Hugh Bonneville considers himself one of the luckiest actors he knows. He has managed to keep working since 1986 in theatre, radio, TV and film but beyond turning up on time and not punching the director he has no great tips of the trade to impart.
Yet, there are still a few recommendations that are worth hearing about from Hugh’s lips when it comes to acting so stay tuned for his top seven acting takeaways which I’ll cover shortly.
But first, a bit about Hugh’s life: when Hugh was just a kid his parents knew a friend in show business by the name of Michael Bates. He was an acclaimed stage actor as well as a performer in a couple of TV comedies.
One evening Hugh’s dad asked him if he’d like to go with him to pick Michael up after the evening performance. Hugh obliged and when they arrived at the theatre, they stepped into the darkness and in the distance Hugh saw Michael lit on stage, performing to an audience of three hundred plus and was completely captivated by the show.
The next morning at breakfast Hugh sat down staring at Michael as he tapped the shell of his boiled egg. And had transformed from the character he was on stage the night before and was a breed apart from what he was at that breakfast table.
Hugh wanted to know the secret of whence this power came. Michael had a unique talent which Hugh was hungry to understand and acquire: the ability to inhabit a role and weave magic in the dark in front of hundreds of people, holding them unchanged, entranced and entertained.
Hugh would regularly be taken to the theatre and in his teens joined the national youth theatre and spent a few summers doing plays from Peter Shaffer’s Royal Hunt of the Sun to Ben Johnson’s Bartholomew Fair and of course several Shakespeare plays.
What he did learned at the National Youth Theatre was discipline, communication, trying and failing in rehearsals through teamwork and trust, commitment to a common purpose. These were skills that stood him in good stead for later in life.
Even though he loved acting Hugh never thought he’d end up becoming one. His passion may have been theatre but he was convinced he was going to be a lawyer. But when he was accepted to college at Cambridge he found himself gravitating towards theology rather than law.
He did end up acting in a lot of plays during his three years at Cambridge and was not much focused on his Theology lessons. In truth he spent more time in rehearsal rooms than he ever did in lecture theatres.
In his second year he confessed to his parents that he wanted to give acting a go professionally and was going to try for drama school. Even though his parents were cautiously supportive Hugh knew it was a profession for which the stats for success didn’t stack up well. But he would rather try and fail than spend 40 years in a suit wondering what might have been.
He gave himself three years to get an equity card and if he didn’t achieve that then he would reverse out of the whole thing and get a proper job.
Joining Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts after college Hugh worked out that a union membership was the only route to employment in theatre, He figured that his chances of getting a card would be greatly improved if he got into the market place sooner rather than later. So as soon as he arrived at Webber Douglas he started trying to leave.
Hearing of an opportunity for a role at a theatre in Plymouth Hugh was eager to get it. He set off to Plymouth with no appointment and asked the stage door keeper to see the artistic director.
Having tried to get rid of him several times during the course of the morning Hugh was in an audition room thrashing mood and refused to budge. Eventually the artistic director arrived and Hugh announced he’d travelled 200 miles to audition for a role he was born to play.
Unfortunately the role was cast already and the director wondered why hadn’t he called to find out beforehand? Hugh learned a lesson that day, seizing an opportunity is one thing, doing due diligence to work out if there even is an opportunity is quite another.
Grabbing a copy of contacts, the entertainment industry directory of agents, producers and casting directors, Hugh wrote out letters to two hundred and fifty addresses announcing his arrival as the best thing since sliced bread. He was scrupulous about spelling, punctuation and the correct form of address.
Out of the 250, 150 did reply back informing him that they would keep his details on file. The rest didn’t bother while only two invited him to audition.
His first audition at the Garrick theatre didn’t go so well, thanks to having arrived with a thumping head after smacking it against a beam under the eaves. The director suggested he stop his monologue and perhaps come back another time.
His next audition at Regent’s Park was for the artistic director David Conville who drilled Hugh thinking that he was somehow related to a couple that he knew in the theatre. Hugh found the situation quite awkward.
Getting a recall to audition for Declan Donnellan who was directing Romeo and Juliet that season with Ralph Fiennes and Sarah Woodward in the title roles, Hugh was excited to audition for the role of Oberon. He boomed his voice and waved his arms when Declan interrupted him pointing out that he was playing to an audience of one and no need to try and impress as if on the kings theatre stage.
Luckily for Hugh David Conville came back and offered him to be the understudy for three plays and receive a provisional equity card. Hugh was gushing thanking David profusely. ‘It’s not a question of thanks, this is business’ – David replied – ‘rehearsals start last week in April.’ click.
That summer Hugh’s first professional gig was playing in three plays including Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Arms and the Man – grand total of lines he uttered: five – he was hardly setting the stage alight.
Come the end of that summer and there were plans to tour for the play ‘The Dream’ round Europe. As luck would have it once more, or was it a case of right place right moment, a friend suggested to Hugh to write to the national theatre since Jonathan Lynn thought he was quite good at his performance. To Hugh’s amazement he wrote back saying he’d pass his name to the National’s casting director recommending him for an audition.
Becoming part of the national theatre company as an understudy meant the world to Hugh. Yet, after a few seasons he felt that staying there, playing small parts, he could be playing these small parts forever. But to have the chance to go off and do rep, play bigger parts would allow him to stretch further and then he could come back and play bigger parts at the national.
