Emmerdale actress Emily Head has spoken with Headway about her experience of learning to play someone with a complex brain injury.
From pregnancies to punch-ups, Emily has experienced her fair share of dramatic storylines since she joined the soap in 2016.
But when her character Rebecca White sustained a brain injury in a car crash, Emily wasn’t just taking on a new storyline. She was about to play a completely different character.
Headway spoke with Emily about the challenges of playing a person who is no longer the same after brain injury and why it’s so important to her to get the portrayal just right.
“When I auditioned for the part of Rebecca I was given a character profile,” said Emily. “It told me what she was like, how she would act in certain scenarios and how she would behave around certain people.
After months of developing Rebecca’s character on screen, they told me she was going to change following her brain injury. I immediately thought, ‘oh right...change to what?’
As a result of the crash, Rebecca was left with executive dysfunction and memory loss, and she struggles to remember that her sister and father were killed in the accident.
“I had to act the scenario of being told my father and sister had died four times, and be affected all four times, and find a way to do it as a performance worth watching four times,” she said.
It sounds ridiculous at first, but this is something people are having to live through, over and over.
In 2017, Headway ran its A New Me campaign highlighting the concept of feeling like a different person after brain injury. It was a notion that Emily has been keen to get across both on and off screen.
“The main question I keep getting from the other actors is ‘when will Rebecca get back to normal?’” said Emily.
“I think it’s really important to keep reminding people that there is no going back to the old Rebecca. Her memory could come back and she can improve. But this is how she is now.
“I have a friend who works with brain injury survivors and he told me the thing he struggles with most is that brain injury survivors and their families expect things to just get better with time. The challenge is saying ‘no, you might improve from here, but this is who you are now, and that’s ok.’”
Eager to find out more about life after brain injury, Emily paid a visit to Second Chance Headway in Wakefield. It proved to be an experience that shaped her portrayal of brain injury on screen.
“One of the soap’s researchers and I sat in on a session with about 15 people. We asked what aspects of brain injury they would like to be portrayed and how would they like their stories to be
depicted on screen.
“We listened to these extraordinary people. They were very honest and open in telling us how brain injury had affected them and their families.
“They told that us that Headway was a safe space they could go to every week and they wouldn’t be judged for being different or doing something ‘wrong’.
“There was a bit of dark humour surrounding the group, there were some very funny people there. That’s what I took away the most; it isn’t all doom and gloom. There are people facing difficulties and struggles but they’re getting on with it.
More than anything else, meeting brain injury survivors made me think I’ve really got to get this right and tell these people’s stories sensitively and thoughtfully.
“I feel a duty to tell their stories as best as I can.”
During our ABI Week 2018 campaign, You, me, and brain injury, we highlighted the ripple effect of brain injury on a survivor’s friends and family. It’s a subject Emily is keen to explore with
her character’s family.
“One thing that someone said to me when I visited Headway that really affected me was that brain injury doesn’t just affect the survivors, it affects the families as well,” said Emily.
“I definitely came away wanting to explore that more.
“I spoke to Thomas Atkinson, who plays Rebecca’s nephew Lachlan; Ryan Hawley, who plays Robert Sugden – the father of her baby; and Isabel Hodgins, who plays Victoria Sugden, Robert’s sister and Rebecca’s housemate.
“I told them what I had learnt at Headway that could help them shape their own performances.”
In the world of soap operas storylines are often short-lived and life moves on at an incredible pace, and only time will tell whether Rebecca’s brain injury will be a consistent part of the programme.
But one thing is for sure: Emily is determined to show audiences the new Rebecca, and the lasting effects of brain injury.
“Brain injury is a part of Rebecca now,” she said. “It’s really satisfying to be on a TV show that gives a true sense of brain injury.
But I don’t always want it to be doom and gloom for her either. I have learnt there is a lot of laughter, love and kindness after brain injury. I want to portray the fact that there can be life after brain injury.
Friends of Headway Individual membership Join/Renew