For a young actor who has graced the Lyric Hammersmith three times in just over a year, Harry McEntire is surprisingly modest. Talking to Charlotte Marshall about learning the craft on stage, his lack of coordination and people screaming outside your dressing room, it is hard to believe it is all down to the good luck he claims to have been blessed with since first treading the boards in musical Spring Awakening.
CV in brief
January 2009 Spring Awakening at the Lyric Hammersmith and Novello theatre
September 2009 Punk Rock at the Lyric Hammersmith
December 2009 Treasure Island at the Rose Theatre Kingston
May 2010 A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky at the Lyric Hammersmith
What got you interested in acting?
I was about five and I couldn’t sleep and I came downstairs and my parents were watching the 10th anniversary concert of Les Misérables at the Royal Albert Hall. I came down about halfway through the first act and was transfixed by it and stayed watching all the way to the end. I was just watching and thinking ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve just got to do something like this, whether it’s musical theatre or whatever’. There was a kind of real desire to in some way be involved in that world. I was just so transfixed by what I was seeing. I did a lot of amateur theatre and it was a nice fit so it progressed like that really.
You haven’t been to drama school, has your experience on stage replaced formal training?
Oh no, I don’t for a second feel like I’m passed drama school or are even close to the level of people coming out of drama school. I had an audition recently at Arts Ed [Arts Education – a London drama school] – not for Arts Ed itself, for a play – and there were all these people, I felt really out of my depth! I saw all these people who have spent years honing their craft and training and I’ve fallen into it a little bit more than that.
I’ve been really phenomenally lucky with the calibre and quality of the people I’ve worked with, in terms of directors and writers, but also in terms of the other actors I’ve worked with. The people in this play I’m working with like Ann Mitchell and Nigel Cooke, and people I’ve worked with previously like Richard Bremmer and David Cardy, who’ve been working for years and years and years, you kind of just sit there in rehearsals and just soak everything up and listen and take as much stuff as you can possibly take in. And I hope that – I’m sure it’s not a direct replacement for drama school – that has been my training. It’s been fantastic to have the benefit of so many people’s experience and to share the stage with so many talented people. You know, no one wants to look a fool, so you constantly really have to strive to maintain a level of performance that’s anywhere near where they’re capable of. So it’s educating and very humbling as well.
Has that been daunting?
At points. I mean I get very nervous anyway. I get terrified of first days and I’m constantly in fear of landing in a room full of terrifying intellectuals who talk about The Immortal Bard and all that sort of stuff. I’m not particularly well-read, I don’t really know much about theatre, about plays, and I’m constantly terrified of that becoming apparent to people who have been doing it for such a long time. But as soon as I’ve met whoever I’ve been working with, they’ve just been fantastic and really incredibly supportive.
What was your first acting role?
Spring Awakening was probably the thing that caught the public eye which was an amazing, amazing show to be involved in. It was the sort of show that had hundreds of people outside the dressing rooms, cheering and clapping and chanting people’s names, it was an astonishing thing to work on, something that I was completely unprepared for and really had no idea how to handle. But to work on a show like that, that had the exposure that it did, was incredible fortune and I felt very very lucky to be involved with it.
How did you feel about the show winning four Laurence Olivier Awards this year?
It was fantastic. I think we were naturally really disappointed when the show closed because we felt the show had more to give and it hadn’t run its course, the show still felt vibrant and exciting. We were told we had a meeting on the Monday night and I turned to one of the girls and said ‘Oh my God, imagine if they told us the show was going to close’ because we had no idea. We got down there and they said ‘right okay, we’ve looked at the options and there’s nothing else to do, we’re going to have to close the show at the end of the month’ and no one really knew what to do! I genuinely thought ‘no they’re joking, they’re joking.’ And as it became apparent they weren’t joking I thought ‘they’ve really committed to this joke and it’s going to be really awkward when they have to go no actually…’ We genuinely had no idea.
It was quite a hard knock, but I think it was probably good that it came that early because I don’t think I’ll ever be so shocked and unsettled by something, I will never be quite so devastated by a job finishing.
Tell me about A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky.
Obviously the most intriguing thing about it, I suppose, is that it’s been co-written by David Eldridge, Simon Stephens and Robert Holman who are obviously three such fantastic playwrights and it’s unusual to have such cooperation and they spoke early on in the rehearsal process about it being a genuine collaboration.
