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Linda Nylind

How an inspiring new British drama saved its young star’s life

Burns survivor Vicky Knight on how starring in ‘Dirty God’ lifted her from her lowest ebb

By Phil de Semlyen
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If the transformative power of cinema often makes you think of super-serums and radioactive spiders, ‘Dirty God’ takes the idea a step beyond. The London-set drama has transformed the life of its 23-year-old star, Vicky Knight. Aged eight, she was caught in a fire in a Stoke Newington pub. She survived, but suffered 33 percent burns. Now, 15 years on, she’s starring in a film that channels her own experiences into the story of a twentysomething Londoner recovering from a horrific acid attack. The film has had the same effect on its star. ‘I was at rock bottom before this,’ says Knight. ‘I didn’t want to live with my scars any more. I was suicidal.’

She nearly didn’t do ‘Dirty God’ at all. Knight had been stung once before on screen, agreeing to take part in a documentary that turned out to be, well, not a documentary at all. ‘It was actually a dating programme called “Too Ugly for Love,”’ she says. ‘Well, I’m gay and they sent me on dates with boys – it was a shambles.’

I’m gay and they sent me on dates with boys – it was a shambles

Enter Sacha Polak, a Dutch filmmaker looking for someone with real scars to play Jade. The character is grappling with her transformed appearance in an Insta-obsessed world. Prosthetics were never considered; the director needed someone who’d lived the experience. ‘If you don’t believe the scars, you have a problem straight away with the film,’ Polak says. ‘We saw every female burns survivor of the right age in the UK during casting, and I was taken by Vicky immediately. She was so special and full of life.’

Amma Asante on setVicky Knight on set in Morocco with director Sacha Polak

Even then, Knight took a lot of persuading – a year’s worth, in fact – before agreeing to play Jade. ‘Sacha and I became friends before we even started shooting,’ she says. ‘We went clubbing, we went on days out, we went back to where my accident happened. She taught me to swim, although I hated her when she’d wake me up and make me go swimming.’ Polak remembers those early mornings well. ‘There was a lot of cursing and hangovers!’

The shoot took place in Morocco and Holland, as well as in Hackney and on Knight’s own patch in Dagenham. Non-filming nights had the cast and crew out on the tiles in Shoreditch; filming mornings could be hazy. Inevitably, some of the scenes were difficult for Knight, as Jade’s journey conjured up her own trauma. ‘Vicky made everyone smile every day on set because it was all so new to her,’ says Polak, ‘but there were moments where it was really, really tough on her.’ All that pain is there on the screen, the euphoria too, in a revelatory debut performance.

I’ve gone from rock bottom to top of the world

With ‘Dirty God’ about to hit cinemas, Knight is feeling the jangle of nerves (‘Actually, I’m shitting myself!’ she laughs) but she’s hoping the film will open more doors. ‘I don’t have an agent yet but I want to be an actress. If I get the opportunity to act again, then hell yes.’ A few months on from wrapping on the film and she’s still buzzing. ‘I’ve gone from rock bottom to top of the world,’ she says. ‘I hope this film shows people that there’s life after scars.’

‘Dirty God’ is in cinemas from Fri Jun 7. Read our review here

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