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20 Questions With ... Bertie Carvel

Actor Bertie Carvel - who stars as Leo Frank in Jason Robert Brown's new musical Parade at the Donmar Warehouse - discusses auditions, his love of ensemble theatre and his Facebook dilemma.

By • West End


Since graduating from RADA in 2003, Bertie Carvel has established himself as an extremely versatile performer across all performing mediums, on screen, stage and radio.

His stage acting credits include The Man of Mode, Coram Boy, The Life of Galileo (all at the National Theatre), Professor Bernhardi, Rose Bernd (Last Waltz Season with Oxford Stage Company) and Revelations (Hampstead Theatre). On screen, he’s been seen in TV’s Holby City, Doctor Who, Hawking, The Genius of Beethoven and Bombshell. He's recently completed a role as Lord Carmarthen in a new US TV series, John Adams planned for March 2008, also starring Rufus Sewell.

Carvel is also an experienced radio artist, having performed entirely for the BBC across Radio 4, Radio 3, Radio 2, Schools Radio and World Service, most recently in Life Class, Maurice, Breaking Point, Rock 'n' Roll, The Tinner's Corpse, Duty and Voyage Out. He came runner-up in the 2003 Carleton Hobbs Radio Awards.

After a very successful two-year stint at the National, Carvel makes his musical theatre debut in Parade at the Donmar Warehouse, playing Leo Frank. In Atlanta, Georgia in 1913, a Jewish man from Brooklyn stands accused of the murder of a young factory worker. Based on the true story of Leo Frank convicted of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, Parade recalls the press frenzy and public hate surrounding the trial, and Lucille Frank’s crusade for justice for her husband.

The musical has a book by book by Alfred Uhry and was co-conceived by its original director Harold Prince. The Donmar production is directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, marking his directorial debut, and designed by Christopher Oram.


Date & place of birth
Born 6 September 1977 in London.

Lives now in
Kentish Town. I cycle everywhere. The average 4 mile journey in London takes 40 minutes by car, 30 minutes by public transport and 22 minutes by bike. My bike got vandalised a couple of weeks ago so I’m on the tube at the moment.

Training
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Graduated 2003.

What made you want to become an actor?
I was at university doing English and randomly auditioned for the drama society in my third year and got the lead for Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Elliot and loved it. I did a lot with them in my last 18 months of university. It was just a complete conversion – I absolutely got bitten and I’d never really done it before. It had never even crossed my mind, I never knew about drama schools. So when people started talking about drama schools, I had to do a bit of research and by auditioning and researching, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I was so relieved because I hadn’t got a clue about what I wanted to do otherwise.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I really don’t know. Maybe I would have tried to get funding to do a higher degree, maybe a masters or a PhD – something like that. I read English at university. I only say that because that’s what was interesting for me at the time. I was a student, so I was interested in studying.

First big break
I was asked to do a reading of a draft of Coram Boy at the National Studio. After that, I was asked to take part in the development workshops with the director Melly Still. From that, I got the part. That was an amazing thing to be involved in. Then I went back to the National shortly after that to do Life of Galileo with Howard Davies at the wheel and that was an extraordinary experience. Then stayed on to do Coram Boy again, then Man of Mode. I had this long stint at the National which was amazing, extremely happy time. So I guess it has to be Coram Boy.

Career highlights to date
That whole time at the National was a joy. Doing Galileo with Howard Davies directing and acting with Simon Russell Beale – that’s got to be at the top of the list. I had such an amazing experience with that. Every performance was a joy – it felt electric, one scene in particular. You’re trained at drama school to think that good acting is about being in the moment and listening and responding freshly each night. That’s very hard to do because broadly speaking you’re doing the same thing every night. That’s about the closest I’ve come to achieving that though and I’m very proud of that.

Favourite co-stars
I was thinking about this last night, because I knew you were going to ask me that. The thing is, without sounding too wanky, I believe in an ensemble theatre and that generally a good experience in a theatre is about a strong company. Simon, obviously, because it was a joy and a pleasure sharing a stage with him and I really enjoyed that, but above that I’ve had the pleasure of working in a number of companies that have been such happy experiences. I’m reminded here because we all share a dressing room, one for boys and one for girls. All the other times where you share dressing rooms, you get to know each other and in the rehearsal period a bond forms in the company. I did this thing called The Last Waltz Season at the Arcola Theatre working with wonderful actors, where there was a real sense of ensemble. Coram Boy was a real ensemble venture too. Basically, since drama school the idea that everybody involved in the enterprise brings something to the table is an idea I’ve liked. Parade is a brilliant example of that.

