I’m ginger, which makes both of those things slightly challenging! Drama was definitely not on the list of things that made you ‘cool’ back then, neither was it a profession taken seriously by any teachers, even my own school Drama teacher! But on the last day of that half term Drama course, we had the opportunity to perform a short-improvised piece of theatre to the parents.
The short-ad-libbed argument I’d planned to have with one of the boys on the course quickly turned into an almighty improvised row. We both played up to the audience a bit and, truth be told, I milked it for all it was worth. But, as this bespectacled young lad and I were screaming at each other, completely upstaging everyone else, I decided I rather liked this acting lark! In fact, I loved it! Being able inhabit different characters yet able to go back to your own life in the click of a finger. Brilliant!
When the two-month run of the play ended, I attended two local part time Drama schools and for the next SIX YEARS, I lead something of a double life. Trying to keep up the pretence of being part of my slightly ‘naughty’ gang of mates I’d managed to make at school, amongst which I had genuinely made some great friends, I would socialise with them during school and after school, apart from Thursday and Saturday afternoons, when I would be at Drama and singing classes. Spending time with slightly more like-minded people, who were all refreshingly more bothered about having fun and singing songs from “Rent”, than how “hard” they looked.
So, I would finish rehearsals at 9pm, jump on the 248 bus, run upstairs to the back seat and change out of my rather embarrassing red theatre school tracksuit and into my jeans, Reebok Classics and Ben Sherman shirt. I’d discard my theatre clobber in the bush next to Upminster Park and then meet up with my school mates, wherever they were, making up some elaborate lie about having been at boxing practice. (They must have thought I was very good at boxing what with all the ‘practice’ I had!)
This went on right up until my last year of school. The careers adviser had already laughed at me when I’d said I wanted to be an actor and he’d suggested I might be better off working on a building site. Nothing wrong with that but it wasn’t for me. So, I said that, as a backup plan, I’d quite like to be an architect, as that meant I could take Graphic Design for my exams, in addition to Drama. I soon found out I couldn’t even draw a straight line, let alone design any architectural masterpieces, but I was able to take Drama and English Literature for my GCSE’s, both of which I loved!
We found a London based children’s Agency and after auditioning, they took me on. My first “proper acting job” was almost too good to be true. I was a huge Oasis fan. Still am. My first casting was as a ‘featured character extra’ in the Oasis music video ‘Go let it Out’. I got the job and it was beyond my wildest dreams! I was paid absolute peanuts but got to spend two whole days on a double-decker bus with Liam and Noel and the boys.
I was like a kid in a sweet shop! The song and video went to number 1 and all of a sudden, this career path which I’d chosen wasn’t quite so pathetic to my school mates, who I still saw, after all and I had my first taste of a tiny bit of kudos from the industry I so desperately wanted to get into.
I kept on auditioning – getting some – not getting others, but roles in The Bill, Hope and Glory and the BBC drama, Killers, soon followed. So, whilst studying for my B Tech and English Literature A levels, I managed to carve out a semi decent fledgling career as an actor. Playing mostly ‘one off’ small speaking roles in television dramas, as well as some commercials, I was getting paid to do what I loved, but I knew that my passion really lay in theatre which is a different discipline altogether and one in which I knew deep down I’d need to go off and train properly for.
So, after taking my A levels I and took three years out of acting work to do a Degree in Theatre Performance at London’s Mountview Academy of Performing Arts. I’d auditioned for eight drama colleges and was offered a place at four of them, including RADA and Mountview, the two at the top of my wish list.
However, with fees of upwards of £12,000 per year, I could only go if I was awarded a scholarship by one of the colleges. Mountview did and RADA didn’t, which made my decision very easy.
For three years I trained from 9am until 10pm most days in every aspect of Performing Arts and the Theatre Industry and, despite being very nervous about taking three years out to study and learn the discipline of Theatre, it was the best decision I ever made. I came out of Drama College in 2003, quickly found a new Agent and picked up where I’d left off. Only now, I had far more knowledge of the industry I was entering and had far more strings to my bow to help achieve my aspirations.
