Friday, 27 February 2015

INTERVIEW - Julian Ovenden

TWENTY years ago Julian Ovenden saw the original production of My Night With Reg at the Royal Court Theatre.
So good was it that it inspired him to become an actor. Now two decades later he finds himself in a revival of Kevin Elyot's award-winning play.
The production has just transferred to the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury after a successful run at the Donmar Warehouse last year where it received rave reviews.
The Peckham-based actor who was most recently seen playing Lady Mary’s suitor Charles Blake in ITV's Downton Abbey says the play has lost none of its appeal since its debut 21 years ago.
Set within London's gay community in the 1980s against the backdrop of the AIDs epidemic it follows the lives and loves of a group of gay men over a number of years.
However Julian insists it should no longer be considered a niche "gay play".
"It's about three old friends from university who meet up again in London after about 10 years at a flat warming party," the 38-year-old tells me.
"It charts their friendship over the course of four years but under the shadow of HIV and AIDs.
"It's not a gay play, neither is it about HIV although both are important to the piece.
"Really it's a study in the weathering of friendships over time, about unrequited love, loss, secrets, lies and grief. It's both very, very funny and quite sad and has a life affirming message."
That the play still holds its appeal 20 years on is testament to what Julian says is its "great writing".
“The writing is very succinct and articulate and there is a real depth and heart to it,” he says.
“The main themes of the play have great currency and will have currency in 20 years time – it’s still as relevant today as it was when it was written and hasn't dated at all.
"It was a topical piece at the time and the first gay play that wasn't about being gay or coming to terms with sexuality. It was about other things and that was quite refreshing and revolutionary.
“It’s rare to find writing that is so good.”
Julian says he was keen to take on the role of John not only because the play inspired his career choice but also because he likes a challenge.
"I thought it was really interesting piece and a challenging role because my character is the least likeable of those in it and one with the fewest jokes!" he says.
"He's a bit of a straight man really as all the other characters are quite funny. However everything happens to him.
"It's a challenge to play those sorts of roles which is what I like. With this it's because of the journey John goes on in terms of self awareness."
Another challenge was to appear naked during the show - the first time Julian has bared all on stage but it seems it was "no big deal".
"Being naked is not your every day thing," he chuckles. "You get asked to do all sorts of weird stuff as an actor and some of it is quite scary which this was to begin with.
"Initially I had to gear myself up for it but I've done it about 100 times now so I'm a bit blasé about it.
"That's about as scary as it gets though. And having done that I should think I could stomach anything so I can tick it off the list," he jokes.
So what else is on that list I ask.
"There are lots of theatrical parts I would like to do but I've never had a particular hankering to do Hamlet," he says.
Instead he lists Chekhov as a favourite playwright and a desire to do more of the classics but adds a nice meaty role on TV or film and “a musical in the next couple of years” are on his to do list.
"I don't like to be pigeon holed or boxed in but like variety and to do as much as I can,” he adds. “It keeps me fresh, engaged and inspired.”
And that has been true of his career so far. He was a choral scholar at St Paul’s, studied drama after reading music at Oxford University, has recorded albums and as well as having performed musically at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center in New York, he also has several musicals under his belt.
But it’s acting that he says is his main focus and he clearly loves the mix of roles it offers both on stage and screen.
However, if his fans are hoping for his re-appearance as Charles Blake in the next series of Downton Abbey they will be disappointed.
“It was great to be part of the show but I think the time has come for me to leave the character behind,” he says.
“It was a great experience but I like to be in the centre of things so I’m now after bigger roles!”
And in the meantime he is more than happy to hang out with his family in Peckham.
“I’ve lived here for five years and I love it,” he says. “I’ve seen the area develop a lot over that time. It’s getting a bit trendy but it still retains an honesty and sincerity and is not too flash which is what I like. It's also still very family orientated and diverse and I like that.
“I grew up in North London which had a great community feel and it's the same here. Forest Hill, Nunhead and Peckham, they all have that little villagey atmosphere that bring people together.
“It's great for kids - for everyone in fact - when you live in a big city the green spaces are very important. I love it and I feel lucky to be here.”

My Night With Reg is on at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue until April 11. Tickets from £10. Visit for listings.

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