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Rising Scottish acting star Rosie Graham on how being a patter merchant helped land her a dream job on the Olivier stage

© Stewart BywaterRosie Graham.
Rosie Graham.

Being described by her school teacher as a patter merchant probably wasn’t meant as a compliment, but Rosie Graham aspired to live up to the title.

“I thought it was the best thing ever and I made it my life’s goal to be a patter merchant,” she laughed. “I think you have to blag and be a bit of a chancer.”

Rosie, from Glasgow, is one of Scotland’s brightest young acting talents with a short but incredibly impressive CV. Her first film role was alongside Oscar winners Charlize Theron and Michelle Yeoh in Netflix movie The School For Good And Evil. Her first TV role was in hit period drama Sanditon. And her first London theatre role was playing the lead in the National Theatre’s production of Hex.

The story behind how she landed that stage role epitomises her formidable patter merchant skills.

“My dream was to become an actor but I auditioned for drama schools for three years and didn’t get in, so I never thought I would get to work in theatre,” she explained. “I moved to London during lockdown and was working in a restaurant across the river from the National Theatre.

“They were having an open audition but the terms stated you had to have been in drama school. I wrote an email explaining all I ever wanted was to be in theatre, and I’d grown up doing am-dram and community theatre and just wanted a chance.

“I got an audition. It was for a tiny understudy part in The Crucible.

“I had to sing a song, so I thought I’d learn a Gaelic song because none of the Londoners would do that and I’d stand out.

“I went to the audition, explained I was going to sing a Gaelic song and what it was about, and then I started singing. And forgot all the words, because I don’t actually speak Gaelic.

“For the next two minutes, I made a series of Scottish sounding noises. When I finished, the panel said ‘what a beautiful language’.

“I went home thinking the scene went okay but the song was awful. The next day, though, an audition came through for Hex The Musical and I got the lead part. It was ridiculous, I had blagged my way through it.”

Rosie Graham.

The production at the Olivier Theatre, which ran from last November to January and is based on the story of Sleeping Beauty, was the ultimate on-the-job stage training for 23-year-old Rosie.

“I went from the A Play, A Pie And A Pint stage in Glasgow, which I also love, to the Olivier stage. I learned so much – it felt like this was my drama school training. I had one-to-one vocal coach sessions on the Olivier stage, and I worked with amazing actors and the director, Rufus Norris. I tried to soak up everything.

“I’d never done more than a two-week run, so I didn’t know if I would have the stamina to do eight weeks in a musical; I had to learn how to take care of myself.

“The National Theatre’s resources are unbelievable. There was a part in the show where I had to carry two baby dolls and I was told I wasn’t holding them like real babies.

“I explained I didn’t know how to, so the next morning I came in and on the schedule they had ‘Rosie’s baby session’ – they had brought in a real baby for me to practise with for an hour! It was a total dream.”

This year’s Christmas theatre job is another dream for Rosie, and this time it takes place closer to home. She is starring as Gerda in the Royal Lyceum’s new Scots language production of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

“It’s probably the most full-on thing I’ve ever done and it’s bigger and more epic than I first imagined,” she said. “It’s my first big theatre job in Scotland.

“It’s written by Morna Young, directed by Cora Bissett and the music is by Finn Anderson. I don’t think they know how much of a fan I am of each of them.

“Cora’s Glasgow Girls show was the first musical I ever saw and it was a big inspiration to me. I’ve been a fangirl of hers for a long time. I really admire Morna and always look out for her work because I love her use of the Scots language.

“And I did a community production at the Citizens Theatre with Finn in 2017. I was quite shy but he picked me to do a solo. I didn’t sing before that, so it gave my confidence a boost and made me think I could sing. He was so encouraging when I was a kid doing community am-dram and now I’m a professional actor. I feel quite proud.”

Rosie with Michael Elcock, Lisa Lambe and Neïma Naouri in Hex The Musical at the Olivier Theatre. © The National Theatre
Rosie with Michael Elcock, Lisa Lambe and Neïma Naouri in Hex The Musical at the Olivier Theatre.

It was at the Citz where the seeds were planted for Rosie’s acting career.

