In the current revival of Patrick Hamilton’s Victorian thriller Gaslight, actor Andrew Woodall is reunited with director Peter Gill, with whom he’s previously worked on Certain Young Men (also written by Gill), Luther and last year’s National Theatre production of The Voysey Inheritance, for which Woodall was Whatsonstage.com Award-nominated for Best Supporting Performance in a Play for his turn as Booth Voysey.
Gaslight also returns Woodall’s to the Old Vic, where he previously appeared in the Peter Hall season productions of King Lear, The Provok’d Wife, Cloud Nine and Waste.
The actor’s other stage credits include As You Like It, As You Desire Me and A Letter of Resignation in the West End, The Sugar Syndrome, Our Late Night, Search and Destroy, Weldon Rising and Disappeared at the Royal Court, Butterfly Kiss at the Almeida, Burning Issues at Hampstead, and back at the NT, The Life of Galileo, The Shape of the Table, Abingdon Square and Racing Demon.
On screen, Woodall has been seen in Prime Suspect, Between the Lines, Kavanagh QC, Gimme Gimme Gimme, Hearts and Bones and Hear the Silence on television; and Regeneration, The Count of Monte Cristo, Watch that Man and Dr Sleep on film.
In Gaslight, Woodall plays gold digger Jack Manningham, who tries to persuade his wife Bella, played by Rosamund Pike, that she’s losing her mind – which she nearly does, until the arrival of Detective Rough, played by Kenneth Cranham.
English novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton (whose other big theatrical hit was Rope) wrote Gaslight for the stage in 1938. It was adapted for the British screen in 1940 and, four years later, was made into a much more famous Hollywood version directed by George Cukor and starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Bergman won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as the psychologically terrorised young wife.
Date & place of birth
Born 1 June 1963 in Hertfordshire.
I went to ALRA (the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts). I went there in 1983 for two years. It was new and it was chaotic and it was mad and it was pretty rubbish. There were good things about it – some good teachers and one or two very good students. Of course, it wasn’t recognised like LAMDA or RADA or the big ones, but I couldn’t get into any of those as I obviously wasn’t good enough. I still seem to be doing the job, though, so something must have gone right.
What made you want to become an actor?
Partly because I didn’t seem to be much clobber at anything else. I didn’t do particularly well at school, didn’t have the requisite A-level results to go to university, so that wasn’t an option. I’d done a couple of plays at school and thought I was a dab hand at it. Of course, I learnt very quickly that, while you may think you’re a dab hand when you’re 18, boy you’ve got some learning to do. Unless you’re ecstatically beautiful and hugely talented. A few people are, but most of us just have to keep going.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I might have made quite a good teacher, teaching English or drama or one of the arts. I was completely unambitious and had no clue at all.
What do you consider your first big break?
What is a break? When you suddenly become rich and famous? That hasn’t happened! I think, for me, getting my first proper job, my first Equity paid proper job, was my break. I did a lot of Fringe, a lot of lunchtime theatre to two and a half men and a dog – literally. King’s Head, the Man in the Moon, all those kind of venues. I did a play at the Man in the Moon when I started out 20 years ago. We’d occasionally play to four people. There was only two of us in the cast, so if there were less than two we used to cancel. My first proper job was when I went on tour with Paines Plough doing a wonderful play called The Art of Success by Nick Dear. Doing The Voysey Inheritance was certainly a big break. A lot of people fancied their chances at that and I thought, well tough, I’ve got it so I’m going to do it. I don’t think Peter originally had me in mind for the part, but then he thought, oh well let’s see if he can do it. And, it sounds hideously boastful, but I made quite a good job of it. I think I had that character. Then there’s some telly stuff. I did quite a good Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
I loved doing Voysey. I’m loving doing this. You get to that point where you feel confident enough to have a go and it sort of happens. I did a play with Stephen Daldry at the Royal Court years ago called Search and Destroy, that was great fun. I enjoy most of the things I’ve done, there have been a couple which I actively haven’t. I did a play at Hampstead a few years ago called Burning Issues which wasn’t the happiest experience of my life, but I won’t say anymore than that. And I didn’t greatly enjoy doing As You Like It. It wasn’t a particularly good part and I was in a rather unhappy state at that point. It was great getting back to the National after that. I had another little break there about 15 or whatever it is years ago in David Hare’s Racing Demon.
