I was kind of a bit shocked to be asked to lead this session – thinking ‘who am I to lead a session?’. Although I’ve been acting professionally for 10 years and writing for half of that, I still feel like I’m at the beginning of my career. I wasn’t sure how to ‘bestow wisdom’, but I do feel like there’s a lot of things I’ve learnt already, and in my position, as someone who is still striving and working every day to achieve what they want to achieve, that has a value in itself. I think Masterclass really represents those people out there – those young creatives at the start of their careers, who are still hungry and desperate to achieve. I feel like I have something I could possibly help you with along the way – I hope what I have to impart will be useful!
So, about me - I have been acting forever, since I was a wee boy. It’s always been the thing I've wanted to do, I acted through school, then I decided on going on to University and studied English, but basically, I spent my whole time at university acting, which cemented my passion for it. I had an incredible acting fraternity at Nottingham University, and that fed the fire within me.
I then applied for a few drama schools, in retrospect I probably didn’t apply to enough, and didn’t get in. So instead, I moved abroad to teach for a bit, but that acting bug never left. I then came back to London and got a scholarship to the Bridge drama school. I had an amazing time there, with some amazing teachers. For those of you who haven’t been to drama school or are thinking of going to drama school - It gave me the one thing I really needed (which sounds awful) - an agent.
A career in the industry, to me, is all about steps. I think some steps are more important than others, but that was a big step. From then, I’ve had an incredible, interesting career with some incredible highs, be it from hugely successful sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe or playing leads in feature films – it’s been amazing, but not without its frustrations. The writing side of it kicked off seven years ago. Writing was something I’d always done, but seven years ago I finished my first play, and the first place I sent it into was Masterclass! I got down to the shortlist of Pitch Your Play. You had to come into the Haymarket to pitch your play to what seemed a scary bunch of people, who I later learned would be incredibly lovely. I was lucky enough to be one of the first winners, and got my play staged in a rehearsed reading onstage at the Haymarket. We put together an incredible cast by a brilliant young producer called Oliver Mackwood, a friend of mine. He and I, together with a beautiful director called Tom Attenborough put together this staged reading, and it was a fantastic experience. The honour of having your work on the Haymarket stage was just superb.
If any of you are writers who have a play - get it in to Pitch Your Play. It was just the most amazing leg up, and continues to be - Masterclass have supported me all the way through, they always come to anything I do now and they're always willing to read my work and offer feedback, which is very valuable.
What is your process when it comes to learning lines?
There is no shortcut! Learning is just boring and tedious – it is the most tedious thing. My wife is in a TV show, she has lines to learn every week. You just keep going over them, if you have a loved one who will go through them with you aloud, that’s even better. The one thing I would say, when I was at Uni I was taught ‘you can never know a script too well’ - that’s stuck with me. Sometimes you go into an audition and you know you’re underprepared – and that will undermine your performance. Learn them, and when you think you’ve learnt them, learn them again.
Do you think Drama School is necessary?
I went to Drama school and I loved it - there were some great teachers. I do think it's important to have some kind of training – not necessarily to improve your performance skills (although it does), but to teach you about the industry. That’s an important lesson.
Have you ever written work you’ve performed in?
I wrote a short film that I performed in right at the start of my career – I’ve pulled away from that as I want to keep the two thing separate, mainly because I am still learning as a writer and I feel like if I put my ‘acting head’ I might lose some of the lessons I could learn from writing.
I know lots of people have been very successful writing work for themselves to perform, and I’d never say never, but to be honest I’ve never written intentionally thinking ‘this is a character for me’. As an actor you know whether a part is suited to you or not, and as a writer you can’t ‘fake’ a character to suit you – but you never know, it might happen some day.
Was it difficult to switch acting to writing? Which do you prefer?
I wouldn’t say I've switched – I'd say it’s a mutually beneficial process. I had a meeting a few years ago, and an agent asked me ‘Are you a writer or an actor?’ - and I think of myself as both. I think there's moments when I have my writing head on or my acting head on. I find it quite difficult to do both things at the same time, for example I’ve just been on tour for a year, and you’d think the free daytimes would mean lots of writing time – but I didn’t write a thing! My head was in the show – getting prepared for each night’s performance.
On the other hand, though, I have written whilst doing a 9-5 job. It is just something you have to do – you have to work at times when it’s not easy to.
