On meeting Jess Sula in her hometown of Swansea, I am slightly embarrassed after being wind-swept by the cold and windy (although it was rather sunny) Swansea seaside. So with makeup smudged and hair in disarray, I compose myself for the interview that seemed to have been a long time coming. Up on the 28th floor of the café we sat overlooking the stunning Swansea town – she apologies for us not having sat by the sea view however those seats were occupied. As we make ourselves comfortable, a man comes to take our order. Jess orders a hot chocolate to which she adds a couple of sachets of sugar – an order which suits her personality perfectly! So with the clinking of cutlery, the hum of chatter and the smell of coffee hanging in the air, we begin.
She speaks to you as though you’re just girlfriends having a natter and it appears like nothing could swipe the smile off her face. Her accent is an unusual blend of dialects as she has “island hopped”, as she calls it, all her life but her definitive home is in Wales. Her passion for acting grew from her love of film as a young girl. With constantly moving homes, film was the only stable thing in her life.
Jess was one of thousands of teenagers who auditioned for one of the prize spots as the new Skins cast 2 years ago. She admits being very surprised to having received a call back after her first audition as she recalls everyone panicking and talking over her, “I think it was just sheer nerves”. The audition however was only a short few minutes of a very long day that required standing around and patiently waiting in what seemed like a never-ending queue for several hours. For many, the day may have seemed a waste of time, a long-shot that didn’t pay off, but for Jess it was the start of a new world. To add to the tiresome day of nerves and waiting, she laughs about her dad receiving a parking ticket during her audition, “I said to my dad ‘well I’ve got to get it now, how else are we going to pay for this ticket?’”.
At just 16 when she was cast, Skins was a plunge straight into the deep end for her first onscreen role as it famously includes many sex, drug and party scenes. Jess learned about sex from watching films. “It was watching the Beach with Leonardo Dicaprio and it was just after I saw Titanic and my parents said I screamed at the TV and said ‘oh my god Jack is alive! He’s alive! He’s on the beach!’ I thought he’d been washed up on the beach from Titanic. That’s where I learned about the birds and the bee’s”, she laughs. Despite her age and inexperience, Jess says talking about her sex scenes is more embarrassing than performing them, “you just grit your teeth and get through the scene”. Her ‘intimate’ scenes with co-star Alex Arnold are far less raunchy than those of her new best friends - "I love them so much" - and fellow cast members Freya Mavor and Dakota Blue-Richards (known for her role as Lyra in The Golden Compass), who had many very graphic and even brutal sex scenes. Jess admits aggressive scenes like these would have made her feel far more uncomfortable. Because Jess and Dakota were so young during filming they were not legally allowed to ‘move’ during sex scenes - Jess explains, with a laugh, that it was her moving Dakota up and down. Luckily Jess’ family are very open with one another which makes watching her scenes less awkward. “I don’t get embarrassed watching a scene with my parents. You get over it, it’s just the character”.
The Skins cast are “strictly forbidden” to watch themselves on screen before it is released to the nation. “It’s good because sometimes they freeze on your face when you’re doing a horrible expression”, she says pulling a face to give me an example. Jess explains this ban is down to an incident with one of the previous cast members in skins who saw their footage and were horrified by the way they looked...need I say any more?
Half way through our interview Jess and I burst into a fit of laughter as two old men, whom we had both spotted but had tried to ignore and maintain composure, had taken the seat next to us as though they have come to join our party. But after a few jokes and giggles, we finally compose ourselves again and continue. She goes on to tell me about her most embarrassing moment on set, during filming for the first episode of series five. She had to pretend to shop lift from a store in Cabot Circus – to my surprise I am told Skins is not a big enough production to close off the site for filming and so the reason for embarrassment becomes very clear. For those who are not familiar with this scene, her character, Grace, screams “leg it!” to her friends waiting on the 1st floor of the mall and then runs away. “And then the policemen actually did chase me because they thought I was stealing and I was running thinking ‘these people are catching up fast’…and one of the producers came running screaming ‘no, no, she’s not actually stealing, I swear!’”, she laughs.
Series 7 took Skins overseas for the first time. The cast spent two weeks filming in Morocco for the start of their final series together. Jess confesses that although the cast this year were not as wild as the previous years, others did not hold back on having fun on set. “The Moroccan extras were so wild! Some of them took vodka with them on a party scene, they were actually drunk.” However, the cast did have some fun while on set as Jess reminisces over the scene standing up in the car in Morocco screaming at the top of their voices… although this time it was offset. “The sun setting, racing at 90mph down the Moroccan country roads, completely free, anyone could fall off. Will went white as a ghost he was so petrified, but Freya, Laya and I were loving it”. Jess was asked to sing for her role in Morocco – a sweet lullaby to her boyfriend. As soon as the topic is brought up she is quick to explain herself, “they forced me to do it! I said I didn’t want to… it was the only time I was in like a diva mood”. She then laughs, “if someone said pretend you’re a teapot and run around, I’d sooner do that than stand up and start to sing…I’d prefer to look stupid than for people to think I look stupid…it was really nerve racking.”
Since being thrown into the public eye, Jess has experienced both positive and negative attention from Skins fans and now she says she does not Google herself. “Never Google yourself! You’re only going to be disappointed…I did when I first got Skins, I was horrified, people can be so cutting, so cruel. You almost want to create your own so you can defend yourself”, she says. She champions the phrase “ignorance is bliss...if you don’t know it can’t hurt you”. She explains that some people can often take what celebrities say out of context. “Now I don’t Google myself, I live in a bubble where everyone loves me”, she jokes. "I think people do expect us to be quite rude and mean, but that's really not the case, I'm actually quite shy." Having met the cast of this generation, I can confirm that they are all very down to earth and lovely people, not an ego in sight, but Jess tells me "you have no time to grow an ego".
Jess says Skins has opened her up to fashion and has helped to steer her style choices in the right direction. She prefers simple pieces like a trench coat with a simple black dress and admires designers like Dolce and Gabbana for their feminine curves – “I’d love to have a figure like that”. Her character, Grace Blood, is one of the programme's top fashionista's, holding a school fashion show in episode 3 of series 5 which showcased beautifully British looks with 1940's hair do's - a scene which I was lucky enough to model in; 2 hours spent in hair and makeup and a lot of standing in the cold in skimpy dresses pretending it was a sunny summers day. Jess considers herself to be similar to her character in that they both have an element of innocence and naivety about them – Jess puts this down to her frequent moving around as a child and not going out much, unless forced, she laughs – but Grace is more studious and Jess explains she is very lazy and doesn’t study a lot which she calls a “hideous side” of her. In contrast to her characters sensual hobby of ballet (which she had to take a 2 week crash course in prior to filming), Jess likes to do karate in her spare time, as it was a cheaper option, and she has reached her brown belt.
Skins is set to continue for yet another, final series. The series, which is said to bring back old favourites from each Skins generation, is thought to replace the much talked about film version that was announced in 2010. Jess confesses she, among many, is unsure of exactly how the series will run and who will be involved but she is also very intrigued and excited to find out.