Favourite directors
Rob Ashford who I’ve just been working with. I’ve never been happier than where I am right now and it’s been a very special time for both of us. It’s his first time as a director, I think, and mine in a musical – it’s just been the most wonderful experience. Working with Melly Still, Howard Davies, Nicholas Hytner has also been fantastic.

What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Saint Joan at the National. It was just the most extraordinary production. I left completely thrilled!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Mean what you say. It’s such an obvious thing, but actually quite profound and very difficult to do. But you have to mean everything you say, in every role. A director at drama school told me that - his name is Gadi Roll, now an associate director at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.

Favourite books
I’m reading Atonement at the moment, which I started a few years ago and left at a friends house and never got back! I’m always reading about seven books at once, and I’m getting better at that as I’m getting older! I’m reading Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes and a "Teach Yourself Ancient Greek" book.

Favourite holiday destinations
I have very special memories of a Greek island called Paxos. Although, I think my favourite place on the Earth is North Wales. I like the West Coast of Scotland and Suffolk too.

Favourite after-show haunts
I don’t really have any. I spent most of the last two years in the National’s Green Room bar but I don’t go out and ‘live it large’. Especially not with Parade, because of the singing and all that.

Favourite websites
I’m in the process of kicking the habit of Facebook. I wouldn’t call it a favourite, more of an inflammatory disease. But I don’t spend an awful lot of time on the internet. Whatsonstage.com, though, obviously!

What made you want to play the role of Leo Frank in Parade? How did you get involved with the project?
I heard it was happening. I’ve never done a musical before but I’ve always had it vaguely in my mind that if I did, somewhere like the Donmar would be where I’d like to do one. I didn’t know about Parade and I don’t know musicals. As soon as I got the script and the music though, I realised it’s just the most amazing story and it seemed like a great part to get, if I could get it. I started researching to try and get the part and he’s an absolutely fascinating character, such a complex character. I’m fully prejudiced about musicals, actually quite ignorant is perhaps more accurate. But the idea of playing a character in a story this complex – it really feels like a journey.

The audition went brilliantly. I got sent over the songs and I kind of freaked out thinking “What the hell have I done?” as I’d never done musicals before. I had seven songs to prepare and went to my singing teacher and banged away at it for two weeks. I very nearly withdrew in shame. There was a miscommunication actually. Probably, I was only expected to pick one of the songs and bring one of my own, but I was told to prepare all of the Leo Frank songs in the musical. So I did. In theory I have a portfolio of songs that I did all through drama school that I can pick out for auditions. And I do – I have a wonderful singing teacher. One of the things he’s done for me over the years is prepare a theoretical portfolio of songs for auditions, but I never go up for musical theatre auditions! Once upon a time in acting auditions, you have a stock repertoire of Shakespeare speeches and speeches from plays because that’s how people auditioned. It just doesn’t happen that way anymore in theatre or anything. You’re almost universally asked to read something from the play that you’re auditioning for. So the idea of having this repertoire, which I think is much more current in musical theatre, wasn’t something that I had. So it made sense to me to prepare material from the show and also that’s a way of finding out whether it’s a job you want or not. So I prepared all the music and started reading about the case.

There’s an absolutely massive amount written about this case. I read a very voluminous book by a guy called Steve Oney, who’s a journalist, which is a very objective, very full account. The detail and complexity of the whole thing is just fascinating. The character is not an obvious hero, and he’s not entirely sympathetic. It’s not a clear-cut case of an obviously innocent man being sent wrongly to his death. It’s very complicated. There’s doubt over all kinds of issues and I just found it fascinating. I thought “Here, clearly is a tragic miscarriage of justice.” But it’s not as simple as that. The guy didn’t help himself in many ways. He’s a flawed human being, it seems to me, and the challenge of doing that and responsibility of playing a real man was very attractive. I like things which are challenging and will stretch me.

