After reading English at Oxford, actor Will Keen intended to train, but an early part in a production of Hove at the National persuaded him to simply get on with his career.

Since then, he's done five more productions at the National - Mary Stuart, The Duchess of Malfi and Tom Stoppard's epic Russian trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in this year's Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards.

Keen has also appeared in major London productions of Dido Queen of Carthage, The Tempest and Two Noble Kinsmen at Shakespeare's Globe; The Prince of Homburg in a Royal Shakespeare Company co-production at Lyric Hammersmith; and, in the West End, Elton John's Glasses and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In the regions and on the fringe, Keen's many stage credits include Happy Valley, The Merchant of Venice, Gasping, Forty Years On, The Boat Plays, Frank Juno, Resolution, Antigone, Little Creatures, Phaedra, The Promise and, with Ian McKellen at Leeds' West Yorkshire Playhouse, The Seagull, Present Laughter and The Tempest; while on television, he has featured in For Valour, Martin Chuzzlewit, Between the Lines, Inspector Alleyn and Monsignor Renard.

This week, Keen returns to the Lyric Hammersmith to take the title role in Shakespeare's Pericles, in a new production directed by the theatre's artistic director Neil Bartlett, who previously directed him in The Prince of Homburg.


Date & place of birth
Born in Oxford on 4 March 1970.

Lives now in...
Shepherds Bush, west London.

Trained at...
I didn't train. I went to Oxford University and read English. I planned to train after that and worked in an antique bookshop to save up enough money. While I was doing that, I also did some fringe theatre and then found myself in play called Hove at the National, which was when I thought maybe I could get away without training.

First big break
Probably Elton John's Glasses, because it was my first major role in the West End. It was really entertaining and my character had a proper journey.

Career highlights to date
The Seagull at West Yorkshire Playhouse - it was a really wonderful production with a lovely company. Two Noble Kinsman at the Globe because I'd always wanted to work at the Globe and fell in love with the place on that production. It was also when I met my wife, the Spanish actress Maria Fernandez. I've also loved The Prince of Homburg and, at the National The Coast of Utopia and The Duchess of Malfi. I'm strong on highlights.

Favourite co-stars
It's a difficult one, that one. It's invidious to specify. I suppose the person who've I probably learnt most from working alongside as an actor was Stephen Dillane - because of his complete naturalness and absolute, rigorous truthfulness. He acknowledges that 90% of acting is down to confidence, the confidence to take as long as you need and to try whatever comes into your head. Having not gone to drama school, I'm aware that my training has been through working with and watching others. There are countless people who've had a big influence on me.

Favourite directors
Neil Bartlett for his clarity and seriousness. Tim Carroll, who I've worked with several times, for his irreverence and rigour. And Phyllida Lloyd for her openness and desire to collaborate.

Favourite playwrights
Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett. They're my favourite three. For every reason in the world. But most of all, Shakespeare for his extraordinary imagination, Chekhov for his extraordinary understanding and Beckett for his extraordinary intelligence.

What roles would you most like to play still?
There are thousands I'd like to play, but the writing is my first interest. I want to play anything that's well written. I like to try to be versatile, playing as many different kinds of parts as possible rather than just playing the same thing over and over again.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Le Costume at the Young Vic. Shockingly, I'd never been to a Peter Brook production before, isn't that awful? I was blown away by it. It was so simple and clear - everything everybody always says about Brook. I'm usually disappointed by things people say are excellent because I have too high expectations. In this case, I wasn't at all disappointed. I was so surprised by how simple it was. I also enjoyed seeing the piece performed in French. When I met my wife, she didn't speak any English and I didn't speak any Spanish so for the first year, we spoke French, which we had in common.

What would you advise to secure the future of British theatre?
I think it's brilliant what Nicholas Hytner is doing, reducing ticket prices at the National. It's easy to get very lost in huge prod values at expense of everyone being able to see things. That's particularly dangerous in a culture such as ours, in which theatre is so defining. If theatre becomes institutionalised or built up as a temple of art that we're too reverent about, it suffers. Theatre needs to be democratic, something that everyone wants to come to, something that performs a real social function, something that asks questions about where we're going, both on a personal and a political level.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I need to know what the terms of the exchange are a bit better. Do I have their mind or just their position? Will my decisions last? These are games that are to be taken seriously. On one level, I would love to be George Bush Senior on the night he was going to conceive Junior - and I'd have a splitting headache. If it was about benefiting from someone's mind, I'd be Shakespeare.

Favourite holiday destinations
Three again: Rome, north Devon and the Alpujarras mountains in southern Spain.

Favourite books
There are a lot: Great Expectations, The Idiot, The Count of Monte Cristo and, from the last century, The Dart, which is a book of poetry by Alice Oswald.

Favourite after-show haunt
Down the pub.

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

Why did you want to accept your part in this particular production of Pericles?
I've always absolutely adored the play. At one point, when I was thinking about giving up acting and directing instead, Pericles was the play I wanted to direct. I love it being so imperfect. It's like a badly restored painting - you can see this extraordinary skeleton underneath. That said, the more I do of it, the less I think it's badly restored. And I adore working with Neil Bartlett, so that was another reason to say yes.

Which is your favourite Shakespeare play?
I wouldn't be able to say. I like them all too much. I have some that I don't like, however. I don't like The Taming of the Shrew and I don't particularly get The Comedy of Errors. We are too reverent about Shakespeare at times in this country and we shouldn't be - he's so brilliant he doesn't need us to be.

Does playing the title role make any difference to you as a performer?
It depends on the title role, doesn't it? Doing Godot would be pretty easy. I'd like to say I don't think it should make any difference, but the truth is you do feel a certain pressure.

What's your favourite line from Pericles?
"Oh you gods. Why do you make us love your goodly gifts and snatch them straight away?"

A riddle lies at the heart of Pericles. How are you with riddles?
I fancy myself with riddles. There was a very good lateral thinking one with three somethings ... sorry, I can't remember it.

What are your plans for the future?
I don't have any. I need to make some money, that's my only career plan. I also need to move house and would like to do some writing.

- Will Keen was speaking to Terri Paddock


Pericles opens at London's Lyric Hammersmith on 24 September 2003 (previews from 18 September). It continues its limited season until 18 October.