Interview with Katie Arnstein: We talk sex, Tories, #MeToo, and Alan Davies.

Sukhmani Sethi speaks with actor, writer and musician, Katie Arnstein over a coffee in Brixton.


In the pursuit of becoming an actor, and working within this industry, what do you think is expected from women that’s not necessarily expected from men? (We talk about the infamous interview with Helen Mirren on Michael Parkinson’s show in 1975, where he introduced her as the “sex queen” of the RSC and questioned if her figure undermined her seriousness as an actor.)

The thing about that interview was – I don’t know how long ago that interview was, say 20 years ago – you think, things have changed now, right? And that’s true, there has been progress but I feel there’s still so far to go that there’s no point talking about that progress – it’s not helpful to me. I came to London in 2012 and the things that we were told straight away was that there were less parts for women than there were for men, so it’s going to be more competitive. I think that what that does, to my mind, is set all the women up against each other. You have less lines, less screen time in films, less juicy roles – the amount of parts that I’ve seen on Spotlight and all of these casting things that are like “receptionist” or “mum”, and you’re like, name them at least! I think it’s so damaging to the audience because it shows a stereotype, it’s so damaging to creatives who want to be in the industry, to play a part, and the expectation that you’re willing to be nude, that you have to show your body – you better be slim or be big and funny!

I heard a Caitlin Moran interview and she was pitching a show to a TV company and they said “Oh we’ve already got a sitcom with a woman in it this year.”… And so, you’re like “Oh, so that’s half the population summed up in that is it?” I think it’s a multilayered problem, but one that still exists.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, do you think anything has changed?

I have to hope that it has. For me, not enough has changed, There’s a case with Michelle Williams who did a reshoot for All The Money in The World because Mark Wahlberg got paid like an extra million dollars – so the pay was way off. And I’m hopeful for the Weinstein trial and how it ends up, that the victims will get justice. There’s so much to fight for. MeToo was a brilliant movement but it has to be the start of something rather than the end of something.

“Sexism isn’t just using offensive language, it’s not just rape and big, huge cases. It’s also not having women on board, it’s giving two kissing instead of shaking hands at a business meeting. ”

What about everyday sexism outside of your workplace? What experiences have really inspired you to write this trilogy?

That’s a great question. The trilogy is basically autobiographical. Bicycles and Fish  – the first part – takes places when I’m in school and a waiter. It dabbles in sex education and how we were taught about our bodies, which is very, very little. When I was a waiter, the amount of clicking you got as a woman, the sexual assault you face, the discrimination and name calling. What I wanted to focus on was the everyday, the bits that are tiny little beads that you carry around that get heavier and heavier. Sexism isn’t just using offensive language, it’s not just rape and big huge cases. It’s also not having women on board, it’s giving two kissing instead of shaking hands at a business meeting.

With school girls – I mean, I certainly remember this – you get cat called by men in their vans when you’re in your school uniform and quite clearly under 16. When you have these everyday occurrences, and especially at a very young age, how would you like to communicate to young women about how to deal with those, and how to be less confused with those situations?

It has to start from a really young age and I would like to empower young women with the information that they can be whatever they want to be. And inappropriate touching etc is sexual assault, and you’re allowed to say no, and you have the backing of every other person who’s trying to say no with you – we’re louder together! And there are so many things that I wish I knew and was taught, rather than learning from the school of life, so to speak, I would have been a lot stronger than I was then.

Do you feel like women are typecast to behave in a certain way within a relationship?

The media has such an important part to play in everyone’s life, and we see art and life imitating each other, so I think for certain it’s important to show women being multi-faceted characters, to be strong relationship leaders and one of the things I want to talk about in Sticky Door is learning to get some autonomy over my sex life and relationships with people and not falling into traps that I’d been led to believe were normal – being passive in relationships, or that I was something to look at not engage with as a person.

How do you think that plays into the orgasm inequality?

I think that’s down to not being given a voice as a young person. Sex education, for me, was nothing about consent, it was all about satisfaction. It was nothing at all about the clitoris, we didn’t learn any of that at school. In fact, our period talk was separate to the boys, I can understand why, but that’s only because there’s shame around it still. To talk about it is the first step in making it a normal part, and most of those boys will end up with women that they’ve been kept apart from for a very big part in his life.

So, we have to make it an issue we tackle together so men can go “Hey, what do you want, how can I satisfy you sexually? So the onus isn’t just on women to put up with bad sex; good sex is for everyone.

What do you think about Tinder and other dating apps?

So I have only been on Tinder – I was sorting of using in 2014. I thought it was – I used the words in my show – a “dick-pick metropolis”. My experience was that as soon as I go on, people are like “Do you want to see this?” and you’re like “Oh, no thanks!”. You know how when you say a word over thirty times and it loses all meaning? I was like, “I don’t know what this is anymore.” I found Tinder a cool option, I certainly noticed some people were hiding behind their messages and didn’t want to meet. I certainly felt that it was quite a vulnerable thing to meet strangers in a club and I always texted someone about where I was…but, I think it’s an inevitable part of the 21st century, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. But, I hope there are things in place that keep people safe. And also emotionally, if you are just there for a hook up, if you meet someone through Tinder and you just want to have sex with them, be clear about that, don’t leave them dangling, don’t ghost people – that’s rude – because it’s just a way for people to not be held accountable for their actions, like you would in real dating.

