When your father is the former Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre, whose final season at the Islington venue is up for 10 Olivier Awards in a week’s time, and your grandfather is an actor so highly regarded he is now a Lord, it must have been tempting to take up law, or medicine, or deep sea fishing. Anything, in fact, rather than follow in their footsteps.
Rather than do that, Will Attenborough – whose father is Michael and grandfather is Richard, in case you’d not worked it out – has not only followed them into the family business, but done so in a revival of a show that cemented the reputations of young stars including Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth when it was first staged in the 1980s. If he was ever worried about comparisons, this is a sure fire way to tackle it head on.
The production in question is Another Country, the tale of public schoolboys living in the wake of a suicide of a fellow pupil who had been discovered having sex with a classmate. Julian Mitchell’s play won an Olivier Award when it was first staged in 1981. Jeremy Herrin’s Chichester revival last autumn, Attenborough’s first professional stage production, proved so successful that it has transferred to London.
This gave us a chance to quiz Attenborough, discovering an unexpected acting hero and an unusual debut.
CV in brief:
2012: Plays Gloucester in Henry IV Pt I & II as part of BBC’s The Hollow Crown
2013: Graduates from Cambridge University
2013: Plays Judd in Another Country at Chichester Festival Theatre
2014: Makes his West End debut in the London transfer of Another Country
Do you remember when you first performed?
I used to think it was a production of Jason And The Argonauts at primary school – I played one of the Argonauts and my brother said my drunk acting was worryingly convincing – but I remembered doing a little thing in an assembly at school, putting on a blonde wig and pretending to be a female American tourist in France. I remember coming out and getting a big laugh, probably just because I was wearing a silly blonde wig.
Was it a difficult decision to enter the industry considering your family history?
I’ve never found it that difficult a decision to go into this career. I think it’s never really swayed me strongly either way. I’ve never felt this was a thing I have to do, nor this was a thing I shouldn’t do. It was just always what I loved doing the most. It always felt like a very clear, obvious thing for me to have a stab at.
Do you feel an increased pressure to prove yourself?
I work hard at it just because I want to be good and I want the work to be good. It’s never come into my mind that I need to work really hard because I’ve got something to prove.
How do you feel to be leading a West End cast in your first professional production?
It’s incredibly lucky. All the stars seem to have aligned. I got the job while I was doing finals at Cambridge. My agent said “Don’t worry, this is a good opportunity to meet some talented people, have fun with it and use the audition to learn from.” It was quite a surprise to get the job.
What drew you to the role?
It’s great fun to play a character that is clever and witty. For somebody my age, when you’re just starting out, a lot of the parts you go up for tend to be supporting roles. So to get a part as rich and detailed as this is an enormous privilege.
Why is the play so powerful?
I think it’s a brilliant story. I think it’s a really good look at growing up, at what it means to encounter those things that come when you start to lose your innocence and become aware of power, ambition, hypocrisy. It’s got that tragic arc of somebody envisaging their life a certain way and discovering that’s not going to be the case.
How does the play relate to your experience of education?
It’s very different. The play is set in a boarding school. The school I went to was a day school in London. It felt more open, more modern. It was all boys, so I understood the atmosphere of an all-male school.
Julian Mitchell, the writer, said in rehearsals the mentality of his school left an imprint on him that took many years to shake off, that sort of led him to believe that he was one of the leaders of his society. This elitist mentality was drummed into him. I don’t think that is strictly the same anymore. There’s a slight remains of that attitude. I think because you’re told “This is one of the best schools and you’re going to go to one of the best universities,” that leaves an imprint. That was something I recognised when I read the play.
Actors including Rupert Everett and Kenneth Branagh made their name in the original production. Is it hard to follow in their footsteps?
You’re aware of it. It’s in articles about the play. I think you have to quite quickly put that to one side because you’ve got to make it your own, put all your thought and energy into the story and the characters and find what you can with them.
What’s the best thing about your job?
Working with a company is amazing fun, collaborating and tapping into what other people are doing is really great. The more I learn about it, the more I realise it’s not about anything preconceived. it’s about listening to other people and seeing what they’re doing in the room with you. That’s really exciting because you’re just engaging and reacting and that’s where exciting things happen.
And the worst?
It’s not consistent or regular. I’ve not had too long to twiddle my thumbs, but when you’re not working you do crave it.
Which actors do you most admire?
I love Mark Rylance. He’s a real hero. He’s got this amazing thing where he comes out on the stage and manages to take everyone in. He has such awareness of the audience and such presence. It’s so obvious he’s listening and really paying attention.
Charlie Chaplin is my all-time hero. He’s amazing. I think I saw the Great Dictator first. There’s this beautiful scene where he plays Hitler playing with an inflatable globe, kicking it around and dancing. It’s stunning physical comedy, but really magnetic acting. He’s just one of those people you look at and say that is such talent, such timing, such effortlessness.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
A friend said to me recently, “Run to your fear.” Don’t let the things you’re nervous about overwhelm you, allow them to pep you up and stimulate you. That’s really good because it keeps you taking risks. If you run to your fear you really go for it, you let the best come out of you rather than being cautious.
What would you do if you weren’t an actor?
I love teaching. That’s how I’ve made my money from when I was 16. I’ve always found it quite difficult, it’s a really really hard, delicate job, but really great, really fun.