Juliet, Desdemona and Cordelia. Three of Shakespeare’s most iconic roles and all conquered by one of the industry’s brightest newcomers, Olivia Vinall. Not bad for someone who only graduated from her postgraduate degree four years ago.
Currently starring as the latter in Sam Mendes’ critically acclaimed King Lear, the role marks the 25-year-old actor’s second performance in a National Theatre classical production in as many years after she won the coveted role of Desdemona to Adrian Lester’s universally praised Othello.
Just hours before King Lear’s press night – amidst emergency rehearsals following the loss of principal cast member Sam Troughton’s voice – Official London Theatre spoke to a surprisingly laid back Vinall, who revealed what it’s like to work with some of the greatest names in theatre at the South Bank venue.
From making her first steps on the Olivier stage, feeling like a gladiator awaiting her fate, to performing an NT Live broadcast with the eyes of the world – and most nerve-rackingly Nicholas Hytner from his seat in the local IMAX – on her, Vinall fills us in on life in the NT’s spotlight.
CV in brief:
2010: Makes professional debut in Romeo And Juliet at the Leicester Square Theatre
2012: Appears in BBC series Doctor Who and Casualty
2013: Wins starring role as Desdemona in Othello at the National Theatre
2013: Appears in the National Theatre’s 50th birthday celebrations
2014: Stars as Cordelia alongside a cast including Simon Russell Beale in King Lear
Where did you grow up?
I grew up all over the place really. I’m from London originally, but because of my father’s job [as a diplomat] I had to move around. I’ve lived in Belgium for most of my life, where I went to secondary school, and I lived in Washington DC for five years.
What first got you interested in acting?
I’ve always loved it. Me and my sister used to put on plays at home before bedtime and I think that just carried on. When I was young in America I used to watch the school plays and desperately knew that I wanted to do that. I got my first chance when I played a character called Tricky Dicky the Clown and I got to have a massive fake cigar. Tricky Dicky, that’s definitely a 90s thing!
What was your first professional job?
My first job was actually before I graduated. I was lucky enough to be in a production of Romeo And Juliet. The principal at Drama Studio at the time let me do it because he thought it would be the best showcase that I could have. From that I got an agent so it was a really good platform.
What should people expect from King Lear?
Sam’s [Mendes] production is quite epic on all fronts. It’s modern; King Lear is quite a hard one to directly transfer to an exact time, but you’re looking at a post-Soviet collapse of a regime and a dictator. Sam is making full use of the revolve and there are great moments that I won’t spoil… it just feels big, which the play needs because it is such an epic play.
You’ve now played three of Shakespeare’s great roles for young women. Was focusing on Shakespeare a deliberate career move?
I have always loved Shakespeare. My parents love it too; my sister’s called Miranda [from The Tempest] and I’m Olivia [from Twelfth Night] and they definitely did it for the plays! I think their passion really rubbed off on me so it wasn’t something that I directly thought ‘I’m going to do some Shakespeare now’, I just thought if I was ever lucky enough to get the chance I would love it. It’s just been a dream come true.
Have your parents been able to see all of your Shakespearean performances so far?
Yes, they have. My mum especially likes being there on the first preview, which can often seem quite cruel [laughs], but it’s because she’s just really supportive and really excited.
You made your NT debut last year in Othello. Did winning that role feel like a big break?
That was a huge break. I had never done anything like it and on such a platform as the National Theatre, directed by Nick Hytner as well, it was unbelievable. Something I’ll never forget.
What is it like auditioning for the NT?
I had three rounds [for Othello] and on the third round I was actually taken on to the Olivier stage and I did some scenes with Adrian [Lester]… I’d never set foot on that stage before or one as big as that so it was a big challenge, but it’s in those moments where you go ‘right I’ve just got to get on with it’! It was on the day the world was supposed to end before Christmas last year… That would be quite a way to go! Luckily the world didn’t end.
