It’s graduation night in Newcastle and the quayside bars are preparing for a party. In the Premier Inn in the shadow of the Tyne Bridge, we’re toasting another local success. Pints of Pepsi are ordered and posh crisps shared as acting newcomer Katie Proctor tells us what she did after her first film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
“Oh, that was amazing!” beams the 13-year-old, one of the teenage Tyneside stars of Sorry We Missed You, the coruscating new film from Ken Loach. “We were in the apartment after the screening and we were, like: ‘Think we should go for something to eat maybe? Maybe a McDonald’s?’ We were walking down the street and people were stopping us saying they’d seen the film.”
Rhys Stone, 17, the other latest graduate of the Loach school of social realist cinema, chips in, explaining the mood on La Croisette. “People were chasing us. They were so excited,” he marvels. “It’s an insane feeling.”
We first meet at the train station on a sunny afternoon, and immediately get into walking and talking, imbibing that good energy that Loach says he gets from Newcastle folk (after 2016’s devastating I, Daniel Blake, this is his second film in a row here). We stride up to the Tyne Bridge for photos. No one bats an eyelid. At the time of our meeting the UK release of Sorry We Missed You is a few months away, so for now Katie and Rhys are just two kids getting their picture taken. But in Cannes, and for a brief time afterwards, they were film stars.
Unsurprisingly, Sorry We Missed You is no uplifting watch, but Loach’s film is also one of the veteran director’s finest, an undiluted tragedy about how the gig economy ruins lives. Mancunian Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) takes a franchise job as a parcel delivery driver.But in a job with no benefits, time off or toilet breaks (he’s advised to carry an empty plastic bottle for that purpose), the self-employed van driver is anything but his own man. His wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is an agency home carer who’s also overworked and underpaid. The demands of precarious employment mean they barely get to see their children. Teenager Seb, played by Rhys (originally from Gateshead, but now living near Newcastle airport), is shutting down and acting up. His younger sister, Lisa Jane, played by Katie, is also feeling the pressure.
Katie, from Wallsend, was reluctant to put herself forward when she heard Loach and his crew were auditioning in Newcastle. “I wanted to be a police officer or detective because I’m quite nebby,” she says, using the Geordie for nosey. She’s smart and articulate and speaks with a professional’s preciseness. She likes Love Island and Primark (“I don’t care about brands. If it’s nice, I’ll wear it) and can cry on demand. She’s also not shy of taking on her on-screen brother when he goes off on one (which he does). She loves maths, PE and gymnastics, which is where she was when Drake rang with some important news…
“My phone rang, but my ringtone is Hotline Bling,” Katie says. “We were just having a bit of a laugh: ‘Oh God, wonder whose phone that is…’ And the coach was like: ‘Answer it if you want.’ So I answered the phone and was like: ‘Alreet mam, what’s up?’ She said: ‘You got the part.’” Her mate Martha “just ran up and hugged us. She’s my best friend. Everyone says we look like twins.”
Rhys came to Loach’s attention through a collaboration with New Writing North, an agency which encourages young talent. He’s charismatic and funny and likes A Bathing Ape, Kenzo and Off-White, but insists he’s no fashion snob, pointing out that the skinny black jeans he’s wearing are from Morrisons. Katie raises an eyebrow at all these brand name-drops. “Hold on!” she interrupts. “I told you I wanted to get a Gucci belt when we were on set and you made fun of us!”
Rhys can be sincere and vulnerable, which may be the secret to his success. “I messed up on one of the auditions and I asked if I could do it again,” he recalls. “Ken said: ‘You’re going to have to wait.’ ‘Sound,’ I said, and I waited. And then I smashed it. I put dedication into it, so that showed I really wanted it.”
In Sorry We Missed You, hard graft isn’t enough to stop the Turner family sliding deeper into financial strife. They’re stuck in a system designed to screw them. Loach, 83, is British cinema’s great social campaigner, a Labour Party member since the 1960s and steadfastly Team Corbyn. He’s won the Palme D’Or at Cannes twice, for The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006 and I, Daniel Blake in 2016.
Sorry We Missed You is a companion piece to the latter film. Both were inspired by real-life accounts gathered by scriptwriter Paul Laverty; both deal a gut punch about the kind of society in which we live in the UK. Unsentimental and shaming, Sorry We Missed You is simply heartbreaking.
Loach encouraged Katie and Rhys just to be themselves in the roles. “He makes you just be yourself and act the way you should,” says Rhys. “You become Seb or Lisa Jane. That’s what caused the chemistry between us all. We just acted like we were an actual family.” Katie approached the matter like an old hand. “When the camera was on me, I wasn’t Katie, I was Lisa. So when I’m getting upset in the film, I’m thinking: ‘God, I can’t believe this is happening to us.’”
They’re both from working-class backgrounds and neither considered the arts as an option. Rhys, in particular, didn’t gel well with school. He’s dyslexic, which didn’t help. Playing this other person for a while (someone from a similar background with experiences he could relate to) was a useful steer. “I try to be as respectful as possible because I don’t want to end up like Seb,” he says.
Katie wants to keep acting and Rhys hopes to start at a local drama school this autumn. People have told him it’s great because he can put Ken Loach on his CV now, but Rhys doesn’t see it quite that way. “I don’t want to take advantage of the guy, even though he’s given me a good boost. I tell you what, Ken’s a humble guy. A proper humble guy. They are just the best people. Do you know who my inspiration is? Keanu Reeves. Because he’s a humble guy.”
Sorry We Missed You is in UK cinemas from 1st November