Unlike his character in new play The Aliens, actor Ralf Little knows what he wants out of life, finds Caroline Bishop.
It wasn’t a hard choice for Ralf Little to decide to be a part of Annie Baker’s new play The Aliens at West London new writing theatre the Bush. “I just love the theatre and I love what they are about. And then when they said it’s Peter Gill directing… in theatre terms it’s not far off being directed by God; you’re doing a play at a great place and God’s directing, ok great.”
It must have made for a daunting audition, I suggest. “It was a bit daunting auditioning for God, but God was very benevolent, his reputation preceded him.” Little laughs, and the tone is set for the rest of our phone conversation. Genial and chatty in his soft Bolton accent, talking to Little feels more like catching up with a mate in the pub than interviewing a well-known actor.
The Aliens is a relatively infrequent stage appearance for Little, who remains best known for his television appearances in The Royle Family, the snappily titled sitcom Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps and, more recently, Married Single Other. In addition to the reasons above, it was also the quality of Baker’s script, which he describes as “smart and well written”, that drew him back to the stage. That’s not to mention the presence in the cast of Mackenzie Crook and newcomer Olly Alexander, but he didn’t know they were in it when he was cast: “That’s why I haven’t mentioned them. I just suddenly thought, Mackenzie might read that and go ‘cheers’”.
So, to be clear, there are multiple reasons why Little wanted to do The Aliens. A portrait of a disaffected generation, American playwright Baker’s drama centres on two unemployed 30-year-olds, KJ and Jasper, played by Little and Crook, and their relationship with a teenager, Alexander’s Evan, a waiter at the coffee shop where the older two spend their days hanging out. “What you’re going to find is I’m going to waffle on because they are very difficult to define,” says Little of KJ and Jasper. “They are sort of drop outs, but that’s not quite accurate. They are sort of hippies, but that’s not quite accurate. They are sort of stoners, but that’s not quite accurate. They are just disaffected, bored, American guys.” The play is very American in its frame of reference, he says, because the characters are unique to the vast, wide open spaces of the US, something not found in the close quarters of the UK. “We have provinciality here but in America times it by 100 because it’s enormous and it’s just this isolating thing,” he explains. Products of this isolation, KJ and Jasper have bonded over their mutual purposeless and now “sit around in the sunshine and smoke and chat and philosophise in cod philosophy”.
“To get that nomination was a kind of ‘oh ok, great, I’m not just a chancer here'”
“It’s this incredibly gentle and accurate and sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes funny, detailed observation of…” he pauses, “disaffected male angst. Jasper has this inner rage that he doesn’t quite know how to deal with, and KJ is sort of all over the place. Ultimately it’s a play about male angst,” he concludes, curtailing his self-proclaimed waffle. “I wish I’d said that at the start. It’s a play about male angst.”
Despite the distinctly American nature of the characters, Little says he thinks the play connects with British audiences on a general level. “There’s no point in anybody’s life where they haven’t felt misunderstood, where they haven’t figured that they are the only one in the world who really gets it and everyone else just doesn’t.”
Though Little says he can identify with this feeling, the actor seems a stark contrast to his character in many respects. While KJ struggles to find his direction in life, Little seems a particularly driven kind of person. “I do love working,” he says. “I am incredibly lucky to have so far made a career out of doing something I love doing. When you’ve got a job that you enjoy, that kind of sense of purpose can really help to define you, and I don’t mean in a constricted way, it can help to define you in a really positive way because it gives you reason, it gives things meaning.”
But Little could have had a very different purpose in life. He had planned to be a doctor, but when his teenage “hobby” of bit-part telly acting led to playing Antony in the first series of cult comedy The Royle Family, a different path presented itself. He had filmed the series during his A Levels, but it wasn’t broadcast until his first week at medical school. Auditions quickly came rolling in and his hobby suddenly had the potential to become a career. He left medical school after four weeks. “It was a bit like, you know what, I’m at medical school, the most secure profession you could think, do I want to give this up to do the most non-secure profession I could think of? It was a big decision but what ultimately swung it was the thought that I couldn’t bear the idea of turning round when I was 40 and saying, ok I’m a doctor, but what if I never took a chance? So in the end it didn’t really feel like I had a choice. So here I am. 13 years later.”
