BWW Interview: Jonah Hauer-King on Kenneth Branagh and THE ENTERTAINER
Aged just 21, Jonah Hauer-King has appeared in Punk Rock at Lyric Belfast and is currently making his West End debut in the Kenneth Branagh-starring revival of The Entertainer at Garrick Theatre - all while juggling his university studies. The production plays until 12 November, and will be broadcast in cinemas on 27 October.
What was your first theatre experience?
My mum was a director and a producer, so I owe a lot of my love of theatre to her - she'd always take me to shows, and she gave me quite a diverse exposure to the theatre world. Though I grew up with it, I never really admitted to myself that I wanted to act until my mid teens. My parents gave me a very realistic outlook on being in this industry - the uncertainty and instability. They didn't actively encourage me until I said "This is what I want to do", and they've been hugely supportive ever since.
How are you balancing performing with styding?
It's been tricky, but it's such a thrill to do both - it feels like a massive privilege. I got my agent through an Edinburgh Festival show and then had a few months not working - all my friends were in nine to five jobs or studying, and I got cold feet and applied for uni. I'm now at Cambridge and we've just started our new term, so lectures and essays are kicking in...
What are you studying?
Theology and philosophy - people always ask if I'm going to be a priest! My dad never went to university and was always really keen for me to go. It's such a special time, getting to do something just because you love it, and meeting new people. My agent's been very respectful of that experience - I'll only do a few auditions when it's something unmissable like this.
How nerve-wracking was it auditioning for Kenneth Branagh?
It started out like any other process, then I met with Rob [Ashford], who's amazing too, and then auditioned with Ken - it was quite surreal. I remember I had so much nervous energy I couldn't even get on the Tube after. I had to go walk it off. But when you've worked with someone for a while you really get to know them, so now I'm worlds away from how I felt when I first met him. Everyone in this company has such pedigree. It's a real honour.
Did you know much about the play beforehand?
I knew of the Olivier production, but I hadn't seen it, so it's all quite fresh. I think that's fortunate, as often people have done a brilliant job in that role and you think "I'm never to be able to do it as well as they did". It's important to go on your own journey with the character.
Can you relate to Frank?
In almost all cases you can find things that resonate, and here it helps that I'm playing a 19-year-old! In some ways it's different, living in the Fifties, but there are things like trying to navigate the family ecosystem and find your voice that I'm sure most people go through. I can imagine sharing his sentiments about war and being a conscientious objector, but I think what he does is unbelievably brave - he's so stoic and sticks to his principles. I hope I would be as courageous in that situation, but it's kind of unimaginable.
Did you do much research into the period?
I'd studied Suez a bit at school and knew about the colonial history, the end of the empire, but I've definitely learned a lot more - we had a brilliant professor come in and talk to us. For that generation, Suez was the biggest current affairs story of their time, and it's amazing how quickly these things are lost. It's really useful to get a proper understanding of the political landscape and how it affected people, so you can place the character in the historical context.
There's obviously strong resonance right now, post-Brexit
It's interesting, the play was programmed well before the referendum happened. Rob said to us on the first day of rehearsals, whatever your stance, this play is now so relevant: how we see ourselves as Brits, in the context of Europe and the rest of the world. It gave the rehearsal process and now the run just that extra bit of buzz for us and the audience.
Plus the generational tension
Yes, the play depicts generational relationships really beautifully - these three different generations and belief systems. The granddad, Billy, represents quite a backwards understanding of how the world works, and that's not as far gone as it should be. You do hear people say, "Oh yes, that reminds me of my grandma, who's politically incorrect". It's a scary time for our generation, who are the ones dealing with the consequences of all this for a long time to come. I do feel quite powerless.
What have you learned from the cast?
They're the greats of their field - it's been amazing. The big thing I'm inspired by is their work ethic. Someone like Ken, he's been at the top of his game for so many years and he approaches every day with the same enthusiasm and commitment as someone fresh out of drama school. That's really wonderful - I hope, if I'm still acting at that stage, I'll retain that love for it. He has total focus and great attention to attention. He's really taken on that actor-manager role. On the first day of rehearsals he knew everyone's name, cast and crew. He comes into my dressing room every evening to have a chat and make sure I'm feeling all right. That creates such a lovely family feeling, and it all stems from him.
What was it like stepping onto that West End stage for the first time?
I had so much support and advice, but it's always going to be terrifying! I remember coming to the Garrick to see Romeo and Juliet when we were in rehearsals, and just being in the theatre was scary. I thought "I'm just watching the show - how am I going to feel backstage when that curtain goes up?" Thankfully I got through that first one, and now it's the biggest rush.
Would you like to focus on stage, or try screen as well?
The dream is to do it all - keep being challenged and trying new things. I'm going to focus on my degree, and then I've got some films coming up and a few things in the pipeline. At my level, all I want to do is work! I'm from the US originally, and I've got representation there now too. Lots of British actors have been really accepted by America - long may it continue. The industry there is just huge. But I grew up here, I love living here, so I'd love to work here as much as I can.
Finally, what can audiences expect from The Entertainer?
It's funny and moving, and it holds a mirror up to our society and gives us insight into a world 60 years ago. In some ways, it's harrowing how little has changed. Lots of people have said to me they were laughing and then they were so upset they weren't sure how to respond, but they came out wanting to talk about it. That's my favourite kind of theatre.
Photo credit: Johan Persson