When Luke Allen-Gale describes his current role as “outgoing and ambitious and charming” you could be forgiven for seeing similarities between his on and off stage personas, as easy-going and interesting to chat to as he is. But there is one crucial difference. While his character in the Theatre Royal Bath production, which opens at the St James theatre tonight, refuses to look back and analyse his mistakes, downfalls or defining moments, that is something Allen-Gale could not be accused of, happy to talk about how an unexpected love of poet Wilfred Owen and Shakespeare saved him from life as the kid always at the back of the class looking for trouble.
Here the up-and-coming star talks to us about his breakthrough performance in the critically acclaimed Channel 4 series The Promise, explains why a good script is one you have to read twice to understand and tells us how Kenneth Branagh came to his rescue by pretending to need the loo…
CV in brief:
2008: Makes professional television debut in Wallander
2010: Stars in Channel 4’s acclaimed series The Promise
2011-2012: Appears as Daniel Springer in two series of ITV drama Monroe
2013: Appears in the BBC’s Ripper Street and The Borgias
2013: Stars in The American Plan at the St James theatre after it transfers from Theatre Royal Bath
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a place called Bridport in Dorset. It’s a lovely place, they just filmed Broadchurch there. The hotel down there’s been booked out all year supposedly. I was very, very lucky to grow up around there.
What first got you interested in acting?
It goes back to when I was at school and I was a bit of a pain in the arse to be quite honest! I wasn’t a good kid at school and it was actually an English class that got me hooked. We started doing Wilfred Owen’s poetry and I started empathising with the whole thing. I had all the stuff that happens to kids every day now, but I felt like I was the only one and then you read something like that [and] you just go ‘Jesus, I think I’ve got problems, that is just massive.’ And just beautiful at the same time, the strength of someone who can come through that. Then I started reading Of Mice And Men and rather strangely empathised with the character of Lenny, I fell in love with him. I was a little bit of a bully because of certain stuff or whatever, but Lenny I just completely understood, I thought ‘Poor kid, I’d want to stick up for him, I’d want to fight for him’. And then Shakespeare came along and I fell in love with the language and I got it. Whereas I was at the back of the classroom to try and cause a lot of trouble and disrupt the class, suddenly I realised I actually understood it. It got me going and it reformed me in a lot of ways.
Do you look for scripts that give you the same strong reaction now?
What I really love is when you pick up a script and you have to look at it twice, because you go ‘I know there’s something going on here, but I just haven’t scratched hard enough’. I suppose what really draws me is I do like the messed-up characters. I like the complicated ones because they’re a challenge.
What about your character in The American Plan?
Nick’s about 28 or so and he’s grown up in a really affluent area of Connecticut. He’s like your all-American boy, he’s sporty and he’s positive and outgoing and ambitious and charming and all those kind of things. When we open the play he’s dating the daughter of this guy who runs a carpet company and staying with their family and he’s just pulled himself out of the water and suddenly he falls in love with this other girl. There’s a lot to Nick, nothing is quite as it seems for him. He does boldly move from that relationship onto the next one and you go ‘God, there’s no strings there. How can he just be so cold about this and how can we all be okay with the way he’s done it?’ We discover later on why he is the way he is, he’s got a big heart to him, but there are things that he can’t face up to in his life. He’s one of these people who moves forward and cannot dwell on fixing something.
The American Plan started life at Theatre Royal Bath. Does the production feel different now you’re revisiting it for its London transfer?
We had a sit down and a read yesterday and it’s funny what strikes you after you’ve left it. Diana Quick said: ‘When you leave these things to stew or cook in the oven for a little while, when you come back to them later you’ll find that you’ve found quite a lot.’ I’ll be in the shower or something and I’ve been going through my lines – weirdly, as one of those force of habits things that affect you after you’ve done a play – and it would just strike me and I’d go ‘Oh, that’s what that means’ or ‘Maybe I could make more of that by doing this.’ It’s nice.
Do you think the production will be better then?
Yes, but at the same time I’ve been given a heed of warning from older actors as well that when you revisit something like this, don’t try and make it better. Which is key, I can totally understand that we did well in Bath – well from the reviews at least, how much that means I don’t know – so why try and fix something that’s working? But it’s not a matter of fixing, it’s just little performance tweaks.
Are you excited to be performing the show in London?
Yes, big time. I live in London, so I watch stuff here all the time, so bringing something here is awesome.
This is set in the early 1960s. You’ve done a lot of period dramas on television. What’s been your favourite era to recreate so far?
