The Big Interview: Roger Allam

The London Theatre Guide – 28th November 2002


 

In a stage career that spans almost 30 years, What The Night Is For at the Comedy is Roger Allam’s first two-hander. And who better to share the experience with than Gillian Anderson, sultry star of TV series The X-Files? Laura North finds out if sparks are flying on stage and what Allam thinks about American stars in the West End, dressing up in drag and hair removal techniques…

Roger Allam won an Olivier Award for “Putting on a dress. It means they notice the acting.”

Allam plays Adam Penzius who tracks down his ex-lover Melinda Metz (Anderson) over the internet. Their passion has lain dormant for over a decade and they reunite for a night of will-they-won’t-they. This is not unfamiliar territory to Anderson: Scully, her character in The X-Files, spent the best part of ten seasons not getting it on with her colleague Mulder, despite the presence of a powerful chemistry. However, What The Night Is For is clearly a different kettle of fish to the sci-fi series: the first sparks of romance are generated at a Book Circle in New York rather than a cannibal-infested sewer. And the flames of their passion (undoubtedly fanned higher by a paperback of Madame Bovary) are dampened by issues of fidelity rather than the inconvenient entrance of a genetic mutation. But the chemistry of Mulder and Scully is still a hard act to follow.

 

“I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, I’ll do anything”

“It’s not something I’m really aware of on stage at all because it’s so unlike the character she plays in The X-Files,” says Allam, obviously not phased by the precedent. “It has no effect on me until we come out the stage door and there’s a great big crowd of people waiting for her and then you think, oh yeah, of course.” Mulder, Scully and groupies aside, achieving a powerful chemistry is a pivotal part of the play. Both characters are married with children, so rekindling an affair means taking a big risk and the attraction has to justify this. The two actors have had an intensive time rehearsing it and so plenty of opportunity to develop a convincing relationship. “We were in the rehearsal room for just over four weeks and because it’s a two-hander obviously you don’t get any time off. So it’s been pretty full on.” Allam is confident that the essential electricity has been achieved: “Oh I think so, yes, I hope so, very much.”

Gillian Anderson and Roger Allam

Allam and Anderson come from very different acting backgrounds. Allam has spent a great deal of his career on the stage. He joined the RSC in 1981 where he co-starred with the now Patrick Stewart, who transferred his Shakespearian gravitas to the Starship Enterprise in StarTrek. Allam subsequently built up an impressive list of credits, working at the National, the Donmar and many other institutions of British theatre. Anderson, on the other hand, has had an extensive screen career – X-Files, the films The House Of Mirth and Playing By Heart – but her stage appearances have been few and far between. “She had done theatre before, it’s just the vast bulk of her experience is doing film and telly and the vast bulk of mine is doing stage.” Allam feels she has adapted excellently. “The stage is just more unfamiliar to Gillian than to me, so she’s got more to get used to and it’s a hell of a role to get used to. But she’s great, absolutely great.”

“Last year I played a drag queen, the year before that I played Hitler”

Anderson is just one in a long line of American stars to make their debut in the West End recently – Gwynneth Paltrow, Madonna, Glenn Close – a trend recently criticised by the prominent and prolific playwright Alan Ayckbourn. At an Orange Word lecture at the Apollo Theatre he said that producers have an “obsession” with hiring Hollywood stars: “If all we are looking for these days is one-shot plays with one big name in it, I don’t want to be part of it”. Allam is wary of making a sweeping judgement. “It’s a difficult thing to generalise about really. I think the good aspect of it is that it’s brought a bit of glamour back into the West End, which is needed. Maybe one aspect of it that’s unfortunate is that it needs Americans to do that.” For Allam, though, it comes down to one vital fact. “Beyond that, it’s just a question of whether or not they’re good actors. If they’re good actors I’ve got no complaints about it whatsoever and if they bring a different kind of crowd into the theatre I think that’s all to the good.”

