I went to the Sylvia Young theatre school at the weekends, from the age of nine. Before that I did workshops at the Chichester Festival Theatre and we’d occasionally be the children in their productions.
When you’re little, the very fact that you’re available to work makes you more likely to get a job. Which means there’s not that anvil of doom placed around your neck. It didn’t feel like a hard business; we were led to believe that casting would be a success.
The downside of that is that you can get lazy. There are hundreds of young, hungry, talented, beautiful people coming out of drama school and you’re there sitting on your laurels, assuming you’re going to walk out of school into some plum role. You maybe haven’t made as much effort on detail, the text, making things muscular or working on your character.
I certainly think [studying English at Oxford] was helpful, although I learnt more about Shakespeare from performing the plays. Academia is not what theatre is about; it’s about performance, rhythm and sound.
It’s a huge privilege be the first players on [the Park Theatre] stage; to have the chance to explore its potential. Jez Bond’s wife found the play and brought it to our attention. I was struck immediately by the story. Although it’s a Jacobean tragedy in a way – we all come to a very sticky end – it has a lightness of touch and that jazzy, Roaring Twenties feel.
During the first page of my script it says, of the character, “If Mae West lived in Illinois.” So I went very broad New York in my accent, which was a bit of a red herring. Sometimes your research, before you get into the rehearsal room, can lead you down a track that takes you in a wrong direction. So I’d advise people to maybe research the time, town or situation, but not your character until you’ve spoken to the other actors.
A lot of getting into character is about the rhythm of the speech. Look at the grammar and the syntax of how this person speaks. Also, how other characters react. I learned a lot about my character quite late on in the play; don’t make assumptions about a character until you’ve read all the way through.
I only get offered period roles: it’s very annoying. Of course it’s a quadruple blessing to be in a series, so you can get a mortgage etc, etc. But I find it very difficult to be seen by casting agents for anything modern.
Although I signed up for a certain number of series with Foyle’s War, I never expected to be doing any more than a pilot. I’ve always been quite wary since going to America when I was 11 to do the first DreamWorks movie with Steven Spielberg. I was flown there, put in a limo; I really was flavor of the month with Disney. But then there was a change of director, a new director came in, and he chose Reese Witherspoon instead. After that, I’ve never counted my chickens before they’ve hatched.
My advice for young actors is to keep learning and keep listening. Everybody and everything can teach you something. Also, if you are doing well, never look down on your peers because they’ll catch you up and overtake you. It happened to me – people who were walk-on parts have gone on to be huge movie stars.
In Focus: Acting on screen
I actually got screen-trained by Spielberg himself.
He taught me how to give an edit point: you turn your head or give an inflection at the end of a line, so it’s easier for an editor to cut.
Also, never do any sudden movements. For instance, never get up off your chair as fast as you would in real life.
He also taught me how to hit my mark without looking at it.
Honeysuckle Weeks is in These Shining Lives at the Park Theatre. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website.