DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY: A Conversation with Julian Ovenden
Roundabout's resident Education Dramaturg, Ted Sod, sits down with Death Takes a Holiday leading man, Julian Ovenden, to discuss working on a new musical, life/death and more, as part of Education @ Roundabout's UPSTAGE Guide.
Ted Sod: How did you come to work in the theatre?
Julian Ovenden:It's quite a difficult thing to trace back; your motivation. I wasn't one of these people who came out of the womb and realized the stage was for them. I think it occurred as a natural progression in my life as a result of the events that fashioned me. My father, for example, is a priest and a man of the people. He is a great communicator. That might be one of the influences. Then I went away to school when I was seven as a chorister in a choir which was musically and artistically a professional environment. That set me up in that way. It opened a window into that world. In England, if you go away to boarding school at a young age, you could find yourself emotionally stunted. You have to deal with the trauma of leaving your parents. People talk about the English "stiff upper lip" and being reserved. When I was 16, 17, 18, 19 and growing up, I perhaps wasn't as in touch with my emotional life as I wanted to be or needed to be. I think it was a natural progression to find something that allowed me to reconnect with that part of my life; whether it was through music which I was passionate about or whether it was through acting. I found myself going to drama school and I felt at home with it. I felt I had something to give, something to offer and something to share. Those are the main sign posts on that particular map. I discovered that it is a job that I deeply love.
TS: Tell me about the choristers.
JO:You go through the basics of a normal education in London. But at the beginning of the day you would spend an hour doing music and rehearsing. For an hour in the evening you would sing at St. Paul's Cathedral. You are working with professional musicians and you become a professional musician. You learn routine, the rigor and the nuts and bolts of what it takes to be a professional performing everyday. There would be recordings and tours. The first time I came to America, we toured around for a month. It was an amazing experience. You learn about musicianship and what it takes to be a good musician. It gives you the opportunity to see if it is something for you later on in life. I knew what it took to be a professional. Whether I wanted to do it, I wasn't sure at that stage. But I knew that it took a lot of skill and a lot of work to be at the top of your game. Not to be negative about the business we are now in, and it sounds pompous to say this, but I think because of the way the business has changed, the attention to the craft, whether it be an artist, dancer, musician or whatever, has been marginalized. It has become about media and how famous you can become. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to learn from people who spent 40 or 50 years perfecting their craft.
TS: What intrigued you about Death Takes a Holiday? Had you seen the FredEric March Film?
JO:No. I knew the movie incarnation with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, "Meet Joe Black". It intrigued me because I like the idea of it. The modern movie is kind of a guilty pleasure Saturday night movie, isn't it? It's like it's a bit slushy and sentimental but it's quite good in a way-well acted. The story's good. It's romantic and I like romantic things. I like pieces that take a big bite out of something. And I like the fact that you couldn't put your finger on the tone of the piece; that it screws around with important fundamental topics with a kind of light brush stroke. I've worked with Maury Yeston before and I'm a big fan of his music. He was the first to call me up and alert me to the project. The process began from there; meeting the director Doug Hughes and going through that sort of thing. It's a good role.
TS: The idea of playing "Death" must have intrigued you - yes?
JO:Absolutely. I've been sent things for T.V. auditions like a hot shot lawyer or a police man. There are basically five roles and you just pick one. In the theater, I like things that are "heart on their sleeve" kind of materials. I like big emotional stuff. The role of Death seemed like a huge challenge. I am eager to do it and see what happens. It's also great to be back in New York. I love New York.
TS: You were here in Butley with Nathan Lane.
JO: I was and I did a TV show here as well, "Cashmere Mafia".
TS: I'm very curious how you go about preparing for a new musical? What's your process?
JO: A lot of actors have a very hard and fast way of preparing for things. I'm more interested in taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that; more of a "buffet man" as it were. For new musicals in general, I think it's a mistake to go in the room thinking you have everything sorted. It's a process of rewriting and collaboration as much with the actors as with the writers. It's a chemical reaction. You have to be prepared a little bit and see what happens. Of course I've done a bit of research, read the plays, seen the films, thought about it and had quite a bit of discussions with Doug Hughes and Maury Yeston on the telephone. I think I try to keep as open a mind as possible. As an actor, in general you are terrified. You start from a place of fear. I spent most of my career fearing I had to be good. With fear, you are closed creatively. God forbid you do something that makes you look like an idiot. In television, you have to give a performance straight away. On stage you have the liberty, if you are working with a nice team of people, to fall on your face and make an idiot of yourself.
TS: What do you think the musical is about? Is it important when you sign on to a show that it means something to you?