Oh all of them, they’re all mahvellous (!).In Racing Demon, I worked closely with Michael Bryant, just the two us on stage. Now a lot of kids today have never heard of Michael Bryant. Jesus, this was one of the most wonderful actors of his generation, who died very sadly a few years ago, much too young. Just working with him on that Olivier stage, me sort of making my National Theatre debut as it were, and there was Michael Bryant on the other side. That was pretty special.
All of them – Howard Davies, who I did The Life of Galileo with last year, Stephen Daldry, Jonathan Kent. All of them. I hold a flag for Peter Gill because I do think he is very very special. He is ecstatically exact about the way he works. There’s all this nonsense that he gives line readings. It simply isn’t true, it’s just that he has a brilliant ear. He was an actor originally, but he’s been a writer and director for 40 years. He knows his stuff and he’s the best at what he does. Fabulous.
What makes a good director?
You’ve got to like actors - some directors don’t. You’ve got to be able to make actors the very best that they can be, otherwise you shouldn’t cast them. Peter is very fastidious about his casting. If it takes three weeks or however long to get it right, he’ll take that. There’s a lovely part for a young maid in Gaslight – Angela Lansbury in the film – and we’ve got a girl called Sally Tatum, who’s terrific. I had to go and read in for the five of them being recalled. It was literally about two days before we started rehearsing and Peter still hadn’t made his mind up. He had to get it right and he did - she’s wonderful. He’s very very specific and he has a library in his head. Good directors also need that - a wide range of knowledge.
Shakespeare’s not bad. I’d quite like to have a go at Pinter one day. I don’t suppose I ever will but you never know. I’ve never done any Chekhov or Ibsen. I’ve done a lot of new plays, you see, a lot at the Royal Court and the Almeida. I did a really good piece at the Royal Court called The Sugar Syndrome by a very young playwright called Lucy Prebble, who went on to win the Critics’ Circle Award (for most promising playwright). She was only about 21. I played a paedophile in it, which sounds a bit grim but actually it wasn’t. I also did about four plays by Phyllis Nagy.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I wouldn’t mind having a crack at “the Scotsman”. I did it at school, but of course I was far too young. I know it’s an impossible play to do and people get it wrong, but I’d like to have a go at it. I mean, I’m never going to play Hamlet - although in Gaslight I get to do a bit of Hamlet. It’s quite sinister and quite funny because he fancies himself as an actor, so he suddenly breaks into “to be or not to be”. That’s the only chance I’ll ever have to play Hamlet, because I’m too old. I’d love to do some Ibsen or Chekhov. I’ve never done anything like that. There’s a million things I’d like to do.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I saw The Entertainer here which I did enjoy. Although it’s not dated, it’s very much a play of its period in terms of what it’s addressing. It’s wonderfully written. I saw Vernon God Little and enjoyed that too.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
It would be quite fun to be Simon Rattle, to be that brilliant, that charismatic and to be able to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky. I’m a big music fan.
I’m reading Revolutionary Road, a Richard Yates book published in the Sixties which has suddenly become this massive cult. Two people gave it to me separately and now they’re making a film of it with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, directed by Sam Mendes. It’s a very brilliant and painful book about American suburbia.
Favourite holiday destinations
I haven’t been on holiday for about 300 years. I don’t know what holidays are anymore, I really don’t. I used to go to the top coast of Norfolk a lot, but it’s slightly overrun now by too many people with four wheel drives and black Labradors and children called Harry. Nothing wrong with the name Harry, but there are just too many of them!
