If The Hothouse‘s John Heffernan’s name does not yet ring a bell, remember it. It’ll be chiming like Big Ben by this time next year.
For the last eight years, regular theatregoers will have seen Heffernan’s star slowly grow, along with the size and import of the roles he has taken, as the emerging actor moved from ensemble roles with English Touring Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company to be supported by the National Theatre, which has cast him in six productions prior to this year. But the next few months could the biggest of his career as he stars opposite two of his acting idols – Simon Russell Beale and John Simm – in Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse before taking his first leading role at the National Theatre in Edward II.
The amiable actor is currently playing the provocative Lush in the second play of director Jamie Lloyd’s heralded Trafalgar Transformed season, Pinter’s nightmarish black comedy of abuse among the staff on an ‘institution’, described by our writer Charlotte Marshall as “manic, surreal and exhausting”.
We met Heffernan as the cast prepared for previews and discovered an infectious passion for theatre and an intriguing cartoon inspiration.
CV in brief:
2005: Plays Francisco/Lucianus in English Touring Theatre’s Hamlet
2007: Receives Ian Charleson Award nomination for his performance as Oswald in Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear
2008: Receives third prize for the Ian Charleson Award for his performance as Steven in Major Barbara at the National Theatre
2011: Stars in The Last Of The Duchess at the Hampstead theatre
2012: Stars in The Physicists at the Donmar Warehouse
May 2013: Opens in The Hothouse at the Trafalgar Studios
September 2013: Takes the lead in Edward II at the National Theatre
Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in theatre?
I grew up in Billericay, in Essex and I went to a state school that wasn’t particularly arts orientated. When I was 11 or 12 there was a series on TV called Shakespeare: The Animated Tales. They’re absolutely brilliant and I recommend them to any young person if they have any interest in the theatre. They were half hour animated shorts. All the language was the language of Shakespeare and they condensed it down. They were amazing and I just got hooked on these stories.
At first it wasn’t the language, it was the storytelling. I was completely captivated. I remember saying to my Mum, “Please can we go on a trip up to London to see one of the plays?” The first play that we saw was King Lear. It was Robert Stephens in one of his last performances and Simon Russell Beale was playing Edgar. I remember it as if it was yesterday; I was in the upper circle of the Barbican and the lights came up at the interval, I remember looking at my watch and I literally could not believe that an hour and 45 minutes had gone by. I just found it absolutely enchanting. Since then I’ve been hooked. I spent all of my teens – I sound like such a geek – I just went to the theatre all the time. I saw everything the RSC did. Then I started going to the National. For a while I wanted to be a theatre critic because I loved going to the theatre. Then when I went to university I got into the drama society and started acting. That’s how the acting happened, quite late really, but I knew from early on that theatre was a passion of mine.
What interested you about performing in The Hothouse?
I’m a massive fan of Jamie [Lloyd, the director]. I worked with him on a production of She Stoops To Conquer last year at the National and we had a great time. I just think he’s brilliant. He’s just a wonderful person to lead in the rehearsal room.
I’d never done Pinter. To have a chance to be in one of his plays… And then the cast. It was a no brainer.
Tell me a little more about the cast.
Simon [Russell Beale] and John [Simm], they’re kind of heroes of mine. I haven’t told either of them this, but they are kind of the reason I became an actor. I try not to think about that too much.
It’s a luxury cast in the sense that you’ve got somebody like Clive Rowe in a crucial but fairly modest part. He’s amazing. And Indira Varma who’s done huge amounts of Pinter plays and worked a lot with Pinter himself. It’s an amazing bunch of people.
Tell me about your character.
You get a huge amount from the name of the part. When a character is called something like Lush you think “Okay.” It’s a bit of a giveaway in that sense. I’ve taken that, and Jamie certainly encouraged me to go in that direction. At one point I’m described as Roote’s [Russell Beale’s character] “bitch”. I thought maybe there’s an element of someone who’s quite effeminate or a bit of a peacock but a little bit faded and down at heel, drinks too much. They’re all cooped up in this real pressure cooker environment and he’s gone to seed as a result.
