Wave pictures - An interview with Sean Pertwee
25 years after the release of the British surfing classic Blue Juice, we caught up with actor Sean Pertwee about his breakthrough role as a Cornish surfer – talking big waves, learning to surf like a pro, why he’s still in love with Cornwall more than a quarter of a century later, and how it felt to see the film projected on a big screen at Watergate Bay.
“I just couldn't believe how pristine everything was,” muses actor Sean Pertwee, reminiscing about the first time he clapped eyes on Cornwall, a quarter of a century ago. “The green cliffs, the white beaches, the blueness of the sea. It knocked me sideways. It was the start of this great adventure: my love affair with surfing, a passion that’s lasted for more than 25 years. God that makes me sound old, doesn’t it? I can’t really believe it’s been that long.”
Ageing concerns aside, there’s a reason Sean has found himself pondering his Cornish past this year. 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Blue Juice, one of his breakthrough roles, and arguably the most successful film about British surfing ever made. To mark the occasion, Wavelength Magazine presented a series of drive-in screenings on the cliffs above Watergate Bay, inviting a coterie of cast and crew back to watch the film.
“I hadn’t seen it for about 12 years,” Sean says. “And it was so fantastic to see it again, with my wife and kids, staying at this incredible hotel on a clifftop just a few miles down the road from where we made it. We got the chance to catch up with lots of old friends, and hear how much people still loved the film. It brought it back, like it all happened yesterday.”
In the film, Sean plays ‘ageing’ surf champion J.C. who, nudging 30, is struggling to reconcile his passion for surfing with the encroaching responsibilities of adult life – particularly his relationship with Chloe, played by a very young Catherine Zeta Jones in her first big-screen role. Sweet, goofy and funny, it’s a time capsule of the mid-1990s – rave culture, northern soul, tabloid journalism and environmental angst are all woven in, alongside a very obvious affection for the Cornish surf scene of the time.
“Back then, surfing wasn’t the mainstream activity it is now,” Sean explains. “It was an outlaw thing, this hardcore community for whom surfing was the be all and end all. Carl [Prechezer] and Simon [Relph], the director and producer, had noticed this special scene and decided to make it the backdrop for our story.”
Filmed over three months, the film was shot on location in Cornwall, using a largely local crew and extras recruited from the surfing community around St Agnes. Locally based Surfers Against Sewage and Mambo provided much of the gear.
“It was a very Cornish film in lots of ways,” Sean explains. “People here were incredible to us. We became part of the community. The Driftwood Spars at Trevaunance Cove became our unofficial HQ, and we built the set for my van in an old school above St Ives. In the lunch break we’d get told off for nipping down to the sea for a quick surf and getting back late to the set!” he laughs.
The most pressing challenge for Sean was obviously learning how to look like a champion surfer – particularly given the fact that, prior to being cast, he’d never ridden a wave before.
“I spent three months before filming getting to grips with it,” he remembers. “I grew up in Ibiza in the 1960s, so I was already familiar with the sea, but I was already 30 by the time we started filming, which is pretty old to start surfing. Honestly, I don't think they thought I could do it, but thanks to the teachers I had, amazing guys like Rob Small and Steve England, I just absorbed as much as I could. And after a few weeks, I got the bug. I became obsessed with it.”
In the end, he filmed the majority of his own surfing scenes – including the final big wave sequences, in which J.C. successfully surfs a killer wave known as the Boneyard.
“We filmed those out at La Santa in Lanzarote. The waves there were really big, eight to ten feet; scary for a good surfer, let alone a novice like me. But against the odds I caught some good ones. In fact, there were quite a few shots we ended up not being able to use, because Steve was so stoked that I hadn’t wiped out spectacularly, he forgot he was supposed to stay out of the way of the camera! I’d give anything to see those outtakes.”
The film was also the start of Sean’s long love affair with surfing, which has since taken him around the world, from the coastline of Costa Rica to the beaches of Bali – but Cornwall, he says, will always be his spiritual surfing home. The Pertwee family now owns a holiday home near Polzeath, and still has many friends down here, many dating back to Blue Juice days.
“I just fell in love with this place all those years ago, and I’ve been in love with it ever since,” he says. “There’s something so special about it. Sadly I don’t get nearly as much time to surf as I’d like these days - the need to surf anything and everything mellows the older you get – but it will always be a big part of my life, and I will be forever grateful to Cornwall for that.”
Staying at Watergate Bay Hotel also gave Sean the chance to see how things had changed since filming nearby more than two decades ago. “I’d known Watergate for years, of course, it was always one of the prime spots. But the hotel there is so lovely now: such an amazing setting, great food, it’s perfect really. And everything is so relaxed, that’s what’s really cool about it. There’s one thing I couldn’t believe, though, and that’s how many people there were in the water! That’s something that’s definitely changed since Blue Juice. Surfing’s for everyone now, it’s great.”
So does he think the film still stands up, 25 years on?
“Absolutely!” he says with a smile. “When we made it, cinema was moving into gnarly, tough stories like Trainspotting. Blue Juice was more of an old-fashioned story: a rom-com really, about love and friendship, and that’s one of the reasons I loved it. We wanted to make a film that portrayed Cornwall’s surfers faithfully, and I think we managed that. Watching it again – especially in a place as magical as Watergate – made me very nostalgic, and incredibly proud of what we all achieved. Above all, it’s been so touching to realise how closely people still hold the film to their hearts after all these years. It was worth every wipeout.”
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