After graduating from Warwick University and Bristol Old Vic Theatre school, Alex Jennings started his acting career working at many of the countries leading regional theatres, among them Leeds Playhouse, Southampton's Nuffield and Chichester Festival Theatre.
In 1986, he performed in his first season at the Royal Shakespeare Company, taking parts in Hyde Park, Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew. He later returned to the company to appear in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing and to take the title roles in acclaimed productions of Richard II, Hamlet and Peer Gynt.
Over the past few years, Jennings has become a regular face at the National Theatre, where his roles have included the title in Albert Speer, David Edgar's drama about Hitler's architect, Leontes in The Winter's Tale and Lord Foppington in Restoration comedy The Relapse. In 2002, Jennings made his stage musical debut, taking over from Jonathan Pryce for a year-long stint as Professor Henry Higgins in the National Theatre production of My Fair Lady at the West End's Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
In the West End and elsewhere, Jennings has appeared in major productions such as Too Clever by Half, The Wild Duck, The Recruiting Officer, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Liar. On screen, Jennings has appeared in The Wings of the Dove, Four Feathers, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bad Blood and Hard Times.
The actor's raft of prizes include no fewer than three Laurence Olivier Awards (Best Comedy Performance for Too Clever by Half, Best Actor for Peer Gynt and, this year, Best Actor in a Musical for My Fair Lady) and an Evening Standard award for Best Actor (jointly for The Winter's Tale and The Relapse).
Jennings has now returned to the National where he's playing the sassy, fast-talking newspaperman Walter Burns opposite Zoe Wanamaker's Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, the premiere stage adaptation of the classic 1940 film, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, based on the original stage play The Front Page.
Date & place of birth
Born 10 May 1957 in Essex.
Lives now in...
I live in south London. Peckham borders.
First big break
I suppose it was meeting Nicholas Hytner at Chichester and working with him there. I had very little to do in his production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, but he responded to whatever it was that I did do. And he was then doing a production of The Country Wife at the Royal Exchange, with Gary Oldman and Cheryl Campbell and Ian McDiarmid. That was my first ... well, I suppose I sort of got good notice critically. And the introduction through Nick led me to doing a play at the Old Vic which Jonathan Miller was then running and Nick had worked as an assistant to Jonathan. So I did a show called Too Clever By Half, which was the one that really sort of changed things for me.
Career highlights to date
Working on Peer Gynt with John Barton. He is such an extraordinary man, and working on that play - which is, you know, notoriously difficult - and getting to the soul of it, that was a highlight. And then Hamlet because I never thought I'd do it, I thought I'd got too old and missed it. The sense of pride and humility of playing Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company with Shakespeare buried down the river ... that was amazing to do that, amazing.
What do your many awards mean to you?
They mean nothing! (laughs) The awards are very nice as long as you keep it in perspective, which is hard to do because we've all gone into this business to be applauded at the end of the evening and being given a prize is an element of that. How do I keep it in perspective? I don't very well! Ultimately, you know awards don't mean anything, but it's nice to have one on your shelf. And it's a bit of fun, a bit of celebration. Luckily, I've won a few. It's rather less celebratory when you're not winning.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
The Winter's Tale, which I missed out from the previous question. I think that's probably my most complete performance. Nick (Hytner) had assembled a cast of people, a lot of whom had worked together before or who were friends and who were all at a particular time in their lives, having children, the unimaginable thought of losing a child, all those elements in the play. He cast it very carefully and, with all of us at that time, the play particularly resonated - it was a kind of a mid-life crisis Winter's Tale. It was a very emotional experience and a joyful one as well, because the play is such a mixture of those extremes. My Fair Lady is another favourite. Playing Henry Higgins at Drury Lane was an amazing experience. I'd never done a musical before. Oh, except the video of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which I did as a favour to my friend Steven Pimlott who directed it. I've never seen that and rather try to forget it, thinking My Fair Lady was my musical debut.
I was working at the National when they first did My Fair Lady. And I thought "oh fuck, it's happened without me", because Higgins was a part I'd always dreamed of playing, either in the play or in the musical. If ever I was going to do a musical, I suppose that's the obvious part for me. But I thought, "oh well, Jonathan (Pryce)'s doing it, that's that". And then the opportunity came to take over. I'd also never done that before, taking over from another actor, and that was a weird experience in itself. In the end, a very positive one because the company was so so great, and the particular threesome of myself and Malcolm Sinclair and Joanna Riding hit it off, so we were happy. I don't think it had been the happiest show up until then. The first performance was the scariest night I've ever had working, but it was such a gas hearing that 19-piece orchestra strike up every night and singing those amazing songs. I'd love to try more musicals, but I think it's limited what I can do. I can't believe I've finished with Henry Higgins either. I'd love to reprise the role on Broadway. Well, I'm thinking about it, I don't know if anybody else is.
