’s world is usually the last thing I’m acquainted with. Sometimes I don’t even know which outfit I’m wearing until I step onto the set. With theatre, I could incorporate the physical aspects of the character earlier on. You could have a deeper relationship with the props and the elements that make up the set, which is really satisfying.
Sometimes it gets a little strange. When I was shooting Hemlock Grove, there was a scene in a bedroom where they’d asked for some personal props—photographs from my childhood and other little things. So I was shooting in this bedroom that I’d never seen before, surrounded by these items that felt so familiar. That was tricky, because I had to separate my personal history from those images.
You’re traveling a lot for your various projects. How does being in these different cities and locations affect your creative process?
Ooh. Here’s the first thing I thought of: When I was touring for the play Helen Lawrence, we went to Brooklyn and Belgium. And when we were in Belgium, there was a hotel pool that no one ever visited. I would get up very early, have a light breakfast, and go for a swim by myself. I love a good physical warm-up routine before I work to clean the slate, and shake all the sillies out. Get warm, in every possible sense. That was really nice; it centred me before performing every night.
I shot a short film called Still, which went on to premiere at TIFF, and stayed at our director Slater Jewell-Kemker’s farm in Peterborough. It was 20 below, and we shot for four days in the snowy woods. That really affected my performance, because it was a really emotionally fraught story. I had to summon these really deep emotions every day, and being in the frigid cold actually helped that a bit. Living in the physical extreme helped me with being in the emotional extreme. But at night, we’d all decompress at her house—drink wine, play Cards Against Humanity, get back to real life.
Sounds like a welcome opposite of those Method-y sets where everyone’s miserable because they’re constantly in character.
Oh my gosh, yeah. I’m a fan of protecting myself. I’ll put everything into a role, but hey—I need to be able to do this day after day. I want to keep doing it.
“I’m a fan of protecting myself. I’ll put everything into a role, but hey—I need to be able to do this day after day. I want to keep doing it.”
Depending on the genre of the project, what kinds of experiences are you drawing from? Shooting a horror project like Hemlock Grove must call for something very different compared to something very realistic like That’s My DJ. Have you always been comfortable with the unfamiliar?
It always excites me creatively. Personally, at one point, I realized I don’t actually know how spontaneous or fearless I am because of that protectiveness in my personality.
With That’s My DJ (created by D. W. Waterson), the prospect of playing a party girl excited me because I’m not one in real life at all—I’m way too afraid of hangovers and throwing up. [laughs] How am I supposed to play hungover when it’s only happened once? I’m spontaneous in so many other areas of my life, but I’m less keen when it comes to experiences that could lead to sickness or sadness. Though when it comes to work, I’m down to go to extremes.
How did you learn to set those boundaries?
I’ve read and heard of so many accounts from people who have felt taken advantage of on sets, based on the material or people they’ve been working with. That’s why I’ve set out in my professional acting career with a degree of caution. Then I realized that there could be situations on paper that might read as unsettling, but in practice, I was actually comfortable with.
I’ve really started to listen to my personal meter in terms of what I’m okay with—professionally, mentally, ethically. For example, I can physically be comfortable with nudity, but I’m starting to think of certain social or ethical implications of that. Being able to imagine the piece play out in my head has helped me realize its potential impact. I think of the potential extremes or the worst case scenarios of the situation—would I still be able to stand by the project? Could I defend my work? Then I listen to my gut, and go from there.
“Being able to imagine the piece play out in my head has helped me realize its potential impact. I think of the worst case scenario version of the situation—would I still be able to stand by the project? Could I defend my work? Then I listen to my gut, and go from there.”
Are you good at staying in the moment?
Sometimes it could be a struggle, if I haven’t prepared enough. Or if I haven’t eaten breakfast. The most universally useful advice I have is to breathe and listen. It’s such a classic actor tip. When there are so many things going on, you could lose sight of those two very simple acts.
When I can hear my inner director or critic coming out and threaten to pull me out of the scene, I try to refocus my energy on the other actor. Because it’s about us; it’s about the scene.
Does this apply to real life? Say you’re at a concert. Are you the type of person to document everything, or are you completely immersed in the experience?
I definitely do a bit of documenting. Some for my own sake, and—yes—some for social media. [laughs] I do want to promote and support the artist I’m seeing. But as much as possible, I try to get that stuff done with quickly—in the very beginning or end—so I can be free to immerse myself in the experience.
There are some situations where I wish I didn’t have to be aware of managing the social media aspects of it. That inner director or critic that comes out when I’m working can come out in social situations, too. Unless it’s a very immersive situation like a concert, that tinge of social anxiety does exist.
What helps is gratitude. Gratitude comes naturally to me, which reminds me to stay present. As an introvert, I’ll check in with that. I was recently at LA Web Fest by myself, and I was trying not to panic because I was also doing auditions that day, planning my brother’s birthday, and we were up for seven awards. I felt a bit scattered. But then I stepped onto the Sony lot, and there was this massive rainbow sculpture, with the car from Ghostbusters there. And I thought to myself—how lucky I am for everything to have worked out the way it did, and for me to be here.
“Gratitude comes naturally to me, which reminds me to stay present.”
What’s your favourite way to remember something?
Photos are my favourite. For pivotal moments, I do like to write things down. I’d kept a diary for many years, but had to let it go recently because I’ve switched to taking photos of everything. I’ve started to save my Instagram stories because there’s so much personality in them.
There are little details you miss, though, that you remember when writing something down. I remember reading a diary entry recently and being like, /I do not remember wanting to be a pediatrician./ There’s something invaluable and rich about putting things down on paper. I’d like to start that up again.