PAST: Before I left uni, I’d got this fantastic agent, Dallas Smith, through doing the 400th anniversary production of Twelfth Night at Middle Temple Hall with Mark Rylance. When I finished university, I thought, well, I’ve got this agent, I’ve always said I wanted to act, let’s give it a year and see whether I’m any good at it, whether I need to go to drama school or what. So that was a year of experimenting. I went up to Liverpool and did an Athol Fugard play at the Everyman and then came down to London and was lucky enough to get The Goat. That kickstarted things.
There was a review of The Goat in Variety, the Hollywood newspaper. An American casting director who was in London read it and called me in for a general meeting. I was given a script to read in order to have something to talk about and that was the script for the film The Good Shepherd. I saw there was this young American guy in it. I thought, I have nothing to lose, so I asked her if I could try reading this part. Three days later, I met Robert De Niro for an audition. So I have The Goat to thank for that.
The awards … oh man, they blew my mind. The play was definitely an ensemble thing so I really won the awards through working with Anthony Page, and the cast Jonathan Pryce, Kate Fahy, Matthew Marsh – who have all remained close friends because we did such a long run, first at the Almeida and then in the West End – and later Colin Stinton. But what winning awards does is, it makes you realise that perhaps you are doing the right thing and that it’s going to be okay.
PRESENT: I was shooting the BBC period drama Tess of the D’Urbervilles, up to my waist in waders, when I got a phone call saying Dominic Cooke wanted to meet me about this play at the Royal Court. I had to meet him the next morning. I read Now or Later and thought it was absolutely brilliant and gripping, but having not done a play for awhile, it was quite a terrifying prospect. And the idea of being in a position to talk intelligently and read well from it in a day was worrying. But I mentioned the name Dominic Cooke to some of the actors on Tess – including Jodie Whittaker and Ruth Jones – and they said, you must go and meet with him because he’s the best of the best. So I did.
Now or Later has a slightly Greek tragedy quality. It’s an intimate family story – about a father and son – but the ramifications of the tension in that relationship, like in Greek tragedy, are huge, international. It’s set on election night 2008 in America and a Democrat is about to be elected. That’s Matthew Marsh. The son, my character John Jr, has done something at his Ivy League university that has been put on Youtube and is about to cause complete catastrophe for his father. Not to stop him from becoming president necessarily but to wreck his opening days of the presidency.
It’s been really interesting having the author Christopher Shinn involved. His knowledge of the politics is intricate and yet the real human emotional side is so bang on too. The more we’ve unpacked the play throughout the rehearsals, the more I’ve developed an insane admiration for Chris. Every lunch break he goes to the internet café to see what’s happening in the real US campaign so that he can tie stuff in, changing certain words for greater precision. But while the timing is incredible and the details specific, the play stands up in a broader context because it deals with universal issues, particularly freedom of expression, as well as the relationships. It’s a compact, beautifully crafted piece.
After I got this part, I was at Jonathan Pryce and Kate Fahy’s summer party. Matthew Marsh was there, and I told him it was a wonderful play and there was a part in it perfect for him. Later I got a text message from him saying “hello son”. I was so thrilled. It’s been an absolutely wonderful reunion. The friendship that Matt and I have is a strong one and – given that this play is about a father-son relationship – it definitely supports the piece. We don’t have to go through the process of getting to know each other, we’re able to play that closeness straight off.
What I should also mention is that Dominic and Des, the assistant director, have managed to arrange amazing meetings for us. Cherie Blair talked to us about people in power raising kids and we met with the communications director from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. We’ve had some great research into the world of the play. That in itself has been pretty enlightening.
FUTURE: Tess of the D’Urbervilles comes out this month. I worked with some wonderful actors on that – Gemma Arterton is Tess, Ruth, Jodie, Kenneth Cranham plays my dad in that. It was a real pleasure to film.
I did a couple of films in America last year. One with Forest Whittaker called Powder Blue and the other with William Hurt and Maria Bello called Yellow Handkerchief. They’re coming out later this year or early next. There’s another film job I’m probably going on to but I’m not able to speak about it yet.
I’ve got to say, and I know it’s an actors’ cliché, but ultimately when you’re doing TV or film, you prepare your performance in a kind of vacuum of your own thoughts, then you turn up, meet the actor you’re playing opposite, maybe have a brief ten-minute rehearsal and then you have to do it. You come to rely on various tricks and techniques in order to survive sometimes. The spontaneity that comes from film acting is great, but at the same time, it’s wonderful to go back to theatre and really be able to chew over the material with a director like Dominic and other actors. It makes you think hard, which is always nice.
When I was at Cambridge – my degree was in history of art – I was in a year with Rebecca Hall and Khalid Abdalla, Dan Stevens was the year below, there was this whole troupe of us who wanted to act. When we left, we did workshops in our houses. The problem with not going to drama school is that you just haven’t read enough material and you haven’t had the chance to play characters of all different shapes, sizes and ages. So we did these workshops. It’s wonderful to see those guys doing fantastically well.
You’ll find actors who don’t go to drama school are fine until they’re involved in something where the direction’s bad. Then you suddenly sit there with the neurosis that you don’t have the specific technical capabilities to deal with it. However, I also see with a lot of my friends who did go to drama school how rough and tough that experience is and I don’t know if I would have been able to hack it.
I’m not tempted to go back now, but yes, I’ll stick with the acting. That’s absolutely the plan. I think my parents are still thinking, darling, have you ever thought about producing? They think acting is a very up and down way of life, but I’ve been really fortunate so for the moment I’m completely settled with this course I’m on.
- Eddie Redmayne was speaking to Terri Paddock
Now or Later has its world premiere on 11 September 2008 (previews from 3 September) at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, where it continues its strictly limited season until 18 October.
** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to NOW OR LATER on 24 September 2008 - including a FREE drink & EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with Eddie Redmayne, Matthew Marsh & director Dominic Cooke!! – all for just £25! –click here to book now! **
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