I never dreamed of being famous or rich, but just wanted to make a decent living, doing as many different things in the job that I love. There have certainly been ups and downs. I’ve had my share of knock backs, but I’m lucky to be able to do just what I’ve always aspired to do. There have been times when I’ve had to take on extra jobs in order to pay the bills in between acting jobs, but on the whole, I’ve made a decent living and have been able to do jobs and play roles I only ever dreamed of! On television I’ve been able to play parts in EastEnders, Call the Midwife, Silent Witness, Law & Order, Primeval, Titanic, Doctors, Undercover and many more.
I’ve been in musicals in the West End like Les Misérables, Made in Dagenham, Dirty Dancing & High Society. I’ve got to work for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and play lovely roles (as well as tiny ones) in lovely plays and I’m currently playing Ron Weasley in arguably the biggest and most successful play in the world at the moment – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is unbelievably exciting. I’m very lucky and very grateful.
One other thing though, along the way, which I’ve loved doing, is teaching and I have done a lot of it over the years. And the two pieces of advice I always give when asked for it by aspiring actors is this: Find another way of making money! It sounds odd but it’s true. I’ve been lucky enough to be able live off my acting work for the majority of the time, but there have been periods when there were no roles going for stocky, ginger, cockney blokes and I’ve had to find and juggle lots of ‘in between jobs’, some of which have been good fun and some of which have been AWFUL, to supplement my income as an actor.
I’ve been fortunate to find those jobs, but I do wish I’d had something more substantial to fall back on to make money. This is why teaching has been a hugely welcome and rewarding extra way of bringing in some much-needed pennies in the past and it’s something I still try and fit in now, even when my acting work is paying the bills. So, I will always say: Study hard! Find something else you like doing or that you’re good at which can possibly earn you money in the future. Don’t just think “I’m going to be an actor, so that’s all I need to know.” Learn and take in all you can from every area you study in.
Don’t just take in the things that interest you. Learn a trade, or an instrument. Read. Gain as much knowledge as possible about your chosen industry, because passing on that knowledge when you’re not actively working in it can be a great source of income in those difficult periods. Arm yourself with as many tools to be able to do as many jobs as possible, when acting work goes a little quiet. The second piece of advice I give is that the most important thing you ever need to learn how to portray as an actor, is confidence.
There aren’t many decent actors out there who aren’t absolutely terrified the majority of the time they are performing or auditioning, but you can’t show it. Confidence breeds in every industry, not just acting. If the person you are trying to persuade to employ you believes that you’re confident in yourself, then they’ll have confidence in you getting the job done and not collapsing under pressure when it really counts. Even if underneath, you’re a sweaty mess, whether you’re in an audition room or on stage or in front of a camera, confidence, or at least the portrayal of confidence, is key.
There’s an awful lot of luck in my industry and an awful lot of ups and downs. I’ve been so lucky. I’ve been able to go all over the world and film in glamorous locations, been picked up in nice cars, driven to film sets and spent the day in my own trailer waiting to do my scenes. I’ve performed in massive West End shows and played roles I’d never have believed if you’d told me twenty years ago.
But I’ve also worked in leaky, smelly, underground scare attractions dressed as zombies. I’ve dressed up in ridiculous costumes, handing out flyers. I’ve been told I haven’t got this job or that job for some pretty harsh reasons. But on the whole, I’ve been very lucky, because I haven’t had to pack it all in. Along the way I’ve met and worked with some actors far more talented than me, who simply haven’t had the breaks they deserved and couldn’t earn a decent enough living, so they’ve had to give it all up, move back home and get a ‘real job’, as some would say. But I would wager that even those people don’t regret giving it a go.
So, as I sit at the window of my dressing room, overlooking Shaftesbury Avenue, all dressed up and about to perform a matinee in what is probably my biggest & proudest job to date, I feel very blessed that I’ve had enough experience in this industry to warrant writing this piece. I was very touched to be asked. I suppose what I’d like to say is that if you really want to do something, if there’s a career path that you’re really passionate about, then do it! Don’t let others tell you that it’s a silly idea. Prove them wrong. But you can’t prove them wrong by waiting for it to land in your lap!
Work hard, study, read, be determined & don’t give up!
*Rehearsals began this week for the third West End cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child who will start their performances at the Palace Theatre in London on 23 May 2018 following the final performance from the current cast on 20 May 2018.