Written by Andy Michael • Published 5th March 2018 • 6 minute read
In 2013, The PHA Group started working with actress Rachel Shenton.
When Rachel joined the agency, she had recently stepped down from playing the character of wannabe glamour model Mitzee Minniver in Hollyoaks for three years, in which she quickly established herself as the scene-stealing fan favourite.
At the time, British talent was proving to be hugely successful on the American small screen, with actors like Andy Lincoln, Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis and Charlie Hunnam winning rave reviews and industry plaudits, and pulling in massive audiences for their work on an American network and cable television. Game of Thrones was establishing itself as a runaway success, but there still wasn’t a huge proliferation of British actresses landing such prominent and regularly recurring roles.
Furthermore, the transition from UK soap star to Hollywood Heavyweight? Not exactly the typical career trajectory one sees very often. Teetering on the melodramatic, soap operas aren’t always renowned for their high quality of acting and I would definitely say that casting directors are – or perhaps, were – a little apprehensive and cynical about hiring talent from that world. If your background is in theatre or arthouse / independent cinema, there’s greater credibility there. But avoiding typecast and establishing yourself as a serious player after inhabiting a soap character for years doesn’t come without its challenges.
Hopefully, however, these attitudes will now become a thing of the past because Rachel Shenton has come along and completely re-written the playbook.
When we first met Rachel in 2013, she was immediately likeable: charming, humble, graceful and classy. But the character trait that struck us the most was just how seriously she took her craft. Her work ethic was second to none. She wanted to challenge and push herself, to grow as an actress and to work with some of the best writers, directors and producers in the business. She had big dreams and she wasn’t afraid to work hard and put in the time and the graft.
More relevantly, Rachel was involved in a great deal of charity work as the patron for the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS). After going through her backstory, we learned that her dad became deaf when she was just 12 years old, following the chemotherapy treatment he underwent for cancer. The need to communicate with her father encouraged her to learn sign language and it was clear at that moment that acting was never about the fame or the celebrity for Rachel – she had big dreams of shining a light on the lives of other people who don’t have the voice that we do. To empower them by giving them that voice. To bring to life the struggles of others that are massively under-represented in mainstream film and TV.
Essentially, Rachel wanted to keep her media profile alive whilst she concentrated on landing her next television role and our job was to raise and maintain that profile and keep her on the radar of casting agents, directors, producers and writers during her temporary absence from TV.
Her fluency in sign language clearly separated her from the competition and gave her a unique edge, a remarkable skill set and a compelling origin story. Many of the interviews we set up for Rachel touched upon this element of her story and there was a great deal of media interest in her personal campaigns and charity work.
The PHA Group prides itself on going the extra mile. First-class publicists, we are, but commercial agents by trade, we are not. But from day one, we saw and recognised the promise and the potential in Rachel and absolutely believed in her. So, further to raising and maintaining her profile in the media, we wanted to go one step further and bring Rachel directly to the attention of the people in the television industry who had real power to change her career. So, we got proactive.
The Media Management department at The PHA Group has promoted and protected a wealth of TV talent over the years. We’re therefore constantly attuned to the international entertainment landscape – the talent and the programming that are capturing the zeitgeist of the moment, what’s hot and what’s not.
We had been avidly following the success of a relatively new TV show at the time called Switched At Birth – an American scripted drama that broke new ground as the first mainstream television series to feature numerous deaf and hard-of-hearing characters appearing in a series regular capacity, filming some scenes shot entirely in sign language.
We introduced Rachel to the show and insisted she check out the previous two series that had aired to familiarise herself with the storylines and the tone of the programme. We then encouraged her to commission a show-reel of her work. Once this was ready, we strategically identified and targeted the creators of Switched At Birth and established an ongoing dialogue with them. The differences between American and British sign language aren’t vast and we made a strong, persuasive case – we handled the PR for an extremely talented British actress who emotionally connects with the material of the show on a profound level because of her own life experience. Moreover, she quite literally speaks the very language of the programme and could master the sign language scenes with ease. We knew Rachel would be an asset to the show and we deliberately timed our approach to coincide with the pilot season in America.
We didn’t expect to get such positive feedback so quickly. The show’s creators invited Rachel to audition during pilot season and as we suspected, they immediately saw what we saw. They loved her so much that they ended up creating the role of Lily Summers especially for her, a role that she immortalised until the show’s Season 5 finale.
The very last episode was broadcast in April 2017. During her time filming Switched At Birth, Rachel, with her filmmaker fiancé Chris Overton directing, somehow managed to find the time to write and star in a short film entitled The Silent Child. The 20-minute long film was largely based on Rachel’s personal experience as the child of a parent who became deaf.
Come awards season, The Silent Child well and truly swept the board, winning Best Short Film at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. This allowed the film to qualify for entry to the 90th Academy Awards. On 23rd January 2018, it was announced that The Silent Child had received an Academy Award nomination in the Best Live Action Short Film category, and on Sunday 4th March 2018, Rachel’s film won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. On collecting the award, Rachel upheld the promise that she had made to The Silent Child’s deaf lead actress, six-year-old Maisie Sly, and accepted her trophy in sign language. It was a momentous, inspiring, electrifying moment to watch and we could not be prouder.
So, whether you’re an aspiring actor, a breakthrough performer or a well-established name: work with creative teams that believe in you, that recognise your potential, that encourage you to test the limits of what you believe to be achievable. We believe that it doesn’t ultimately matter whether you’re a RADA bred performer or if you started off in a teen soap. Talent is talent, so dream big and work with the best! Because anything is possible!