Favourite after-show haunts
I like to just go to the pub and have a pint. Or to Joe Allen’s and have a meal. I don’t eat particularly during the day, and I certainly don’t eat before a show, so I’m always quite hungry. But going anywhere after 1 July isn’t going to be any fun at all for those of us who still smoke. My character smokes in this play, and I’m damned if I’m not going to smoke on stage. How are you going to do Noel Coward plays, and all those other period dramas? How do you prove that something is integral to the production? I wouldn’t be surprised if you have to put a sign up saying that there is nudity, gunshots and... ooh, someone lights a cigarette”. Grow up! It really really gets on my nerves. My entire career is based on smoking on stage. People like smoking on stage because it’s interesting.
Why did you want to accept the part of Jack Manningham in Gaslight?
Because it’s a very good part. It’s very different from the Hollywoodised film. In the film, my part is played by Charles Boyer, who of course is French and a little bit suave and a little bit sinister – which is nothing like the character in the play. Jack is a maniac! I don’t think you go, oh he’s a bit misunderstood, or he’s had a bad childhood – he’s a sadist without any redeeming features. He doesn’t physically beat Bella up, but he drives her absolutely round the bend and very very nearly succeeds. He is seriously unpleasant.
Does the fact that he’s so awful make it more difficult to play?
It’s always that slight cliché that the devil has the best tunes, but playing the baddie – be it Iago or Claudius or all those big bad parts - if you can’t have fun doing that then it’s time to quit. In terms of acting, it’s an absolute gift. It’s a wonderful chance to delve into the psychotic nature and rage and stuff. And it’s well written. No one is making any claims for Gaslight being a great masterpiece of 20th-century drama, but it is an extremely good play written by an extremely good writer and it’s long overdue for a proper revival.
How else does the play differ from the Hollywood film?
The character of Rough, the retired detective who comes in and saves Bella. In the film the Joseph Cotton character is a lot younger, and of course there’s a bit of a love frisson. At the end, it’s ridiculous, they’re up on the terrace and you know that they’re going to marry. In the play, Rough is a much older man. The play really is more an examination of a deeply traumatic marriage, about wife abuse. I think people will be surprised when they see this because it’s a lot darker and a lot funnier and a lot creepier really. It’s also all in one location and there aren’t any scene changes. It starts in the afternoon and ends in the evening – a huge difference from the film. It’s a snapshot. If it was a five-act play - which it isn’t, it’s three acts - then we’d be starting in the third act. You’re straight in there, there’s no preamble. I haven’t seen the English film so I don’t know how different it is. It isn’t very available, but I’d be intrigued to see it after the run.
Your last stage production was also with Peter Gill - Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance. Did that help prepare you at all?
The Voysey Inheritance was totally Edwardian; written in 1905 and set in 1905. Gaslight was written in 1938 but set in 1880 at the height of the Victorian era. So Voysey was a very different piece altogether. The character that I played in that, although a bit bumptious was basically a decent cove, loud but decent. I’m not so loud in this, the very opposite, and I’m not at all decent. This is the fourth production I’ve done with Peter, so I know his ways a bit, and he certainly knows mine. The story of my getting this part was that they had Rosamund Pike, who’s a star, and Kenneth Cranham, who’s a very distinguished older actor, and then they had to find someone to play the bastard husband. They obviously needed a name. I’m not a name, but Peter went, well I’ve worked with him and I know that he can do it, and the producers said, he’s not a big enough name, we’ve got to have someone off the telly. I guess they couldn’t find anyone so they ended up with me! I have played quite a lot of mean fuckers over the years – Edmund in King Lear and various psychopaths. I’m not a complete psychopath in real life, I have three very nice children! For a change, next thing I’m going to do is play Father Christmas.
- Andrew Woodall was speaking to Terri Paddock
Gaslight continues at the Old Vic until 18 August 2007.