“Feeling Vulnerable and Sensitive is Scary, but Those Qualities are Also Part of Your Strength”, Hollywood Tips With Alex Hassell, Star of The Miniaturist
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Hassell, a British film, television and stage actor who is arguably best known for his roles as ‘Prince Hal’ and ‘Henry V’ in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Henriad’ in 2014 to 2016. This Christmas, he is due to star in BBC One’s ‘The Miniaturist’, based on Jessie Burton’s best-selling novel.
What is your ‘backstory’?
I guess in acting terms, I think of backstory as emotional context; the building blocks of the impulses, patterns and blind spots of adult life; the forces that push you around every minute without really knowing it. Appertaining to me, I see that as my father was a Vicar; my mother a hospice nurse; and having three much older siblings, it meant that I developed a keen sensitivity to the subtleties of emotional interplay, a desire for attention, and a need to put something into the world that I felt might have consequence, and the possibility of helping people feel less alone. I also got bullied at school so I feel like an outsider, and am drawn to characters who are hard and impenetrable, but actually always seem to end up wanting to expose their vulnerability and need.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your acting/directing/performing career?
It’s pretty silly and doesn’t make for much of a story, but probably the funniest moment, or top 50 funniest moments, of my acting career were when I was in City Madam at the Royal Shakespeare Company some years ago. I was falling in new-best-friend-type-love with a wonderful actor called Felix Hayes — at one point in the show, we came on dressed in very silly Inca costumes; with very silly wigs; and silly gold make up; and we would do silly voices; and silly secret impressions of characters from Indiana Jones; and then have to sit very still and quiet for a minute or so, very close to the audience.
To professional professional actors this should be fine but, one night, as we sat down my cloak fell slightly differently, and totally covered the head of a very sweet looking little old lady in the front row. As this was not hugely helpful to her, I gently removed the cloak from her tiny head and, in a misguided attempt to incorporate this accident, in very silly character, I reached out and tenderly stroked her fine white hair by way of apology, and audibly gasped at it’s surprising softness. Again, to professional professionals this should be fine, but being all giddy with each other anyway in the flush of new friendship, as Felix and I then sat next to each other in stillness, our knees accidentally and ever so slightly touched, and we both suddenly, and very forcefully, erupted into an enormous and uncontrollable fit of giggles. The play basically stopped, as it was totally obvious to everyone what was happening, which made it even funnier to us, and we had no choice but to roar our way through the rest of the scene until we could collapse into the wings, weeping and howling.
The difficulty was that the giddy memory of this haunted us whenever we were on stage together from then on, and bubbled just beneath the surface at all times, but most potently in that moment of sitting next to each other. So, for the rest of the 7-month run, if our knees happened to touch even by a hair we were utterly gone, and would spend the rest of the scene pretending to cough in failed attempts to disguise our tears of laughter, which only made it worse for the next night. I truly don’t think we got through that bit without laughing ever again. Very silly. Old lady, please except my sincerest apologies (although I think you liked it at the time), and to anyone who saw the show; that is why those two childish idiots were laughing all the time. I am still laughing about it now as I type. What a ridiculous way to make a living.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am directing Macbeth for my theatre company The Factory. We have been exploring it in fits and starts for well over a year now, and it’s getting really close to ready. The company is quite unique and experimental, and in this show all the parts are cast with total disregard of gender, age, shape, or type; there are about four people playing every part; and the cast changes are random every time we play. There is no blocking, no set, no costumes, no props, and apart from the verse pattern and words being rigorously adhered to and invested in, we have no idea what will happen each night. We have also been developing an improvised physical language that will be freshly created each show from the audience, and it’s getting very, very interesting. The company is full of, indeed is built on, actors male and female with such courage, skill, egolessness, and vulnerability that the work, to me anyway, can be profoundly moving. The other day, one of our Macbeths played the part with her 15-month-old daughter on her hip. All as part of her playing she tended to her, talked to her, let her run around, and even breast fed her, and it was utterly breathtaking and mesmeric. It floored us all. So much of the play was revealed to us in a new and enlightening way that day, and it will never happen again — and that’s the point. The thing that I love so much about the kind of work we do, is that there is no attempt to make something perfect or definable. It relies on whim, chance, instinct, openness, and welcoming the unknown. It can be messy and chaotic, but seeing people dancing out on a limb like that; watching them triumph, get lost, reach epiphany, and then get lost again is glorious. It can also sometimes provide me personally with a beautiful counterbalance to all the career based ambition I have, and the desire to be ‘right’ for a part, project, or for the industry in general.
Who are some of the most famous people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I did a film called Suburbicon last year that was directed by George Clooney, and I got to work a fair bit with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. They have so much collective experience in that medium, so I just tried to learn as much as I could, but it seemed so effortless to them that it was a challenge. It was like sleight of hand: I couldn’t see the trick, just the magic. Oscar Isaac was in that too, and although we didn’t really work together, we ended up talking lots about Hamlet which we both have a great passion for. He was about to play it and I had done previously, so we got right into the minutiae of the part, the iambic pentameter and what on earth it all means. That was a great joy. He is so clever, talented, studious and passionate, that getting under the skin of it for even a moment with him was a deep pleasure that I shan’t forget. That and quoting Withnail and I with Matt — whispering “Monty you terrible c*nt” into his ear right before a take.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
With regards my day to day life as an artistic person, Marlon Brando has always loomed very large. It is not so much what he did, but the question of how he did it which I find so inspiring. His extraordinary throbbing brilliance, truthfulness, depth and rawness seem to be channeled from somewhere on another plane to anyone else. He serves to me as the high benchmark of the craft, and has always made me demand more of myself, and pushed me to keep learning and exploring the way I work.
Stanley Kubrick is another craftsperson who I think about a lot and draw inspiration from. He is probably my favourite director, and I think without really ever being aware of it I have always thought that being deemed good enough to be in films that feel like his would equate to the height of success. I am motivated by challenge, and nothing would excite me more than being pushed beyond what I consider my limits by someone with his vision, dedication, specificity and perverseness. The lengths to which he would go to find the expression of his imagination stirs something very powerful in me. He seems to revel in contradiction, ominousness, confusion, and darkness, and what better mess to play around in could there be?
Radiohead have shaped a lot of my thinking since my mid-teens. Their music is quite deeply woven into the fabric of my emotional life, as well as that of my work. I find myself frequently equating moments, or scenes, or tensions in scripts to certain songs, and have done for years. When I think of directing, their music is almost all that passes through my head in terms of sound. When we set up The Factory ten years ago, we talked a lot about Radiohead; how their artwork seems to be an equal part of their expression and identity; how they use the internet to mystify and create access; how they gave their music away for nothing; how they always changed their sound and followed their own lead, and played whatever they wanted with no care for what was expected of them. That kind of self-reliance, bravery, defiance, and purity is so rare to me.
Who do you aspire to be like one day?
Well I don’t want to be like Mark Rylance, because his uniqueness is what makes him so special (as I hope does mine), but I certainly aspire to his talent and scope. I aspire to his facility, the ownership of his craft, his mischief, passion, integrity, wit, naughtiness, nimbleness, power, and magnetism. I had the very great fortune of working with Mark quite a lot and quite intensely at a very formative period in my life, and it really effected the way I thought about acting, performing and theatre in general. It changed what I thought the task was I guess. Few people are able to be that admired and have that much responsibility, and still be able to take the kind of risks he does and be as cheeky while doing it. He is a very naughty boy through and through, and I hope that when I reach his age I still will be too.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Hhhhmmm. Tough one. I feel I’ve not yet reached a level of success that puts me in contact with enough of the world to have made much of a difference, nor have I had enough money, so any goodness I have brought to anyone has only been in more of a small personal way. Unfortunately, I probably spend more time hustling along than I do reaching out to others who are hustling, but having said that, members of The Factory have told me over the years that being part of the company has been important to them, and to the way in which they see themselves and their work. They say that their connection to their creative selves has deepened, and that being part of the community we made has given them more confidence and joy, so that makes me proud.
What are your ‘5 things I wish someone told me when I first started?’ and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- It never stops being a rollercoaster, but it helps to remember that you paid for the ticket and queued up for ages to get on.
- It isn’t going to be easy or straightforward, but in the long run, that is what will make you what you are.
- Ignore the judgements of those whose opinion you don’t value, and when you find people you trust, stick with them.
- Confidence is almost more important than talent, but skill matched with confidence is even better.
- Feeling vulnerable and sensitive is scary, but those qualities are also part of your strength.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. :-)
The film director Yorgos Lanthimos. I don’t know how he feels about food, but I would love to talk to him about the way feels about film. His work is so intriguing and idiosyncratic in a way that I find hugely attractive as an actor. He is heroically ploughing his own furrow, and I would love to hear about the way he works, how he developed his approach, and why.
Oh, and Adam Buxton because I think we’d have a laugh, and laughing is good too, although it makes for a messy table. Love you. Bye!
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on December 20, 2017.