In terms of which I prefer, I don’t know - the one huge difference I’d say is that with writing you can be proactive – but with acting that’s quite limited. As an actor, once you’ve got your showreel, your headshots, etc, you kind of rely on your agent. You have to wait for luck, and jobs to come in. With writing you feel more in control, the ball’s in your court in terms of process. There’s something really powerful about that that I enjoy. Having said that, once you finish a script and you send it to an agent, you are just waiting by the phone. So I’d say I love them both.
Any advice for writers who haven’t had actor training? Do you see things differently?
As a writer, you don’t need acting experience at all. I do think there's a benefit from acting first, as you can understand dialogue better, power dynamics onstage, certainly. But there's so many writers out there who have no actor training so don’t worry!
Do you have any top tips for writing a play?
I would say the old adage of ‘write what you know’ has a certain truth to it. Particularly for your first play, but more importantly, it has to be something that you are passionate about. It has to be something you know you can form a story from – if you’re 50/50 on ‘feeling’ the idea, the chances are your script will be lukewarm. It has to interest and excite you – otherwise how will it excite other people? Rather than just being something you know about, your job as a writer (or an actor) is to put yourself in the shoes of something that’s completely alien to you sometimes. I’ve played and written characters that are as far away from me as possible. It’s having an understanding, an empathy for those characters.
My process for starting a piece of writing is different now, because I’m actively looking for stories, but with my first play, The Undone Years, it was a period of history I was interested in. The idea had been building and building since I was 14, and it was a very organic process. Since then, my process has changed slightly because I will actively look for stories – I’ll read the newspaper, look up stories online, stories from the everyday world that might spark something in me. I’m looking for an angle or a scenario that will excite or interest me, that I can make something out of. You need to find an idea that will take you along with it.
Have you got any advice for newer writers? I have always written a lot but tend to write in chunks and struggle to piece everything together.
My biggest advice would be to finish it, no matter what it is. It could be a short film, a three act play, a sketch – just finish your first draft. As soon as you're over the initial creation of the piece, you then feel like a ‘writer’. Once you’re over that first hurdle, it feels much easier to progress. It took me three years to write my first piece (from genesis, to research, to finished product), but it only gets easier. Also, it doesn’t matter how it looks at first, you’ll know in yourself whether you are happy with it, and you can keep working until you’re happy with it.
How do you deal with writer's block?
I think sometimes when you’re writing your first piece you can lose confidence when it doesn’t come together, if you can’t figure out a structural or plot issue. But I certainly still get writers block even now - it can last ten minutes, it can last ten days. I always think of it like a jigsaw piece. You might have all the pieces of the jigsaw, or you might have pieces missing – you don’t necessarily know how they go together, but it's just about patience. If you turn things over enough in your brain, you’ll get there. Don’t get frustrated with your brain and be at peace with that process – it might take a long time. Once you’ve overcome it, you’ll feel like you’ve got a standing ovation in your head! It’s a brilliant feeling once all the pieces click together.
I’ve written around ten full-length pieces now, from screenplays to plays to series, and some things will flow naturally, some will have incredibly complex structures – you just have to keep the ‘puzzle piece’ in your head. Don’t always focus on it entirely, don’t let it be something that gets you down – be prepared to let it go and come back to it. It sounds bizarre, but try and enjoy that process, because when you solve that problem it will feel great.
How do you go about getting feedback on writing?
There are loads of writers’ forums online, my biggest advice would be, you may have loads of frustration from this as you don’t always get feedback, but if it's something you are confident about, send it off. There are numerous writers’ awards, prizes etc – if you send it unsolicited to lots of theatres or literary agents, you might not receive feedback – but you just might! It’s always worth trying. It’s really about perseverance, expecting that you might not receive feedback, but find the awards and schemes you can apply to – like Masterclass!
Also, find some friends, I think finding someone else's opinion is incredibly valuable. If you can find other writing friends that’s great, reading others’ work is really valuable. If you’re lucky enough to have a literary agent (I managed to get one, which is down to Masterclass!), they can help. Mine is an amazing dramaturg as well, we work together on my scripts, and it's so helpful to have someone else’s voice and opinion.
It's not always what you want to hear though, and you have to be prepared to be hurt, in a way. I’ve found that difference between acting and writing – yes acting is personal, but writing feels ten times more personal, especially when you get negative feedback – it feels like someone's hurt your child. You might even get positive feedback, but it doesn’t go the way you want, and that still hurts. Be prepared to take those bruises but be brave and take that feedback on.
