One day I was renting out videos - the next I was writing for Spielberg: How a bit-part Holby City actress conquered Hollywood
Hot property: Kelly Marcel has gone from bit-part actor to one of Hollywood's most sought after writers following the creation of the the Terra Nova series
Kelly Marcel has done enough acting to last a lifetime. She started at the age of three, appearing in Prey, a horror film directed by her father Terry.
The audience watched as she was covered in raw liver and eaten by a cannibal.
And, in her view at least, it didn’t get much better. Throughout her 20s, Kelly had bit-part after bit-part in The Bill, Casualty and one-off TV dramas.
But it was when she was lying on her back on the set of Holby City, covered in fake sweat and with her legs in the air, that she realised something had to change.
‘I was pretending to give birth,’ she explains. ‘I’d never had a baby, hadn’t a clue what to do and thought, “This is my worst experience ever.” ’
So, aged 30, and confident that her professional life was unlikely to improve, she swapped it all for a £4.50-an-hour job in a South London video shop. Now, seven years later, she is one of the most sought-after writing talents in Hollywood and the woman responsible for the most expensive TV series ever made.
Terra Nova, a sci-fi series devised by Kelly and directed by Steven Spielberg, is launched in America at the end of this month and in Britain at the beginning of next. It is already being described as the next Lost (the critically acclaimed drama that followed plane-crash survivors trapped on a tropical island).
The advantage of the job at Primetime DVD in Battersea was, she says, that it gave her time to pursue her own projects. ‘Hardly anyone came in because, even then, people preferred to order films from the internet. But it gave me time to write.’
The series she invented there is set 85 million years ago and stars British actress Shelley Conn, Jason O’Mara and Stephen Lang. The premise sounds unlikely: the show starts in 2149 and, with ecological disaster about to strike the Earth, a futuristic family transports itself back to prehistoric times – only to face a new fight for survival in a world of carnivorous dinosaurs. So confident is Fox Broadcasting, the backer, that it has spent $200,000 – more than £125,000 – producing each minute of the series.
And now rival studios, including Warner Brothers and Disney, have asked Kelly to write for them too. Indeed, she is now writing five Hollywood films, including a black comedy for comic star Ben Stiller.
‘I had to borrow the money for the air fare the first time I went to Los Angeles,’ Kelly laughs. ‘Now I travel first-class. I am the girl of the moment in Hollywood.’
Her story is not exactly rags to riches: film and TV run in the family. Younger sister Rosie is an actress in Holby City while brother Luke works in special effects. And it was after a conversation with her father that the breakthrough came.
‘Dad was telling me about how the Earth used to be a giant land mass,’ she recalls. ‘At the time I was writing dark scripts. I had also edited the script for the 2008 film Bronson about the criminal Charles Bronson and Channel 4 were showing an interest in me.
‘But that evening while working in the video shop, I watched Bladerunner [the futuristic sci-fi hit] and thought, “Why don’t I write something entertaining about life in the future – but giving the human race a second chance by going back to the past?”
‘I had just found a new agent and sent her my treatment along with other jottings. The first offer of £4,000 came from a UK company. Then the big Hollywood studios began asking to meet me. I flew over in September 2008 and stayed in a cheap, flea-ridden place.
‘Various network studios gave me 15 minutes to sell my show. Amazingly, Fox offered me more money than I have ever had in my life to write a pilot for Terra Nova. When I got back I worked all hours and sent my script and ideas for a five-year series just before Christmas.
Master of his art: Steven Spielberg's latest directorial piece is Terra Nova
‘My agent called a couple of weeks later to say Steven Spielberg wanted to make 13 episodes of the show and didn’t even need a pilot. It never happens like that. Not even once in a million.’
But even more was to come.
‘Spielberg offered me a job at Fox’s studios as a writer in charge of the people who would write the series. The hours were long, but the pay was about $300,000 [£190,000] per episode.’ The offer worked out at roughly £2.5 million for the series.
And here she took another gamble, and turned him down.
‘Selling my story to Fox hugely increased my potential to write for other major organisations,’ she says, ‘but if I took the writing job I wouldn’t have been able to work for anyone else. And the thought of living in LA also bothered me. So instead I accepted a job as executive producer and consultant of the series with a percentage of any profit. I look at the rushes [unedited film clips] and point out anything I think is wrong. I find it so amazing that my jaw keeps dropping on the floor. They have even invented new technology to deal with the special effects.’
But Kelly won’t be going to the glamorous launch party in Los Angeles next week. ‘I am not really a party person,’ she explains with a shrug. ‘I am not into wearing uncomfortable shoes and glitzy dresses.’
In fact, she’s still not met Spielberg, the man responsible for plucking her from near obscurity.
But does Kelly think the dinosaurs attracted the director of Jurassic Park?
‘I was in the right place at the right time. The dinosaur element was massively important in that Fox was looking for something stand-out and huge. And I am sure the dinosaurs hooked Spielberg.’
Kelly grew up in Richmond, West London, and admits she never liked acting, but continued because ‘it was in the family’.
She also disliked school, leaving as soon as she could. ‘I took my GCSEs a year early and pretty much failed all of them except English,’ she admits.
‘My reports were awful – “Kelly will not succeed, she has no focus, no discipline, she can’t even wear her uniform right.”
‘Now when I go to LA, I stay right on the beach and wake up looking at the ocean. I am living every writer’s dream.’
- Terra Nova begins on Sky 1 on October 3.
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