When it comes to creating characters from scratch, nobody’s more prolific then Nina Conti. An internationally acclaimed ventriloquist, comedian and actress, Nina’s considered to be in the top in her very selective field. So when her former mentor and lover artist Ken Campbell passes and leaves his plethora of puppets to the already prepared to move on top ventriloquist, Nina finds herself at a crossroads. Should she continue doing that which she has already mastered? So the funny lady decides to head on down to Venthaven, home of a ventriloquist festival and a famed final resting place for the puppets of dead ventriloquists to get some inspiration and answers. The outcome is the new documentary "Nina Conti: Her Master’s Voice" (available now on DVD through Virgil Films), a humorous, insightful and surprisingly honest look at Nina and her puppet journey. We got the chance to sit down one-on-one for some personal chat time with the lovely Nina, sans her constant hand companion Monk, and found her to be both funny and incredibly engaging. What follows is an intimate interview on everything from her feelings about the late Ken Campbell to collaborating with the likes of Christopher Guest. So without further adieu, here’s the captivating...
I recently read a quote from you about the fact that how much you miss your mentor Ken Campbell was not totally in your film– can you talk a bit about him and what he meant to your life both personally and professionally.
Nina Conti: I think that quote is somehow out of context because I think it is in my film how much I miss Ken – it could not be anymore in my film. But it does come up pretty high on the Google search for the film, huh? I can't remember even saying that. How much he meant to me is conveyed in the film and what he meant to me was a very big life signpost – I haven’t met his like before or since.
You do go into some rather revealing declarations about why you got the Monk in the first place, but what made you choose him specifically as your staple sidekick?
NC: It wasn’t a very conscious choice. At the time I was just learning ventriloquism and I had a puppet and I didn't really like it. I was staying at a flat and I found this puppet on the floor in a flat mate’s things. I thought he’s funny, but it didn't occur to me to use him as a ventriloquist doll. For a while I used to make him hump inanimate objects and it would crack me and everyone else up, but I started speaking with him and it just changed my life.
What’s interesting about the doc is the heartbreaking items you reveal – was there any hesitation about putting in some of the more personal revelations?
NC: No, because it was very much to do with seeing how the story was shaped as a whole and it was so vital to have it there. When you took it out it would have been like taking the heart out of it. You have to try not to let your ego make the decisions and try to make the best film you can.
I did notice that the great Christopher Guest executive produced, so did he have any advice?
NC: He was great actually and very funny because the few times I would show him I’d go, ‘What do you think of that – is it too much?’ And he’s go, ‘Do you think it’s too much?’ And I was like, ‘I want to know what you think.’ And he’s like, ‘I just think it should be what you think.’ (Laughs) But that’s the kind of executive producer you want, isn’t it?
What effect did receiving the puppets from Ken in his will have on you and do you use any of the non-donated ones in your act?
NC: There were a few that didn’t make it – misshapen and odd looking. He had a lot of sock puppets with think tufts of hair and weird faces. Just Granny went into Venthaven and then I got them to make another one. The owl made it into the next show I did and the Ken puppet I gave to that little boy. But it was not planned – it was very serendipitous. But Jack, I don't like that puppet, it’s a horrible looking thing. And Crow I lost – how could I do that? Well, he was a sock essentially...and socks go missing.
Since your father is actor Tom Conti, did him being a performer help in terms of support and understanding for your work?
NC: Yes, very much so. He’s very supportive – he’s my biggest fan. It did help I think. He would always try to explain about trying to be real as possible. If they see you’re acting, good luck.
We see a few scenes between yourself and your husband, but both times your again using the monkey – how often does Monk show up in your everyday personal life at home?
NC: Well, occasionally, just very occasionally I will use Monkey to talk to him as a joke. And he always finds it quite funny. It’s not on a daily basis – maybe once every three months maybe. I’ll think of something funny and he’ll humor me.
You head to the Venthaven Festival and you seemed to be almost disheartened at first – do you feel like in this age of technology that it’s an act that has run its course?
NC: Not really. I had been doing it on my own and I though I took my own act as far as it could go - I’d made enough monkey jokes. And then meeting all these people like me, I loved it and it was so nonjudgmental. A crazy place where everybody’s happy to be goofy and it was really liberating.
Venthaven almost comes off as a tad depressing and morose – what is the actual vibe like inside?
NC: The silence is loud I think. Because they’re all meant to speak and you can just imagine everyone who is dead – that’s how I find it from a ventriloquist perspective. It’s quite heavy, but I also like it, each character has a rich history.
You chose to do even the commentary track on the DVD with Monk – an odd choice and I was curious why?
NC: I don’t know that there’s anything about the film to say that isn’t already in it. It was just a funny idea. Also in the back of my head I still have Ken directing the film – Ken wants you to do the commentary WITH monkey! Also it makes if different from other commentaries.
"NINA CONTI: HER MASTER’S VOICE" IS AVAILABLE NOW ON DVD FROM VIRGIL FILMS.