I was taking overdoses all the time,” says Vicky Knight, remembering her life before her first film role. “I was self-harming, cutting myself. I had got to the point where I didn’t want to live with the scars anymore. I tried scratching them off. I hated them, hated the way I looked. Every time I saw myself in the mirror, I cried.”
In the hour that we spend together, during which the 24-year-old recalls surviving a fire that killed two of her young cousins and the decade of vicious bullying and ostracism she endured in its wake, this is the closest Knight has come to losing her composure.
She was 22 when she was cast in the unflinchingly intimate film Dirty God, as a young mother who is attacked with acid by her ex-boyfriend and left with life-changing scars. Many of those scars were real; when she was eight, Knight was trapped in a fire, suffering burns on 33 per cent of her body.
Clutching the hand of her girlfriend in a crowded Stratford cafe, her hair pulled back to reveal the lesions on her neck, Knight tells me about the blaze that broke out at her grandfather’s Stoke Newington pub on the night of 27 July 2003. She had fallen asleep alongside her cousins while a lock-in was underway downstairs. “Next thing I know,” she says, “I’m woken up by my cousin Denise saying there’s a fire.”
It is unclear how the blaze started – afterwards, Knight’s aunt Kate was found not guilty of manslaughter and arson – but it was fierce. The children tried to open the windows to escape, only to find that they were stuck shut. A local plumber, Ronnie Springer, came to rescue them, and Knight remembers him smiling and telling her, “Don’t worry, I’m going to get you out.”
“I thought he was sweating,” she says, “but I now know that he was actually melting in front of my eyes. He was melting like a candle.”
Knight escaped the flames, and was taken to hospital, where her mother arrived with a priest, “because they didn’t know if I was going to survive or not”. Knight, Denise and another cousin, Joe, pulled through. But four-year-old Charlie – who had 95 per cent burns to his body – and his 10-year-old brother Christopher both died. As would, six weeks later, the man who saved her life.
A decade after the fire, when Knight was 18, she posted a video about her burns online. The five-minute film went viral and was later seen by casting director Lucy Pardee, who is renowned for scouting non-professional performers. “Any way she could get hold of me, she tried,” says Knight.
At first, Knight ignored Pardee’s attempts at contact. She had previously been duped into appearing on a dating show called Too Ugly for Love, and wanted to avoid a repeat of this humiliation. But when she learnt about Dirty God’s premise and was introduced to its Dutch director Sacha Polak, she eventually agreed to come on board.
Dirty God, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, is a raw, searing, and at times darkly funny study of a woman desperately trying to rebuild her life and identity after an acid attack. The result of extensive interviews with burns survivors, the film offers a rare insight into the lives of people who find themselves ostracised because of the way they look.
At the hospital, when Knight’s character Jade is reunited with her daughter, the child is frightened of her appearance, and has to be convinced that Mummy is a “nice monster”. At work, colleagues mock her scars, wondering aloud if she had botched plastic surgery. At home, Jade tries to reclaim her sexuality by masturbating for men online, the lights low in her bedroom so the webcam won’t pick up her burns.
“In the beginning, I didn’t want to do it,” Knight says of these nude scenes. “I never showed my body to anyone in a sexual way. If I was to sleep with anyone, I’d always have a T-shirt on. But I think it looks great in the film. I don’t think it looks dirty.”
Filming Dirty God was triggering for Knight. “It was so f***ing hard,” she says, “because I had to relive what I’d been through as a kid – adapting to life, not using my hands as well – but in character, as Jade, as an adult. I had so many breakdowns on set, it was unbelievable. I scared my director a couple of times.”
As painful as the film was to make, Knight says that without it, she “wouldn’t be here today”. “It wasn’t until I saw Dirty God for the first time that I saw someone else, not me, with my scars,“ she says. “That film saved my life. I almost gave up, and you can’t do anything when you’re in a box. I’ve realised now that being different is all right. It’s better than being normal. I want to live. I don’t want to die. I want to outlive my bullies.”
Before Dirty God, Knight “literally saw no way out”. She missed a year of primary school after the fire and spent months in hospital, undergoing multiple skin grafts and operations. “As soon as I hit secondary school, that was it,” she says. “I was beaten up pretty much every day. People would walk past me and flick lighters at me, put fags in my face and threaten to burn my house down.”
For a while, Knight tried to fit in by making dark jokes at her own expense, telling people, “When I die, I’m going to get a half-price cremation.” She also used to quip that Freddy Krueger was her father. “It’s not funny,” she says now. “It got to the point where I was insulting myself all the time. When people complimented me, I didn’t know how to take it.”
In her teenage years, Knight says, “getting in relationships was awful”. “I was on dating websites but I wouldn’t show my scars on there. Then, when I told them on the phone that I was covered in scars, that was it, I’d get blocked.” Knight has been with her girlfriend since she returned from filming Dirty God in Morocco. They talked online for six years before they met in person – Knight kept making excuses to avoid meeting up.
It’s not just Knight’s romantic relationships that have been affected by her trauma – social events like bonfire night and Halloween are particularly difficult times of year. “I can’t stand the noise of fireworks after the gas explosion at the pub,” she explains. Knight recently wrote a letter to a fancy dress shop condemning them for selling “burnt alive make-up”. “It really f***s me off that people think that’s acceptable,” she says. “I didn’t get a reply.”
Knight, who wanted to be a firefighter before being told she wouldn’t pass the physical test because of her burns, splits her time between working as a healthcare assistant at the hospital in Chelmsford where she was treated, and auditioning for acting roles. Soon, she might not have much time for the former. Her performance in Dirty God has earned nominations in the Best Actress and Most Promising Newcomer categories at the British Independent Film Awards, and she has been named one of this year’s Bafta Breakthrough Brits. Is she enjoying her newfound fame?
“These days, I don’t know if people are recognising me in the street from the film or if they’re staring at my scars,” she says, recalling a woman who approached her to tell her how much she loved Dirty God. “I can’t go out anymore with the attitude of, ‘Stop f***ing looking at me,’ because I don’t know why they’re looking.”
“I’m not known as the girl with the scars anymore,” she adds, beaming at me across the table. “I’m known as the girl in the movie.”
Dirty God is released on DVD and Digital on 25 November