BWW Interview: Actor Leo Bill on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the Young Vic
Leo Bill's work includes Laura Wade's Posh, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at the National, the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Hamlet at the Barbican, and, on screen, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake and TV series Taboo. He's currently playing Bottom in Joe Hill-Gibbins's dark production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which begins previews at the Young Vic on 11 February.
Did you see a lot of theatre growing up with parents in the business?
Yes, my mum's an actress and my dad acted too but then became a writer, so we went and saw a lot of theatre - more in the way you do to see your mates' shows. I was born in London but grew up in Leamington Spa, so we were near Birmingham Rep, the Foundry and Stratford. I also remember lots of times when mum was working and I would go sit at the back to watch my dad's plays in rehearsal.
Did it seem like a natural career path?
I definitely grew up with an acting background, but we weren't a dynasty - everyone I knew was a jobbing actor, so there was the harsh reality too, alongside the fun of being in rehearsal and making things. It must have got through to me that it's a fun lifestyle - go see plays, have a drink after, the sociable aspect of it. But there was definitely no pressure to act.
I actually started out taking piano lessons, and when I quit that my mum sent me along to a drama group my sister had joined so I wasn't just hanging out on the streets playing football at night. They didn't have enough spaces in the group, but I went wearing this jumper that had the Octagon Theatre Bolton logo on it - I think my dad had had a play on there - and they let me in. So it's all thanks to Bolton!
Were your parents supportive of you going to drama school?
They always knew I wanted to do it, and I did theatre studies at A-level. My dad had gone to RADA too.
What was your first professional acting job?
During my third year at RADA I met Robert Altman about Gosford Park. He said the part I was up for, Jim the odd job man, isn't in the script - we'll create this character through improv. I later realised there was no improv for Jim, it's just that he didn't want extras - he wanted everyone to be acting just in case.
So it wasn't what I signed up for, but it was the best first job. I could be invisible and really observe the class system within the industry - I saw the entire acting world on one set. The personal politics, the way people are with each other, how they work together, the cliques that form. Plus watching that cast in action was a real education.
How do you choose projects?
I really like directors who have a process - that interests me. Especially those who aren't audience-pleasing, but more artistic. I really try to find things that fulfil me creatively. I've never been a career ladder-driven person.
Is that what attracted you to Secret Theatre?
That I knew would be this crazy, intensive, hopefully creative project. It was at a time when I found theatre boring and this proposition was put forward to make work differently. Since then, I don't know if it's coincidental, I think theatre's become more concept-driven and interesting - people want to be challenged more. There was a time assistant directors were going off to Berlin or somewhere, and now they're back and making shows, running theatres. It's great to be here at the Young Vic - David Lan has always pushed for artistically led work.
Have you worked much with Joe Hill-Gibbins before?
We did Glass Menagerie together, and I workshopped the Edward II he did at the National - I really enjoyed that. His Measure for Measure here was amazing. It was the first time I'd seen it end really badly, with no jig, just really fucked up. Working with him is brilliant and scary.
What's his take on Midsummer?
He has a very clear vision of what he wants to make, but within that he's incredibly open to what people bring to the room. There's an element of this version that will be very dark and disturbing. I didn't realise what an amazing play it is until we started working on it. It's quite different to some of his past productions - it's not in the world of video projection, it's more stark. I get to experience another phase of Joe!
It's interesting the difference you get just staging it at this time of year
Definitely, you're coming into this work absolutely freezing - so you can ditch the "Hey-ho, isn't it fun in the woods?" vibe and go more wintry. Woods in art are famously terrifying or symbolise the mind, so it makes sense there's an element of the play that's harrowing.
Demetrius actually says to Helena "I shall do thee mischief in the woods" - you go, "Wait, did he just threaten to hurt her or rape her?" And a load of guys are putting on this play - if it goes well it might be too powerful, and if it doesn't go well they might be killed. It's not a world where everybody loves each other. It's brutal.
Are you setting it in a particular time or place?
It is specific, but definitely open to projection.
How did you approach Bottom?
Before we started rehearsals, I kept hearing this voice saying "Everybody knows the play - what are you going to do with it?" But actually that's not really how I work - I normally see how rehearsals are, what the collective take is, and then start to create in the room. Also with Joe's process it's not really useful to come in with it all ready.
So we're a few weeks in and there's definitely still an element of "Who is this guy?" It's about holding your nerve, not deciding on something just for the sake of it, and exploring for as long as you possibly can. It could be Tuesday on the last week of rehearsals that you go "That's the guy." I don't want to do the obvious thing. I think with the work I've done in the past people know it'll be unexpected - I'm not going to come in and be Mr Gags. Though I do hope some of it's funny!
Is it strange exploring all that while playing an actor?
I find myself asking questions in rehearsals and thinking "Oh God, I've become him". Like we have note sessions for the mechanicals, and I asked Joe if I could have my own note session just to ask a few things, and then thought "Oh, that's such a Bottom thing to do". A lot of the time you play parts and the group dynamic starts to mirror that, like when I did Pinter's The Hothouse I played a guy no one spoke to, and it actually became a lonely experience. The brilliant thing is I can blame any actorly nonsense on Bottom!
How are you handling his transformation?
It's still a work in progress - we've been trying lots of things out. Some more extreme, some more subtle. We tried something recently that was quite horrifying! It'll be interesting to see where it ends up and how the audience responds.
You've also got a TV series on - what was it like working on Taboo?
It's one of the first things I've done on TV that I really wanted to watch! It looks amazing. It was a long process with a lot of unknowns, lots of script changes. Filming is such a different thing - it's so much easier to be in the theatre rehearsal room and constantly busy and working and thinking, whereas film is a lot of waiting, killing time, trying to keep your brain alive.
But it's great to see something on the BBC that's not Downton or Poldark - they're brilliant too, but it's nice to see something else. I think Tom Hardy and the team found a really different approach to period drama.
What else have you got coming up?
There's the JK Rowling TV series, Cormoran Strike, which is on later this year. I realised I'd done plays straight for about four years, so it was good to mix it up a bit with that and Taboo. I'd like to keep a balance if I can.
Any dream roles?
I've never been someone who's dying to play Hamlet. I tend to take things as they come. Though I always had the idea of Peer Gynt. I had this joke this Joe - I kept saying "I'm learning my lines, when are we going to start rehearsing it?" and he finally turned to me and said "I'm not doing fucking Peer Gynt." But who knows - that's based on when I saw it at Stratford when I was 16 and loved it; I haven't actually read it since. I think Caligula would be really interesting to do, or Ionesco's The Killer - that's an amazing play.
Finally, any advice for budding actors?
With auditioning, I realised I should go in there and do in the audition what I would actually do with the part, not what I think might get me the job. Otherwise it's disingenuous and goes back to that ladder climbing. If you do what you would do and get the job, you'll be supported and have a really good time; if you don't get it, it's easier to deal with because it wouldn't have been for you. Express yourself through the work rather than feeling you're a slave to it.
Photo credit: Keith Pattison