BWW Interview: Ophelia Lovibond On THE LIBERTINE
Actress Ophelia Lovibond has done a range of screen roles, from beleaguered Izzy in W1A to Elementary, Guardians of the Galaxy and new Sky 1 series Hooten & The Lady. Now, she's making her West End debut in The Libertine, playing 17th-century actress Elizabeth Barry opposite Dominic Cooper as the infamous Earl of Rochester.
What was your first theatre experience?
Mum took us all the time when we were little, even if it was just local community productions. One really impactful trip was Les Mis, for my 12th birthday. I was overawed by the scale of it, the emotion, how transported I was. It seemed like magic - you were there with them, in the revolution. I also remember Pete Postlethwaite's one-man show, Scaramouche Jones. I did a Saturday drama club at Riverside Studios, and it was on there - they kindly comped our tickets. It was spellbinding - he had us in the palm of his hand, making everyone feel he was speaking just to them.
Did theatre seem accessible?
It honestly didn't even occur to me until much later, when I started doing interviews and talking about it, that theatre could have been out of reach. My mum was always very encouraging, and I was lucky to be very determined - if I get knocked down, it emboldens me.
When I started acting professionally, it really felt like an extension of just playing around - it was all very organic. I'm not from an acting family at all, so there was no pressure, and I wasn't aware that it might be a difficult thing to do. Obviously you get more conscious of the competition for parts and things like that as you get older, but otherwise it always felt natural and made me happy.
Did you think about drama school, or did you want a degree as a safety net?
I don't believe in having safety nets - you'll end up using them! I'd started working when I was 12 and I really learned on the job. Then I got a drama scholarship to Latymer for sixth form, which was incredible - I'd never have been able to afford to go there otherwise. That made me really want to go to university and study English.
I remember was doing Nathan Barley for Channel 4, and Ben Whishaw was in it. I knew he'd been to RADA, so I said to him, "I don't feel compelled to go to drama school, but should I go anyway?" And he said "No - I wanted to, but if you're really passionate about studying literature, go do that. Acting will be there when you get back. Follow your instincts." I knew the likelihood of coming back to study later in life would be low, and part of the university experience is doing that when you're younger, so I went to Sussex and had a great time.
Do you think you have a different approach to actors who've done drama school training?
Everything is very instinctive for me. Actually, I did my first play recently, The Effect at Sheffield Crucible, and it was funny - the other actors all had names for certain activities, like "actioning a script", that I'd been doing anyway. I was lucky enough to work from a young age with some incredible actors and directors - you learn so much just by being up close, and I'm quite a kinetic learner.
It must have been a great learning experience doing W1A, with that extraordinary script
I'd never done a show like that before. John Morton is like Beckett in how specific and precise his punctuation is. He's a genius - the way he conjures an environment from just a few uttered halting sentences. Nothing is improved. It's like performing a really meticulous musical score. It's very close to reality too, which is why people find it so funny - it's made up and wonderfully preposterous, but you really feel it could have happened, or might happen.
Then you got to change gears and be a female Indiana Jones in Hooten & The Lady
That was the big appeal for me. The first thing I look at with a project isn't who's directing, whether it's a big film, it's the character and whether I want to tell her story. I can't remember the last time I saw a role like this for a woman where she's toe to toe with the man, she's doing all the stunts, she's just as clever and tough. It's very much a two-hander, not a man being the hero with a bolt-on, ubiquitous female. I love doing all the action stuff, and getting to marry mucking around and throwing myself off cliffs with the acting side is just brilliant.
Any fears, like creepy-crawlies or heights, to overcome?
I'm not remotely bothered by anything like that. I remember in the first episode there was an idea bandied about that she'd find this bug and be freaked out. I thought, "Why isn't he the one who gets freaked out?", because Michael [Landes] was more worried about it than me! They said it just unthinkingly, but that's quite revealing, and I firmly said no, she would be fine.
