He has been acting since the age of six, when he made his debut in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, CBBC viewers may know him as Leonardo Da Vinci, slightly more mature TV viewers might recognise him from Campus and The Telegraph recently picked him as one of the up and coming young actors to watch in 2012.
So, when they grabbed 20 minutes to chat, Matthew Amer grilled South Downs’ Jonathan Bailey about horrendous auditions, sword fighting and being a child actor.
CV in brief
1994: Makes professional debut aged six in A Christmas Carol
2004: Plays Cyril in big screen version of Five Children And It
2008: Appears in The Girl With The Pearl Earring at the Theatre Royal Haymarket
2011: Stars in C4 university-set comedy Campus
2011: Takes the lead role in CBBC drama Leonardo
2011: Appears in Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of South Downs
2012: Transfers with South Downs to London
Where were you born?
I grew up in Oxford in a village called Benson, with three older sisters and Mum and Dad.
When did you become interested in acting?
It was sort of an accident. I went to a dance club in Henley. When you joined, you automatically got represented. I didn’t really know what was going on, but they asked me to go for an audition aged six to sing a song for a lady from the RSC. I went along and it seemed like four weeks later we’d started performing A Christmas Carol.
It became a hobby and the rule was as long as I did school and acting that fits within the summer or Christmas holidays, I could do it. So I started doing one thing a year.
Was the transition from child performer to adult performer difficult?
There are certain obstacles along the way, but the whole child actor to actor transition I think is glamorised.
I think that you have to consider university and drama school and whether you’re going to go or whether you’re going to take a risk if you’ve already got an agent. That’s always interesting, because there’s no right or wrong way to do it, no Yellow Brick Road that will take you on to guaranteed work.
At the end of the day, if you put the hard work in… I’m sure it’s 80% luck, but it’s 20% being willing to try new stuff out all the time. Then you should at least get some work or meet people that you would want to work with in the future.
Have you deliberately tried to give everything a go?
There’s nothing like the experience of being completely out of your depth; those feelings I really enjoy. Only then can you really be challenged, I think. But there was no masterplan.
As much as it’s varied, what I’ve done, I’ve had some awful auditions where I tried to go for something that was completely out of my depth. But if you’re willing to go for it, I think maybe you get the respect that maybe one day you would be able to play that part, even if you did fizzle and die in front of three people in a panel.
Were you thinking of a particular audition then?
I can’t tell you. It’s very recent, so I feel even now I’m reliving the moment.
I can tell you it was for a musical. Usually I’ve got to work on the singing, but this time the singing went really well and it got to the actual speeches and the concept… I’m not going to give it away, but there’s a real specific context for a classical play and I hadn’t been told before I went in for the meeting. It was just appalling. I dropped all my sheet music on the floor. I’d just gone to the toilet and the water had splashed all over my groin. I looked incontinent. The whole experience was just dire. You leave auditions like that and you think I’m never going to work again.
Tell me about your character in South Downs.
I’m playing Jeremy Duffield who is a prefect. The play opens with the House Master welcoming a young, troubled boy called John Blakemore. There’s obviously something wrong with this boy, but he realises that he can’t tell the House Master, which causes huge concern in the wake of a boy being taken out of school because they found a revolver under his pillow.
The way that the public school system works, which is fascinating, is that the prefects run the show. They’re diplomats who go to and from the Masters, protecting the Masters from anything that’s going on. It’s like a volcano; if the house master is Mt St Helens, all the younger students are like the lava and there are convection currents going round and round. If you get one piece of lava that goes up to the House Master, that f**ks everything up and it’s the prefect that looks bad.
Duffield goes in and talks with Blakemore to sort him out. It intrigues Duffield and he takes it on himself to look out for him and guide him through a term at school.
The Browning Version is based on the idea that a pupil gives a teacher a gift of kindness, so I think David Hare thought it would be nice to balance that with a boy at a school being treated to that sort of kindness.
How are you feeling about bringing it into London?
I’m well excited. I got back from South Africa last Tuesday. I’d been there for three months. I hadn’t really had a chance to think about it, but I’ve gone straight back into rehearsals and everyone’s here and it’s so nice. It’s how it is to go into a second series of a TV show; you know everyone, everyone knows their characters and you’re all there to freshen it up and make it better. So it seems super productive.
How is it playing Leonardo Da Vinci?
I’m a little bit worried that if Leonardo Da Vinci, for whatever reason, had a little ghost going round, he’s going to come straight for me.
I just had three months of dream. My girlfriend plays Mona Lisa in it. It’s amazing to go and spend time with her and film and live together. It’s just sword fights galore; all the things you want to live out as a boy and what’s exciting for a family audience, we manage to do. It’s hard work, but in Cape Town where the beaches are insane and there’s amazing food.
What do you most enjoy about being on stage?
There’s something quite dangerous about it. It doesn’t feel safe. Especially if you’ve got a really good play like South Downs. It’s so rich, it’s like a sirloin steak of a play.
What do you least enjoy?
I hate the five minute calls. 40 minutes before half seven I’m fine. Had a warm-up, feel great. The moment they go ‘It’s your half hour call’, you get your shoes on and you get your trousers on and shirt. At 15 minutes you go to the toilet or shave, something like that. At 5 minutes you just think ‘This is no man’s land’. No one really knows what the five is. Is it 10 minutes before the curtain goes up? There’s definitely something there where the five minutes actually is ten minutes. I find that quite stressful. I’m determined to find out exactly what the timing situation is.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?
I think I would be doing something to do with music. The first real performances I ever gave were on piano and clarinet. I don’t know if I could have made it, it’s such a competitive industry. I get a lot of satisfaction from music. I went to public school and the only way I could go, for my parents to pay for it, was if I got a scholarship. I had been playing the clarinet and they gave me a nice tasty music scholarship, but with that you had to be in the orchestra and I had to have intensive lessons, but I’m glad it was as I wonder if I would have had the motivation.
"It’s so rich, it’s like a sirloin steak of a play"