So, you’re in the world of comedy, Do you think there are any topics that are sort of off limits for women, or rather even encouraged for women to make jokes about?

I am very new to the game, but I heard a podcast with Sarah Pascoe, and she said that Katherine Ryan was the first comedian she’d ever come across who was presenting herself as this very beautiful woman, and the role that women had to play before that was like “Oh, who would want to be with me?!” –  was very self-deprecating and that’s certainly a space I take up. You were taught to be quiet, you were taught to be smaller and so comedy isn’t so much a welcome place for women but there are so many brilliant people coming forward and pushing boundaries.

(We talk about Alan Davies. His boyish grin that follows a usually incorrect answer to Sandy Toksvig’s questions on Q.I, which is met with the audience’s laughter as this middle-aged man becomes the nation’s cheeky nephew. Could a woman get away with his performative silliness?)

When a guy is on one of these panel shows– there are so many of them on these panel shows – they don’t represent all men. Whereas the token woman is often seen to be representing all women, which is impossible. I don’t want to keep watching an all male panel shows –  an all white male panel show, I don’t want to see an all white panel show. Diversity has to be the next step in moving forward.

(We, inevitably, talk about Laurence Fox – a subject that is met with a mutual eyeroll)

When you have actors like that who are taking away voices from people with legitimate concerns, how do you combat that? Because, he’s on BBC Question Time, he’s taking up airtime – how do you fight back against that?

I think it’s important to make people accountable for what they say and yeah, I can’t believe he was on Question Time! But also, what he said on there was so contradictory. The woman of colour he was speaking to said that the way Meghan Markle has been treated is racist – that’s racism. And then his reply was, “Oh you can’t ban racism” and then “You’re being racist” in the next sentence! I don’t want him to think that he’s representing the views of the British people, or all white people, or actors because I certainly do not stand behind that man and his views.

Moving abruptly to the Labour Leadership election (we have already established that we are fellow Lefties ), what do you think about that the fact that there are four female candidates?

It is brilliant and I would love to see a Labour party led by a woman, and not just because they are a woman but because, we know from so much research, when you have a female fronting Parliament, social, economic and education issues are on the table far faster and are given more support and so it would be brilliant to see that. It was sad to see Jess Phillips drop out – I liked her a lot – but, I’m excited to see where the party will go.
I’m horrified that we have the governemenet that we have. I can’t believe that a man who said women go to universities to get husbands and to call women in hijabs letterboxes…that’s horrifying to me, I intened to fight it every stage that I can.

Because Parliament in a way is quite theatrical, do you think is a crossover between female MPs speaking up in the commons and female actors on stage? (We speak about MP Heidi Allen who spoke powerfully about her abortion in the House of Commons in a discussion about Northern Ireland’s reproductive rights.)

I think that’s a great comparison in a way because we know that David Cameron, for example – I think it was Emily Thornberry – where he said “Calm down, dear” during Prime minister’s questions and that attitude of telling women that they’re being hysterical, or being a bitch if they’re shouting – an impassioned woman is not a negative stereotype, it’s a woman who’s saying “listen to me, I deserve to be heard” and the more women we can get into parliament, the less booing and shushing they’ll get more male leaders – not all men, of course. Some of the men of the we’ve got in power are not good guys.

Of course, I’ve got to ask you about Sticky Doors. I know that’s it’s got an all female cast and production team.

That’s right and it’s very important to me that I practice what I preach in terms of creating roles for everyone, but by women. So, the team is me – I’m the writer and performer, Ellen Havard is the director – phenomial young woman, and Beccy D’Souza is our creative producer and she is phenomenal. I actually met Becky through a festival in Nottingham called The Party’s Somewhere Else, which is promoting female and non-binary creatives, which took over Nottingham Playhouse. Our PR is by Chloë Nelkin who is a phenomenal woman and I was lucky enough to meet her when I was in Edinburgh, when I was there with the last show. To tell the story about my female experience, it seems right to be supported by other women.

Tell me more about the metaphor for Sticky Door.

So, I love desert island discs because I’m everyone’s grandma (laughs), I’ve listened to every episode of it, and I was listening to one with Dame Minouche Shafik. She was the ex-deputy Bank of England governor. She said that she doesn’t like the glass ceiling metaphor because that suggests to her, if one woman smashes through, it totally shatters and everyone can come through, and she said that wasn’t her experience. For example, Theresa May becoming Prime Minister didn’t mean that there was a huge boost in women coming into politics. She said she prefers this idea of a sticky door where you have to push and someone has to pull, and then it closes again. Because, I think that progress is not that one things happens and then it’s immediately alright for everyone, because some people get left behind and it’s about using your success and your support to help the next person through. Sticky Door deals with sex, stigma and mental health and even though it’s a one person show, it certainly hasn’t got there on my own and it’s sort of a way to celebrate the people who’ve helped me and help more women get through things.

Katie Arnstein will be performing Sticky Door at the VAULT festival

Sticky Door is on from the 11th – 16th February as part of the VAULT festival, at The Vaults Theatre on Leake Street.

On the 16th February , she’s doing all 3 parts of the It’s A Girl Trilogy. You can get tickets to see all 3 for £25! That’s your weekend plans sorted.


Photo Credit : Simon Jefferis


Theatre Editor

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