Zoe Wanamaker is just a joy to work with. She's someone I have revered for years. It's amazing, you know, to have arrived at a point where I'm working with someone like Zoë. I do still have to pinch myself sometimes. And Malcolm and Jo on My Fair Lady were fantastic. It's a happy accident colliding with people, who you might know a bit socially, in the rehearsal room. Who knows how it's going to turn out? More often than not it's positive. There have been very few negative experiences in my career.
Nick (Hytner) is one of the greatest and has given me so many opportunities; he's been such a central support in everything I've done. There are people I've worked with who I'd love to work with again, like Richard Jones and Peter Hall and Adrian Noble. Part of a director's job is done by casting you in the first place. There's something about you that gels with their view of the role and their view of the play. They encourage you to delve into areas where you wouldn't necessarily go on your own and to try not to rely on things you've done before. Trevor Nunn! I've got to mention Trevor as well. He's another favourite.
Shakespeare. And I'd love to do some Tom Stoppard, which I've not done before. I love Irish writing, too. I suppose because both sides of my family - way, way back - that's where we're from. I've seen JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World for the first time quite recently. The joy of that language! O'Casey I've always loved and Beckett, his writing is fantastically imaginative.
What roles would you most like to play still?
This is tricky because I've always been happy to be surprised by what people think I should play. I'd love to do Macbeth one day; not yet, though. I've always wanted to have another go at Richard II, but I'm too old for it now I think. I'd quite like to play Benedick again if Zoe Wanamaker played Beatrice. And I'd like to play Sherlock Holmes, perhaps with Simon Russell Beale as my Watson. Ooh, that's provocative.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Owen McCafferty's Scenes from the Big Picture. Fantastic. The play, the writing - Irish - the wonderful, wonderful acting, glorious acting. And a great production, which enabled the actors to just stand there and be fabulous.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of theatre?
Give kids the opportunity to have the kind of government support I had when I was starting out, in the sense of grants, to go to university studying drama or go to drama school or both. I had both. A lot of parental support as well, but also government assistance, local authority assistance. That's very important.
If you hadn't been an actor what would you have done professionally?
An archivist of some sort. I never throw anything away, I love storing useless information that I might need one day.
Many Dickens, but I suppose Nicholas Nickleby and Dombey and Son in particular. And Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. At the moment, I'm reading Proust, which I'm loving. It's my third attempt and I'm doing better than I've done before. I'm a great collector of books. The Philip Pullman trilogy is a recent read - I'm sure it will be a good stage adaptation.
Favourite holiday destinations
I'd like to go to the Seychelles and lie on a beach in a luxurious way. My best holiday ever was Egypt, mind-blowing.
Favourite after-show haunts
Sheekey's and the Ivy, I'm afraid. I'm a terrible old fogey really.
Why did you want to accept your part in His Girl Friday?
It had been mine and my partner's idea for there to be a stage version of His Girl Friday. It's our favourite film and after watching it one time, she said "you should do this on stage, has it ever been done?" I said no it hasn't and then convinced Nick it was a good idea, and then he convinced John Guare that he should do the adaptation. So I was sort of on board from the start really. John's done a terrific job and the source material is brilliant, the original play (The Front Page) is so fantastic.
And it's a chance to be Cary Grant for awhile. I've always been a fan of Cary Grant. That era of Hollywood has been my guiding light. One of the joys of doing this show is that it's given me an excuse to buy the DVDs of my favourite films and to see all those brilliant people again - Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, William Powell, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne. Fantastic actors and they were so much quirkier and more individual than movie stars are nowadays. Before the recent West End production of Arsenic and Old Lace (in which Grant also starred on screen), I'd actually been toying with the idea of doing that play, wondering whether it would be ripe for revival. But I think The Front Page is a better play.
How does His Girl Friday ultimately compare to The Front Page?
His Girl Friday doesn't improve upon The Front Page, but it's a terrifically successful take on it and to put some sex into the story doesn't harm it. I have no idea why it's taken more than 60 years to bring it to the stage. I think it's potentially quite a commercial goer - and it was our idea!
What's your opinion of the tabloid press?
Oh, they're scary and that's one of the reasons why the play still works. It doesn't paint a particularly rosy view of journalism and the lengths that you people will go to get a story! You know what I mean. Seeing stuff on TV recently about how tabloid journalists pursue particular stories, it's just extraordinary. But it's an aspect of the culture we've found ourselves living in. It ties in with the explosion of reality TV. I think it's all connected.
What's the trick to talking so fast?
It's scary because if your brain's not in gear sometimes, the dialogue's going faster than your head is and, on occasion, you can come to a thudding halt. The press night was particularly scary. I had four or five complete blanks - which has never happened to me before - where I thought, I could leave the stage now and that would be the end of it, I'll find something else to do with my life. Really scary and very weird.
What are your plans for the future?
I have none. We do this until the end of November and then, who knows? I don't know - more film, more TV, that's the hope. I mean it's stage ultimately for me, but it's nice to punctuate.
- Alex Jennings was speaking to Terri Paddock
His Girl Friday continues in repertory at the NT Olivier until 22 November 2003. 'In Conversation' with Alex Jennings, a platform event at the National is on Thursday 4 September 2.30pm