Short plays are sought after a lot at the moment, and a good way to get noticed. I’ve written sketches but I’ve never written a play – it scares me! How can I approach writing a play, what are the main differences?
It’s the same thing really, just a longer format. It depends on what you have to say, and if you think that your characters are strong enough to carry a story. Those stories that you’ve written as sketches – can they hold a drama on their own? I think it’s a difficult question to answer, because it has to come organically. I never know when I’m starting a play how long it's going to be. If you try and force it, you’re trying to force something out of yourself before it has started. You don’t want it to feel false or forced – don't think of ‘starting a play’, just try and work on starting a piece with strong characters and drama.
I’ve never had any writing training, but what I do is watch films and TV. You can see how everything follows a pattern, that ‘three act play’ - a beginning, a middle and an end. Work out if your story has a beginning, middle and end – then you’re away. It doesn’t matter how long it is, it will be what it is. You’ll know deep down if the idea is strong enough to write a play. Then you have to work on it and edit it for weeks, and it will be the bane of your life!
What do you find inspiration in for acting and writing?
The world around us every day. We have so many stories. I know what my strengths are – it’s not necessarily in political pieces, I write about people and their situations. I like writing about those human emotions – love, grief, betrayal, all those primeval emotions. I’ll look for stories everywhere, keep my eyes open when I’m watching TV or reading a poem or anything. You keep your eyes open and the creative part of your brain turning.
As an actor, seeing the most amazing scripts all the time makes me think ‘I want to be a part of that’, that’s what keeps me inspired. The parts that are out there to play! I’m always watching things thinking ‘that’s a role I’d love to play’ - whether its Shakespeare or contemporary.
How do you keep motivated when you are touring, or in a long-running play?
I was in The Bodyguard last year, touring Britain and Japan. I was touring for about 15 months in total, it was by far the longest show I’ve done. It was hard. What keeps us motivated is remembering you’re a professional – you're being paid, and so so lucky to be on these stages around the country, where people have paid up to £100 to watch you. Of course, there’s tough times when you want to phone in your performance, but you just have to be professional. On The Bodyguard, I was lucky to be with an amazing cast, with an amazing work ethic. You do it because you’re doing exactly what you want to do!
It's harder being somewhere different all the time – it keeps it exciting when you get to visit these amazing cities, but it's hard organising your own digs, being on the road. I was kept alive by my amazing cast and having a lot of fun. If you’re ever up for a tour, take it. It’s a great opportunity.
I was very lucky that my tour finished before Covid hit – I feel so sorry for all the actors who have landed dream parts in shows that will never go on. It's really sad, and you just have to stay strong.
When you’re filming and you’re shooting scenes that are out of order, what are the biggest challenges? Do you prefer film work to live theatre?
It was quite odd to shoot stuff out of order – when I was doing the Kray films, my brother in it had to bury his wife in the morning and then marry her in the afternoon! As an actor you can imagine that’s quite challenging. You have to stay in the moment, rather than thinking about what you’re doing later. We shot the two Kray films back to back, so it was a lot of content – 250 pages of script and I was in most scenes. I knew I needed to be on top of where my character was at all times, so I did a map of where I was emotionally in those scenes, a chart of the journey my character was on, and colour coded it, so when we got to the scene, I knew where I was emotionally. It was necessary for a big chunky part like that, and really useful to help stay on top of it.
A big tip across the board is to do your preparation work – whether it's for a self-tape/audition or a part in a film/onstage, do your prep. Make sure you know exactly where you need to be physically or mentally at any point. Do the work before you go into something – I've been guilty of not doing my prep work before, and I know I’ve missed out on opportunities because of it.
In terms of which I prefer, it depends when you ask me! If you asked me in the middle of a long theatre tour on a weekday matinee, I’d probably say I’d prefer film work. But when you get that standing ovation, or that comradery of a cast, the rehearsal process, those are the amazing things about theatre. I love that theatre is ephemeral – something might happen one evening and then it's gone forever. But I also love the idea that if you do an amazing performance, and you’ve captured it on film, it's there. No-one can ever take it away from you.
In terms of career, I just don’t know. Currently I tend to lean more towards film work, or TV work, that will then give me an ability to come back to theatre. I haven’t written a play now for three years. I’ve written predominantly for screen – I'm enjoying that process. I would never want to lose my connection with the theatre though!
How did you go about getting a commission?
