Just to start, I started going to Masterclasses over 10 years ago – starting with Clare Higgins, Amanda Root, Sophie Thompson, Julie Walters. They have some amazing names, James McAvoy. Damian Lewis – so if you haven’t been to one yet, once it reopens make sure you get yourself down to that beautiful theatre!
So - I'm Paul, and I’m an actor and a writer. I applied to drama school when I was 18. I didn't get into any of them - they sent me away and basically said go and have a life. So I did, and luckily I got into uni. I went to Royal Holloway, which is amazing. And as part of my course I went to Boston College in the States, which was amazing. And, then getting back from Boston, I was auditioning for drama schools again, and luckily got into Guildhall and had the best three years there. I had an amazing time and graduated in 2007 - I've been acting since then.
Also I've always written sketches, but started writing full plays in about 2014/15. I started with 10 minute plays, performed in a caravan. My friend Robin Linde owned this caravan space which was really incredible. A tiny nine seat caravan, where you go in and you don't know what the show is going to be about. And then the door shuts and then you get a show. She asked me to write for that, and then my shows did two years in a row at Vault festival.
How long does it take you to write your plays?
I wrote my first play pretty quickly I think – in about a week. It was only 10 mins long, I knew it was going to be a tiny space (the caravan), and I knew I wanted it to be interactive. I would write in my lunch breaks, in cafes etc.
My most recent play Skin in the Game was brewing for a while – I had this idea for ‘3 siblings in a flat with something terrible happening’ in 2012, but I was too busy to actually work on writing it. So the idea just marinated in the back of my mind – I find the less good ideas float away, but the good ones marinate in my head. When I decided I wanted to write a full piece, I wrote from March – June 2018. But there’s no set time it takes – I think Jez Butterworth said Jerusalem took him 10 years to write! The important thing is to start writing, and finish your first draft, even if it’s rubbish. Get a group of friends together, do a mini reading – even if it’s embarrassing. It will help you re-draft.
What are your top tips for recording a self-tape?
I’ve heard Blue/Grey backgrounds are the ideal colours for self-tapes. You need a blank background and natural daylight. Oh, and good eyelines – look to the right side of the camera. The camera should of course be directly in front of you! But eyeline should be just to the right of the lens. If you have different characters, a trick is to use the little colour labels to stick around your iPhone to focus on. Use props (if you feel it would add to the character) but not too many!
You can send 2 different takes in – push the boat out on the second take and try something different. You can hold your ‘sides’ but not in shot. Try and be really familiar with them, but if you’ve only been sent them the night before, I’m sure you can get away with a little look down.
Also, once you’ve finished recording, watch it back with the sound off, to make sure you’re not being too ‘big’ in your expressions (if you’re auditioning for TV/film, the acting style is very subtle) – can you still understand what your character is thinking with the sound off?
How do you stay motivated each day?
I watch things, and I go outside every day. I’d definitely say going for a walk keeps me motivated – it’s great for your brain. I like watching my favourite films – I rewatched Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine last week. It’s a masterclass in acting – both comedy and drama. I watched a few scenes twice as I wanted to understand how she was doing it so well. Study your craft! Oh, I also watch lots of interviews with actors & directors.
What do you think are important questions to ask when you’re with a casting director?
Unless you actually have a question, you don’t need to think of one. I suppose you might ask about tone - sometimes it’s hard to get the tone of a piece if you’re only given one side, so you might want to ask for some context on whether it’s a serious piece, a thriller etc. You might want to ask a casting director who is exactly directing – if it’s for TV they often have different directors for different episodes. If possible, It’s worth finding out in advance so you can find out what they like, their style.
What was it like working with Ivo Van Hove on Lazarus?
I’d seen A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic and loved it. Lazarus was incredible – I’d gone to New York for a Christmas treat and got a ticket from friends. I loved the music and movement, but I didn’t really get the story, and wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t quite connect with it. But I wanted to work with Ivo so much – so when the audition came up, I auditioned and got the understudy role and I got to sit in the rehearsal room, which was great. Quite often, understudies join rehearsals a couple of weeks in – but we were in the room from the start. Everyone had to be off book for day 1, all the costumes were there, all creatives were in the room. It was just incredible. Ivo’s a real collaborator – I thought he’d be quite brooding, but not at all. He gave amazing notes, and he really wanted the extremes of emotion. And I got to work with amazing actors, I got to go on for all 3 of my cover roles.
There’s an amazing BBC documentary we were featured on actually, called David Bowie: The Last Five Years.
Do you have any advice for working with film/tv directors who don’t give their actors feedback?
It is really hard when you don’t get feedback, so I would just do as much prep as you can.
Preparation is everything – I try to go into TV/film sets with my intentions sorted. You often don’t get any chance to rehearse. It is really hard when you don’t get feedback, so I would just do as much prep as you can, so you know who your character is – but at the end of the day, all you can do is your job. You also have to remember the director might have other things on their mind - they might be having a really bad day, they might completely trust your performance, you just don’t know the circumstances. There’s a lot of things going on when you’re on set – you just have to be confident in your performance. Always chat to your scene partner as well, if you have one. And finally, don’t let their indifference or lack of feedback bring you down!
What advice would you give to a writer in a rehearsal room to help and support actors give their best?
Rehearsal rooms can be so open, and upliftingly joyous – but they can also be the opposite! Writers are terrified too – I would say just be there, give encouragement, bring positivity. And if it’s going horribly wrong, don’t tell the actors, tell the director! I had the writer in a room for a play I was in at Southwark Playhouse – and she said to me, in rehearsals a week before opening night, that she didn’t feel I’d got the character right. She told me the character was based on her best friend - who had sadly passed away. What am I meant to do with that!
Performing in such a long-running show like King Charles III, transferring over to Australia – how did you manage to keep your performance feeling fresh?
