20 Questions With...Lloyd Owen
Date: 3 February 2003
Actor Lloyd Owen, who plays Agamemnon in Sheffield Crucible's new adaptation of Euripides' Iphigenia, recalls the thrills & spills of Indiana Jones, Edward Albee, Peter Gill & crying 'freedom' in Romania.
Though his first big career break was taking the title role in the The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles on television, actor Lloyd Owen's heart has always been in the theatre.
A member of the National Youth Theatre as a teenager, he has returned to the stage regularly throughout his career. Amongst his early professional productions were Twelfth Night, Macbeth, The Tempest and Pholoctetes for Cheek by Jowl; Our Boys at the Donmar; Henry VI Part III for the RSC; and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, opposite David Suchet and Diana Rigg, at the Almeida Theatre and later then in the West End.
In more recent years, Owen has starred on stage in Closer (West End), Julius Caesar (Young Vic), The Way of the World (Royal Exchange) and last year's acclaimed English Touring Theatre production of Peter Gill's The York Realist, which transferred to the Royal Court and the West End.
This month, Owen returns to the Sheffield Crucible - where he previously appeared with Joseph Fiennes in Edward II - to play the tormented Agamemnon in Edna O'Brien's adaptation of Euripides' classic tragedy, Iphigenia.
When not on stage, Owen’s a familiar television face from series such as Monarch of the Glen, Hearts and Bones, The Vice, Coupling and Dead Gorgeous.
Date & place of birth
Born at Charing Cross Hospital in London on 14 April 1966.
Lives now in...
Battersea, south London.
National Youth Theatre and then the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
First big break
Playing Professor Jones in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. I had a test and a read-through and wasn't sure what the job was, even once I got it. I remember the director said to come in and meet some other people. He took me through and introduced me to George Lucas. I didn't know what to say. But George didn't either; he's famously shy. I worked with some amazing directors on that, and we shot each episode in a different country. I was 24, so still quite young.
On stage, my break was playing Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Howard Davies at the Almeida. I studied it at A-level and it's my favourite play. I walked into rehearsals on the first day and Edward Albee was there, giving us notes. Extraordinary.
Career highlights to date
The major one was with Cheek by Jowl. We were playing The Tempest at the National Theatre in Bucharest while Ceausescu was still in charge. It was a 3,000-seat auditorium and there were 4,000 in the audience. The aisles were filled and there people hanging in the flies, watching us from above. When we got to the part when Caliban says "Freedom, hey-day! hey-day, freedom! freedom, hey-day, freedom!", they all started clapping and shouting. The officials from the Ministry of Culture got up and left, and we had to stop the performance for about three minutes because they wouldn't stop. It was real hairs on the back of the neck, a great demonstration of the power of theatre. At the end, two women came on stage and asked two members of the cast to marry them, just so they could get out of the country. There was chaos the next day with the British Council having to explain to a Ministry of Culture, who didn't realise we would be saying "freedom". I don't know why, it's there in the text.
The York Realist is also very high up there. That was something that was so small and beautiful - and so little was expected of it. It was very gratifying that it was received so well.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
There have been some benchmark productions for me, particularly in theatre. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The York Realist and also Closer, which was phenomenal. Hollywood stars would see the show and then stop in the dressing room afterwards, people like Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, Jack Nicholson, Laurence Fishburne. It was also phenomenal for attracting such a young audience. At the time, Popcorn was playing to young audiences next door, and there was such a buzz on Shaftesbury Avenue. One night, two members of the public were caught shagging in the toilet. It was that kind of play.
First, for The York Realist, I have to give Richard Coyle his credit. David Suchet from Virginia Woolf. If I was any good in that, it was because Howard Davies saw it as a four-hander rather than as a star vehicle for two older actors, and because David gave me the space to perform. He was incredibly generous. I'm also enjoying working with my current co-star, Susan Brown, who plays Clytemnestra (she said if I didn't mention her, she would stab me in the throat at bathtime!), and I've got to mention Frances Barber, who was a riot in Closer.
Howard Davies, Michael Grandage, Declan Donnellan and Peter Gill. There are differing qualities that make each great, but the throughline with them all is that, when they cast you, you absolutely feel that they have never wanted anyone else in that part, even if you were fifth choice. Your talent is never in question so it's a very safe environment in which to work and you trust them. Also, none of them have a great ego; they're there to tell the story. That takes courage and security. I should also mention Bill Gaskill, who I worked with for two terms at RADA. You don't hear so much about him anymore, but he was very influential to a young drama student.