I really enjoyed The Promise. I did so much work on that because it was just something I absolutely loved doing. When I was at drama school we were always encouraged at Drama Centre to write our own scenerios and create our own characters, and I was never any good at it, but what I did try and do was write about the Israel/Palestinian conflict and it was always incredibly difficult to set up an argument, so to actually go there and be a part of something that really just explained and sets out, well for me anyway, the start of the whole conflict… it was also boys playing around with guns, I drove a tank throughout the whole thing!
We all knew different types of guns and signal calls and it was a lot of fun. We did a week’s intensive training and Peter Kosminsky was very good at getting us to gel and bond as a tight group. I was so proud to be a part of it and you don’t realise at the time how special it is because you’re having so much fun and working so hard on it as well. To watch it back, it, for me, was the one thing I’ve been able to watch myself in and actually enjoyed it. It’s not because of what I’m doing, it’s because of everything Peter’s done, because it’s entirely his child.
It must be amazing to work with someone you respect so much at the beginning of your career.
I had a sock in my mouth most of the time with him. It was just brilliant; I was full of those butterflies every time I worked with him. I think at times he must have got a little bit annoyed with me because I was just jumping at every direction he was giving me! I was so keen, just like a puppy basically!
Are there other people like that you’d love to work with?
Oh there’s loads. I’d love to work with someone like Guillermo del Toro, I’m thinking big!
You’ve already worked with some amazing actors. Do you learn a lot from working with actors like Kenneth Branagh?
Yes absolutely. Kenneth Branagh taught me that you can never work hard enough. He’s a man who is just unstoppable with his work attitude and so graceful with how he does it and how he deals with everyone. I think it’s his production team who also make Wallander, so he’s got a bit of an eye on production whilst he’s also in it. At the time he was about to direct Jude Law in Hamlet at the Wyndham’s theatre and he’d start the day at 05:30 when we’d all get there and then we’d have a break at about 12:00 and he’d go back to his trailer. Someone would bring his food in for him because he was on Skype talking to Jude Law and going through all of the Hamlet stuff with him. He just didn’t stop working.
He was also incredibly kind with me. One particular lovely story that comes to my mind was that I was desperate for the loo in a car scene that we did together and he looked over at me and could see I was anxious – it was my first job, I was so anxious, I didn’t want to stop or disturb the director and I certainly didn’t want to disturb this great actor that I couldn’t believe I was working opposite – and I turned to him finally and said ‘I really need to get out and go to the loo’. He said okay and stopped the car and said ‘Look, can we stop, I need to go to the loo’ and then got out and walked over to the loos and pretended he needed to go, but actually it was just me skulking away! It was just the kind of thing he did, he would make the time for you. James Nesbitt [his Monroe co-star], again, I learnt so much from him. He said something to me which I thought was brilliant, which was: ‘It’s not about impressing producers or the channel; it’s not about impressing these people. You turn up to work and you impress the camera man, you get along with him, you get along with the crew, you get along with the runners, you get along with everyone you’re working with every day. Make every day enjoyable for all of them, as well as yourself, and you’ll carry on in this job for the rest of your life.’ As soon as he said that for me, it just clicked and suddenly I really started to enjoy the work. I stopped worrying so much about making a good impression and suddenly you let go of trying to be somebody and actually are yourself.
So far you’ve already played a doctor, a computer hacker, a soldier… what do you want to play next?
I’d really like to do something period based. I’ve just done Ripper Street, which was Victorian, but I think I’d like to revisit that era. Something Victorian perhaps, maybe some Austen.
What’s your favourite thing about being on stage?
It’s the audience, it’s the energy. It’s the fear I detest, but I’m overcoming that.
So is the fear the worst thing?
Yes! It’s the nerves before first night, it’s the nerves before press night, it’s the nerves when you’ve got somebody in that you care about, say my mum! If my mum’s going to watch it, I’ll get really anxious, or my nan…
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’ve not done much for the last year and a half, but I’ve started doing triathlon again. I’m doing the London Hyde Park one this year, that’s an Olympic one, and a few years ago I did half an Iron Man. My mum’s really good at it! My mum miraculously within four years [of starting] ended up in the British squad in her age group, at the age of 45 I think. Now I’ve got the bug. It was funny, she pulled me out of a bit of a dark space and said ‘Right we’re going running’ and I said ‘Nooo’ and I remember her tearing the duvet off me and me saying ‘Mum, I’m 24-years-old, you can’t do this to me!’ and then I started running and really got into it. I love it, I never thought I would, I hated running and found it incredibly boring but now I’ve got the bug definitely.
If you weren’t an actor, what do you think you’d be?
When I was growing up I always wanted to be a vet and then, when I got to about 14, I wanted to be a graphic designer or an architect. So one of those, but I don’t know if I’d have the patience to be an architect so maybe a designer. Pretty much the same thing [as acting], self-employed, just living on the edge of the dole kind of stuff, it suits me!