With an impressive and extensive stage background, what directed you towards television and the BBC’s new take on Howards End?
Well first off I loved the sound of the odd couple that had been put together of E.M. Forster and Kenneth Lonergan. The classic repressed English gent and the wry and savvy New Yorker. I was intrigued to see what the result would be. Like wondering how Woody Allen would get on with Bertie Wooster. And then reading the scripts I discovered the result was completely brilliant. All the period detail and feeling had been retained but also had been brought to life with overlapping dialogue and human details that meant each character felt completely rounded and real. Kenny’s managed to stay totally true to the novel whilst making it feel like these are modern people and so it’s a totally fresh and exciting approach to a “period” drama. And then on top of that there’s the excitement for me personally of exploring the differences between stage and screen acting. We filmed over two and a half months and so I relished the chance to really get stuck into the filming world and to learn from others and improve at it. It’s eerily similar to acting on stage and yet at the same time completely different. It also doesn’t hurt that my Dad’s played by Matthew Macfadyen and I am a huge fan of Spooks.
What were the main challenges you faced while working on Howards End? And what came to you easily?
Well let’s start with the shorter list of things that came easily: Drinking too much coffee, eating too many biscuits, ruining takes by laughing…so that’s that covered, now on to the challenges: Driving a car from 1905 when power steering hadn’t been invented, whose pedals were the wrong way round, and whose gears were outside the door on the right. Filming out of sequence. When you’re used to the stage it’s a real challenge to find that your first day of filming will be the last scene in the whole series and vice versa. The importance of doing the work before the day and really knowing your character inside out becomes paramount. Not banging on about Spooks to Matthew too much. Not ruining takes by laughing. Not doing “period” acting. This was the number one note from Hettie our director. Countless times you’d finish a scene and she’d say “No. Too much period acting. Do it again and loosen up. BE HUMAN!” It’s very easy and tempting to let your starched collar and stiff upper lip take over and forget what is actually going on, what the character is actually feeling and doing. The amount of time on set when you’re not actually doing anything. I’d say this may have been the biggest challenge. You’re on set from the crack of dawn until late into the night sometimes and you need to find a way to stay alert and ready for action without exhausting yourself. Any second the 1st AD may come over and say “You’re on! Time for your big emotional pinnace scene.” And so you need to be ready to dive straight in at all times. Hayley Atwell was a fantastic leader. Quite apart from turning in a truly brilliant performance, she would keep us going with games like ‘Heads Up’ and ‘Bananagrams’. Her energy and commitment really set the tone. She lead by example.
You’ve spent time with British acting legends Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsay, what did you take with you from that experience?
That was my first ever professional job and so I turned up completely green, bursting with nerves and excitement and ready to soak up everything I could. I remember watching Robert in rehearsals and noticing how utterly relaxed and natural he seemed whilst being completely responsive and reactive. And I think that’s what great acting is: the ability to seem completely at ease whilst internally being fiercely switched on, sharp and alive to all around you. Seems obvious and fundamental but it is much harder to put into practice than it sounds. And Joanna Lumley, by turns hilarious and biting in her performance, lead and looked after the company with all the charm and grace that I suppose you’d expect from her. She would make sure to check in with everyone and find out about their lives. Even to the point of telling me a lovely fountain pen is always a great present when I mentioned off hand that I wasn’t sure what to buy my aunt for Christmas. It was a lesson in how much there is to a leading actor’s job beyond just what they do on stage or on screen, the way they lead and look after their company has a huge impact on the show as a whole.
Social Media is now a huge aspect of many industries, has it impeded or complimented your experience as an actor?
I suppose the biggest impact social media has had on my experience as an actor and also as an audience member is there are so many more reviewers and critics than there used to be. Quotes from twitter are now used instead of quotes from reviews sometimes to publicise shows. In fact the Book of Mormon ran a campaign that I think was exclusively reviews from twitter. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. On one level it’s more democratic as it means shows, films and TV shows don’t live or die based on the opinion of one or two critics and there’s a platform for anyone to get involved in discussing what they think. But then on the other hand it’s quite overwhelming and confusing. It means if you want to find a good review or a bad review you probably can.
The public audience has a hunger for knowing the private life of actors and actresses, as well as many others in the entertainment industry. How do you keep those separate when embarking on a career in acting?
I’d say up to a point it’s just each individual’s choice about what they share. Some may be comfortable talking about their families and personal life and some not. Obviously after a certain level of fame the choice can be taken out of your hands.
Have you found your acting experience changes as you get older?
It does change but I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly how…It’s a sort of strange mix of growing confidence and growing insecurity. With age comes the feeling that I should probably know what I’m doing by now and be a grown up but I really don’t! I usually try to reassure myself with the thought that everyone else is probably thinking that too! I think my favourite take on growing up as an actor comes from Uncle Monty in ‘Withnail and I’: “It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself “I will never play the Dane””
Do you intend to continue with television acting for the time being or is there a return to the stage any time soon?
Well I’d love to do some more screen work as I’m still relatively new to it and there’s a lot to learn, but it all depends on the part really. I just finished a play called ‘Ramona Tells Jim’ at the Bush Theatre which couldn’t have been more different from Howards End and that variety is what I love about my job. I get to go from filming as a conceited and serious toff to playing a troubled, Scottish crustacean fanatic on stage. So I’ll do anything as long as it’s different!!
Howards End starts on Sunday, November 12 at 9pm on BBC One.
Interview by Ian Casey
Photography by Andrea Vecchiato