Roger Allam: feeling fruity

Allam is not adverse to the movies himself but he thinks that his long stint with the RSC (ten years) meant that subsequently stage-work has tended to dominate his acting career. “It can become a bit self-fulfilling that I get offered much more interesting roles on the stage than on film and telly.” However, he recently starred in a film based on Swiss Family Robinson called Stranded and this year he played a character based on Tennessee Williams in the film The Roman Spring Of Mrs Stone with Helen Mirren and Anne Bancroft.

Although film appeals to him, he confesses “I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, I’ll do anything.” He’s certainly played a wide array of roles: “Last year I played a drag queen, the year before that I played Hitler.” His roles are not confined to straight acting. Whilst still at university he had singing lessons at the English National Opera with the vocal consultant. He decided to follow the acting path, but his training obviously played a part when he landed the role of Javert in the original production of Les Misérables. Now in its blockbusting 17th year, Allam had no idea the musical would become so successful. Having started off in the Barbican, the RSC production transferred to the West End where its future was not so certain. “We moved into the West End around Christmas which is always a difficult time unless you’re specifically a Christmas show. I know that Cameron Mackintosh [producer] was quite concerned about the state of the advance booking when we moved into the West End.” One thing seemed to help secure the success of the musical. “I think what finally did it in terms of publicity was Princess Di coming to see it twice – it was like a couple of million dollars worth of publicity. She saw it in the Barbican and then she came to see it again in the West End, I think bringing Prince Charles, and it after that it just sort of took off.”

I had to shave all over, fingers, arms, toes, everything. Wax? Oh god no”

Threatening: Allam as Javert in the original production of Les Misérables

His performance as a drag queen in Peter Nichols’ Privates On Parade stands out. The role of Terri Dennis, officer in charge of an army concert in the steamy Malaysian jungle of 1948, won him this year’s Olivier award for Best Actor. Having performed so many roles on the stage, why was it this one that won him the coveted award? “Putting on a dress. It means they notice the acting.” He explains, more seriously, that the transformative element of the role draws attention to the actor: “You’re a middle-aged man not noted for having done this before and you dress up as a drag queen.” The role also contained opportunities to do impersonations of Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda and Noel Coward, so giving Allam the pleasure of “a lot of flash showy stuff”. Modestly, he puts his success down to the part itself. “It is a most wonderful character. There are certain kinds of characters that are award-winning roles. I mean Denis Quilley who played the part originally won an Olivier for it. Although I don’t want do myself down of course.”

The drag queen act was also a voyage of discovery. He discovered his feminine side, as he candidly revealed at the Olivier Awards itself: “It feels nice when you’ve shaved your legs for the first time.” The issue of hair removal is clearly important. “I had to do it all over, fingers, arms, toes, everything. Wax? Oh god no. I was advised against it. Various people said wax, and then others said no you’ll get a rash and I thought I’d stick to just shaving it off.”

Now he’s let it grow back, so if Adam and Melinda do take the plunge and reignite their steamy affair, Gillian Anderson will not be confronted with an entirely hairless Roger Allam…

A Lucky Star

Maureen Paton – The Stage Newspaper
28th November 2002


 

Now starring with US star Gillian Anderson in the West End,
Roger Allam’s career is still going strong.

For the next three months Roger Allam will go to bed six nights a week with Gillian Anderson. It is a tough job, slipping between the sheets with the star of The X-Files but some actor’s got to do it in Michael Weller’s world premiere about a one ­night stand between two former lovers.

At least the actress, known to audiences everywhere, can rest assured that she is in a safe pair of hands for her West End debut in What the Night Is For. Allam was named Best Actor in the Olivier’s this year for his role as the cross-dressing Captain Terri Dennis in the Donmar revival of Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade. The 49-year­old is the latest experienced British actor to become a safety net for an American film actress new to the stage.

“Gillian has had more experience in film and telly than theatre, so it’s quite a learning process for her,” he says. “She’s never done a run as long as this but I intend to make her feel at home.”

