Actor Hugh Bonneville is best known as the Earl of Grantham in mega-hit period drama Downton Abbey, but two decades ago he was cutting his teeth as a member of our partner organisation, National Youth Theatre. Here, he talks to NYT’s Alumni Relationships Manager, Catherine Higgins, about Downton, NYT and auditions…
Tell us about your experience of being an NYT member and what you took from your involvement with the company.
I joined the National Youth Theatre in the ’80s when it was run by Michael Croft and I can absolutely say that my experience with NYT was more formative than drama school. I learned about discipline and I learned what playmaking was. It was a unique and valuable experience for me. It was, for many of us, the first glimpse of a world you love and of people from different walks of life. I also made lifelong friendships with people like Gina McKee, Nat Parker, Lloyd Owen and those friendships go back to those common threads that we shared. There’s a shared smile now when we talk about that NYT experience.
A lot of our young members are torn between going to university or drama school. What do you think the best route is to becoming a working actor?
The playing field has changed massively in the last 25 years. I don’t know the best route in. I know people who trained and people who got involved in other ways, but the one thing I would say is that the work is not going to come to you. My advice would be to immerse yourself in theatre. Work front of house, in the box office, in the fly-tower, that way you can start to see if this world is for you.
How do you decide on a role – is it the script, the director or something else that you look for first?
It’s script, script, script. If the script doesn’t call out to you “I must do this”, it’s a non-starter. A couple of times you might think of doing a role because of the cachet of working with a big name director and that’s not right. Occasionally you get the winning combination of a great script and a great director and that’s worth more than gold. You just have to trust your instincts.
How was it filming Downton Abbey series 2?
As always with Julian Fellowes’ script there’s lots of humanity and emotion alongside all the pain and turning upside down of all the characters’ lives. I would say the stakes are higher emotionally with this series. NYT comes up occasionally among the actors. Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens were former members. NYT is like a club we all have warm memories of. I’ve yet to meet anyone who did it who says they didn’t enjoy it.
If you could offer a tip to actors starting out, going on their first auditions, what would it be?
The person auditioning you (and I know because I’ve been on that side of the table) wants you to be the best person they’ve seen that day. Go into an audition and show the best of yourself. Believe that you are the best person for that role, or for that job if you are going for a job interview, and then be confident when you present your monologue or give your interview answer. Look people in the eye. If you can do that and then leave the room and forget all about it, you’ll be able to cope with this business for the next 5O years.
Hugh Bonneville is coming to IdeasTap HQ on Tuesday 13 March 2012 to give 45 members a Q&A about his career. Apply to take part.
Read our interview with Downton star and ex-NYT member Michelle Dockery.
Find out more about becoming a member of National Youth Theatre.