Wearing her scars: Vicky Knight makes stunning debut in Sacha Polak's 'Dirty God'
“I have found the strength to realise my worth,” says 23 year old Vicky Knight, star of Dutch director Sacha Polak’s new film Dirty God.
“I was just the girl with the scars. Now I am the girl with the movie – with the scars.”
“I was so angry and hurt, I basically shut down. So when I started getting phone calls about Dirty God, I wouldn’t think about it for about a year.”
Vicky is a health care assistant and now an actress – giving one of the great breakout performances of 2019 in Dirty God as Jade, a young single mother who has been deeply scarred in an acid attack. How much of that is physical, and how much worse is the mental torment, unfolds during the film. Bringing her attacker to justice forms about a minute of the plot. It’s all about the stages of shock and grief, mixed up together – denying, anger, bargaining, acceptance.
Vicky bears all those scars after being severely injured in a house fire at the age of eight. She was, she says now, “too young to remember – it’s almost like my mum suffered it for me.”
But the taunts and bullying directed towards Jade is something that Vicky also experienced - to the extent that when the producers of Dirty God came calling, she initially refused to take their calls.
“I really felt that when you look at Vic, you feel her pain, you believe immediately what she’s gone through. If you put a famous actress in the role, and you put make up on her, you’d leave the film going, ‘wow, that actress had some great make up.’ “
“I was once approached by a TV company who asked if I’d do a documentary on how I cope with my scars,” she recalls. “They put me on blind dates with boys – I’m gay – and they’d ask me to take my jacked off so they could film my arms. Then they said they were going to call the show Too Ugly For Love. I was also asked if I would consider going on the TV show Undateables. I was so angry and hurt, I basically shut down. So when I started getting phone calls about Dirty God, I wouldn’t think about it for about a year.”
But Sacha Polak was determined to use someone who wasn’t a professional for the part of Jade.
“I really felt that when you look at Vic, you feel her pain, you believe immediately what she’s gone through. If you put a famous actress in the role, and you put make up on her, you’d leave the film going, ‘wow, that actress had some great make up.’ You wouldn’t identify so much with her.”
In her previous work, Hamel and Zurich, Polak has shown herself interested in the minute details of inter-familial relationships. Here, Jade struggles within an all-female family – her toddler daughter Rae, and her mother Lisa, played by the brilliant Katherine Kelly (who I shall always revere for being Becky in Coronation Street.) Lisa, still relatively young herself, was also a young single mother to Jade, and is totally out of her depth with her daughter’s scars, not to mention Jade’s experimentation with online sex sites – the only way she feels able to have some kind of physical contact with a man.
“Lisa was one of the most interesting characters to me,” explains Sacha. ‘She’s always dressed up for a party but has nowhere to go, she’s a very lonely woman. I wanted to put these three females in a small apartment and see how it works out – Jade is behaving like a young adolescent, not someone who is a mother herself, and that brings Lisa pain, as she’s discovered a second motherhood looking after Rae while Jade is in hospital.”
Dirty God also deals with two modern phenomena where women are primarily the victims – acid attacks, to destroy their beauty, and ‘slut shaming’ – where naked pictures are leaked online.
“I thought it was interesting to go into this world that has dirty connotations that normally you wouldn’t want to get into,” Sacha says. “For Jade, it’s liberating as she can control it – instead of real physical contact, she can shut down the computer if she feels threatened. That came naturally, as I was interested in the way this young mother who can’t go out finds contact with human beings, but I needed it to have consequences.”
“ I was self-harming and self-neglecting. I was a mess, I hit rock bottom. This has given me the opportunity to save my own life”
In many scenes, Vicky found it hard to access her emotions about her scarring, which she was reliving again as an adult. She found things such as Jade’s search for a plastic surgeon ( “I did it too,” Vicky says, ”Emailed doctors in India and Turkey, asking them to help me”) distressing, but was supported by Sacha and the film team. Now, Vicky believes, she’s free of something.
‘Before I was at a point of feeling suicidal,” she owns,” I was self-harming and self-neglecting. I was a mess, I hit rock bottom. This has given me the opportunity to save my own life. My scars have actually helped me, and something good has come out of something bad.”
‘Dirty God’ is released in the UK and Ireland on Friday, June 7. 2019