Yet he plays down any grandiose notion of becoming 35-year-old Anderson’s stage guru. “A very important element of the play is a yearning for a sense of intimacy. I don’t know if British actors are worse or better than Americans at that.

“How do Gillian and I get comfortable with each other? I just dive in, I don’t have a particular approach. I used to be a lot more anxious about acting than I am now that I’m older. We only met the week before rehearsals began, when Gillian and I had dinner, but if you need to get on with your co-star, you get on. That’s part of the job of being an actor.

“Gillian and I have hit some very nice patches in rehearsal, when we have sort of become unaware of other people in the room. You’ve got to be very easy with each other -in this business, you can’t be inhibited or squeamish.”

And Allam should know, having played the first ever talking testicle in a surreal radio play shortly after receiving his Olivier gong.

Although he admits to nerves over one nude scene in What the Night Is For, this is a man so completely confident that he used a beard-trimmer over his entire body when impersonating female stars for his drag turns in Privates on Parade and made his debut as one of only two men in the feminist theatre company Monstrous Regiment.

He studied drama at Manchester University three years ahead of Rik Mayall and Ben Elton, having caught the acting bug as a schoolboy after seeing Laurence Olivier’s Old Vic company in the sixties. “Seeing all those people in different plays, doing very varied roles, is what attracted me to acting,” he says.

Generally he prefers the versatility of theatre, spending 11 years in the RSC, making his mark as a notable Hitler in Albert Speer at the National, playing roles in Les Miserables and Art and taking the lead in the 1994 musical City of Angels.

But the need to pay bills still influences his choice of work.” “I could only afford to work at the Donmar on Privates because I had done a TV film just beforehand.

“It’s fine, if you’re a movie star, to come to the Donmar or the Almeida for £300 a week having just made a few million on a film. I’d love to be in that position but 20 weeks at the Donmar, including rehearsals, took a hell of a lot of beating of my bank account. But I don’t regret doing it at all.

“He appeared on ITV1 as a moustached RAF cad in Foyle’s War and next January he’ll play “a drinking, drug taking nightmare” for one episode in the second series of BBC2’s male meno­pause comedy-drama Manchild. Far from being a midlife crisis victim himself, Allam claims to have been grounded by late fatherhood.

He and his partner, actress Rebecca Saire, became parents for the first time two and a half years ago with the birth of William.

“Having a child has made me a lot less anxious about acting, it puts things into perspective,” Allam explains. “I once went through an entire month of sweating and trembling after getting stage fright while playing Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at Stratford but I try not to think about the lines so much any more. Eventually you get to a place where you realise that it’s not the end of the world.

“It seems that Gillian Anderson can rest easy.

Acting? This is the real thing

Times OnLine, November 25, 2002
by Robert Gore-Langton


 

For ‘actor’s actor’ Roger Allam, starring with Gillian Anderson could finally be the making of him

AT FIRST appearances there appears to be a mismatch of glamour. When Gillian Anderson, radiant international star of the X-Files, takes to the London stage in What the Night is For her partner on stage is Roger Allam. He’s the sort of self-effacing, slightly broke theatre actor who will take the bus home afterwards while Miss Anderson is being ferried about in a limo.

But Allam is one of British theatre’s classiest acts — funny and self-effacing, a famously nice guy who has been showered with the sort of acclaim which should have made him the household name that he still isn’t.

He’s the ultimate “actor’s actor”. It’s an epithet that makes him wince slightly. “It’s a compliment, I suppose,” he says. “There’s nothing quite as precious as being appreciated by one’s peers. I was very grumpy about going to the National recently but my arm was twisted by Trevor Nunn. It turned out to be a wonderful experience largely because a lot of the younger actors were so appreciative. But the negative thing about being an actor’s actor is that it means no one knows who you are. You go for a film or a telly job and they haven’t a clue.”

