Charlotte Marshall talks to Holding The Man’s Oliver Farnworth about gender swapping mid-performance, the joys of kiwi fruits, playing a psycho on one of Britain’s most popular soaps and the perils of excessive body hair.
CV in brief:
Trained: Bristol Old Vic
Theatre credits: The London Plays: London Tongue/London Falls at the Old Red Lion, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe at the Redgrave Theatre, Saturday Night Sunday Morning at Harrogate Theatre and Oldham Coliseum, Kes at the Liverpool Playhouse and on tour, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the British Shakespeare Company.
Screen credits: The Royal and Hollyoaks.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in West Yorkshire in a town called Hebden Bridge. I lived there up until I was 14 and then I moved down to Devon, so a bit of Northern-Southerner if you like.
What got you interested in acting?
I’d always done the school plays and bits and pieces from a young age. When I was in Yorkshire, Opera North came to my school – I just went to a normal comp school – and they worked closely with our music and acting department and I actually did a couple of operas with Opera North which was quite nice.
When I went down to Devon I had a very encouraging teacher at my school. She ran the local youth theatre which I was quite heavily involved with. She ran it, looking back, like a professional company, with the highest standards expected; she’d put you through your paces! But that was really encouraging I think.
Were you quite young when you decided you wanted to be a professional actor then?
No, I was always interested in it through school and did Drama at university because I knew I wanted to go in that direction somehow. But I wasn’t ready to commit and go straight to drama school when I was 18. So I went to uni and then off the back of that I decided to train for two years at drama school.
How did you enjoy your time in Hollyoaks playing a psychotic student?
It was one of those parts that you know from the start that you’re on a limited contract, so you get the episodes, cause a bit of mayhem and then you’re out. Obviously I’m grateful I worked there and it was good fun, but I’m also aware that it can turn into one of those things where you can get stuck into a bit of a routine and I didn’t really want that.
It was a good learning experience. You’re right in at the deep end, learning the craft and learning single camera shoots and stuff like that. I’ve got my soap box ticked now!
So soaps aren’t something you would like to do again?
Well never say never…but no [laughs].
Tell me about Holding The Man.
It’s a fantastic piece. It’s based on the memoirs of a guy called Timothy Conigrave who grew up in the early 1960s in Australia. It’s about him and his relationship with a guy – John Caleo – who he met in school; he was captain of the Australian Rules football team.
The play spans about 15 years and is really well adapted by Tom Murphy. It’s their story from adolescent young love, through breaking up, getting back together and then ultimately the AIDS crisis in the 80s which claims their lives.
It’s quite a poignant love story, but a tragedy ultimately. It’s really beautifully written and it’s great to be a part of.
Tell me about your character.
I play several characters, including Door Bitch [laughs], Marie – who is a middle age housewife – and I play Peter, who is one of Tim and John’s friends. Basically it is written for six actors but obviously it spans several years so there are 60-odd characters in the whole piece. Tim and John are constant throughout, they’re played by the same guys, and myself and three other actors cover all the other parts, so there are really chaotic costume changes and gender swapping and all that sort of stuff going on.
It makes for a really fun piece and it’s a real challenge as well, but it works. Some of the characters are fairly minor in some of the scenes, but even so they’re all so richly portrayed it’s a joy to do.
Who is your favourite character out of all the roles you play?
Door Bitch is funny, but Door Bitch only has a couple of lines! Marie is a great character to play, she’s a flamboyant, quite left-wing, 1970s mother of one of the characters. But also the character of Peter, who is Tim and John’s friend throughout the piece, is very much for me a truthful and real character, and that’s good to play, he’s a really grounded character.
Is this the first time you have played a woman on stage?
No, I think that this is my first professional portrayal of a woman [laughs] so we’ll see how well it goes down!
How do you feel about making your West End debut?
I’m honoured really. I think it [Trafalgar Studios] is a brilliant theatre and it’s a really nice piece to be making a debut in, so really it’s an honour. I hope, well I’m sure, it will be a success; it’s got a lot going for it. Obviously there are certain expectations to live up to, but ultimately I’m just excited.
The play premiered in Australia. Are there members of the original cast in this production?
Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes have been there from the start, they’ve done every show, and they play Tim and John. It’s the same director and then the four of us are new. I’m the only Brit in the cast; a couple of guys are based over here, but the rest are born and bred in Australia, so I’m the token Brit!
Have you noticed anything different in the way rehearsals have been with an Australian company?
Not especially. Obviously it’s a stereotype but they are very relaxed and sometimes in rehearsals jokes and things will be going on and you want to join in but it’s like ‘Oh God are we supposed to?’ Then the director gets involved as well and you get this really very relaxed and honest rehearsal period with them. They’re great to work with, really, really nice.
What’s the best thing about being on stage?
I think just the way that no two shows are ever really the same. Even though you stay in the same work and doing the same things, you’ll say something and something will just flick one night and the dynamic of the scene might change. It’s that sort of spontaneity that I really enjoy. Obviously all the other actors are having the same experience so it makes it exciting for me that things can change and it’s never exactly the same, it makes it fun.
And the worst?
In this part, having to shave! Because I play a woman, normally I like to have a bit of stubble. So having to shave is a big one.
Do you have to shave your legs?
No, no I don’t [laughs]. Although I did have to get them waxed once at drama school to play a part, which was pretty horrific. That was Edmund in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and me and the guy who played Peter, the director decided we looked too manly with our short shorts and hairy legs, so he ordered us to go and get waxed. It was awful.
Are there any directors you would love to work with?
Shane Meadows, I’m a really big fan of his on the film front. I really like the way he uses non-trained actors just to find these real people and really get the best out of them. Obviously his films are a bit rough round the edges, but I think that’s great and I really admire his work. Definitely him.
Which stage production you have seen do you wish you had been in?
I’m too young to be in it, but the Pinter play Betrayal at the Donmar, I really admired that production. I love that play, I think it’s brilliant, so if they ever revive it, you know, that would be nice! The Caretaker that was on before this at the Trafalgar Studios was great too. I really, really enjoyed that.
How does your lifestyle change when you are in a play like this?
I live in London which is useful. You become a bit nocturnal really. When everyone finishes a show, everyone’s in high spirits and you go to the pub, it can soon turn into 3am and you go ‘Oh God, I’ve got to get on the night bus’. So it’s important to get a good night’s sleep and really change your sleeping patterns in order to be on top form for the next evening.
All throughout the day you’re always thinking about the show. It’s a mixture of anticipation, slight nerves and you wonder what the audience will be like. The high point of the day for me is when the show’s up and running.
You have to retain normality as well and do normal things and see your friends and things, or it can be, perhaps, a bit unhealthy.
What is the most obscure job you have ever had?
I used to promote kiwi fruit [laughs]! I promoted New Zealand kiwi fruit and drove around in a beetle which was painted red and gold. It was an amazing job really because I got the car for the summer and we’d drive around and go to festivals and fetes and country shows and stuff and set up a big inflatable tent and hand out free kiwi fruits to people. That was pretty weird! The kiwi fruit job; that was special.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
I’d probably just say from my parents who’ve throughout my life just encouraged me to take risks and essentially do what I wanted and not be afraid to make mistakes. Nothing too profound, but that for me is pretty important.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
When I was a kid I used to want to be an archaeologist, a palaeontologist or someone that worked on a scrap yard. I used to like digging things up and taking things to bits. I don’t know where the scrap yard thing came from! When we were young we lived near one and we’d drive past and see all the cars and the cranes, so it was quite exciting.
So archaeologist, palaeontologist or a scrap dealer [laughs], how bizarre.