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20 Questions With...James Frain

Actor James Frain, currently appearing in King Lear at the Almeida at King's Cross, never planned on becoming a film name but, now that he is, wonders why 'natural' has become such a disparaging term in theatre.

By • West End


While still in drama school, actor James Frain was discovered by Sir Richard Attenborough who was searching for a fresh face to cast in the 1993 film adaptation of CS Lewis' Shadowlands.

Over the decade since then, Frain has gone on to feature in a continuous string of major films including Elizabeth, Hilary and Jackie, An Awfully Big Adventure, Nothing Personal, Rasputin, Sunshine, Titus, Reindeer Games, Where the Heart Is and, soon to be released in the UK, The Count of Monte Cristo.

Frain's television credits include Arabian Nights, The Mill on the Floss, Buccaneers, Prime Suspect, The Vice and the recent BBC adaptation of William Boyd's Armadillo, in which he starred as Lorimer Black.

On stage, Frain has previously appeared in Other People (Royal Court), Zenobia (RSC) and She Stoops to Conquer (West End). He can currently be seen at King's Cross in King Lear, director Jonathan Kent's final production during his reign as joint artistic director of the Almeida. Frain plays Edmund alongside Tom Hollander's Edgar and Oliver Ford Davies' Lear.


Date & place of birth
Born 14 March 1968 in Leeds.

Now lives in...
Ladbroke Grove, west London.

Trained at...
Central School of Speech and Drama in London

First big break
The film Shadowlands (1993). I was in my third year of drama school at the time. The director, Richard Attenborough, was looking to cast a complete unknown so they did this huge cattle call of all the schools. I kept getting called back and just thought it was good audition practice; I never imagined I'd get the part. When I did get it, I was completely surprised. I never finished drama school.

Career highlights to date
Armadillo because I got to work with Howard Davies and Stephen Rea. Hilary and Jackie because it was such a beautifully written script and I love working with Emily Watson. Also a film called Nothing Personal that was set in Belfast during the Troubles. I played a loyalist paramilitary. I can't explain why it was so meaningful but it was, and I enjoyed filming in Ireland.

On stage, Other People at the Royal Court was a highlight. Christopher Shinn is a wonderful writer. He's got a new play coming up at the Court, called Where Do We Live, that features two of the same characters from Other People. It's set just before and just after 11 September and sounds fascinating.

Favourite co-stars
Doraly Rosen who I worked with on Other People. She's completely present as an actress, and she doesn't try to impose her ideas on you, she just responds. She's become a good friend.

Favourite directors
Howard Davies is a fantastic director of actors. Having done Armadillo with Howard for television, I would love to do a play with him now. Also, Istvan Svabo, who I worked with on the film Sunshine, is a genius.

Favourite playwrights
David Mamet for the intensity and sparsity of his writing. And Harold Pinter for the same reason.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Hamlet, definitely. I hope I get a chance to. I was talking to Oliver Ford Davies about this the other day. He said that, in the past, actors could expect to play the big roles like that several times in their career. Now you tend to only get one crack at the whip. Also, I'd like to do Astrov from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. As for film, you never know what roles you want until they're written.

What's the best thing currently on stage (not including this production)?
At the moment, I'm limited to which shows have matinees that don't conflict with King Lear's schedule, so I haven't been able to get to much. I did just manage to see The Mysteries - a superb demonstration of the theatrical virtues of rawness, immediacy, collective identity, passion and, ultimately, celebration. It's the best theatre I've seen in ages; a must-see. The other things I'd really like to catch are Samuel West's Hamlet and, at the Donmar Jesus Hopped the A Train and Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero

In which medium - film or stage - do you most prefer working?
It's sort of ridiculous to compare the two because they're so different. But I do prefer film. Film is about the spontaneous and natural moment. It should be the same in theatre but it's not. Also, and I know this is opposite to what many people say, I think film is the actor's medium and theatre is the director's. On stage, the director chooses what play is done and then determines the style and tone of the performance - it's all about the director's vision. With film, that's not so much the case and they never tell you to be anything but natural. In theatre, the term 'natural' is used in a disparaging fashion. I like to come back to the theatre, though, because of the writing.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
I'd swap places with Richard Burbage or someone else in Shakespeare's original company so I could play all those wonderful parts for the first time.

Favourite holiday destination
Anywhere in Italy, probably Naples most of all.

Favourite book
The last book I read that I absolutely loved was Andrea Ashworth's Once in a House on Fire, which is a memoir about growing up in the north of England during the 1980s.

If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I'd have been a painter.

Why did you want to accept your part in this particular production of King Lear?
I love the play and Edmund is a great part. I also wanted to be part of the whole 'Almeida moment' under Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid, and this was the last chance to do it. One of my first jobs was as acting ASM (assistant stage manager) at the Almeida and it was always my ambition to return.

What's so special about the Almeida?
Jonathan and Ian have managed to create a real sense of event around going to the theatre - you always feel that something original and different will happen when you see something at the Almeida. That's because they are completely fearless and bold in both the things - either new plays or classics - and the people they choose to work with. They take risks and are always pushing in every direction. Their ambition is endless. I think it's also telling that they've now decided to leave. They recognise that theatre is about immediacy and that it always requires fresh blood to reinvent itself.

What do you make of working in a converted bus shelter?
It's great. I love the idea of performing in different and untraditional spaces. It is a bit tricky sometimes to judge the acoustics, though.

What's your favourite line from King Lear?
It's something Edgar says to his father, the Earl of Gloucester, when they're on the cliff. The Earl, who's blind, asks who's there and Edgar says, "A poor man made tame to fortune's blows, who by the art of knowing and feeling sorrow am most pregnant to good pity." King Lear is full of so many beautiful lines like that about the nature of suffering and truth and pity.

What's the funniest thing that's happened during the run to date of King Lear?
During several scenes, King Lear is stumbling around in nothing but his underwear. One day, Oliver Ford Davies forgot to change into the prop underwear and came out on stage in these bright orange pants. Everybody had trouble keeping a straight face with that.

What are your plans for the future?
My next project is a film but I can't talk about it until everything's signed. It was never my intention to go and become a film actor, and I would like to do stage work more often. Someone advised me that you should do at least one play a year to keep your hand in. That would be good. The best writing and the best roles are on stage.


King Lear has extended its limited season at the Almeida at King's Cross, where it is now booking up to 20 April 2002.


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