Oliver Chris is probably best known for his television roles in Green Wing and The Office. His other TV credits include Sharpe’s Challenge, Tripping Over, The IT Crowd, Bonkers, Lorna Doone, Rescue Me, Casualty, The Real Jane Austen, Shelley, Sweet Medicine, According to Bex and Nathan Barley.
His film credits include The Gathering, The Other Boleyn Girl and Bridget Jones’ Diary II: The Edge of Reason. He has been heard on the radio in Giles Wemmbley-Hogg Goes Off.
In theatre, Chris has previously appeared in The Importance of Being Earnest and Cyrano de Bergerac. He’s now on the London stage, starring at Wilton’s Music Hall as Petruchio opposite Rachael Stirling’s Kate in a new production of The Taming of the Shrew, as part of the first annual “Shakespeare at Wilton’s” season.
Date & place of birth
Born 7 November 1978 in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
Central School of Speech and Drama.
Lives now in
First big break
I’ve been very lucky from the outset. I got the pilot for The Office at drama school while I was in the third year and then I went on to do Lorna Doone. That was a really tiny part in the end but a great experience. Everyone auditioned for the lead guy and then all the ones they liked but who didn’t get the part got small roles in it – and it all kicked off from there really.
Career highlights to date
Although my theatre experience is limited, I have really enjoyed the roles I’ve played – they’ve been some of the greatest parts in literature! I played Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest in Northampton, that was Rupert Goold’s first play as artistic director there and it was directed by Greg Hersov. And then I did Cyrano which was brilliant to work on, and that led me to be able to develop and to do this. Petruchio is a fantastic role, food for the soul. So few people get the chance to play all these roles, and have parts in such great telly shows as The Office and Green Wing. In fact, Green Wing fans tend to be very fanatical, in a good way. They’re really evangelical about it. It feels great to be part of something that people really care about.
All sorts of different ones, some silly things and some more sensible things. I’ve been really fortunate in the breadth of work I’ve done with TV comedy and some really cutting-edge stuff as well as very commercial dramas. I have been able to play all sorts of different characters, which is important to me. Mind you, I like everything I do because there are enough people unemployed in this industry - we all spend enough time out of work to appreciate any work when it comes along.
Liza Tarbuck and Jessica Stevenson from TV work, and Rachael Stirling, who I’m doing this show with. I generally tend to really enjoy working with all the people I work with, but if I had to pick my top three, they would be right up there.
Most of the ones I’ve worked with have been really cool. Directors are funny fish, particularly TV directors, though they’ve all been brilliant. It’s difficult to tell what makes a good director. In television, some who are very character-based who the actors love are not quite as effective when you see the final product on screen, whereas there are some who don’t get on so well with actors but their final edits are fantastic. I haven’t worked with enough theatre directors to have much of a say on that, but I think a knowledge of your source material and a mutual respect between yourself and your cast mean you can’t go too far wrong.
I love a classic. I think something that’s stood the test of time becomes a classic for good reason. I like the David Hare trilogy, Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War; Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is brilliant. And The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh is one of the most savagely extraordinary pieces of work I have ever seen.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Boeing-Boeing. I have no idea what was going on but I didn’t stop laughing through the whole thing - it was as though I was caught in a time warp as it’s so old-fashioned, but it was hilarious. I honestly couldn’t tell you what any of the plot was, but I was in stitches. And, if I’m going to name-check anyone, Rory Kinnear in The Man of Mode. It was worth the price of the ticket for his performance alone, he was brilliant and I admire him enormously. I also saw the Henrys at the RSC with Jonathan Slinger - I saw all three in two days and I was begging for more, it was amazing. And The Woman in Black is still a phenomenal play. I went on a date there a while ago as I remembered it being really scary. I took this girl and she laughed at me when we came out at the interval because the first half wasn’t scary at all, and I was really disappointed – but then Act 2 starts and it is absolutely petrifying!
What made you first want to become an actor?
I was a precocious child and we had these two entertainers for a party when I was very young. I just loved the idea of performing after watching these entertainers – one of whom was Martin Ball who’s now in Wicked. He must have been about 19 or 20 at the time. And I remember watching some phenomenal productions that made me want to pursue a stage career, such as Antony Sher in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
Nothing. I’m utterly useless at everything else. I probably would have been an acting teacher – I probably will be an acting teacher when my career goes on the skid. I never wanted to be a fireman or postman or an astronaut or any of those things most kids want to be. I was only really interested in acting.
What roles would you most like to play in future?
All of the clichés that everyone wants to play: Hamlet, Henry V… I like playing characters that are very flawed, a bit moronic, with very visible weaknesses. That’s sort of part of my personality make-up as well so I like parts like that. And I’d like to pay some more bad guys, like Richard III.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Don’t eat yellow snow. I don’t know, I tend not to listen to people! I think a good piece of advice that I’ve picked up is that no one in this business is guaranteed a chance of success, whether you deserve it or not. But if you don’t put all your effort into it, if you’re not prepared, and you don’t really want it more than anyone else, you’re not even in the ballpark. So you need to really give it everything you’ve got to even stand a chance.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’m useless at questions like this because I feel under pressure to say something hilariously witty and funny… Somebody with breasts…? No, don’t say that! I just don’t think I would swap with anyone. I know that sounds stupid but I wouldn’t want to be someone else. If I was rich and famous and someone like Al Pacino for a day, I’d be very disappointed with myself when I was me again as I would just be Oliver Chris, who’s not rich and famous. Although it would be interesting to see the world in a different way for a day; maybe I could be someone like Jeremy Paxman.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, The Happy Death by Albert Camus, which is amazing, and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, of course - anyone who doesn’t love that book should be killed. I also love A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.
