Singer, pianist and actor Julian Ovenden tells Caroline Bishop about his pursuit of a varied career…
Along one wall of Julian Ovenden’s dressing room sits a full size keyboard. When he is not learning his lines or rehearsing the musical numbers he sings, Ovenden has been practising the jazz piano score he plays live on stage as part of his role in new musical Marguerite.
In fact, the role of jazz musician Armand seems tailor-made for the multi-talented Ovenden, as it allows him to use his training as a singer and musician as well as the acting skills that have previously seen him on stage at the Donmar Warehouse and on television in Foyle’s War and The Royal.
But, as a classical pianist, playing the jazz score written by Oscar-winning composer Michel Legrand is not without challenges. “Most of my playing has been classical stuff, so I’ve had to change my attitude to the whole thing and, in a way, relearn stuff,” Ovenden tells me, as he sits in his dressing room, feet propped up on a table. “It is daunting with him there, because he’s a legend really, in terms of jazz. I don’t think he’s expecting me to be amazing. So I just try and do the best I can and try and have fun. I’ve spent a long time working at it, so I hope people think it’s me playing.”
Talents aside, Ovenden also has the strong-jawed good looks that make him ideal for a romantic lead role like Armand, one third of the love triangle in new musical Marguerite, which Legrand has written along with musical theatre veterans Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, and director Jonathan Kent.
Based on Alexandre Dumas’s great romantic novel La Dame Aux Camélias and set in occupied Paris during World War Two, the musical tells of the dangerous love affair between beautiful, high-living Marguerite, who is the mistress of a high-ranking German officer, and young pianist Armand. “It’s an intoxicating love affair, and ultimately a tragic one,” says Ovenden. “It’s the tussle between these two men and this woman, played out against the backdrop of the political, racial struggles of the time. It’s not a barrel of laughs, it’s quite a serious piece, and it’s very romantic.”
"It is daunting with him there, because he’s a legend really, in terms of jazz. I don’t think he’s expecting me to be amazing"
His character, Armand, is a drifter, says Ovenden. “He hasn’t really found his feet in life. He belongs to a class of people, the young people in Paris of that day, who felt very disenfranchised, because their country, their city, wasn’t their own any more. He’s a bit of an aimless person really, though he’s a musician, he loves his music, but he hasn’t really found himself, hasn’t really fully become a man, I suppose. And through meeting this extraordinary woman, and what happens to him and what he’s forced to face, he becomes a little more responsible. He becomes driven, there becomes a reason for him to be alive, in a way.”
Given the sweepingly romantic nature of the piece, it goes without saying that Ovenden is a big romantic himself – “Absolutely! To play a part like this, I can’t imagine not being a romantic” – and the object of his affections, in this fictional instance, is experienced musical theatre actress Ruthie Henshall, who plays the title role.
Rehearsing the play has inevitably meant the pair practising “A lot of kissing!”, something which Ovenden takes entirely in his stride. “I don’t find that hard, in a way. You have to sort of jump into it. It has to be strong, committed, otherwise people don’t believe it. You can’t do that by tiptoeing around, you have to go for it. But I think we’re both committed to do that.” He adds, smiling: “But it’s only acting!”
In keeping with the spirit of romance, Ovenden feels the two of them – who are both attached to other people – were fated to end up on stage together in Marguerite. Ovenden joined Henshall in the initial workshop for the show in early 2007, but was only able to do so after a film he was meant to be working on fell through. Then he was signed up by the American ABC network for Cashmere Mafia, a new television series produced by Sex And The City creator Darren Star. “If the musical happened when they said it was going to happen, I was fairly sure I wouldn’t be able to do it because of commitments to this [TV] show I’d committed to for five or six years,” he says. But the US writers’ strike intervened, and Cashmere Mafia was put on hold after just seven episodes, which enabled Ovenden to negotiate a release from his ABC contract to do Marguerite. “There’s something strange about this piece; there was something slightly destined about me and Ruthie doing it. It’s been quite a zig-zaggy path, as they all are, I suppose, to a new piece and a production where so many people’s participation is important. It was meant to be, I suppose.”
The story of Ovenden’s path to Marguerite also reveals a lot about the 31-year-old’s approach to his career. Unlike drifter Armand, Ovenden certainly seems to know where he wants his life to go and has been working hard to achieve it. And what he wants is a varied career: the ability to combine stage work with screen, musical roles with non-musical ones – on both sides of the Atlantic – rather than become defined by any one genre or typecast.