One of the reasons why the show works is that you cannot, or I cannot certainly, identify which scene, which line, which character is written by which writer. It’s a genuine collaborative effort.
It’s about a family who have always struggled to love each other who come together to spend the last night of the world together. A discovery is made that something called the cosmic string is going to destroy the world in three weeks and it sets a deadline and all these issues that haven’t been dealt with and all these things that have remained unsaid for such a long time are brought bubbling to the surface. It’s about dealing with the fallout from that and my character finds solace in understanding himself and his family and where he has come from. It’s a difficult one to quantify and sum up but I think that probably it’s about love and family and it’s about fear and understand; being human in extraordinary circumstances.
Was it different working on a play that had been written collaboratively?
Well originally there was a running joke that they all didn’t exist because we didn’t see them in a room together for the first week and a half, two weeks. But fortunately they were all there and Simon Stephens was always dashing off here and there because he was opening plays in Germany and here, but they’ve all been in for a lot of the process.
As much as it’s been collaborative writing, they’ve all helped us get to grips with it. They’ve been happy to answer any questions we’ve had. It’s been fantastic actually. I haven’t done a lot of work but initially you go ‘three writers, that could present a problem’ but not for a second. They said it was something they all felt very passionate about and they’d had disagreements when they were writing it, but they were very much a unified and cohesive whole when they were in the rehearsal room.
This is your third production at the Lyric Hammersmith. You must feel quite at home at the venue now.
Yes, I love it. On a first day when you come in and there are familiar faces – I know people behind the scenes, and I’ve got a good relationship with Sean Holmes who is the Artistic Director here and directed A Thousand Stars – it’s fantastic. I know it sounds hackneyed and clichéd but it’s a real family thing. It feels like my home theatre, it’s where I feel most comfortable. I really love coming back here and hopefully I can come back again before too long.
What is the best thing about being on stage?
I think it’s the relief when you offer something of yourself to people and you expose yourself and your put yourself in a place of vulnerability and you don’t get hurt by it. And hearing that people have enjoyed what you’ve done and connected with what you’ve done. When you’ve put yourself out there and put yourself into something, and hearing that people value it, that it’s a real affirmation, I really enjoy that.
Also I just really love being on stage and acting, and working. I enjoy the rehearsal process, I enjoy struggling with the script, I enjoy the tech, there isn’t anything about it that I don’t enjoy, I love it.
And the worst?
The moments when you think you’re going to corpse. I don’t think I’ve ever completely gone but there have been many moments when my mind will wander or for some reason something will make me smile, and that horrible moment you can feel a laugh or a smile rising in you and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.
And the pressure of knowing that for a lot of people the theatre isn’t a regular thing, they might come to the theatre two or three times a year. If you mess up, if you forget a line, if you break character, or if something goes wrong, you feel like you’ve ruined that person’s evening, that’s a bit of pressure, it’s terrifying at times.
Has anything ever gone wrong on stage?
I threw my back out once during Spring Awakening. I sent all the muscles on my right hand side into spasm. I only had one scene in the play really and I’d spent half of it looking over my shoulder and I sat there at the front of the stage and realised I couldn’t turn my head, all of the muscles down the right hand side of my spine had all tensed up and I looked like I was made of Meccano for the rest of the show. It was fortunate because it was during the final dance, during the big high energy number and I didn’t have to do much after that, apart from the fight which I was able to mark, but I had to take the evening off because I couldn’t do anything, I had to lie down for the rest of the day so that was pretty terrifying.
How do you relax off stage?
I do a lot of singing; I play a bit of guitar. I like to read and listen to music and podcasts. I’m not a going out person; I’m quite happy to sit on my own and listen to music and read a book. I’m quite dull really!
I was working with David Cardy – who’s doing Ghost Stories at the moment in town – and he said to me ‘It’s as important to be as good in the rehearsal rooms as it is to be good on stage. If you’re a nice person to work with and people enjoy working with you, you will get work’, and I think that’s invaluable to know that and it’s quite comforting that you can be nice and make a career out of it. You don’t have to be backstabbing and cutthroat and all that kind of stuff.
A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky plays at the Lyric Hammersmith until 5 June.