Although she only graduated from RADA in 2002, Lisa Dillon has already proved herself as an actress to watch having won the Ian Charleston Award (recognising outstanding performances by young actors in classical roles) and the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Newcomer as well as Newcomer nominations in both the Evening Standard and Whatsonstage.com Awards.
Dillon's first theatre job was at Sheffield Crucible playing the title role in Iphigenia, directed by Anna Mackmin. She went on to play Hilda Wangel opposite Patrick Stewart in Anthony Page’s West End revival of Ibsen’s The Master Builder.
Her screen credits are in Hawking and Cambridge Spies on television and Stephen Fry's Bright Young Things on film.
Currently, Dillon is Desdemona, opposite Sello Maake ka Ncube and Antony Sher as Othello and Iago, in Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company production of Othello. It’s now playing a limited West End season at the new Trafalgar Studios (formerly the Whitehall Theatre), following its run in Stratford-upon-Avon and a tour of Japan.
Date & place of birth
Born in Coventry in 1979.
Lives now in...
In London, by the river.
First big break
Cambridge Spies, which was my first job really. I don't know if it was a big break, but it was high profile and I was working with good actors and a good script.
I've been so fortunate to work on projects that have been brilliant and have had the opportunity to work with great actors from Antony Sher to Patrick Stewart and Sue Johnston. When I did the film Bright Young Things, directed by Stephen Fry, I found myself sitting in a trailer with Stockard Channing on one side and Richard E Grant on the other. And there I was in the middle thinking, this is amazing!
Essentially, awards are not important. With something like the Ian Charleson, I felt really proud to have achieved that. But awards are not a driving force, nor should they be.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I think The Master Builder. You don't find many female parts like Hilda Wangel, with such depth and such an interesting journey. Being directed by Anthony Page was special, too.
It is lovely working with Antony Sher at the moment. Rehearsals are like having a masterclass everyday – there’s so much to learn and absorb from him, he's incredible. Working with people like that brings out the good in you because you don't want to disappoint. I'd love to work with David Tennant - wouldn't everyone? - in something written by Paul Abbot, who did State of Play on TV. That would be great.
I think I have a special connection to Anna Mackmin because she cast me in Iphigenia, my first stage production. She seemed to inject me with confidence and didn't treat me as the new girl. I was allowed to grow within the role and that's all an actress wants. I'd love to work with the whole National brigade: Nicholas Hytner, Howard Davies, the list could go on forever on that one.
I'm not sure I have a favourite. It's all about good writing, so I could swing from a Leo Butler piece at the Royal Court to Edward Albee and Virginia Woolf or The Goat. It's about brilliant spontaneous insight. I'm very keen to do some new writing.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I'd love to play Nina in The Seagull and Laura in The Glass Menagerie. I want to do something a bit tougher, too, so I want someone to do a Sarah Kane season again and get into that. I'd love to do a season at the Royal Court working on some experimental new work.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I think they've got far more pressing things to do. Maybe I'm naïve, but I think theatre's here to stay. I don't think it’s ingrained enough in our culture, though. I think audiences are still middle class and middle-aged, and I think it’s crucial somehow that theatre is available to everybody - and good theatre too. Theatre has another function other than just to entertain. But we live in a fast society and you have to train yourself to theatre, to sit and watch something for two hours that isn't a film. We’re beginning to forget how to do that. I've just toured Japan and I went to see some Noh and some Kabuki theatre which goes on for hours and hours. It's incredible, but in this country, we don't have that capacity for concentration as an audience anymore.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
The Pillowman …. Well, it was actually Assassins on Broadway. Wouldn't every actor want to be in a Sondheim musical? It was brilliant.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I'm pausing - that's a good sign, obviously I'm quite content where I am. However, I wouldn’t mind giving Posh a run for her money and balling Beckham's football socks for a day!
At the moment, I’m into Haruki Murakami. It's the Tokyo experience! I'd read Murakami’s stuff before, but having been to Japan, it became even more relevant. I particularly like A Wild Sheep Chase, which is so off the wall. He manages to be wacky and poignant in the same sentence.
Favourite holiday destination
I just went to the Philippines recently and that was divine. I'd go back any day of the week.
Favourite after-show haunts
Because the show comes down quite late, I normally have to go to a members-only club. The Groucho is always good for a nightcap.
If you hadn't been an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I think I'd have trained as an artist, but I don't think I could do anything else other than act.
Why did you want to accept your part in Othello?
Working with the RSC has got to be in the top five on any young actor’s list. You do have a huge sense of pride working with this company. Also the play speaks for itself - it is just so accessible to a modern audience and still so relevant today.
Why exactly is working for the RSC special?
Tt's such a unique experience to work for a theatre company where you’re just picking up bread for a while and then you pass it on to someone else. You feel its history. As you pad around the Swan, it’s all there, all the people who have ever performed there. It’s your job to live up to what the RSC should be.
What's your favourite line from Othello?
"I saw Othello's visage in his mind."
What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened during the run to date of Othello?
We've been plagued with illnesses. One night in Stratford, during the senate scene, poor Justin Avoth, who plays Cassio, suddenly went green and passed out. None of us knew what to do so we just kept going, hoping the scene would end soon! There's a globe on wheels on the set, and I thought we were going to have to flop Justin over it and wheel him off! We did stop the show eventually, and the understudy had to go on and save the show, which he did.
What do you think about the new Trafalgar Studios?
I think it’s very very exciting. It's a brilliant, unique space because you have the audience two feet away from you - you can even see them blinking - but they’re raked so steeply at the back that you’re having to play up and out. So it’s personal and intimate but also epic at the same time. That’s perfect for Othello and for many other plays, too, I'm sure.
What are your plans for the future?
I don't know yet. I've been having lots of exciting meetings. I may do some screen work to anchor those skills because they’re so different from the ones you need for theatre.
- Lisa Dillon was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Othello continues its limited season at Trafalgar Studios until 17 July 2004.