"To play a part like this, I can’t imagine not being a romantic"
So far, Ovenden has been pretty successful in his mission. His UK career to date has encompassed the musicals Merrily We Roll Along (2000) and Grand Hotel (2004) at the Donmar Warehouse, the role of Gerald in Oscar Wilde play A Woman Of No Importance at the Haymarket (2003), and major ongoing parts in television dramas The Royal, The Forsyte Saga and Foyle’s War. That’s not to mention once playing the role of ‘hunk’ in a Diet Coke advert.
“I get a lot out of working on screen as well. I’ve really enjoyed the stuff I’ve done,” says Ovenden, though his mission to build a screen career is as much about necessity as it is about fulfilment. Co-star Henshall may have made a name for herself without developing a high profile on screen, but Ovenden feels this is rare in our fame-obsessed world. “I think gone are the days where you can exist as an actor by just doing plays,” he says. “It’s very, very hard. I mean, financially it’s hard, but also in terms of trying to get jobs – people, producers, require some kind of profile. I still find it slightly baffling that I’m above the title in this show, because I don’t feel like I’m a star. So I think it’s quite unusual in that respect. I think a lot of musicals, a lot of plays, require two or three big names to get people in.”
Though not yet a big name on screen, Ovenden is certainly working on it. Over the past three years he has flitted back and forth between Los Angeles, New York and London – he estimates a DVT-inducing 75 transatlantic flights – building on his credits in the UK with a burgeoning career in the US. His television credits stateside have so far included an appearance in long-running show Charmed, comedy drama series Related and pilot Laws Of Chance, plus the curtailed Cashmere Mafia. He also found time in 2006 to make his Broadway debut in Simon Gray’s Butley, opposite Nathan Lane.
But infiltrating America hasn’t been easy. “You just have to keep chipping away really,” he says. “There’s so much more going on there, and the writing is better, that I kept wanting to come back and keep going. But it’s hard. You have to be determined. There are so many set backs and so many rejections that you just try and learn not to take it too personally.”
Despite the setbacks, working in the US has helped him in his quest for variety by allowing him to escape the typecasting that was beginning to dog him on television back home. Rather than playing the Englishman abroad, Ovenden has adopted an American accent for all his US television roles, which is exactly what he intended. “One of the reasons I went to America was I didn’t want to play any more upper middle class English guys, period drama, I wanted to do something more contemporary. And with an American accent there isn’t that sort of class division.”
"I’ve tried very hard to make sure that I’m not pigeonholed and make sure that I am getting better and being different"
Though he says “I don’t think I’m that posh really”, with a background like his – a much publicised fact is that Ovenden’s father is a chaplain to the Queen and lives next to Windsor Castle – it is easy to see why he would be offered the part of “upper middle class English guy”. However, the privileged education he received was a result of his own musical talents rather than any regal connections. A musically gifted child, Ovenden sang and played piano from an early age, and at seven he received a scholarship to sing in the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral. Music scholarships then followed to attend first Eton and then Oxford University, where he studied music and devoted much of his time to directing baroque opera King Arthur.
Consequently, he didn’t consider an acting career until his last year of university, when, with the post-exams void looming, he decided to try drama school for a year – on another scholarship – and see how he liked it. He realised early on in his postgraduate year at London’s Webber Douglas Academy (now part of the Central School of Speech and Drama) that acting was the path for him. “I think I always knew that I wanted to perform, or be involved somehow in the arts in that respect, as a performer, but it was only later on that I knew that I wanted to do what I’m doing now. But also, having a musical background has enabled me to do jobs like this and when I’m not acting to pursue other musical things that I like.”
It is no wonder, with his range of skills, that Ovenden wouldn’t want to limit his career to just one, but he has had to be bullish about it. “Some people don’t like the fact that you’re good at two different things, or you’re successful at two different things, they find it threatening in some ways, for some reason,” he says. “I’ve tried very hard to make sure that I’m not pigeonholed and make sure that I am getting better and being different, rather than churning out the same. Unless you stick to your guns and say I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to take the easy buck, I want to do something that challenges me, and play someone completely different and off type, then you can get really trapped.”
In Marguerite, he seems to have found the perfect role to showcase his range of talents. As for what comes next, he has his sights set on “a good, big film role…but then so would the 10 million other actors out there!” Somehow, I get the feeling Ovenden has determination enough to make it happen. “That’s all you can be isn’t it?” he says. “You just give yourself as much opportunity as possible and the rest is up to luck.”