From the outside Morgan Watkins appears to like provocative dramas. Following his acclaimed leading role in the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of the controversial play Saved, the actor has returned to the venue to star in an equally intense drama, Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms. But, as Charlotte Marshall found out when she talked to the actor during a break in rehearsals, the only thing that drives Watkins is a desire to work on anything that makes him proud.
While he is clearly slightly less proud of his side-line in modelling – a stigma I don’t think he needs to give a second thought to considering his excellent reviews for Desire Under The Elms – the Camden-born actor has plenty to celebrate having begun his career at the National in 2009 and fast become one to watch with a role in the second series of The Hour that’s set to make Saved’s Len look like a saint. To boot – no pun intended – Watkins proved himself to have his feet firmly stuck to the ground when he chatted to us about his original footballing plans, why he’s not a fan of baby oil and the difficulty of acting when standing next to your idols.
CV in brief
2009 Graduated from RADA
2009 Makes professional stage debut in Mother Courage And Her Children at the National Theatre
2011 Leads the cast of Saved at the Lyric Hammersmith
2011 Makes film debut in Wild Bill
2012 Appears in Shadow Dancer alongside Clive Owen
2012 Cast in second series of BBC drama The Hour
2012 Currently starring in Desire Under The Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith
When did you first get interested in acting?
I always did it in school, but I didn’t ever see it as a profession, I just liked being in all the plays. I wanted to be a footballer! When I got to 15 I realised I wasn’t ever going to make it as a footballer, I did Drama GCSE and it was suddenly a break away from the laddish people I’d been hanging around with a bit, and I realised it was something I loved doing. I still have my love for the game of football and my team, which is Liverpool, but I’m very happy to be an actor. I still want to be an actor over anything in the world.
It looks like you’ve been very busy since you graduated from RADA.
It probably seems like that to the outside, for an actor to work consistently is quite rare isn’t it? It properly looks like I’ve been non-stop but I have had lots of time off. ‘Acting’ busy can sometimes be doing a TV series for two months when you’re in once a week and you’re booked out for those two months. That doesn’t really, for me, feel like being busy.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I just try and get work, I keep as proactive as possible. I think the key is, for me anyway, to always grow as a person, always be finding things out about life and thinking about other things than acting, and that will inform your work when you get back to working I reckon.
Your first professional role was at the National Theatre. Was that intimidating?
Yes… it was quite exciting really I suppose! It felt like a boxing match going out in the Olivier because it’s huge. I was quite naïve, I didn’t really realise that the Olivier is pretty much as big as it gets for theatres. I came out of drama school and I ended up playing a tiny part, but at first I thought ‘I should be one of the leads in it at least’ [laughs] and then the real world of acting dawns on you and I was grateful to come out and do a couple of scenes in the end!
Is theatre where you want to work or would you like to do films and TV as well?
Both. Whatever it may be, I just want to do great work and work with great people and do great writing, wherever they be; stage, film, TV or radio, I don’t mind really.
You were last at the Lyric Hammersmith in Edward Bond’s controversial tale of disaffected youth Saved. How was the experience of working on a show with such a buzz around it?
I just felt quite honoured to be doing such a well-known and important play, to be playing the lead part in it and also to be working with Sean [Holmes] and Edward [Bond] and all the other actors. I felt honoured and wanted to constantly do it as well as we could.
Was it emotionally draining playing that character?
It was by the end. He’s a really strange character, emotionally draining in many ways. By the end I was looking forward to not being Len and going into this weird world and trying to solve all these puzzles that he can’t solve.
When you play such an intense role, do you take it home with you?
Consciously you sometimes notice things happening when you think, ‘F**king hell, that must be because of that’. You can take things home with you, I have and I think playing the role I’m doing now, I’m more taking that home because it’s real, volatile, high-stakes drama. If you do that all day, it’s bound to muck your psyche up a little bit. It’s a bit of a weird thing to do as a human being to convince yourself all day you’re in these weird situations that you’re not really in and then go home and forget it all.
How are rehearsals going for Desire Under The Elms so far?
It’s going well. It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind the last few days, we’ve been in from the crack of dawn to the break of eve…or whatever you call it!
Tell me about your character in this play.
Eben… how do I describe him? He’s a volatile, damaged, confused, trapped, angry, hurt, vengeful young man [laughs]. He’s struggling with what he wants and why he wants it, similar to Len in that way, but he’s much more aggressive about the way he tries to achieve things. He’s trying to avenge the death of his mother to get rid of her spirit that he lives with constantly. Then his father comes home with a new young woman, which puts the cat amongst the pigeons so to speak.
You filmed The Hour recently. Were you excited when you found out you’d been cast?
Very exciting because Ben Whishaw’s one of my favourite actors and I love Dominic West as well. It is lighter [than Desire Under The Elms], but my character is pretty bloody crazy! He’s this young mobster property developer pimp, sort of psychopathic weird character [laughs]! So it was fun, we had a bit of a laugh doing it, but he’s always up to nasty things.
When you work with people you really admire like Ben Whishaw, do you get nervous beforehand?
Yes, a little bit actually. I get nervous when I get on set and I’m suddenly standing next to this person I’ve looked up to for years and in a few minutes I’ve got to pretend to be a character in a situation with their character. It’s a bit of a surreal experience, I suppose you get used to it more and more, but it is a bit weird. I think I’m quite a down to earth person so when I did a film with Clive Owen walking up to him and saying hello and him saying ‘Hi, I’m Clive’, it’s like [adopts nervous stutter] ‘Hi, you’re a massive, massive film star…’
As well as acting you also model. Have you been doing that for longer than acting?
No. I used to work in a supermarket, Safeway’s in Chalk Farm, I was desperately trying to get into drama school and I was getting rejected and rejected, and someone scouted me and told me to go down to Select [model agency] and they took me on. I got a bit of money and got to travel a bit, and then I got into drama school, so I’ve always had it on the side to get a bit of money.
There’s a stigma attached to it which I’m quite wary of because there’s a lot of the models that I know, lovely guys, but they basically want to get into acting and they don’t really have a clue! They think they look really cool in still images and they could look even cooler in moving images. That’s not the reason I got into it!
Are you planning to keep modelling?
I’m not planning to, I’d rather just work as an actor and not have to do it, which sounds really ungrateful doesn’t it? But if you can go and do a couple of days work for a few grand, I’d be an idiot not to. I don’t come from a family with loads of money, so it would be idiotic to not do that, but in an ideal world I’d rather not.
I think a lot of the work I have done is because people knew I was an aspiring young actor so they got me in to do character shoots. The shoots were always quite cool, they weren’t some guy with his top off, with oil all over his body, staring into the camera with a sexual grimace on his face…
What’s the most memorable point from your career so far?
I’d say playing Len in Saved. I’d done a few things before that, but things weren’t really taking off. I was working in a cinema at the time and I knew this play was being done and I read it and thought ‘I can do that part better than anyone’ and I pestered people until they saw me. It sounds a bit poncey to say but because it’s called Saved, I always thought it saved me [cringes and laughs]. Sorry it sounds really cheesy, but it did, it lifted me into another realm as an actor.
Do you have any plans after this play?
World domination [laughs]. I just want to keep getting better and keep doing good work and wherever that be, I don’t mind. For me that’s what it’s all about, not resting on your laurels, just constantly striving to get better and therefore create better things for people to watch. That’s it really.
"It’s a bit of a weird thing to do as a human being to convince yourself all day you’re in these weird situations that you’re not really in and then go home and forget it all."