Hugh, therefore, took on rep plays around the country taking on more daring and meatier roles including Taking Steps, The Circle and Don’t Look Back in Anger. With a variety of directors at the helm he learned a lot about playwrights and stage craft.
His journey from then on has allowed Hugh to keep flexing his acting muscles where at one point he performed in four plays back to back which he found exhilarating to say the least. And all those months of work prior finally came to be well received.
It was a dream job being in a semi permanent troupe, acknowledging each other’s strengths, supporting each other through the ups and downs of the season and developing a shorthand of how to work with each other.
Having believed he’d found a home with the RSC towards the end of his contract he was urged to turn down an offer from the National theatre and remain as a member of the company. And so he did. He was excited with the belief that he would spend several years playing all sorts of roles at the RSC and yet when it came to casting the following season he was offered absolutely nothing.
Such is showbiz.
Later on Hugh performed in a play ‘Beautiful Thing’ which received great accolades at the Donmar theatre and was offered to produce the play since it deserved a longer life and a wider audience. There followed the most intense five months of his theatre career as Hugh learned from a standing start how and how not to capitalise and produce a west end show.
Having to raise quite a big sum of money to get the show on its feet he wrote to every human being he knew seeking investment. Weeks went by and no money was coming together. Deciding to put a deadline and believing that it won’t happen Hugh accepted an offer for a role at the National and low and behold a cheque landed on his doormat for the capital required. Now he had two shows to contend with.
It made for a stressful autumn where he would rehearse for the play at the National in the morning then sprint across town for production meetings and then leg it back to the National for the afternoon session.
Once Hugh began to make waves in the theatre circles he gradually began to shift into the film world. Playing secondary roles in films such as Notting Hill, Iris and eventually moving to more meatier roles such as Downton Abbey and Paddington.
Here are seven of Hugh’s tips when it comes to acting:
1. Every generation and every actor must interpret works of art for themselves – but the building blocks, the architecture of the language are a given, and are essential to the fundamental workings of the plays; ignore them at your peril.
2. When asked about how one makes a start in the business, or how one catches a lucky break, Hugh answers that the industry owes us nothing, but putting ourselves in luck’s way is a helpful start. We have a better chance of nearing the job we crave if we at least hover in its orbit.
The whizzing atoms that coalesce into a moment called Opportunity are more likely to occur if we are working in a box office or selling ice cream in the interval than if we are sitting at home staring angrily at the phone.
3. There’s the public perception of the indulged actor who can’t handle criticism or rejection and has to be protected from painful truths at all costs. But actors are required to be made of sterner stuff.
As actors we’re all self employed, even with an agent in tow we require the thick skin to cope with rejection, the thin skin to show our talent. Yes, an agent might get us a foot in the door but it’s us and our abilities that have to nudge it open.
We are the chairman, chief financial officer, production manager, marketing director and product all in one. Being rejected is nine tenths of the job. One in ten times we get the part.
4. Hugh can’t bear to be let down gently by means of a euphemism by his agent. He’d prefer to get the solid truth out of his agent rather than be let down gently. And if an actor does get an agent they must never forget who is employing whom.
Young actors are obviously at a disadvantage as they don’t yet know the ropes of the profession and inevitably defer to their agent’s greater experience when it come to advice.
However looking up to an agent as a fount of all knowledge, or leaning on them as either a guru or a nanny is a mistake. Some actors live in fear of their agent, placing them on a pedestal, not daring to trouble them.
5. Learning lines by rote is not constructive in theatre as it constricts our approach to what’s happening around us. If we turn up with the lines pre learned, pre baked, then our brain is in danger of being inflexible and less open to whatever is thrown at us by our fellow actors during rehearsals.
In theatre, lines sink in best in three dimensions, once we start blocking the show, when one line, spoken in the space, leads to another, prompting, or being prompted by, interaction with others, or by a move.
If the dialogue involves pouring a cup of tea and giving it to someone, the lines will tend to bed in along with the physical action. Then, going over the lines at night, recalling the day’s actions in the rehearsal room, helps the lines sink in further.
The repetition of scenes in the next rehearsal further solidifies the layers. Gradually, the lines we’ve learned and rehearsed become a learned scene, then an act, then the whole play.
6. When asked by his brother what he thought about him turning professional, Hugh always found this question difficult to answer. One could be completely confident in someone’s ability but they might never get a break. Hugh went on to tell his brother Nigel that there’s one significant difference between Nigel’s current world and his: a salary.
At the end of every month a cheque goes into his account and actors never have that guarantee. And if Nigel thought he could cope with going for a year, maybe more, without the phone ringing with a job offer, if he reckons he could’ve handled that level of insecurity and do other jobs to make ends meet, then he should go for it.
But if he needed routine in his life and a sense of security, then he shouldn’t give it a second thought. It wasn’t for him.
Acting therefore isn’t an option, its a compulsion. One needs to do it and one has to put up with all manner of crap in order to pursue it. But it owes one nothing and it’s often feast or famine.
7. As a recognisable actor, Hugh would still want to provide self tapes for various roles one of those included the Monument Men directed by George Clooney. Having been told by the assistant casting director that he shouldn’t have sent it and could just say he’d be happy to consider an offer Hugh told her that no actor worth their salt is above a bit of professional humiliation from time to time, it keeps them on their toes. And besides it makes a good paragraph in their autobiography.