It's brilliant working with a stunt team. They realised quite quickly I wasn't just saying it for show - I genuinely love doing things like that. At school, during Activities Week, I'd be the first to sign up for abseiling. They let me do as many of the stunts that were safe. My stunt double was jokingly saying, "What about me? When's my turn?"
You're playing another great female character in The Libertine. Did you know much about Elizabeth Barry?
No, but as soon as I read the play, I started researching, and realised everything Stephen Jeffreys wrote was true. She did speak like that, she was known for being a proto-feminist who fought her corner. They asked her to do a variety performance and weren't going to pay, because it was for the monarch, and she said "No, you don't get me for free."
She set up her own theatre company, and she had Rochester's child but didn't marry him, because then she'd become his property, which she didn't believe in. I really relish saying her words every night. I have a picture of her up in my dressing room, just to remind me that she was a real person - I want to make sure I honour that. She did so much to make women acting on stage respectable, and I feel very lucky that I'll be able to look back and know that playing her was a part of my career.
Did you do much research?
Antonia Fraser's incredible book The Weaker Vessel was really helpful. There was a chapter specifically on actresses of the time, but actually the whole book was brilliant - how women were viewed in the period, and love too. Rochester and Barry had a very tactile, openly loving relationship, and that would have been viewed as incredibly vulgar - all that hugging and kissing in public. That's in the play as well, but my understanding was really bolstered by Antonio's book. I also read Rochester's poems, which are still pretty shocking, and Filthy English, which is about the evolution of swearing and language, but also the perception of morality.
What's it like making your West End debut?
It's quite surreal sometimes, stepping up on that stage, or even just standing in the wings, seeing everyone rushing around - the mania going on backstage that the audience is blissfully unaware of. You just think "This is so brilliant, being part of this world." I've never done anything in a theatre of this size, or this kind of material.
Any differences between the London audiences and the ones in Bath?
Actually, yes. I'd say the ones in London are a bit less shocked, and maybe respond differently to some of the jokes. In Bath, they were very vocal about the expletives and some of the more risqué bits - lots of gasping!
In terms of the drama, it's a different experience in a big theatre. When Elizabeth Barry announces she's having his child, but she's doing it on her own, she's got her own money, and he's a bad influence, you can actually hear them listening. There's something about the sheer size of the audience - you can really feel the effect those moments have on them. It's been fascinating adjusting your dial every night depending on the response. It's very immediate.
Is it interesting doing a play that says so much about theatre?
Absolutely, and it really forms Rochester and Barry's relationship. She finds his views so beguiling, when he says "In the playhouse, every action good or bad has its consequence; drop a handkerchief and it will return to smother you. Outside the playhouse there are for me no crimes and no consequences." It might sound like a contradiction in terms, but they really believe you can hold a mirror up and let the audience see their world - that theatre can be a place of truth.
When he later reneges on that and says nothing on stage is true, she finds that so shocking and disappointing. It's this gradual corruption of something they once shared together. I really enjoy that discussion, and when friends come to see it they always pick up on it.
Are you now able to be a bit more selective about the parts you choose?
I don't quite have the luxury of cherry-picking - I have to see what comes my way. But I have always been picky. I didn't just go up for anything in pilot season, which surprised my American team - I'd rather wait until it's the right thing, even if that means not working for a bit.
I just happened to fall into TV and film early on, but I definitely want to do more on stage. Because I hadn't done any plays, I wasn't offered any, but since The Effect and now with The Libertine, lots are being sent in. I do have some parts I'd love to play - like Sally Bowles, which I did at Latymer. I love singing as well. Or Iago, which is a phenomenal role. It feels like a good time now: people are finally getting it, that it doesn't matter whether it's a man or a woman playing these parts, which is such a relief. I'm dying to do more theatre. It's so addictive!
Finally, any advice to budding performers?
Don't underestimate yourself - and just keep going. My mum always said the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful is the successful don't give up.
Photo credit: Alastair Muir