Favourite playwrights Obviously Shakespeare. And Stoppard, if only for the cricket bat speech in The Real Thing. Tennessee Williams, particularly Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. And Peter Gill, because of The York Realist and also the festival of his work they did here at Sheffield last year.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Top of the list is Macbeth. Also Iago, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lenny in The Homecoming, and I'm going to say Hamlet as long as no one gives it to me because it's completely daunting.
What differences do you find performing on stage versus screen?
My screen work often funds my theatre career - that's the way I think of it. Theatre is where my heart and soul is, where I feel absolutely vocational. Creatively, theatre is the most democratic forum for an actor because you have near total control over your performance. It's also where the playwright can never be censored and, as such, that makes it a truly democratic forum for debate. And the communal experience, the chemistry that you get between actors and audience can be extraordinary. It can move you in a way that film can't. That's the power of theatre at it's best. At its worst, it can bore the arse off you.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
There should be some subsidy in place for the West End that is the equivalent of the Royal Court's £5-a-ticket Monday nights. And the £5 should buy good seats, not just the ones up in the gods. If you're closer to the action, it's much easier to engage.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
I would love to be inside Shakespeare's head for a day to see what it was like in there. Was it divine intervention?
Favourite holiday destinations
Morocco is tops. As is India, though it's not quite a holiday, more an experience.
Favourite books At the moment, it's Gitta Sereney's Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth, which was the basis for the National Theatre's production of Albert Speer a few years ago. The book is incredible, a real page-turner. I've also been reading The Forest, Edna O'Brien's latest novel and Ted Hughes' Ovid, all of which ties in with me doing this Greek drama now.
Abe.com. It sells secondhand books, first editions and out-of-print titles. They'll find it for you anywhere in the world and will ship, too.
What's the best thing you saw on stage recently?
Twelfth Night at the Donmar. It was wonderful, one of the best productions of Twelfth Night I've seen, and I've been in one myself. Not so recent was seeing Stephen Dillane in The Real Thing. I didn't think at my age I could still be enthralled, but I was. His performance gave me something to aspire to. I also enjoy anything that Mark Rylance is in.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Why did you want to accept your part in Iphigenia?
After The York Realist, I couldn't imagine that any play by a contemporary writer would come my way that I could do - because Gill's play was so perfect. I thought my next stage role would have to be Shakespeare, but then I read Edna O'Brien's adaptation of Iphigenia. Like The York Realist, it was beautiful and simple, like poetry on the page. So I followed the part. I kept calling my agent and saying, what's happening with this. Of course, now I'm daunted by the fact that the script's so brilliant.
Do you think most people feel intimidated by Greek drama?
Absolutely they do. I'm a fairly regular theatregoer and, even when I hear "Greek drama", I think, no way - that's three and half hours of people in masks making big speeches. That's the great thing about this adaptation; it's so clear and so domestic. It's about a man with an impossible decision to make: does he sacrifice his daughter for the greater good. The "epic" doesn't need to be played by actors; it's what the audience put in. Our version is also only an hour and 15 minutes with no interval. It's very accessible but full of complexities. If you're in London, you should get on the train and come up; if you live around Sheffield, you really mustn't miss it.
What, if anything, is special about Sheffield Crucible?
The Crucible has the same atmosphere that Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid created at the Almeida. It's somewhat selfish to say, but it feels as if the whole building is geared towards supporting the creative talents and facilitating the work. That's crucial, a fundamental truth: keep the actors and writers happy and they will do the rest. One feels incredibly supported and content working at the Crucible, and it's to the credit of Michael Grandage and all the staff who work here.
What's your favourite line from Iphigenia?
I have two. "Power is power but near neighbour to grief." And: "The greatness of war is great, caring nothing for sacrifice." In terms of world affairs, this play couldn't be more apposite or more pressing.
What's the funniest/most notable thing that's happened during rehearsals?
Anna Mackmin (the director) has done something rather brilliant. She's pulled in young people from the local community to be the chorus. That creates a very different dynamic, both in the rehearsal room and on stage. It's really exciting. I can't think of anything funny about a Greek tragedy. There are maybe two laughs in the whole piece.
What are your plans for the future?
I'm off to do ten episodes of Monarch of the Glen, which is shooting in the Highlands from March to October. I'd love to say I already have some theatre project set up for October but I don't. I have no idea when I'll be on stage again. Soon, I hope.
- Lloyd Owen was speaking to Terri Paddock
Iphigenia runs from 5 February to 1 March 2003 at the Sheffield Crucible.