I never thought they’d see me for [this role in King Lear] because I thought ‘there is no way they are ever going to cast me in another Shakespearean role so soon’ but no, Wendy, one of the casting directors, kindly got me in and I auditioned with Sam [Mendes]. He hadn’t seen Othello at the time so he came that evening and I think he liked it [laughs] so it was a good omen. But I was still absolutely terrified, it doesn’t get easier at all.
You’ve worked with some incredible actors at the NT. How do you feel on the first day of rehearsals to be working alongside them?
It’s really nerve-racking. It’s very unreal. Adrian was so lovely to me. He actually arranged to meet up with me before the first day of rehearsals so we could just talk about the play and be on the same page. That really put me at ease, especially not knowing the theatre or people in it. This time has been different because I met Simon [Russell Beale] doing the NT 50, so it was nice to see familiar faces and work with the same crew.
What was it like being a part of the NT’s 50 Years On Stage celebration?
Getting the part in Othello was beyond my wildest dreams, but having all of those incredible actors and being on stage with them… it was incredible, probably one of the best moments of my life.
It was such a huge operation to pull off. Was it crazy behind the scenes?
It really wasn’t. It was run like such a tight ship, it felt really seamless. I don’t know how they pulled it together with that many people in such a short amount of time, but I think it was testament to everyone’s dedication and Nick’s [Hytner] directing that it came off so well. Sitting backstage, we were all watching everyone’s scenes on monitors and when someone would finish they’d come back and everyone would cheer. It didn’t matter who it was or what age you were, everyone felt so together. It was really special to be part of.
King Lear will be broadcast on 1 May as part of NT Live. What’s it like knowing people around the world will be watching your performance?
For Othello [which was also broadcast through NT Live] there was really something in the air that day. Even though it was right at the end of our run, everyone’s mood was quite electric. In a way I wish I could go back for Lear and be in the state of mind I was for Othello because I had no real concept of the amount of people it would reach all over the world. You have the nerves that it’s live and your mum’s watching or Nick’s watching in the IMAX, but then getting messages from America and Australia, it’s mad. I almost wish I didn’t know that for Lear because it adds more pressure!
Do you adjust your performance when you’re being filmed?
Nick was really clear that he didn’t want us to change anything, he very much wanted it to be a recording of a theatrical performance as opposed to something for TV and stylised in any way. The only thing we did was we pretended that there was no Upper Circle level so our eyes wouldn’t be looking up to the distance, but no one did any soliloquies to the camera, which was good!
You used to be an usher at the Royal Court. Is that somewhere you’d like to return as an actor?
That would be amazing. The history of new writing there is incredible and that’s the reason I wanted to work there as an usher, just to see performances in such a special building. If I’m lucky enough to do any more acting that would be one place I’d really like to go!
What’s the most obscure job you’ve ever done?
I did a lot of temping when I finished uni and I remember going to a temping job where I literally had to stuff envelopes with make-up products, but they’d ordered way too many so at the end of the week they told me ‘Oh you’ve actually stuffed 4,000 more envelopes than you were ever meant to’! That was really not fun.
What’s been the most memorable moment from your career so far?
I have two that I will never ever forget. The first one is the first night of Othello. Stepping on to that stage, it felt a bit like being a gladiator because you’re in a huge arena and people are either going to turn their thumbs down or turn their thumbs up! It was quite scary. And then the second would have to be the 50th, just because it was so amazing.
Which stage production have you seen that you would most like to have been in?
I remember seeing Anne-Marie Duff as Saint Joan when I was at school, and she was fierce and heartfelt and absolutely incredible.
What is your essential dressing room item?
I have to have my music, with headphones so no one else has to hear it! I really like having a playlist for my character. That and tea!
What’s the best advice that anyone’s ever given you?
One that I’m probably not very good at following but it is to ‘have the courage of your convictions’. I think it’s really important to stick with what you believe in and in the face of all the hardships you might come across. It’s easier said than done, but that’s definitely what I try and do.