20 Questions With...Ed Stoppard
Date: 6 March 2006
Actor Ed Stoppard Ė currently playing Hamlet for English Touring Theatre in the West End - discusses the great classical roles, his playwright-father Tom Stoppard, teddy bearsí picnics & what he keeps in his fridge.
Actor Ed Stoppardís London stage credits include Wit in the West End, The Road to Ruin and Saint's Day at Richmondís Orange Tree Theatre, and Age, Sex, Location at the Riverside Studios.
At Chichester Festival Theatre, Stoppard has starred in productions of The Merchant of Venice and The Seagull, while elsewhere his credits include The Magistrate, Rhinoceros and If I Should Die.
On television, Stoppard has appeared in Empire, Murder in Mind, Queen of Swords, The Somme, The Brontes and Relic Hunter, while hisfilm credits include The Pianist, The Little Vampire, The Fiance and Chapter Five.
Following a regional tour last autumn, Stoppard is now in the West End taking the title role in Stephen Unwinís English Touring Theatre production of Hamlet.
Date & place of birth
Born 16 September 1974 in London.
Lives now in
East Dulwich in London. Iíve been there about two years, with my wife and daughter whoís two-and-a-quarter.
London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).
What made you first decide to become an actor?
I think at some point during their lives most actors come to the realisation that acting is the only thing that will get them out of bed. Very few actors become actors because they want to end up on Celebrity Big Brother. Most actors do it because itís the only thing they can do, itís sort of as simple as that. We all enjoy doing it so much. I think a lot of us get a taste for it when weíre at school. It is great fun, and the idea of earning a living doing something which you class as great fun is very appealing. The fact my father (Tom Stoppard) is a playwright may have exposed me to theatre and acting in general more than a child whose father wasnít a playwright, but then again maybe it didnít. I didnít go to the theatre two times a week throughout my childhood or anything.
First big break
I suppose The Pianist, really. I donít quite know what constitutes a big break these days. I donít live in Los Angeles, but The Pianist was certainly an important piece of work in terms of profile to an extent but also in terms of experience. Playing Konstantin in The Seagull a few years ago was important for me as an actor. It was a sort of milestone to play a character of that complexity and celebrity I suppose in some respects. And then Hamlet.
Career highlights to date
The Seagull, definitely. Konstantin is one of those well-known characters for young actors to play. And then subsequently playing Hamlet. This is one of the biggest roles. Itís a limitless character. Youíre never going to get to the point where there canít be another interpretation Ė although apparently Simon Russell Beale went to see Alex Jennings play the role and at the end turned to his friend and said ďHeís cracked itĒ. But really this is not one of those characters where you can say ďOh right, yes, there it is, thereís the definitive HamletĒ. Heís such a complex character. You do have to make him your Hamlet rather than your interpretation of someone elseís. Nobody wants to come and watch me play Hamlet as a copy of Simon Russell Beale or Burton or whoever, but thatís acting. Even the most chameleon-like actors bring part of themselves to the role to a certain extent. Gary Oldman said in an interview he has to know whatís in the characterís fridge. I know exactly what he means. It sounds strange, but if you really understand a character, then you do know what you imagine would be in their fridge and other details as small as that. Joy Division and Animal, these movies I did last year, were also really good. More often than not, you do a job and you have to pinch yourself because youíre having such a good time. When acting is good itís great, and when itís bad itís awful. When youíre working and doing something youíre interested in, you canít believe it. You think, ďJesus, Iím being paid what can sometimes be quite substantial amounts of money to do something that Iíd frankly do for nothingĒ. So most jobs I do, I thoroughly enjoy. I like stage and screen equally because theyíre different disciplines, and I do like to move between the two if I can. Iím not in a position where I can flick through 20 offers and pick the one I want. You do whatever youíre asked to do generally. But I like doing both so I wouldnít like to exclusively be a film actor or a stage actor.
Um, well Anita Dobson is lovely. And (the late) Sheila Gish. Both intelligent generous people, and talented as well. Even talented arse-holes are attractive in some respects, but those two are very kind and generous people. It makes a difference. Some people in this profession thrive off animosity but I donít, and Iím glad to say Iíve never really had to work with someone who does Ė no actors anyway. Occasionally, youíll find someone who works on a divide-and-conquer principle, but itís not much fun for everyone else.
I enjoyed working with Roman Polanski. It was difficult, it wasnít like a love affair, but he is an amazing director and an amazing person to work for. Heís very inspirational. I think lots of actors, as we generate ideas - whether itís one of your scenes or another characterís scenes - you think, ďI wouldnít have done it like that, Iíd have done it like thisĒ. Now, if thatís the first step to becoming a director, then I suppose most actors want to be directors. But I think you have to be a certain kind of character to be a director. Some actors like to be told exactly where to stand, and others like to be more proactive.
Harold Pinter. Iíve seen lots of Pinter. I did a rehearsed reading of The Room at the Royal Court a few weeks ago. It really made me realise for the first time up close and personal why he is so revered. Would I ever follow in my fatherís footsteps to become a playwright? No, I donít know about that. I donít think so.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Iíd like to do more Pinter. If anyone wants to offer me a role in a Pinter play, Iíll take it.
What was the first thing you saw on stage that made a big impact on you? And the last?
