'You only need one yes': how I beat the odds to work in film

Abby Young-Powell

The film industry is notoriously white, middle class and male-dominated. However, since the Harvey Weinstein scandal hit Hollywood in October 2017, calls for greater diversity have snowballed, and there have been some improvements. There were more leading roles for women and people of colour in blockbusters in 2018 than any previous year, according to a recent survey. However, there’s still a long way to go: the same survey found that behind-the-camera representation remains worse and disabled people remain marginalised.

We spoke to two British graduates working within the industry – one on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster, the other conducting interviews on the red carpet – to find out how they got their first gig, what it’s like to work among the glamour, and what advice they’d give to others.

Tayyib Mahmood, a supermarket shelf-stacker and recent graduate from the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, worked on the new James Bond film, No Time to Die.

Anyone who knows me knows I love film. I studied film and media as an A-level and then film production at Birmingham City University. After I graduated, I applied for a job through the British Film Institute. I didn’t know what film it was because of the secrecy around it, but I had nothing to lose. I did two interviews and didn’t get it, but applied for another role on set and did. Then I got a formal invite to come and work on Bond 25 at the Pinewood-based studios.

My first reaction was to panic: no one comes out of university and lands a big gig like that. I didn’t tell family and friends because I signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and wanted it to be a surprise. It was hard to keep it a secret, though, because my mum finds out about everything. I just told them I had a placement.

I started in late June and finished in early November. On my first day I was scared, but my mentor showed me the ropes. On set it was hectic. My team – the studio unit – had to make sure everything in the studio ran smoothly. There was always something to do, like setting up stages for a scene, so I was basically running around like a headless chicken.

I would say hi to the actors, but once you get on set the fan side of you goes out the window. You’re there to work, so you get on with it. A lot of people have the impression that working in the film industry is all glamour and Hollywood. The reality is that it’s hard work and long hours – sometimes 14 hour days – but I enjoy that. Everyone was nice to each other and there were a range of ages on set.

When filming finished, I told my parents and they were ecstatic. My friends were also proud and posted about me all over social media. Now my plan is to make a few films here and there and to apply to work on other film sets.

The film industry is heavily white and male-dominated but they’re pushing for more diversity. As long as you have a passion for film there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do it. My advice is to start making films, edit them and show them around. An architect doesn’t rock up on his or her first day and start building a house. They have to know the basics. Look at the opportunities and don’t say no, because you never know when it’ll be your big step forward.

Myra Ali, from Solihull, was born with a rare condition called dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, which means she is in pain on a daily basis and has to wear bandages. She works as a celebrity interviewer and has interviewed celebrities on the red carpet.

My condition means I’m in constant pain even showering can be painful. But when I’m on the red carpet, the adrenaline of interviewing celebrities makes the pain go away.

I studied history at the University of Birmingham. After I graduated, I struggled with my condition and with depression. I didn’t have a focus for a while. I worked for the NHS and also volunteered with Debra, a charity for people with skin conditions.

Then the charity asked me to interview famous chef Jason Atherton at an event. I took it very seriously and researched him well. After that interview I thought: ‘I could do this’.’ I went to the premier of the King, starring Timothée Chalamet, for Debra, and interviewed celebrities there.

On the red carpet you’re on your feet and waiting. It’s exciting, thrilling and unpredictable. I got to interview Chalamet, who was down to earth, and Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who gave me a fist bump, although I would have preferred a kiss.

I look quite different and have a visible disability. When actors see me they look slightly taken aback, but not in a bad way. It’s important for everyone to be represented because we all bring something different.

One of my dream publications, Marie Claire, has now asked me to do celebrity interviews for them and one day I would love to interview at the Baftas or Oscars. My advice is that you need to build up experience by working for smaller outlets. To people with disabilities I say that if you don’t see people similar to you doing a job you want, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You’ll get a lot of no’s, but you only need one yes – so keep going.