BWW Interview: Leon Lopez On The RSC's THE ROVER and THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN
Leon Lopez has had an unusual career trajectory, from pop group A:M and TV soaps like Brookside and EastEnders to musical theatre (including Rent and We Will Rock You) and directing independent films. He's currently working with the RSC, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Swan Theatre with productions of plays that were performed there in 1986: The Two Noble Kinsmen, playing now, and The Rover, opening tomorrow.
How did you first get the acting bug?
Probably from watching Grease the movie. It's one of my favourite films ever, and I used to perform it all the time, from when I was about five or six, singing along to all the songs.
I never had the luxury of youth theatre or stage schools growing up in Liverpool, but while I was at secondary school, I got the chance to join a production of the Scottish play at the Liverpool Everyman, playing roles like a soldier. I was only 15, and when the rest of the cast asked me what I wanted to do, I thought maybe a lawyer or a journalist, and they all said "You should be an actor".
Where did you train?
I studied at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.
Was it a surprise to your family?
I'd always been performing, so not really, but it was a surprise when I got successful! You don't tend to see working-class people from Liverpool on TV. Actors from my background are appearing less and less, so I always thought "Maybe people like me don't get to be successful". I haven't shot off to Hollywood, but just regularly booking paid jobs is a massive thing.
Did you have a preference for stage or screen early on?
I'd always wanted to do theatre and musicals - I didn't really think of TV. But that was my first job out of college, and I realised I could do both. There's still a stigma attached to people who do musical theatre and then want to do TV drama - it's "Oh, you do musicals, you can only perform through song", rather than "You're an actor, full stop". It's maybe easier to cross over from TV to stage.
What did you think when the RSC opportunity came your way?
I'd always loved and had huge respect for the company, but I hadn't thought of myself as an RSC classical actor. All the greats have gone through this company. I never thought I'd be among them - it's just the pinnacle for an actor.
I did some Shakespeare for English A-level, and saw Northern Broadsides productions at the Everyman, though I felt it was out of my reach. But the RSC says "No - this is for everyone." We maybe lose sight of the fact it's working-class issues - Shakespeare belongs to ordinary people. Yes, the language is different, but with visual elements and performance, even if you don't understand every word, you'll know the meaning behind it.
What's the biggest challenge?
I'm doing the whole season, acting in three different plays. I'm playing supporting roles and also covering others, so that's seven or eight characters rattling round my head! It'll be a gruelling seven months, but you're working to create something fantastic. I just hope I do it proud.
It's a shame we don't have this rep system across the UK like we used to - it's such a good training ground. It's amazing the RSC has kept it alive. I love being part of a company, not just getting together for one play.
Tell us about your character in The Rover
My character Biskey is one of the henchmen to Angelica - like her bodyguards or entourage. It's all been about bonding together and making that feel lived in.
The production still has a period feel, but there are a lot of modern elements too. It was originally set in Naples, and Loveday [Ingram, the director] has moved it to Latin America, so there's a carnival theme. I'm having to walk on stilts, which I haven't done since I was 17! The music is phenomenal. It's a massive melting pot of different cultures, which I think really gives it life for young audiences or people new to the RSC.
Did you know much about the play beforehand?
I knew about Aphra Behn, but I hadn't realised just how feminist and brave it is. Working with a really visionary director, those social issues have come to the fore, but it's very funny and light too.
You've also worked with the fantastic Blanche McIntyre on The Two Noble Kinsmen
Blanche is one of the most inspirational women I've ever met. This play is going to mess with people's minds! It's written for a huge cast, but she's merged lots of people really cleverly. I'm playing The Trickster, which is an amalgamation of several characters.
The play is hardly done, but it opened the Swan 30 years ago and it's a great piece - it's based on Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, attributed to Shakespeare and Fletcher. It's actually really ahead of its time, particularly in terms of sexuality - you think "That can't be in a Shakespeare play!" People who come to see it will be really surprised about how relevant it feels to today.
It's Midsummer Night's Dream meets Fight Club, with everything from a big samurai duel to morris dancing. The text is poetic and tricky, but Blanche has staged it in such an accessible way - there's Pussy Riot type characters, rock music. I'd been trying to move on from musicals and here I am singing again.
What was it like doing A Little Night Music in Paris?
It was mind-blowing working with Leslie Caron. The majority of the company was opera singers, so that was a completely different world.
Would you like to work abroad more?
I don't speak any other languages - it's hard enough for me to do accents! I would love to try film in Europe, and I got a visa for the US, but then I never stopped working here. Plus I'm not a fan of the whole pilot season.
I've heard Broadway is more cutthroat and commercial than London, so I'm happy here for now, though on the TV and film side, there are more opportunities for actors of colour in the States.
Has that been a barrier for you in the UK?
In the US, if the role doesn't say 'white', they'll see everyone - whether American, Polish, British, black, Asian. It just means the role is open to diversity. Whereas in Britain, unless it specifically says 'black' or 'mixed-race', you won't be called in. I've only been in two or three castings here, my whole career, that haven't specified race.
I think part of the problem is the creative teams, the producers and directors, tend to be white, so that's just the way they see the world. Until you get people of colour in those positions, you won't see a change. You tend to read a script with that mindset and create a world that reflects the one you know, within your bubble.
Have you spoken out about this much?
I can be quite vocal on Facebook. I read about article about the brilliant Noma Dumezweni's casting as Hermione and how JK Rowling has said there was no stated race - she just made ambiguous references to features like brown eyes, curly hair. And there were a lot of ignorant comments about that which annoyed me. But if readers are white, they read a book and it doesn't say a race, so they paint themselves or their friends onto it. It's just the way humans are.
Do you feel a responsibility to make representative work?
Lots of the films I've been making, like my feature film Soft Lad, people have said that it's "gay" work. I say it's not a gay thing - it's my world, people I know, the stories we can relate to. I consider myself a storyteller first, and I enjoy bringing to life stories everyone will find interesting and might not get a chance to see.
So, it happens that I'm gay, working-class, mixed-race and from Liverpool. I'm not making a political statement. Yes, it's great to raise awareness and talk about things we're afraid to address. Let's give more people a voice. And as a storyteller, there might be someone out there like you who's touched by this story, because they've never had the chance to see themselves reflected in drama.
Are you planning to do more films?
I've just finished a half-hour film, and I want to direct more. Really, I just want to tell more stories however I can, whether that's on screen or getting to work with fantastic companies like the RSC.
What advice would you give to budding actors?
Be committed. Nearly every job I've got is from my reputation - people know they can work with me, and I'll strive every day to do better than I did yesterday. Be respectful to others and do your job. It's such a small world, so someone you work with on a fringe show could be at the National tomorrow.
Keep a positive outlook and work will keep coming. Just don't think you're going to become a millionaire overnight!
Photo credit: Donald Cooper, Ellie Kurttz