Curious Incident's Graham Butler: 'I've realised how much of a collaboration it is'

The 28-year-old actor had never seen multi award-winning show ”The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” when he landed the lead role of Christopher Boone

'It was unlike anything I'd ever read' - Graham Butler as Christopher Boone
'It was unlike anything I'd ever read' – Graham Butler as Christopher Boone
© Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Talk us through your casting as Christopher

I got a phone call from my agent, asking me if I wanted to go in for it. I was slightly taken aback because it's such a huge show, and it seemed quite an undertaking in the midst of the terrible disaster at the Apollo. I hadn't actually seen it before I went to audition, and although I had been told it was quite physical I underestimated just how fit we were going to have to be. It was a physically rigorous audition process, and I had to do three auditions. Marianne Elliott [director] and her team put me through some intense movement work, and I remember lying on the floor of the studio thinking 'If they don’t give me the job, then they're horrible people'!

I'm guessing you've studied Mark Haddon's novel in detail

I read the book years ago when it first came out, and loved it. It was unlike anything I'd ever read. And actually part of the reason I didn't book to see the show originally was because I thought 'it can't be done, there’s no chance you can turn that book into any sort of play'. And then of course by the time it opened everyone was raving about it, and tickets were like gold dust. The book has been a bible to us during rehearsals, because Simon Stephens' script is very faithful to it. So if you're ever are struggling with something to do with the character it's the best tool in the world to have in front of you.

What impact do you think the Apollo incident had on the show?

There are several company members coming back who were involved in the run at the Apollo, and it was obviously hugely distressing for everybody; there's an abiding sense of gratitude that nobody died. But there was certainly an aspect of that dreadful night that was actually positive for the show. It's had some time to breathe, I think, as opposed to being this ongoing process. So there's been time to rediscover things and change certain elements. It's also meant that the cast did a brilliant series of free performances in schools, with the show stripped back and performed in the round as it was originally. I think it made everyone realise that, even when you strip away all the amazing effects, it's still a really beautiful and engaging story.

Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility or pressure leading the show as it reopens?

In a sense I do, but it's actually an ensemble show – everyone has to be in tune with one another. It's never felt like we're doing Hamlet. It really is reliant on every single person in the space at the same time, being alive to one another. And that's not just a metaphorical thing, because there's a lot of lifting in the show and a lot of acrobatic elements; if everyone isn't in tune then somebody may get injured. So in rehearsals I've realised how much of a collaboration it is, and the pressure I might feel has been stripped away.

I remember speaking to Luke Treadaway, who originated the role, about his work with children with autism and asperger's. Have you done similar levels of research?

Very much so. The great thing about coming into a show that's already been on is that those connections are still in place. So we went to the Tree House, which is an incredible school in north London run by a charity called Ambitious About Autism, and to Southlands, a boarding school for boys with Asperger's. The staff, pupils and parents were all extremely generous with their time, and it was a very valuable experience, because you need to know what you're talking about in order to convey that to an audience. But having said that, Christopher's condition is never mentioned in the book or the play, and both Simon and Mark insist that it's about family and about people rather than about Asperger's specifically.

How did you get into acting in the first place?

I've got two older brothers and when I was younger they were both into acting, so of course I just copied what they did. They've both since done other things – one's a director, the other a writer – but I stuck with the acting. It wasn't something I necessarily knew I wanted to do, it just kind of crept up on me. I was lucky that I got into the first drama school I auditioned for, and it feels like everything since has been a bit of an accident. Every time my agent rings and says I've got a job, it still surprises me. Neither of my parents did jobs they especially loved, so I feel very lucky to be doing something I'm passionate about.

There's a perception that young actors are only interested in being famous – is that fair?

Well there's certainly a perception. When friends from back home or distant members of my family ask what I'm doing and I tell them, they say "oh, more theatre", as if I'm still waiting to get to that role in Coronation Street. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Coronation Street, I just don't particularly have a great interest in doing much film and TV. Maybe that's just because I've done far more theatre, but 20 years ago that's what sparked my love for acting and I don't see how that would change. Just because somebody else says you need to be on TV or film, you don't have to, and I know plenty of other actors who feel the same.

That being said, if they made a film of Curious Incident would you go for it?

That's difficult, because I just don't see how they would make a successful film out of it. But then I said that about the play! Maybe it would be amazing, and I would certainly be the first in line to go and see it, but I suspect by that stage I'll be too old to play a 15 year-old.

Finally, I have to ask – how difficult is it to build the train set?

It's very physically hard, and a real feat of memory. I've tried to apply logic to it but I don't think there is any. It's just a case of going over, and over, and over it. But it's so beautiful when it works – and when all those bits of track actually align and the train goes around it. Like so much in the play, it's all about hard work. Every morning of rehearsals was boot camp, throwing people around the stage, running up walls. But it's all done with the aim of making it look effortless on stage.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is currently in previews at the Gielgud Theatre, ahead of press opening Tuesday
8 July 2014