Ilan Goodman makes his Royal Court theatre debut this week in Arnold Wesker’s landmark play Chicken Soup With Barley. The actor talks to Charlotte Marshall about being addicted to the thrill of performing on stage, filming action thrillers with Martin Sheen and being one quarter of a very theatrical family.
CV in brief
2007 Graduates from RADA
2008 Stars in New Wolsey theatre’s production of The Glass Menagerie
2009 Appears in musical Austentatious at the Landor theatre
2009-2010 Treads the boards at the Old Vic theatre in Six Degrees Of Separation
2010 Makes his National Theatre debut in Danton’s Death
2011 Appears alongside Samantha Spiro in the Royal Court theatre’s revival of Chicken Soup With Barley
Where did you grow up?
I was born in South Africa. My mum is South African, my dad’s English but spent many years in South Africa with her. I grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and London.
What got you interested in acting?
I have been doing it for years, even if it was just at school, and my dad’s an actor so it was part of the world I grew up in. I did have a very small walk on part as a ten or 11 year old for the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company], I was a street urchin in The Beggar’s Opera. Throughout school and university I was churning out the theatre.
Why did you decide to go to university before drama school?
I was quite academic and I enjoyed it. I ended up going to Oxford and the theatre in Oxford is phenomenal. It was a great place. I almost did more plays there than I did at drama school if you can believe that.
After university you went to RADA. Were you tempted to go straight into acting instead?
I was tempted, of course I was tempted, and the idea of another three years was quite difficult to come to terms with, but I just thought it was the right thing to do. There were lots of my contemporaries that didn’t, there’ve been people who didn’t train and are very good. But it wasn’t a bad choice to go and train for three years. I certainly had a wonderful time anyway; I don’t know how much better I am as a result [laughs].
Tell me about Chicken Soup With Barley.
It’s a fairly auto-biographical play written by Arnold Wesker. We’re rehearsing in Toynbee Hall in Aldgate and he grew up in Fashion Street which is just round the corner so we’ve all gone and had a gawp at the flat. The focus is really on the Kahn family unit. It starts with this very lively exciting ensemble scene when all the members of the community, the friends of Sarah and her husband Harry, are all passionate communists and they’re all going to be going on the anti-fascist march to block [Oswald] Mosley. The play jumps 10 years and then jumps again and ends up in 1955-56. What you see is a gradual decaying, different characters lose their communist ideals in various ways. The only person who stays true to it is Sarah Khan, who is based on Arnold Wesker’s mother. But around her there’s decay and people slide into pessimism.
What should the audience expect? It sounds quite depressing.
Is it depressing? Yes it probably is [laughs]. I think it will be quite moving and certainly the ending is not upbeat really. I think it will be quite funny actually; there’s a lot of affection towards the characters, towards their Jewishness and the way they handle each other and lots of lovely, delicious Jewish turns of phrase.
Did you do a lot of research?
We started with a lot of that. Arnold Wesker has an autobiography called As Much As I Dare, which is very large and contains a lot of extra detail about the characters that the play is based on. They’ve got different names in the play but it’s very obvious it’s based very heavily on real life. Dominic [Cooke] has been really, really forensic which is why we spent a lot of time round a table making sense of things.
Coming from a Jewish background, did you look at your own family history?
My dad grew up in this area as well. I haven’t talked about it much with him because we are so immersed in our own finding out about the Weskers. Also, my dad was a later generation so it was a bit before him. His mum was an immigrant herself, he had ancestors from Poland and Russia who had come over, so yes he’s very much from the same sort of background as the people in the play actually.
Who do you play?
My character’s called Prince Silver and he’s one of the young, communist guys and very much part of the community. They come to the Khan family flat to eat and to talk about politics and to plan what they’re going to be doing. My character’s a bit cautious, he doesn’t want to engage in full on violence, he’s more with the communist party line which is peaceful demonstration. He doesn’t want to smash anyone in, some of the others do. You see him again 20 years later and there his life hasn’t turned out to be a very exciting one. He leads a quiet, rather lonely life and that youthful optimism hasn’t really played out. It’s a little sad.
