The story of how Georgina Cates broke into film reads like a footnote to Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon or a weird hybrid of Sybil and A Star Is Born. In the early ’90s, Cates, then known by her birth name of Clare Woodgate, was an aspiring actress who had trained at London’s Guildhall School of Drama and done some television work. One day, she learned that director Mike Newell was adapting Beryl Bainbridge’s novel An Awfully Big Adventure for the screen and decided she was meant to play the role of Stella Bradshaw, the novel’s young protagonist.
After petitioning the film’s casting director Susie Figgis for months and sending in an 8 x 10 photo and resumé, Woodgate was told that the film’s producers were looking for a young unknown who, like Stella, hailed from Liverpool. Against the advice of her colleagues and friends, she duly changed her identity to that of Georgina Cates, adopted a Liverpudlian accent, and donned a wig. Her transformation was convincing enough to fool Figgis, director Newell, and everyone else involved in the production, and as Georgina Cates, she won the role. She continued the ruse for the duration of the film’s shoot, telling everybody that she was born in Liverpool and traveled to London on the weekends to attend acting classes. Cates even got her mother in on the act, having her pose as an aunt from Essex (where Cates actually grew up).
The actress’ gamble ultimately paid off; when An Awfully Big Adventure, which also starred Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman, was released to generally positive reviews in Britain, Cates’ performance was singled out for praise by a number of critics. After she eventually revealed her true identity, some observers noted that her deception was an appropriate one, given that the character of Stella, who joins a dysfunctional post-war rep company with dreams of becoming an actress, is in part built on a foundation of willful ambition.
Unfortunately, Cates’ subsequent efforts have failed to measure up to the flamboyant first act of her career. After legally changing her name, she went on to supporting roles in such films as Frankie Starlight (1995), Illuminata (1998), and Clay Pigeons (1998), and starring turns in such little-seen features as Stiff Upper Lips (1997) and A Soldier’s Sweetheart (1998). The last of these, a drama set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, featured Cates opposite Skeet Ulrich, whom she married in 1997.