Have you seen any productions of Parade before, or listened to the original Broadway cast recording?
No I haven’t. I can count on one hand the number of musicals I’ve seen. It’s just not really been part of my world but I’ve loved them when I’ve seen them. When I was at drama school, most years in the third year did a musical. But they’re very expensive and for one reason or another we just didn’t do one in our year. We were all dying to do it. One of the things I love about being an actor is the number of skills you get to learn and hone. Expressing yourself in song is just another challenge. The Donmar sent out the Broadway cast recording give people an idea of the flavour, because there was such a limited amount of time to prepare. You weren’t expected to learn the music from the CD though. I thought Brent Carver as Leo Frank on the recording was wonderful. But when I listened to it properly, I thought “This is absurd – why am I auditioning for this part? This is a proper lead!”

Parade flopped on Broadway, closing after just 85 performances. Here at the Donmar, it’s already won rave reviews from critics – do you think there’s a chance it could have a good run in a larger West End theatre?
I’ve no idea about any stuff like that. I don’t know how commercial theatre works really. I’ve had the pleasure to work on the fringe and in subsidised theatre and never done West End theatre. I presume, if it’s a success, and there’s a demand, some enterprising producer might transfer it. But it would definitely be something I’d like to be involved in if it did happen – I love doing this show, I’ve never been happier.

What’s it like now heading a cast of a new musical and working with extremely experienced musical theatre performers?
It’s great, the company are just a pleasure. I have to say that most companies I’ve worked with, people generally are a pleasure. But they’re brilliant, I can’t imagine a better company. We all learn from each other really. They’ve been nothing but supportive, it’s a privilege really. We’ve got such a varied pallet of experience. Steven Page who’s in the show, is an opera singer and has massive experience in opera. Then Mark and I are both first time musical actors but have experience of theatre and other things. And Rob’s background is as a dancer/choreographer. But its never felt like those world’s are jarring – it all fits together like a tapestry. It’s a pleasure.

Successful musicals in the West End are quite light hearted at the moment. This one has a very serious storyline. How do audiences seem to be responding to that?
They love it. The response has been extraordinary, and I think the piece deserves it. I really have nothing but admiration for this piece. My background is theatre and I’m interested in plays, and what they reveal about people. But I think this is just a story which has to be told and I think people recognise that. I don’t know what they expect when they come to see it. But the response has been amazing. It just has its own power and within the first number and the first scene, the opening sequence, you know you’re not watching a “show”. You know you’re watching a play with music. And people sit there and you can feel that they’re wrapped up in it and attentive. I think the piece is quite upsetting but that’s a good thing – we do upsetting things to one another and it ought to be hashed out in the theatre so we understand ourselves better.

What are your favourite musical numbers in Parade?
I think they’re all good. Not just my songs, I think all of the music is brilliant. I don’t think I can choose. “The Old Red Hills of Home” is wonderful, because it bookends the show, and in the context of the show it has so many different resonances. It evokes the feelings in the South and the glory of those days of wine and roses. And it evokes everything which is wondrous and good. Also in the context it recurs in, it evokes everything we’ve seen through the show when it’s reprised at the end of the show. The same piece of music takes on a completely different resonance, because you’ve gone on this journey, and it becomes very, very powerful indeed. But I think they’re all brilliant, I enjoy them all.

What’s the oddest/funniest/most notable thing that’s happened in rehearsals/performances to date?
One day, the building where we were rehearsing didn’t open until 10am. Usually it opened at 8am for the stage managers to go in and set up before we rolled in shortly before 10am. This was a big rehearsal space with lots of different rehearsal rooms. Hairspray was rehearsing there, and Importance of Being Earnest and Rough Crossings – all kinds of things going on. Anyway I turned up at 5 to 10 or something to find my cast across the street in a patch of sunshine kind of huddled together. Then outside the door, the cast of Hairspray. It was very West Side Story – there was this sort of face off between the musical casts. Our director's assistant was also working on Hairspray so was this sort of Tony character who would go between the two. It was a kind of brief Mexican stand-off between the two casts. That was quite a funny moment!

What are your plans for the future?
I don’t know. I hope someone will give me another nice job! I love the theatre and I fully intend as far as possible, to work in it, primarily as an actor. I’ve often thought about directing some day too, but I’m not sure I’d be terribly good at it! The same set of skills that make me enjoy acting, makes me want to be a director. But I honestly don’t know the answer to the “what comes next?” question – that’s why it’s so exciting.

- Bertie Carvel was speaking to Tom Atkins.


Parade opened on 24 September 2007 (previews from 14 September) at the Donmar Warehouse, where it continues until 24 November.


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