Theatre loses too much talent to screen: let's cheer those who make it back

As the Oscars arrive, Matt Trueman raises a glass to those actors who return to theatre after Hollywood success

Andrew Garfield, Mark Rylance and Ruth Negga
Andrew Garfield, Mark Rylance and Ruth Negga
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Apparently, Andrew Garfield was sat in the National Theatre’s canteen when he got word of his Oscar nomination last month. On Sunday, he’s up for Best Actor for Hacksaw Ridge. But, right now, Garfield’s in rehearsals for Angels in America on the South Bank. It makes a lovely contrast: the glamour of Hollywood’s glitziest night out and the banality of backstage life. One is champagne flutes and black tie; the other, rehearsal room slacks and machine-brewed coffee.

It’s fitting, though. It was at the National that Garfield’s career kicked off in earnest. He was part of a talented young ensemble (alongside Matt Smith and Andrea Riseborough) that played a triple bill of Connections plays Burn/Chatroom/Citzenship back in 2006 in what was then the Cottesloe. Even then, he stood out. I can still remember him, eyes scorched with hot tears, as a good kid ripped to shreds by trolls in Chatroom. His emotional ease was astounding.

There comes a point where it makes more sense to live in LA, at which point London theatre becomes but a distant memory

Garfield isn’t the only NT alumnus up for an Oscar this weekend. Ruth Negga, nommed as Best Actress for Loving, played Ophelia there seven years ago and, before that, won an Ian Charleson award for Phedre opposite Helen Mirren, the first show broadcast via NT Live.

Despite such stage credentials, however, British audiences haven’t seen either onstage for years. Negga last performed live at the Old Vic in 2011, starring in JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, while Angels in America is Garfield’s first role over here in more than a decade (though he did a stint on Broadway in Death of a Salesman).

It’s a real shame. Theatre loses a lot of its best talent to the screen. It’s not just the wages – well, it is sort of the wages – it’s that actors get pinned down into long-term commitments: series options and film franchises. There comes a point where it makes more sense to live in LA, at which point London theatre becomes but a distant memory.

Look, Oscars don’t land in actors' laps. They are rarely the result of one role alone. To win an Oscar, one has to first win the sort of job that might win you an Oscar and, given the nature of big budget Hollywood, that means establishing yourself as bankable – not necessarily at box office, in purely monetary terms, but certainly onscreen, in performance. You have to prove that you can deliver, and that takes more than just one audition.

We should raise a cheer for those actors that keep coming back

In other words, breaking through at this level takes years. Negga’s first major feature was back in 2012, starring alongside Samuel L Jackson in The Samaritan, after which came roles in World War Z and the World of Warcraft film. Garfield’s go back a decade, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, before a stint as Spiderman. Their latest roles, the sort any actor would kill for, the sort few get the chance to even audition for, are born off the back of all that. It takes talent, commitment and, yep, luck.

We should, therefore, raise a cheer for those actors that keep coming back. Mark Rylance picked up his Oscar last year and immediately pulled on his orange snowsuit for three months in Nice Fish. Damian Lewis and David Tennant have good things going on in screen, but both are back onstage regularly; ditto Helen McCrory, Daniel Radcliffe, Gemma Arterton and Andrew Scott. That takes a different kind of commitment, and it’s not just audiences that benefit, but theatre too.