What’s been your favourite thing you’ve worked on so far in your career?
My favourite role is definitely Tom Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie, which was actually quite early on, not long after I’d left drama school. Just a phenomenal part and a wonderful, wonderful play.
You have done a few musicals, would you like to do more?
Yes. I did Austentatious at the Landor theatre in Clapham, it was very successful and an absolute ball and really funny. One day that might have another future. I did a musical earlier this year, Miss Nightingale, and that looks like it’s going to be coming back in a bigger capacity next year. I’m a little tentative because nothing’s signed and sealed, but it’s all looking juicy and rosy for the beginning of next year, so fingers crossed. If that all goes to plan, it will rewritten and slightly expanded. That’s a lovely, lovely part for me. It’s another Jew, this time a Polish Jew [laughs] who has come to London.
Your father [Henry Goodman] is an actor, your mother is a dancer and your sister is a theatre designer. What is it like being part of such a theatrical family?
I think it’s great because we all understand what the other does whereas I think a lot of other actors don’t have that; their parent’s don’t really understand the rhythm of the life of an actor which is often inexplicable to other people. It’s very hard to explain to people who don’t know how the industry works and how difficult it is to get a job and all of that stuff, so I have that advantage. And I can get really honest and useful critical feedback from them which is a bit daunting, but can also be wonderfully useful to get someone who’s on side, but who will also be brutally honest with you like only your family can.
Did your father inspire you to go into acting?
Definitely. He’s done some absolutely amazing things and I think that’s almost certainly been a part of what I wanted to do.
You made your first feature film in 2009. Would you like to do more film work?
I have to say, so far, my experiences of filming have been… well it’s not a thrilling process. Certainly with films there tends to be very limited dialogue, obviously it varies depending on what kind of film it is, but that film [Echelon Conspiracy] was an action-thriller in which I was playing Martin Sheen’s PA. I bought him coffee and gave him papers and stuff. It was very exciting to be on set with Martin Sheen.
Was it very glamorous?
I had a trailer! Pretty glamorous. There was a little bed, a toilet that didn’t work and not much else! I was only there for about a week so I didn’t move in [laughs]. It was a handful of lines spread out over the whole film here and there,;here and there would be a tiny bit of dialogue. It has nothing like the continuity of the process of theatre. I think that’s what’s so wonderful about theatre, the whole rehearsal process has a sense of working very thoroughly and everyone’s included in that, whether you’re a bit part or a small part you all work on creating the world together. Filming is so fractured a process. I guess I would love to do more of it of course, I just need to play bigger roles [pauses to laugh] to get more of that sense of being really creatively a part of something as opposed to just turning up, doing a few lines and then disappearing, which is how it is when you’re just playing bits and bobs here and there.
What is the best thing about being on stage?
It’s very liberating to be another character. There’s a thrill to being in situations heightened emotionally from what every day life is, and that kind of works the soul out in a way that can be pleasant, if it works. Then there’s just the thrill and the danger that scares us all and makes us all go at some point ‘Why the f**k have I chosen this? What are we doing?’ but then it’s also addictive that it can go wrong or it can go well and that is just so exciting.
And the worst?
It’s the paranoia of all the different things that can go wrong, and then sometimes do. And the feeling of frustration and the shame when they do [roars with laughter].
If you weren’t an actor you would be….
I would love to develop science documentaries for the BBC. I did study Psychology and Philosophy, that was my degree, so I sometimes teach Psychology to A-Level students. That sort of stuff fascinates me. I love the Brian Cox programmes and the visually sumptuous but informative programmes dealing with massive ideas in physics and biology and genetics.
Chicken Soup is about fighting for your passion. If someone was going to write a play about you, what would be the thing you’d be fighting for?
Well it doesn’t quite answer the question but if someone writes a play for me I want them to write a play about Wittgenstein. He is such a dramatic and fascinating character. He was manic depressive, he was an anti-Semitic Jew and a homophobic homosexual and he was also possibly the greatest philosopher of all time and was an heir to an enormous fortune which he gave up entirely. He’s such a sort of ridiculously theatrical character and so incredibly interesting. And I look a bit like him [laughs].