Allam is now back on stage playing an American architect who meets up with an old flame (Ms Anderson) in a hotel room. Both have long been married to the wrong people and know it. What the Night is For is a grown-up now-or-never romantic drama written by the American writer Michael Weller, an old hand who, among a host of intelligent plays, did the screenplays for Hair and Ragtime, the 1981 film that brought James Cagney out of retirement.

“It’s a naturalistic piece about two people yearning for a lost intimacy. It’s not ironic which I like,” says Allam. “I think Michael was inspired to write it because it’2s about this business of people contacting old flames on the internet. It’s direct and emotional and it’s a two-hander which I’ve never done before. Better still, I don’t have to put on drag or wear a Hitler moustache.”

Allam, 47, has been dressing up a lot lately. In Peter Nichols’s Privates on Parade he was fabulous as a military theatre queen (“Ooh that Bernadette Shaw — what a chatterbox!”). Before that he was a frightfully charming Hitler (Adolf in sherry-and-a-chat mode) at the National Theatre in David Edgar’s Speer. In this new play there’s no fancy dress, just some mild semi-nudity. He says not to worry, his bare bottom will be tastefully covered by “a trailing plant or something”.

The unknown quality in the play is Anderson. She was by all accounts terrific in Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends in New York several years ago, but she is untried on stage here. According to Weller, they picked Allam because “you need a really first-rate stage actor who’s sufficiently male to balance Gillian’s appeal”. In New York, apparently, it would have been much harder to cast the chap because all the manly talent has defected to Hollywood.

Allam’s background is solidly Anglican. His father was vicar of St Mary Woolnoth, the Hawksmoor church celebrated by T.S. Eliot. At Manchester University young Roger took singing lessons from John Hargreaves at the ENO but abandoned the idea of being a professional opera baritone and went into the theatre. He joined the RSC in 1981, playing a huge variety of roles, touring and having a ball prior to a year’s run in the RSC’s Les Misérables.

But the film or big TV break, despite a litany of fine classical parts (his Benedick in Much Ado was for him a special joy), has never happened. “When I joined the RSC I was 26 and I thought ‘Great, this is where I want to be.’ Now I’m older and have a child (a little boy, with his actress partner Rebecca Saire) I wouldn’t mind earning a bit more. But it’s all about fluke. Patrick Stewart (another RSC actor) happened to be lecturing in Los Angeles on Shylock and the producer of Star Trek was in the audience. Next thing you knew he was auditioning for Captain Picard and the rest is history.”

Allam would surely have made a terrific Klingon (his line in baddies is second to none) but how about being Picard himself? He tried as it turns out. “I had an audition for one of the Star Trek films. I gritted my teeth and thought ‘I’ll never have to worry about money ever again.’ Then reality kicked in. I didn’t get close!” Instead Allam decided to go boldly back to the stage where his most recent work — his award-winning performance in Privates on Parade at the Donmar Warehouse — won huge critical acclaim but was seen by few people.

“Yes, it’s one of the problems with small theatres like the Donmar and the Almeida, they’re wonderful places to work, icons of fashionabilty and all that, but it’s very exclusive. You can’t get in. Plus these places only function if we actors get low wages. The tragedy is that there’s no ticket equivalent of what there was when I was young. I went to see Olivier in The Merchant of Venice for 15 pence.” Allam’s commitment to large-scale work at the RSC and National stems from a belief that theatre should be big and should be available.

“Anyone who says the seat prices don’t make a difference should go to one of the theatres where they have a cheap night on a Monday. The places are heaving. It’s interesting that Olivier, a conservative figure in many ways, was absolutely supportive of the notion that subsidy subsidised seat prices. That’s gone now. Today it’s all about charging the market rate. The market rate cuts people off from the experience.”

The old days are evoked for Allam every time he steps on to the stage at the Comedy Theatre where his new play shortly opens. This is the building in which he nearly killed his hero Paul Scofield. He was working as a student in the fly tower and nearly dropped a scenery flat on the great man’s head (Scofield was in Christopher Hampton’s Savages at the time).

