Interview de Helen Aspinall (Seventh Form) parue dans l'Oakhamian Magazine (Winter 2005 Edition).
Of all the productions that you were involved with at Oakham, which was the most memorable, and why?
The most memorable show I did at School was probably Stephen Lowe's Touched. Dave Smith and Bob Hescott directed it and we toured to Texas and then to the Edinburgh fringe. It was incredibly exciting going to Edinburgh - I remember feeling like a proper actor for that week... we got a review in 'The Scotsman' which I kept for years afterwards.
Who was your favourite teacher when you were at Oakham School, and why?
I had some really talented, brilliant teachers at Oakham, and some less than inspiring. I remember a History teacher called Miss Merricks, I think. She made the subject fascinating, essential - I couldn't wait for her lessons and thought I'd do History at A-level. Then she left... Rod Smith was a gifted teacher of English and Theatre Studies - he made the text come alive, his energy was erratic and infectious. Also some other wonderful English teachers - Angela Frewin and Ann Wragg I remember very fondly. I remember a new tutor in Wharflands. He couldn't get over the sheer wealth of facilities available to us, how lucky we were.
Who was your Drama teacher? Did he/she have a lasting influence on your acting?
David Smith was our main Theatre Studies teacher and directed many of the school plays. (I think I did about seventeen or eighteen plays during the seven years I was at Oakham). I remember being quite scared of him initially - he could be quite bad tempered - and also he had been an actor for a while, so there was this other side of him. He'd occasionally tell stories about Birmingham Rep and life as an actor and I'd be gripped. He wrote references for me when I was recalled for The Central School of Speech and Drama and when I was accepted at RADA I went round the QET and interrupted a GCSE class to tell him. That was a nice moment. When he realised I was serious about acting he became quite serious and careful about not giving false encouragement to me because he knew what a precarious and unforgiving business it is. Top man.
What advice would you give a student at our School who wanted to have a successful career in acting?
Advice? Don't do it! Well - don't unless you're truly serious and passionate about it. It's a horrendously competitive, overcrowded and harsh profession. When things go well, it's very rewarding but when it's bad it's the pits. See Ian Holm's autobiography Acting my Life and also Chekhov's letter to his wife, Year Of The King by Antony Sher. Try to get into a good Drama school in London - you need the best springboard possible and agents and casting directors don't like travelling far.
Which actor do you think most inspired you to become an actor yourself? Why?
Laurence Olivier, Michael Gambon, Antony Sher, Mark Rylance, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Brando, Pacino, de Niro, Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Nicolas Cage...
Students primarily remember you from Spooks. How did you become involved with the series and do you think there's any chance of Tom Quinn returning to our screens?
Spooks came to me through my agent and I remember thinking how well written and pacy it was. I was a bit wary of doing a series but it wasn't just another crime show/cop drama - I thought it was different and interesting and of course highly topical. I met the producers and director and read a few scenes and got the part a few days later. I really enjoyed doing Spooks - I was a fan of John Le Carré and Len Deighton and all those cold war spy writers, I just liked the genre and I hadn't played a character like Tom before. I did 18 episodes - that was enough. Tom won't be back. He's gone off to run a camping shop in the Brecon Beacons, I reckon. I also met my wife on the show, which was extremely lovely.
How do you learn your lines?
I learn lines with great difficulty if they're badly written and with great ease if they're written well.
Congratulations on becoming a father. How do you balance your home life and your hectic work life?
Balancing home life and work life is tricky because we both work but we've managed fine so far. For most of last year I was working in the theatre and my wife was filming so I was around during the day, and when she arrived back from the set I would go to work. Grandparents have been very helpful too!
You filmed My Father's Den on location in New Zealand. How was this different to working on British-centred projects?
I loved shooting in New Zealand. The people seemed more laid back, the scenery was gorgeous, there's less traffic and the on set catering was infinitely better than in the UK.
You have played many different characters from a Labour Party advisor to a soldier in Warriors and Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Do you prefer period pieces or more modern roles?
I don't really have a preference, although it's good to mix it up a bit. Actors can sometimes get stuck in a rut. A good story is a good story whether you're in a frock coat or a flak jacket.
Did you ever feel like your performance of Darcy was being compared to Colin Firth's?
Comparisons are inevitable. I was bemused when people asked how I was coping with the spectre of Colin Firth as Darcy. I actually felt thrilled and very flattered to be in such good company. You'd never dream of playing Hamlet or Konstantin or Jimmy Porter if you worried about all the fantastic actors who have already played these parts. Also I think you'd come unstuck if you set out solely to make your interpretation different. It's a treat to play these fabulous roles. You simply play the character as you find it, with your own resources, and imagination.
Do you feel more comfortable working on productions for the stage or screen?
If I had to choose, it would be theatre. I'd miss the money though.
Of which of your productions are you most proud?
I think I'm most proud of Warriors, a television film made by Peter Kosminsky about soldiers in Bosnia.
If you could work with anyone, past or present, who would it be, and why?
It would be good to go back in time and work with Olivier, to watch him work. Perhaps he'd seem terribly old-fashioned and a bit silly now, though I'm not sure. I've always been fascinated by him. I've read everything that's been written about him. (There's a fabulous book called Olivier At Work). Doing Perfect Strangers and Henry IV recently at the National Theatre with Michael Gambon was a treat, not just for the joy of working with Gambon, but because I'd relentlessly pepper Michael with questions about Olivier. Gambon got his first job with Olivier's company at the National in the 60s, and has lots of great stories, elaborated, exaggerated and finessed over the years...
What are you working on at the moment? What are your future plans?
At the time of writing, I am jobless. On the scrapheap. In the wilderness.
I don't have a plan, career-wise. I don't think you can plan a career, at least I can't. I know what I don't fancy doing, that's all. I'm not really interested in bagging a huge Hollywood film just for the sake of it. Although I need to keep paying the mortgage and all that. I'd like to still be working when I'm a very old Oakhamian.
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