Interview with Phil Dunster

Published August 22, 2016

As we eagerly await the opening night of The Entertainer, the concluding production of the Kenneth Branagh season, we caught up with 2016 Olivier Award nominee Phil Dunster to talk about his role in the play, and what it’s like to be making a West End debut alongside one of its most iconic actors.

For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, how would you summarise The Entertainer?

The play is about the death of the music hall in Britain in the 1960s. It’s also about the decline of the family of Archie Rice, a famous music hall entertainer, who’s trying to keep everything together but is really struggling.
Plus, there’s the backdrop of the Suez crisis in Egypt. One of the sons, Mick, is out there fighting, and the play questions whether we should just do what we’re told, listen to the government and send out our boys to fight. It talks about Britain’s place in the world, including immigration, and the way we see ourselves. So it offers some reflection on our world today.

Do you think the play will be seen as provocative, then?

I think it’s definitely going to make people think about the fact that we’re still having that conversation. I don’t think it’s intentionally provocative in that respect, more the classic John Osborne style of reflecting what Britain is really like, showing an angry young man railing against society and how we’re given certain roles within that society.

How would you describe your character?

Graham is the fiancé of Archie Rice’s daughter, Jean. He represents structure and I suppose the hierarchy of Britain as Osborne sees it, as opposed to Jean, who questions this hierarchy throughout the play.

Could you summarise him in three words?

Rigid, unemotional and conservative.

Does being an unemotional character make it a challenging role?

That’s one of the joys of it, you have to try and get into someone else’s shoes, and empathise with a point of view that you don’t agree with at all. Graham is very unemotional and I like to delve into emotions when I’m playing a character: I really like to feel what they are feeling. And because he doesn’t seem to feel a lot, that makes it quite difficult. If he does feel something, it’s buried so deep inside that you have to really dig to get to that nugget of emotion.

Has any particular moment stood out for you during the rehearsal process?

Well, first of all, being in a room with Kenneth Branagh at all is pretty ridiculous, especially for a young, green actor like myself. But there was a moment the other day, when I heard one of Jean’s lines, which was ‘you needn’t be afraid of being emotional, unlike my talented fiancé.’ That was a crystallising moment, something clicked into place and I realised that fear of emotion was the simple character trait that I needed to play.

When you last spoke to Official London Theatre you were nominated for the Olivier Award for an Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, and now you’re making your West End debut alongside Kenneth Branagh. How does it feel?

It’s exciting, I feel hugely lucky to be in this company and I’m really grateful for the fact that they’ve trusted me with this part. Rob Ashford, our director, always looks for the best in people, which I think is really important for an actor, because it makes you feel really supported. So having that dynamic with Rob is amazing.
Plus, working with Kenneth Branagh is incredible. He is just phenomenal, I can’t believe it. My jaw is on the flaw half the time in the rehearsal room; he is the king. This is as good as it gets. 

Have you ever been given any great acting advice?

Crispin Letts, who is playing Bill (Archie’s brother), gave me some good advice about rehearsing a part. He said ‘in the second week of rehearsals, don’t feel as if you’ve reached the end point of your character development. You shouldn’t feel ready by week two, so embrace the fact that you still feel a little bit on edge, as if you haven’t found everything yet.’ And it’s so liberating, the moment you realise that it’s ok not to understand everything straightaway, that actually you’ve got to go through a process before you reach that point. You just have to trust it.

Who or what inspires you?

People who work really hard to achieve their goals and ambitions while being considerate, and not pushing people out the way.
In terms of acting, I find it inspiring when actors perform and you can’t tell whether they’re acting or just talking, because it’s so natural. It completely draws you in, and I want to be able to replicate that. And at the risk of sounding like a huge fanboy, that’s something Kenneth Branagh does a lot. Simon Pegg does it too, I love watching him. He takes the words off the page and makes it look like he’s just talking to his friends.

What’s the best theatre you’ve seen recently?

Does People, Places And Things still count as recent? I know I’ve said it before but it just blew my mind. Blue/Orange at the Young Vic was wicked as well. Daniel Kahluuya absolutely smashed that, he’s so interesting to watch on stage, so many great idiosyncrasies.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?

I don’t really have any superstitions, though it’s nice to have pre-show routines. I like to get into my “zone” before a show by listening to music that’s specific to a play. So during Pink Mist at the Bush, it was all very indicative of Bristolian music, like dubstep and drum and bass. It’s good to just close yourself off for ten minutes before getting on stage. 

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?

I’d like to be a landscape gardener. I’m not very good at it, but I wish I were. Looking at my home garden, you wouldn’t think I had any ambitions to do that, but still…

The Entertainer is now in previews, opening on 30 August and running at the Garrick Theatre until 12 November. You can book tickets through us here.

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