How did you start out as a performer?
I always enjoyed performing as a child but it was when I was 15 that I knew I wanted to be an actor: I performed the ‘pivotal’ role of English Ambassador in my school’s production of Hamlet – essentially coming on at the end of the four-hour play to say ‘And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead’. I was bitten by the acting bug. I went on to join my local amateur group, performed plays at university, at the Edinburgh Fringe and eventually drama school in London.
You’ve been in hit TV programmes like Miranda, EastEnders, Casualty, Doctors and Pramface. How different is performing to a live audience? Which do you prefer?
Acting for TV requires as naturalistic a performance as possible and an awareness of technical things like the size of shot (close up, wide angle etc), as these all dictate how much you can do in front of the camera and still appear believable. Miranda was slightly different as it was recorded in front of a live studio audience – allowing performers to walk a tight-rope between theatre and TV. I personally love the energy and immediacy you get from theatre – you have to be just as truthful, but it’s a truth that needs to be transmitted to the last row of the auditorium.
As well as performing in Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain you also wrote a lot of the script. How did that work?
‘Instructions’ is a wonderful historical document but also a hugely rich jumping-off point for creating the world of 1942. We worked incredibly hard with our director John Walton to understand the period, to workshop and improvise the potential scenarios the GIs would have faced, and to write various sections of the show. I come from a background of sketch comedy – but I have also written some full length plays – and ‘Instructions’ is a joyous marriage of both styles.
Was it difficult to play an American character? How did you research your role?
We did a lot of research – a lot – from reading about the period, watching 1940s war movies, meeting people who remembered 1940s US soldiers and visiting old US airbases. Without that work it would have been incredibly difficult to get into the mind of a 1940s US solider and create a realistic character. Another major aspect is the accent and personality, and again that requires research and rehearsal – and American friends to test your accent on!
Comedy is often looked down upon compared to drama. Do you think that’s fair?
No! Comedy is just as valid an art form as drama, requiring immaculate precision and timing. An actor performing drama to a quiet, unresponsive crowd may feel he has succeeded; whereas a comedy actor performing to a quiet unresponsive crowd will know he has failed.
Do you have any advice for budding comedians or actors?
I once asked the great Shakespearean actress Jane Lapotaire if she had any advice for young actors and she replied ‘Yes – don’t do it!’ What she meant was, if there’s anything else you’d rather do than be an actor, then do that instead. Working in the entertainment industry is incredibly hard work and if you just want to be famous or rich, then this definitely isn’t the career for you. But, if you have a burning passion, if you love transforming yourself into different characters, if you wake up every morning desperate to act – then go out and do it. Perform at school, make short films, write plays – discover, learn and develop your skills. For me, this is the greatest vocation in the world.