I got that commission because I worked as an actor on a film with a producer, who whilst we were filming, I mentioned I was a writer too, and she asked what I’d written for screen. At the same time, I had decided to turn my Pitch Your Play winner into a screenplay – which was an amazing process and it gave me confidence. I sent her the screenplay, she loved it, and she asked me to write a treatment – basically a ‘pitch’ of your idea and fortunately she loved the ideas. I was then commissioned to write it!
The old adage of ‘It’s who you know not what you know’ was certainly true. Whilst this isn’t an advert for nepotism, I do think it's important to make relationships as you go along and keep the relationships! You never know where they’ll lead you – for example, my producer from Pitch Your Play, Ollie Mackwood, we met because our parents were friends. We got on, and built a professional connection, and now I know he’s doing amazing things in theatre, and hopefully he’ll produce my future work! It’s an excellent connection to have.
I’ve got a spreadsheet of everyone I’ve ever met or forged a connection with/sent work to – their names, email addresses, and how/why I know them. You can’t do it with everyone but try and keep those connections because you’ll never know where they could lead.
And try and be the best person you can be at all times, you never know what may come of it. You might have a day’s filming where you meet someone, who years later might help you in some way. So represent yourself as best you can. Same with writing, try and do the best version of that sketch and only send it out once it’s the best version of what you can do. Often you’ll only have one shot – like when you meet someone, if you’re an arse they’re not going to work with you again. It's an industry where that really matters.
How do you start writing your plays? Do you start with a theme or do you think up characters and then find a situation to put them in?
Characters are basically the be all and end all of any story – they are what agents, broadcasters, theatre producers are looking at. The characters need to have a distinct voice, we need to relate to them and understand them as an audience. You need an idea of where your story is going, but if you have strong enough characters they will quite often lead you. You know you're writing something good when it's basically writing itself, it’s leading you, and you let your characters take it away from you. That combined with the idea of searching the world around you for impetus is a good way to start.
How did you approach portraying Ronnie Kray? It must have been challenging to play a real person with paranoid schizophrenia.
It was a challenge, but it was so much fun. It was hard playing a real person that the nation, bizarrely, although they were complete psychopaths and nasty pieces of work, had such a large space in their heart for. The Krays are very ‘protected’ so to set about playing one of them, particularly in the year that Tom Hardy was doing the same, was very challenging. I knew I’d put myself up for a lot of criticism. I just had to bring my own energy to the performance and be honest and truthful to who I thought the character was. I read books about the Krays, there’s very limited footage of them on screen, so it was more about my interpretation of Ronnie Kray rather than a mimicking of him. It was enjoyable, working with an amazing team, and we had a great few months shooting It.
Do you plot out each scene before you write?
I would never say ‘follow my process’ as you should always follow your own, but I know what is good for me and works. I will take the germ of the idea, imagine the scenes by having a drive for where I want the story to go. I will picture the scenes – and only write snippets for each scene (a line of dialogue, a character that arrives, etc). I keep writing those ideas down and I don’t commit to writing the first draft until I know that I have enough to go on. I love handwriting ideas at that stage – a situation, a twist, an important aspect to a scene.
When I come to the end of a play/screenplay and I have the framework of the piece, I then might separate the scenes. I’ll print them out, split them up, and physically cut them out so I can re-arrange them or ‘cut’ scenes out physically if I need to. Seeing it ‘physically’ to move around really helps me.
Do you have any advice for someone coming from theatre who wants to write for screen?
Something I did was to get access to sides of script (from famous films or anything), so I could understand the format of writing for screen. Print them off and read them so you know how it all looks. The difference of writing from stage to screen, is that you need to three dimensionalize everything. For example, my first play was all set in one room, eight characters, eight scenes. When I adapted it to a screenplay, it became 140 scenes, 50 characters, 25-30 different locations. I just took it out of its theatre box and threw it into the world. You can visualise everything and put anything where you want to (within budget of course!). With theatre you have those constraints – you have to think about how you’re going to fit everything in. I mean you can let your director/designers make those decisions, but with screenwriting it's much more visual. It's much sharper, less wordy. In my first script I had to cut twenty lines of dialogue or more – lines I loved from my play, but just didn’t work on screen. You don’t need the words to tell the story on screen, because you can get a lot from a picture.
Overall, just write – if you’re writer, write, finish it, and start something else. If you’re an actor, put yourself out there. Persevere, and try and put yourself in the best position you can be. I hope our post-Covid world will return soon, as I’d love to see you all in person at the Haymarket!