There’s this jostling for power that goes on all the way through. Roote is very much at the top but he’s realising that his hold on things is weakening and my character is just there all the time needling him. That’s a joy to play really. Someone who is constantly getting under the skin and hasn’t really got anything to lose. That makes him very strong and potentially quite dangerous.
How are you feeling about your first National Theatre lead role in Edward II?
It’s terrifying and really thrilling at the same time. The National is just the best. It’s got the reputation that it’s got for a reason. Everybody there is just at the top of their game. It’s really scary to have a part of that size to tackle, but it’s something that I’m relishing. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve known that it’s been on the cards since October/November last year, which has given me time to do research and really get to know the play well.
National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner has brought you through the ranks at the National Theatre. How have you found working with him?
I think Nick Hytner is amazing. He’s one of these people who it’s difficult to say it to his face because he’s so modest and self-deprecating, but I do think his has been a golden age. It’s gone through many exciting things, the National, but I think the last 10 years, what he has done to the building is extraordinary.
I remember vividly two summers ago they did an NT Live screening of London Assurance. Everyone was on the Astroturf in gorgeous summer heat and it was packed with young people watching this on the big screen. He was standing on one of the balconies. I remember thinking, “I hope you take a moment to realise and acknowledge what you’ve done because it’s just an extraordinary achievement.”
He’s been incredibly kind to me and very generous. He’s put a lot of a faith in me right from my first job at the National. It makes you want to be the best that you can because you want to pay that back in turn.
What do you enjoy most about being an actor?
I really love meeting a new bunch of people every time you step into a rehearsal room. You’re always discovering and meeting new people. That’s what I like.
I really like the rehearsal process. I really like the research. I really like the excuse to find out about writers and other worlds and other times. There aren’t many downsides to be honest. When you’re out of work it’s horrible, but when you’re lucky enough to be in work it’s a charmed life.
Which performers do you admire?
I was going to the RSC a lot in the early 90s, so certainly Simon [Russell Beale] and Alex Jennings, who were the leading lights of the company at the time, were real heroes of mine. Richard McCabe I think is just tremendous. Mark Rylance. Ben Whishaw. Rory Kinnear, I think he’s extraordinary. Crikey, loads. Luke Treadaway. Ralph Fiennes. Joseph Millson I love. Tamsin Greig, I think she is out of this world. Charles Edwards. Henry Goodman, I think The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui was the best performance I saw last year. Roger Allam. Nancy Carroll. Adrian Scarborough. Benedict Cumberbatch. Andrew Scott.
Mariah Gale I think is really fabulous. She’s the best Juliet I’ve ever seen. She’s just so raw. I think the very best actors you feel as though there’s a bit of themselves that they’re revealing whenever they go on stage and she’s amazing with that, so generous with herself.
I love going to the theatre. I sit there going “How on earth do you do what you do?” I think we’ve got some amazing actors in this country and I get a bit upset when I hear reports from actors saying people aren’t trained right at the moment and people can’t do this or that. I have strong opinions about it. I look at actors of a younger generation like Benedict or Ben Whishaw or Rory and I just think this is so exciting. I think British theatre is in the most thrilling stage at the moment.
What would you be if you weren’t an actor…
If I wasn’t in theatre at all… Is there another world? That’s a tricky question because, if I’m honest, since the age of 12 it has been a bit of an obsession. I had teachers all the way through secondary school saying “We know you like drama but try and pay a little bit of attention on this Bunsen burner.”
I’d really like to teach. I’m sure I’d be terrible at it. I think teachers are amazing. If I could do that – I’m sure there’s no way I could – I suppose I’d like to imagine I’d be okay at that. I know I’d be awful.
"I think British theatre is in the most thrilling stage at the moment."