I was in the UK tour & Australia company, and I was multi-roling, (playing lots of supporting parts, which helps keep it fresh!). I think it’s about intentions with characters. If you ever feel like you’re running out of ideas, think about what you’re intending – you can change them! In King Charles III I had a line with the actress playing Prince Harry’s girlfriend, where I said ‘Couldn’t afford to dress up?’ - a very cutting line. I would think of different intentions: "Am I going to embarrass her with this line? Am I going to pretend to be nice? Am I going to eviscerate her?” I would also think of different immediate circumstances (i.e Have I just got a parking ticket outside Westminster? Have I just got soaked in the rain?) and that would affect how I played the scene. Katie Mitchell’s book The Director’s Craft talks about points of concentration & immediate circumstances. For example, ironing – it’s a very different thing if you’re ironing at 3pm or 3am – the immediate circumstance of time is going to affect that action. Think about what might have happened just before you’re on the stage, or what might happen shortly afterwards.
Should you ‘chase up’ a self-tape audition?
I think it’s fine to chase them up if you haven’t heard anything – but not too often, don’t bombard them! You don’t want to appear needy - casting directors don’t like phone calls, so just drop them an email.
How was the audition for drama school? How was your experience once you got in?
I auditioned when I was 18 because my teacher told me to - I remember chopping up Shakespeare lines to make the speech I wanted. How embarrassing! When I went back to audition 3 years later, I had a great time. You know when you go to the right drama school for you – there was something really warm about Guildhall, they took their time with you, they were very friendly. My first year was interesting – I was a bit of a rebel. I kept questioning everything – in the end I got pulled aside and told to just try things, which is of course right. I had an amazing group of actors I was working with too. Drama school is great – but it’s not the be-all and end-all if you don’t get in. I have a friend, Laura Elsworthy, who didn’t go who has gone on and done some amazing things – she’s played the lead at the Almeida and the RSC, etc. So it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve ‘missed out’ if you didn’t go!
Do you have any advice for actors who are thinking about writing their own work?
Just get writing! You know your strengths and your casting better than anyone else. You know the type of roles you want to play – you should just do it. When I wrote Skin in the Game it was because I wanted to write myself a really vulnerable role. Solo pieces are particularly amazing because you can take them anywhere – all you need is you!
What was it like working on a big BBC drama like McMafia? And do you have any tips on how to get in front of casting directors?
It was a great experience; it was a really interesting story about the murky world of Russian mafia. My part was only a couple of lines, but they split my scene over two different sets, so I had to go back two weeks later to film a second scene. That’s great because you get paid twice!
I’ve had quite a few ‘small’ parts. One of my favourite teachers, Danny McGrath, said you need to think about those ‘bit parts’ as if the TV series is a train - you have to jump on the train, do your bit, jump off the train.
In terms of getting in front of Casting Directors, email them directly, but only get in touch when you have something to say. Email to say you’ve got a new headshot, showreel, a new show – be saying something. Or if you know something is specifically casting that you’d love to work on, it’s fine to ask to be seen if any small parts come up on a specific programme. But don’t just send a blanket email - they’re not interested in you just saying you love Broadchurch or Eastenders.
There’s amazing workshops at the Actors Centre or the Actors Guild – I mean you are paying to see casting directors, but if you pick really well, it’s worth it. Would really recommend Jonny Boutwood who does them.
Were there any challenges getting your work from ‘page to stage’ - how would you approach trying to get your play on tour?
With the short plays I wrote for Robin Linde I was lucky because she asked me to write for her caravan space directly. I was lucky my friend had the caravan. For Skin on the Game I had no venue, but I knew what I needed first was a director – there was a show on in the West End called Switzerland, and my friend was in it. I went to the understudy run and asked the assistant director Clemmie Reynolds if she would direct my play, and luckily she went for it. If you need help finding a Director, you could look up #OVConnect on Twitter or ask on theatre creative Facebook groups.
Then we held a rehearsed reading - Mousetrap Theatre Projects is great for holding a rehearsed reading in central London – their offices are just above the Apollo Theatre, and they have great rooms.
We didn’t actually tour the show to theatres, we toured to community centres – and it was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. For some of our audiences it was the first play they’d ever seen!
How do you approach writing work to cast yourself in?
When I first started writing for myself, I’d decided to leave my agent after 11 years. I was courtesy of Spotlight, and really struggling to get myself seen. So, I had to create my own showcase to show to casting directors and agents. I think you know what your strengths are – you just write for what you do best. Don’t write for something you’ve never done before – it might be too much of a risk.
How do I get booked for an Acting Job without an agent?
Send your showreel to Casting Directors. If you don’t have a showreel, film something from home. Email casting directors honestly – be aware of their work, say you don’t have representation, and that you’d love to work on their specific next production/series etc.
Finally, some recommended books/listening...
Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen
Different Every night: Freeing the Actor by Mike Alfreds
I, an Actor by Nicholas Craig by Nigel Planer - very funny light relief in these times!
There is a brilliant Instagram Live session on ‘castings and self-tapes’ still up on Andy Pryor’s IG page (who casts Doctor Who), with him chatting to fellow casting director Ri McDaid-Wren.
Octavia Spencer interview on the Sag-Aftra YouTube channel – incredible. She’s worked so hard to get where she’s got, it's awe inspiring.
Morgan Lloyd Malcolm interview on YouTube.
Dan Rebellato interviews on YouTube called “Playwrights in Lockdown”
Simon Stephens interviewing playwrights on the Royal Court Playwright’s Podcast
Orla O’Loughlin talking to voice coach Patsy Rodenberg on “In Conversation: Guildhall School” podcast.
Pearson Casting – collectivecreativeinitiative.co.uk – free classes
Playwriting UK Facebook Group