It sounds like every parent’s nightmare, but Little says his were “pretty cool” about it, considering they are “conservative with a small c”. He adds with a chuckle: “But at the end of the day my brother is 10 years younger than me, he’s 20 and he’s just started his third year at med school, so they’ve got one of the two.”
This untrained route into the profession is something he shares with his The Aliens co-star Crook, and both of them, says Little, have experienced a certain insecurity as a result. “We very much have to learn very quickly on any given theatre job, because people with training and experience, there will be references to Shakespeare and quotes from Shakespeare and somebody might say, it’s like when so-and-so said this in Shakespeare, and it’s like, ‘um, I didn’t know that.’”
“I’m actually the laziest person in the world. I don’t know how I’m making myself sound so interesting”
Venturing into stage for the first time in David Harrower’s Presence at the Royal Court in 2001, Little says his lack of formal training meant he felt he had something to prove. “I’m just this kid really – I was 22 – this lad off telly, was I going to be able to cut it in front of a live audience? Luckily it went down really well. It was delightful,” he says, before adding cheekily “Well, you see, now I’m toying with the idea of finishing that little thought by saying ‘and I got an Olivier nomination for best newcomer’ but I think that’s probably a bit big headed; leave that out, leave that out.”
But I won’t leave it out because he did get a Laurence Olivier Award nomination, and, despite his joking, it was important because it gave him the validation he needed. “I did this play, not quite sure what to expect, and luckily for me people seemed to really respond. To get that nomination was a kind of ‘oh ok, great, I’m not just a chancer here, I’m actually somebody who people think has some sort of value’, which was nice.”
Since then he has appeared in several new plays: Ayub Khan-Din’s Notes On Falling Leaves at the Royal Court, Jack Thorne’s monologue Stacy at Trafalgar Studios, Nigel Planer’s On The Ceiling in the West End and 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover at the Bush. He says he would have no objection to taking on a classic play, but it has just so happened that his career has veered towards new writing: “It’s been wonderful, but there’s absolutely no design to that whatsoever.”
Little may not seek out new work but it seems to seek out him. Among his credits is rather a different project which puts him at the vanguard of acting’s relationship with new technology. After meeting the creators of YouTube drama Lonelygirl15 in the US, he was asked to appear in their British equivalent, KateModern, an online interactive drama broadcast through social media platform Bebo. The show’s first season was subsequently nominated for two BAFTA Craft awards for innovation. “As a medium it can’t be ignored,” he says of the growth of online drama. “Anyone can access it, anywhere in the globe at any time, on demand, and to ignore it would be foolish for both producers, actors, filmmakers, anyone. So to be right there at the very start of something and help create something was a real joy and it was one of those things where I was like yeah, I feel a bit of professional pride; I was really pleased that I saw this coming.”
His appetite for new ideas is also behind his collaboration on The Golden Generation, an online novel he co-wrote with his friend Stephen Morris. “You always want to be challenged, you always want to try and do new things,” he says. “Another thing for an actor is, no matter how successful you are, there are always periods when you’re not working, you might have a month here or there. It’s what I said about these lads in The Aliens struggling because they have no focus, I think you always want to keep yourself busy, you always want to remain creative even if you’re not in a specific job at the moment.”
“When you’ve got a job that you enjoy, that kind of sense of purpose can really help to define you”
His creative juices are currently being channelled into co-writing a new sitcom, a pilot of which he hopes will be taken up. Though he is reluctant to tell me much about it before the deal is sealed, his obvious excitement at the project squeezes details out. “When I say sitcom it’s more in the tone of The Royle Family and The Office than a traditional sitcom; obviously if it was half as good as either of those I would be delighted.”
In between writing sitcoms, acting at the Bush and pushing the boundaries of technology, Little is also training to be a helicopter pilot. “I turned 30 you see and I didn’t have any kind of big blow-out party, I didn’t really have anything approaching a mid-life crisis either. I thought ‘what have I always wanted to do?’ And that was it.”
This from a man who says “I’m actually the laziest person in the world. I don’t know how I’m making myself sound so interesting.” I don’t believe a word of it. Unlike KJ, there doesn’t seem to be the slightly bit of angst-fuelled procrastination about Little.
Rather, he seems a man for whom the world is there for the taking, and he is doing his best to do just that. Of his new sitcom he says: “Some friends say to me, so is it something you’d be in? I’m like, listen, I’m an actor, I’m far too narcissistic to write something for somebody else, of course I’ll be in it!” Well he wouldn’t want to sit around doing nothing…