“My mum put me and my brother into drama class at the Citizens when I was six. I was probably always a bit of a show-off, quite precocious and annoying. I took it very seriously and was moved up a year to my brother’s class. I played a munchkin in The Wizard Of Oz that year and I can remember getting time off school to go to rehearsals and being shocked to see adults being silly and having a laugh as their job.

“I hadn’t realised this was an option but I decided at that moment I wanted acting to be my life.”

Being knocked back again and again for drama school was, therefore, hugely disappointing.

“It was crushing because it’s all I ever wanted and I felt I was doing everything I could to get in, but it didn’t work out for me,” she said. “On reflection, it was the right thing to have happened because it pushed me to work harder. I never became complacent and I never wasted an opportunity.”

It was during lockdown in 2020 that Rosie decided to move to London and try to make things happen. She already had an agent after being seen at an Edinburgh Fringe show, and she moved into a shared house with four others and worked three jobs a week to pay the rent.

“It was miserable but I got by on the excitement of pursuing my dream,” she said.

Her first screen job, Netflix movie The School For Good And Evil, came along when she was close to burnout.

“I auditioned four times in six months, but I only did one or two lines at a time, so I thought it would be a day’s work.

“My agent called me to say I had the part and I’d be spending four months in Belfast and had been optioned for three films.

“I didn’t have much to do in the film but I was in it a lot, which was great for learning, as I could watch all the people around me. I also met new friends because when I moved to London I knew three people and it was difficult and lonely.”

Rosie as Alison Heywood in Sanditon.
Rosie as Alison Heywood in Sanditon.

She was filming in Belfast when she secured her next role, Alison Heywood, in the second series of ITV’s period drama Sanditon.

“A week after I finished the film, I went to Bristol for four months to do Sanditon,” she explained. “Getting to wear the costumes and use the language was a treat and definitely something ticked off the bucket list.

“I watch it and think I’m rubbish in it, but I was learning on the job and TV works so differently from film.

“After Sanditon, I didn’t work for seven or eight months and I was back to babysitting and waitressing. When the show came on TV, I started being recognised for the first time while I was working, and people would ask if I was going to be in the third series.

“I’d say ‘does it look like it… still or sparkling?’ That was a bit grim, but then I got the audition for the National Theatre and my next job was Hex.

“When you’re working, you can feel like it won’t ever stop but it absolutely will, so it’s good to appreciate the job while you’re doing it and make sure never to become complacent.”

Although working at the National Theatre was beyond her wildest thoughts, performing at the Lyceum this Christmas is a dream come true.

“The Citizens and Lyceum were my dream because those are the places I would go to – my birthday is December 29, so every year I was taken to see a Christmas show,” she said. “On my 24th birthday I’ll be playing a 12-year-old, so let’s keep that going!

“Gerda is an amazing role. She doesn’t fit into any of the stereotypes – she’s not a love interest, mother, princess or wife. She’s a young woman who is brave, adventurous, fierce, savvy and cheeky.”

With attributes like that, it’s easy to see why Rosie seemed like the perfect fit for the part.

Rosie is bemused by posh role offers

The next screen role for Rosie Graham will be in BBC3’s Boarders, which is based on the true story of five black men from London who earn rugby scholarships at an elite boarding school.

Rosie plays the “very posh” Florence, the school’s head girl. It carries on a typecasting that Rosie can’t quite get her head around.

“Most of the roles I’m put up for are the upper-class English woman and I’m not that at all. Me and my brother grew up in a council flat and my mum was a library assistant, so it’s a completely different world,” she explained.

“I can step into the roles and enjoy them, and it’s quite fun to play mean and be awful when you’re not like that in real life.”

Rosie in The Snow Queen at the Lyceum. © Jessica Shurte
Rosie in The Snow Queen at the Lyceum.

Rosie, who is currently playing an Edinburgh girl in The Snow Queen, said being part of the industry in London has been an eye-opener.

“It’s an extremely middle-class, upper-class, privileged environment. There is so much nepotism and I always feel like I don’t quite fit in. I’m good with people and can get on, but when I hear them talking about where they grew up, it’s nothing like my life in Glasgow with my mum and brother.

“This is why it’s great to be back working in Scotland, where the people are so sound.”

The Snow Queen, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until December 31