JO:Yes. In a show like this, it is absolutely vital. If we were doing a farce, it would be a slightly different thing because it would be about making people laugh. This piece deals with fundamental issues in life and tries to do it with a light touch so that in the end the audience feels that these subjects creep up on them without them knowing. At the end of the evening or four-fifths of the way through the show, they are made to think and not just be entertained by a rather sweet story. In the scenes themselves, I think it is about how we value life and what is important in life even though "death" is in the title. It is really about what it means to be alive and what it means to love someone and how that changes or doesn't change when that person dies. In a way, it is a textbook on how to live your life, what is important, being grateful to the people who love you and the people you love.
TS: What do you make of the idea that the character of Death wants to know more about humans?
JO: I have a young son who is 18 months old. In a way, his experience in life has been a character study in how to play this part. You come from no knowledge whatsoever and bit by bit you take on things. You take on fears.
TS: Do you get the sense that Death falls instantly in love with Grazia - that she is somehow the catalyst for him materializing?
JO: The way I see it, he starts from a place of curiosity and weariness. Imagine you have to do the same job day after day for 30,000 years. Death wants to see the other side of the story. He comes across someone whose spirit is so life affirming; pure and beautiful. Grazia opens the door and makes him cross over the threshold to make a journey. He falls in love. He has a lifetime of emotions compressed into two and a half days. It is definitely her who gives him a sense of humanity, sense of conscience and an emotional life. Through Grazia, Death understands what it is to be alive, what it is to die and what you leave behind.
TS: Do you think she goes with him in the end? It seems mysterious to me. In the film version, it is very clear.
JO:I think she does because she has died in the car. He suspends time in a way. If we were to make the film version of this musical, the car would crash, she would be somersaulted out of the car and if James Cameron were directing this in 3D, she would be suspended over the car on the side of the road. It's like stretching time. It is a "what if". He gives her the opportunity to stay. He says, "Listen, for you, I'm going to bend the rules this one time. I've seen the way you are. Your parents have lost a child already and they would be destroyed if you were to die as well, so you should stay." And she says, "No. I want to go because love is stronger than death." In a very light way, that is the message. We're not getting out a drum and beating this thing. In a small way, you think about people in your life who are no longer there and that is a comforting thought because they still exist in you.
TS: Do you have any personal experience with Death?
JO:Both of my parents are alive and except from my grandparents who have died, none of my friends or family has died prematurely. In my early life, I wasn't really exposed to death and to the cruelty of life. But I have seen it while singing in the choir for funerals. When my father was in London, we used to do a father and son funeral team. He used to tape the service and I would play the organ. He got paid 20 pounds and I got 25 pounds. Memorial services are a little different because it is more of a celebration than a grieving. It is interesting how different religious cultures view it. We tend to forget and pretend death doesn't exist; in denial. It's a part of life and the natural way things go.
TS: Who or what inspires you?
JO:That's a good question. Brilliance of mind inspires. The writing of Aaron Sorkin for example on "The West Wing" or the vocal genius of opera singer Bryn Terfel, or the dancing of a ballerina or a jazz musician; someone with technical brilliance inspires me. When it is harnessed with humanity and a sense of life-that is what really inspires me. Even when it is not, someone who is full of acceptance, tolerance, generosity is quite an inspiring thing. It's both the flashy and non-flashy side. I like things that have form and feeling balanced. Most great art boils down to a balance between form and feeling. I also like great communicators. Michael Morpurgo, the author of "War Horse", gave a speech a couple months ago about how children are being educated in different parts of the world including Palestine and Africa. His speech was so inspiring because it came from a deep place of humanity and love for children. He spoke for about 45 minutes extemporaneously without notes and it was amazing. He is connected to things that are important. I think that's one of the reasons I like doing this. It's got some nice flashy and brilliant things about it but it also has a connection to something relevant and important.
TS: I was wondering if you have any advice for young people who want to do what you do?
JO: When I started thinking about becoming an actor, I went to a friend of my father's who was teaching at drama school. I said, "I'm thinking about becoming an actor, can you give me any advice? How does it work?" He said, "Forget it. Don't do it." It was then that I realized that this is exactly what I wanted to do. The reason I tell that story is because I think you have to be bloody-minded to do it because it is hard. It is hard in many ways. It is hard emotionally if you are in a relationship because of the sacrifices you have to make. It is not about being famous. I think perseverance, hard work and a love for it is important. You have to trust that you are doing something right. I love collaborating, working with people who have the same interests. I'm not particularly religious even though my father is a priest but art is my religion. That is how I think of it. This is my church.
TS: And you get to go to many different congregations.
JO: I do and sometimes they're a cult, sometimes they are amazing and sometimes they are terrible; but I keep coming back. I hope to be coming back to it for a long time. If you don't have passion and drive for it, then forget it.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus