At the end of my interview with the National Theatre’s latest leading man, he tells me: “At the moment I’m loving anonymity.” Harry Hadden-Paton may not be a household name yet but with leading roles in two of the most critically-acclaimed shows of the last two years – the Royal Court’s Posh and Trevor Nunn’s Flare Path – an appearance in Terence Davies’s star-studded film The Deep Blue Sea, and now taking on the Olivier stage in She Stoops To Conquer, time left on the anonymity clock may be running out for this actor.
Of course, there are also those royal connections to think of. Google ‘Hadden-Paton’ and you’re bombarded with pictures of Kate Middleton attending his sister’s wedding or mentions of another Duchess, his Godmother Sarah Ferguson. But all this seems a world away from the grounded actor I speak to while he is on a much-needed break from rehearsals that have him “prancing about and singing and dancing”.
Hadden-Paton will make his Olivier debut when he leads Jamie Lloyd’s comic production as Marlow, who he describes as “A swaggering puppy. A rock star.” Although he knew and loved the piece before taking the part, the actor was surprised to find it far more physical then he’d banked on: “I had no idea we’d suddenly be dancing and singing quite as much. Obviously being in the Olivier it helps fill the space, and also it’s not a play that you have to be reverential towards, you can have fun with it.”
Fun would seem to be the operative word when Hadden-Paton describes She Stoops To Conquer, the actor talking with genuine excitement about getting back to work: “I’ve rarely had this much fun in rehearsals and laughed so much. Generally the note is ‘No you can keep going, you can keep going’ and I’m there going ‘Really? Is this not over the top?’ and they say ‘No keep going’ so I’m like ‘Christ alright!’”
When I ask if he’s drawing inspiration from anyone for his role as the cocksure playboy with a love for a bit of rough and inability to talk to posh girls, Hadden-Paton laughs, saying, “Every day new references come up. They’ve gone from Shrek, Enchanted – the sort of Prince Charming idiot – there’s some Jim Carey in there. I get to play the rock star and the nervous bumbler.”
“It’s the biggest gift when you feel safe to be an idiot and do something that might be funny somehow.”
While the eloquent Hadden-Paton may be miles away from the nervous bumbler, if life had taken a slightly different route, it may have been as a musician that the media was taking an interest: “I wanted to be a rock star basically”, he laughs. “And then, I don’t know, I got a bit more sensible about it and thought there’s a longer career in acting.” When I ask if he was in bands, Hadden-Paton goes slightly quiet before conveying both amusement and more than a touch of embarrassment to admit: “Bits and bobs. I was in a sort of fake boy band, it was quite tongue in cheek.”
Sadly the band only had one gig so fans of the actor won’t find any proof of double denim getups or renditions of Love Me For A Reason on a neglected MySpace page, but it does mean that Hadden-Paton will “never, say never” about the idea of dipping his toes into musicals in the future, with the actor admitting “Everyone immediately picked up on how much I like singing [in rehearsals] so I’m getting mocked a bit for being very musical theatre.”
Someone who won’t be mocking the actor is the production’s director Lloyd who he describes as having “zero ego” and runs a room where being silly is never a bad thing. “He is so enabling. It’s the biggest gift when you feel safe to be an idiot and do something that might be funny somehow. He won’t judge you, everyone is so ready to accept whatever you have to offer and that’s wonderful because it feels very safe and he just gets the best out of everyone.”
“Nicholas Hytner is very much someone who believes that when times are hard, people want amusement and fun.”
If it sounds to you as if the National are trying to create another comedy in the vein of their recent runaway success One Man, Two Guvnors, Hadden-Paton would agree to a point: “I think I’m right in saying Nicholas Hytner is very much someone who believes that when times are hard, people want amusement and fun and this is the perfect antidote to a wet February. I only just recently saw One Man, Two Guvnors and loved it, but I don’t think we’re going quite as far in terms of audience participation, this play doesn’t allow for that really. Obviously this is set in 1773 or whatever it is, so the language is very different. We have to absolutely let the audience in and allow them to enjoy themselves but there are serious moments as well.”
Although Hadden-Patton refers to his profession as a ‘safe choice’ – something numerous out of work actors would probably strongly contest – he fully appreciates how fortunate he is to be on Hytner’s stage, especially given the fact both his parents were not able to make a similar decision: “My Dad wanted to be an opera singer, but his father wouldn’t let him, and, similarly, my Mum got into RADA but that wasn’t considered the thing to do either. I don’t think they wanted to push me into it because they would probably be much happier that I had a profession that was safe with a regular income, but once I made the decision they were thrilled.”
His love for theatre sadly didn’t take root at Eton, where he admits with a sigh of missed opportunity “the facilities are ridiculous”, but at Durham University where academics fell to the wayside in place of a musical or play a term. Struggling to accept the idea of acting as a full-time job, Hadden-Paton made the decision to audition for drama school, take it as a sign if he got it and take it week by week. “I turned up at LAMDA and it was the best thing I’d ever done. Suddenly I was surrounded by people from completely different walks of life, but all united by this amazing passion for acting as I was… I got my best ever friends through acting.”
There is, of course, a certain fascination with Eton, somewhat mysterious as is it to outsiders, and I can’t resist asking whether he recognised any parallels when working on Laura Wade’s award-winning play Posh. “There were recognisable elements. Laura and Lindsay had done so much research that every day reams of research came in for every single character. I think it went further than anyone I ever met at school would go, you’d hope, but you know there were stories and they’re out there about these clubs.” Adding, characteristically even-handedly, “I don’t know anything about them I’m afraid.”
“Sienna, at the same time, was going through the News of the World debacle, so she had so much on her plate”
The actor’s breakthrough performance was arguably Flare Path which made Hadden-Paton the critics’ sweetheart for his portrayal of another posh bumbling character which he fully admits “comes easier to me than maybe being a taxi driver”. The actor was well aware of the pressures of the role from the very start: “Trevor [Nunn] took a chance on me to deliver a role I hadn’t read before, but when I read it I immediately went ‘I have to play this’. I just worked harder than I’d ever worked for the audition and it felt right.” This feeling took on a greater significance when the actor discovered his step-uncle’s father had been Playwright Terrence Rattigan’s pilot: “They were flying Catalinas, the sea-planes, and they crashed off the West coast of Africa, got into the dingy, Rattigan went back into the plane to pick something up and it was the first draft of Flare Path. So I feel like there was a certain element of fate.”
As well as enjoying high-profile reviews, the production also found itself on the pages of the tabloids with the cast including Sienna Miller, a reluctant favourite of the paparazzi. “I’d get to stage door and I’d hear the paparazzi getting ready and then a big sigh as I walked out,” Hadden-Patten laughs. “Sienna, at the same time, was going through the News of the World debacle, so she had so much on her plate, I don’t know how she did it.”
Although Hadden-Paton describes the experience as “a much tougher time for her than I think it was for me” he does admit enjoying the light-hearted element to She Stoops To Conquer rather than “having to have an emotional breakdown every night.” But, as I discover during our interview, Hadden-Paton rarely allows himself to admit any negativity, adding: “It was really difficult trying to keep that fresh, but I would just come back to the love letters and the photographs and the stories of the real people who went through it and their time was considerably harder than ours at the Haymarket!”
If a taste of Miller’s fame is knocking on Hadden-Paton’s door, it will only be accepted reluctantly: “I don’t think I’d ever wish that sort of fame upon myself but there are roles out there that I’m desperate to play and I would only get to play them if people knew who I was.” You get the feeling that, if his career takes this path, Hadden-Paton will cope with it well. He’s sensibly guarded about his personal life, at one point he comments briefly on being married to fellow actor Rebecca Night before quickly adding: “I’d rather not bring her into it too much but it definitely helps having someone who is as supportive as she is, and as wonderful”, and he cuts off any conversations about the Royal family saying: “ I can’t hide it, it’s everywhere [on the internet], but I can safely say I don’t have that strong a connection with any of them so, boringly, I haven’t got any stories to tell.”
What goes on on stage is clearly the only important aspect of the job to Hadden-Paton, but when I mention the possibility of Flare Path cropping up in spring’s Olivier Award nominations he does, in his endearingly modest style, let his guard down to admit “I’m not going to lie, it would be nice but I certainly don’t expect it with everyone else who’s out there doing it.” For the moment he is just happy with anonymity, albeit it on big stages.