But now it’s Allam’s turn to hog the limelight there. As he gets up to rehearse the bedroom scene, there is a burst of enthusiasm. “I can’t give up acting,” he says. Why not? “I can’t do anything else. I’m working with Gillian Anderson. I’m making a living. You can’t complain, you really can’t.”

Roger Allam On What The Night Is For

TheatreNow.com, Nov 18th 2002
by Paul Webb


 

Roger Allam is one of our most versatile leading actors. Anyone who can be as effective as the vengeful Inspector Javert in Les Misérables as he was as camp Captain Terry Dennis in Privates on Parade (for which he won an Olivier award) has an impressive range. Now he is co-starring with Gillian (X Files) Anderson in What The Night Is For at the Comedy. Theatrenow went to meet him.

You’re playing a very heterosexual lover in What the Night is For – quite a contrast to your last West End role.  “It certainly is. And it’s always a good idea to play different types of role, but there wasn’t anything planned about the contrast; it just turned out that way.”

How is the current play going?
“Very well – we’re getting good audiences, and there’s a crowd outside the stage door each night, though I think you’ll find there are more of Gillian’s fans than mine!

“One thing I’m enjoying is that I’m playing an ‘unknown’, in that its a fictional creation, a person who only exists through Michael’s [Weller] writing and my performance – no-one has any expectations of what the character is or should be. That’s quite a contract with having played Hitler at the National.”

You got rave reviews for that, and a lot of the press attention was on how you made him seem almost likeable – quite charming. That was certainly different from how he’s normally portrayed.  “You have to remember that Hitler was appearing in a played called Speer – the person we saw on stage was Hitler as the hero-worshipping Speer saw him, and the demon behind the facade only appeared to Speer in a dream sequence. Had it been a play called Hitler and I’d played him as quite a charming chap then that would have been a very different matter…”

What The Night is For, unlike a history play like Speer, is about a fictional couple and their relationship. Judging by the press release it’s quite sexual?   “It certainly deals with sexual attraction, but you won’t find us giving gymnastic impersonations of the sex act on stage! It’s about former lovers who, now in their 40s, had an affair some ten years earlier. The play is essentially about a spiritual search for a soul mate.

“Michael Weller cottoned on to the fact that people often have second thoughts or regrets about old flames, and now, via the internet, its a lot easier to track such people down and see if you can rekindle something or if you’ve both moved on too much.

“Being in this play is fascinating for me in a purely practical way, in that I haven’t been in a two-hander before, and it’s an interesting dynamic.”

You’re acting with a television star, and you’ve made comments about screen stars in past interviews. Do you still regret the fact that theatre itself is throwing up less stars, and seems to take them from film and television?  “I’m greatly enjoying working with Gillian, who’s a great actress, but I do still regret that these days people don’t become stars just through theatre, in the way that they might have done in the past.

“People come out of drama schools today and they’re keen on a television series or whatever. I spent ten very happy years with the RSC from the early 1980s. These days the idea of a long-term commitment to a theatre company is the last thing a drama school graduate wants, whereas it was something that had always been an ambition of mine.

“And when they are established, actors no longer seem prepared to commit to a West end run. Contracts used to include the phrase ‘for run of play’ but that’s almost unheard of now – three months is the most that many people want to spend in a West End show.”

Do you have any particular ambitions? Any new plays in the drawer that you’d love to star in?  “No! Nothing’s lined up at the moment, and when it comes to reading new plays I think I’m a very bad judge of writing. I really need to see a play on the stage to fully appreciate it: otherwise it’s just a question of luck. I think we’re in a winner with What the Night is For, and although backstage is like a building site at the moment the stage and auditorium of the Comedy is lovely – its a great theatre to perform in, and I think that if actors enjoy a theatre that’s always reflected, for the better, in their performances. But you’ll have to decide for yourself on press night!”