Gwilym Lee ... About Tommy
The UK premiere of Thor Bjørn Krebs' About Tommy is currently at the Southwark Playhouse. Here, Gwilym Lee, whose recent credits include understudying Ralph Fiennes in Oedipus, tells us about the play and how he got involved.
Tell us a little about the play and about your character
About Tommy explores the experiences of a Danish soldier serving in the International Brigade in Croatia during the war in the former Yugoslavia. It is based on true accounts that the playwright collected from veterans of the war in Denmark. The character takes a journey from a naïve, jingoistic, young soldier – through frustration, helplessness and exposure to horrors and atrocities – to a despairing, ostracised man staring in the face of oblivion. Tommy joins the army at the end of his National Service to pursue an adventure with good friends and to teach those people down in Yugoslavia a lesson! When he gets down there, he soon realises the futile nature of peacekeeping in a region where no one is interested in peace.
What made you accept the role?
I had worked with the director, Elly Green, previously at the National Theatre. She directed the understudy cast of Oedipus and I was very keen to work with her on a project of her own. It’s a play that she has been very passionate about putting on for some time, so her enthusiasm was a great lure! Having finished Oedipus and going on to Hamlet, this was a fantastic opportunity to work in a small company (there are three of us – fortunately we all get on really well!) in a leading, and very challenging role.
The subject matter hugely interested me as well. I remember seeing the war in Yugoslavia when I was a child, but I didn’t have a real understanding of it. I can’t say I am an expert now – it’s such a complicated and messy period in history – but its horrific, brutal, chaotic and tragic nature fascinated me. The position in which UN Peacekeepers like Tommy were put, as helpless observers to the atrocities of this war, leave such a harrowing mark on the human psyche that you couldn’t help but be affected and moved by the story. But this is so prevalent today as well. It struck me seeing those three veterans of the First World War laying their wreaths at the Cenotaph last year that there are people still fighting and dieing in these wars all over the globe. And it isn’t just about death. How do soldiers deal with what they are made to witness? Whatever you may think about the politics of a war, there is a huge psychological and emotional effect on anyone exposed to it, which I am greatly moved by.
How do you go about finding the character, is there any specific research you do?
I have never felt more humbled by a character! When you are dealing with the stories of soldiers that risk their lives in a war zone, I feel that my biggest challenge is doing these real life experiences justice. I have watched a lot of films and read a lot of material about the period. But I don’t just want to portray a pastiche of war films and war commentary. I think that the most important research I can do is of actual experiences of war. As such, I have watched documentaries and spoken to people who have served in action. The greatest challenge of all is to try and express this through the character of Tommy avoiding cliché and stereotype.
You have appeared as a company member in several productions at the National Theatre. How was that experience?
I finished at drama school in July last year and my first theatre job since finishing was Oedipus in the Olivier Theatre. I feel like the luckiest lad in the world! What better experience could I ask for than being in a production directed by Jonathan Kent, with such an incredible cast? As well as playing the Messenger, I was given the task of understudying Ralph Fiennes’ Oedipus. In doing so I was given an amazing insight into the preparation of a colossal actor. I couldn’t believe that I was sharing a rehearsal room with so much talent and experience. Alan Howard is an immense presence – I never really understood what was meant when people referred to someone as being a ‘dangerous actor’ until I saw him work. I can’t carry on name-dropping, but needless to say that it was an unbelievable opportunity to work with and learn from such incredible actors.
The National Theatre is an amazing place to go ‘work’ – it is a self-contained world of theatre. Walking around the building gives you a feeling of being a part of a modern day medieval troupe –when Oedipus came to an end I was tempted to chain myself to the doors so as never to leave!
Where did you get your training?
I trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It was a fantastic three years – the training provided the perfect environment to learn, develop and challenge myself as an actor.
You recently graduated from drama school. Is it nerve-wracking to graduate?
Leaving drama school is a very nerve-wracking prospect. You spend three years working intensively, day in day out, and loving it. So when you leave you want to continue working, learning and developing with the same intensity. But obviously, it’s not always that simple. However, I was fortunate enough to get a few jobs straight after leaving. And working in the big wide world is certainly an exciting reality! All of a sudden I am rehearsing plays with actors who are older than 25, playing their own age and I’m reaping the experience that comes with that. Every new project is unchartered territory and I am relishing every second.
What is the best thing about being an actor?
Every project holds different challenges and within each project, no two days are the same. You learn so much about so many things – about history, language, people, feelings, culture, life – the list goes on. A good day in the rehearsal room can be life affirming. And this is ‘work’ apparently!
And the worst?
The business side of things, star/celebrity culture, the gaps between work!
About Tommy continues at the Southwark Playhouse to 25 April.