I remember going to see a play of my dadís called On the Razzle. I must have been about six or something. There is something really magical about theatre at its best. You sort of revert to being a child again. You can get lost in having a tea party with teddy bears. I mean, how the fuck can you sit down and have a tea party with teddy bears? But actually, a child can do it and itís not a chore for my daughter, itís a natural state to be inÖ I sometimes have to join in with the tea parties! But theatreís like that. When theatreís at its best, the lights go down and youíre peering through this window into this world. My memory of On the Razzle is absolutely that, itís this feeling of being drawn into this story thatís being played just for me with these bright lights and wonderful characters. I have to admit I have not been to the theatre in possibly the longest time in my life. I had a week off when we were touring Hamlet and I went to see Stephen Dillaneís one-man Macbeth at the Almeida and it was pretty staggering. I didnít like all of it, but some of it was just mind-blowing. Someone said to me ďyeah, but is it better than seeing an entire cast do Macbeth?Ē The answer is sort of yes and no. The beauty of it is that you had this amazing actor for all the smaller roles like Malcolm and Macduff and roles you would never usually see an actor of his calibre doing, and his Macbeth itself was fantastic. Macbeth is a role I might like to play. My preference is for the more tortured characters in Shakespeare. I donít see myself as an Orlando in As You Like It and those young romantic leads Ė going back to what Gary Oldman said Ė I donít know what would be in their fridge. I donít really want to know what they keep in their fridge, thatís the problem. I donít care so much about what makes them tick.
Youíve mentioned Macbeth quiet a lot. Are you superstitious at all?
Yes, I am a bit. If we were in the theatre now, Iíd be saying Maccers or something, not calling it by its full name. Iím like the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr. He used to have a horseshoe over his door and a friend of his said ďsurely you donít believe itĒ and he said ďno but apparently it works whether you believe it or notĒ. Iím sort of like that with superstition. I donít believe in it, but I still think itís worth being careful.
What would you advise the government Ė or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Give us more money! You need to secure the future audience so give incentives to schools. We get a lot of school audiences in because Hamlet is on the syllabus, and for the most part they really do respond to it, and you wonder how often they go to the theatre. For all the explosions in technology with CGI and so on that Hollywood can throw up, live performance is something different. We need to encourage children to go to the theatre. I donít know how we would do that. Possibly with cattle prods. But we need to get them in because more often than not, get kids in and theyíll think that wasnít bad. Theyíre surprised at how much they enjoyed it. These are the people who in a few yearsí time will think on a Friday night, ďshall I blow £50 on a strip show or shall I go and buy a ticket in the West End?Ē And hopefully some of them might chose the theatre occasionally.
Favourite holiday destinations
My familyís about to increase so our new favourite holiday destination is probably going to become Centre Parks or something! My in-laws live in New York so we go and visit them. They have a house on Long Island and itís beautiful. Itís this sweep of sand going miles and miles and miles. Itís wonderful.
Favourite after show haunts
The bus that takes me back to East Dulwich. I always just go home. On the press night, I hung around for half an hour. But I have a young family and Iíve got to get up in the morning and play and stuff - tea parties!
Whatís the best advice youíve ever received?
My mother said: ďDonít find a job that pays you well and then try to like it. Choose what you want to do and then find someone whoíll pay you to do it.Ē Which is a sort if mantra for actors everywhere. We all found what we wanted to do when we were far too young to think about careers, and as we grew up and got to the age where we had to start fending for ourselves, we found to our delight that, with a bit of luck, we can earn a living doing what we have done for fun for the last however many years.
Why did you want to accept your part in this production of Hamlet? Is the Prince of Denmark a role youíve always wanted to play?
I thought I was ready to have a go at it really. A few years ago, I wouldnít have thought I was really capable of doing it properly. Iíd have had a go, but it was a bit beyond my reach I think. Iím not saying necessarily now that itís well within my grasp, but Iím more capable as a person really to play a role like Hamlet than I was in the past.
How do you think Hamlet is relevant to modern audiences?
Wasted youth. And to an extent, procrastination. Weíd all like to be men of action, but the vast majority of us just arenít. Somehow we live in a world where morality is something our parents had to worry about. Wasted youth is relevant today because society tells young people they should be aspiring to be on Big Brother or own the latest mobile phone or shag Paris Hilton. I mean, come on, what kind of aspirations are those? It really pisses me off and itís only to sell products that kids are told this. But yes, I think most people waste their youth, as Hamlet does.
How has the production changed since it started on tour?
Itís got more detail. Essentially, itís the same. I mean, if you saw it once on tour you wouldnít notice the difference, but for us there is more depth and new thought processes have been found. Some scenes have changes, the nunnery sceneís a bit different, but really itís just sort of tighter and has more detail. I really like the soliloquies. I like that contact with the audience and engaging with them directly. If theyíre not engaging with me enough, I really pick people out and focus and make sure I am telling them the story. There is a contract between the actors and the audience, and it has to be fulfilled by both parties. Thereís no point just paying your money and sitting back to watch the play waiting to go to the bar. You have to engage with the story and thatís when you get the most out of theatre.
What are you plans for the future?
Well, Iím going to be a father again so will take some time off for a while. Other than that I donít have any plans at the moment.
- Ed Stoppard was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Hamlet opened on 23 September 2005 at Oxford Playhouse and toured until 26 November 2005 before opening in the West Endís New Ambassadors theatre on 20 February 2006 (previews from 13 February).