Favourite holiday destinations
Anywhere with surf. I’m a new surfer, and like all recent converts I’m all the more evangelical for being new to it. I’m a terrible surfer, but I can’t get enough of it. I usually go to the Gower peninsula or Cornwall.
Favourite after-show haunts
I’m a real Soho club whore, as much as I hate myself for it. I go a lot and know everyone there and it makes me feel at home. It’s impossible to go to Shuttleworths and not have a brilliant night.
Why did you want to accept your role in The Taming of the Shrew?
In terms of the part itself, it’s one of the great Shakespearean roles. It’s a comedy so it maybe doesn’t carry the weight of plays like Hamlet and Richard III, but The Taming of the Shrew is famous for being a problem play. It’s really interesting because as an actor you have a whole range of choices to make with this part. I have wanted to play Petruchio all my life - it was one of my dreams ever since I was a kid and it’s just one of the great roles in English literature so I was thrilled to take it on.
What made you decide to return to the stage after having a lot of recent TV success?
My whole career has really been TV. I’ve been very lucky with the work I’ve done, but what got me into acting was acting on the stage - when I was young, I went to youth theatre and I never lost sight of my love for the stage. I had done so much TV that I got to a point about eight or nine months ago when I had a hankering for a bit of theatre, I had a real longing to do some stage roles. It’s difficult enough to get work in this industry, but to pick your work is even tougher, and I’ve been so lucky. I did a play up in Manchester recently which was a fantastic learning experience and then to come and do this is just fantastic.
What is the biggest challenge for you in this production?
It’s just wonderful to work on. Good and bad TV is basically judged by how many people like it. If enough people like it, it’s considered good, and if not enough like it, it’s bad. But this play has been around for 500-odd years, so you don’t have any doubts about the source material! And it’s so layered, there’s so much there and it is a challenge struggling with things and saying “why can’t we just cut this scene because it’s impossible and not funny” – then suddenly a ray of light comes through and you see what they’re getting at and it’s so rewarding.
What are you enjoying most about the show so far?
I love it all! I’m spoilt because I’ve had such a lot of luck and enjoyed everything I’ve done and I love the people I’ve worked with. So to leave one medium and get the opportunity to come into theatre in one of the all-time greatest leads and work with a really great and dedicated cast is wonderful. So much of the industry is about business, and this production has nothing to do with money really: the director chose it because it’s the one he wanted to do, Wilton’s is not a big commercial venue, and everyone involved in the production is putting it on because we all want to do it. And there can be no better reason to do something than that.
How would you describe Petruchio – is he really just a cruel wife-beater or do he & Kate have an understanding?
I think it’s really interesting to see different interpretations of it. Watching the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor film, they made a lot of decisions to soften some of the blows, but we’re not shying away from it in this production. Petruchio, I think when he starts out at least, is only in the marriage for the money. The whole reason he came to Padua was to marry a rich woman, and he finds Kate, who’s the daughter of the richest man in the area, and he doesn’t care that she’s violent and wild, he wants to marry her anyway for the money. He calls Kate his goods and compares her to his horse and ox, and thinks that he’s perfectly in the right to rein her in. But certainly in our production he’s not a cruel-hearted wife-beater. He may look that way at the start, but I think he goes on an unseen journey where he comes to realise she’s worth the effort, it’s worth bothering to “tame” her so that they can have a happy life together. There’s a real meeting of minds, and I think the ending is joyous. It’s these two wild, unconventional spirits sticking two fingers up at society.
Is this production in modern-dress or traditional practices? How has that affected the play?
We’re setting it in modern dress. I think it’s harder to empathise with people in doublet and hose, so we set it in modern-day Italy. Shakespeare set the play in Italy, but he was writing about British society. The Italian element is really there as a veneer to distance the audience a bit from some of the satire. We’ve cut it a bit because, with a modern-day audience, buttocks are a key priority and people don’t want to be sitting in a seat for three hours. But we have tried not to cut things that made the play difficult for us, we tried to keep most things in and work with the text. Also Wilton’s is such a phenomenal venue so we are trying to use this wonderful space as much as we can and let the theatre speak for itself really. We don’t want to clutter it with a complicated set.
Do you have a favourite line from the play?
I have millions of favourite lines, they’re all brilliant! One of my favourites is the last line: “I won the wager though you hit the white; And, being a winner, God give you good night.”
- Oliver Chris was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
The Taming of the Shrew opened on 22 March 2007 (previews from 19 March) at east London's Wilton’s Music Hall, where it continues until 28 April.