Ray Fearon

Published April 17, 2008

Ray Fearon is tired. He has been rehearsing all morning and his mind has been left in the rehearsal room, where it is passing the time pondering the subtleties of Thomas Otway's The Soldiers' Fortune. His body, meanwhile, is at the Young Vic, where the production is being staged, and where he is meeting Matthew Amer to talk about the experience… in theory.

Anyone who claims that an actor's life is an easy one should be shown a picture of Ray Fearon at the moment he meets me. The actor, as anyone who has seen The Soldiers' Fortune will know, is fit. His torso ripples. He is the classic broad-shouldered, chiselled-jawed alpha male. Yet today he is looking physically drained. He is some way from exhausted – he hasn't just trekked across the Andes – but in his eyes, in his slumped posture and in his ability to respond to questioning, it is clear to see that the rehearsal schedule for the Young Vic's new production is taking its toll. In his words: "my head is just a bit frazzled".

It is quickly apparent that Fearon doesn't much like talking about himself either. Previously this has not been too much of a problem, but his recent brush with widespread fame as one of the contestants on BBC ballroom bonanza Strictly Come Dancing thrust him under the spotlight of the tabloid media like never before. As he sees himself as "a boring man", it didn't cause him too much trouble as he was too busy working or caring for his daughter to be caught falling out of nightclubs. However, he still seems defensive and withdrawn when talking about himself.

In David Lan's first directorial outing at the newly refurbished Young Vic, Fearon plays soldier Captain Beaugard, who returns from fighting in Holland to a land where his propensity for killing will not help him earn too much money. Instead he has to utilise his good looks to help him snare a woman who can keep him in gold. Anne Marie Duff – best known as stand-in mother Fiona in Paul Abbott's comic drama Shameless – plays just such a woman, married to a heartless old man whom she doesn't love.

It is not Fearon's first comedy, but his previous theatrical work has been, in the main, of the straight, dramatic variety. This change doesn't faze him as here he is, essentially, the straight man to the comic situations around him. "I'm not doing it to be funny," he says, and from the frown with which he delivers this line, I believe him.

"My profile is not going to determine whether I can do a piece of theatre like this"

In a recent interview with The Independent, Fearon said that it is a common misconception that he is too serious. His face, he says, gives that impression. This much is certainly true; his sculpted granite chin seems to set in a way that is hard to view as flippant. But he is also a serious person; there weren't a lot of laughs during our 20 minutes, other than the ones at questions that seemed obvious to him.

He is most definitely serious about his profession. His love of theatre grew from early beginnings attending workshops around Stonebridge, from where he went to Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama.

His learning and growth as a performer, says Fearon, continued at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he spent 10 years playing roles from First Tempter in Murder In The Cathedral to title roles in Othello and Pericles. "It was like a school there," he says. "We had some of the best directors there. There was Sam Mendes and Adrian Noble and Michael Attenborough and Steven Pimlott. You were being taught by [RSC Advisory Director] John Barton and [RSC Director of Voice] Cicely Berry. They're people who taught Judi Dench, and they were the same people teaching me. I always wanted to go to the RSC. It's a school, so I stayed."

The actors that he worked with during his decade with the RSC also come in for much praise, and quite right too, for coming through the ranks with Fearon were Toby Stephens, Joseph Fiennes, Emma Fielding, Victoria Hamilton, Rupert Penry Jones and David Oyelowo, actors who have gone on to be leaders in their field for that generation. "It's always good to work with good actors," comments Fearon, referring both to his RSC days and his current colleagues.

Ten years and many leading roles at the RSC built Fearon a solid reputation as a theatrical performer, but it was his appearance as Nathan Harding in Coronation Street and exercising his twinkle toes in Strictly Come Dancing that drew him to the attention of the nation at large. Though both jobs look glamorous to onlookers, especially in this world where celebrity is king, it is the work and not the trappings on which Fearon concentrates.

Working on one of the nation's favourite soap operas is, Fearon says, "a lot quicker and a lot more work" than working in the theatre, "but it's a job". With regard to the media attention, he is suitably straightforward: "You have to accept that if that's what you're going to do; accept that you're going to be in newspapers, papers that most probably you don't read." Though the papers were interested in Fearon, there was not a lot to say, as he shies away from the celebrity galas and nightclubs in favour of spending time with his daughter.

It is when speaking about his eight-year-old daughter Rosa May that Fearon lets his usually lead-lined guard drop. He may not be a hell-raiser on the party circuit, but why would he be when he can find so much pleasure in parenthood. "I enjoy being a father," he says, "that's what makes me smile; when I hear my daughter's voice on the telephone. That's what makes me smile more than anything."

"I don't know where these rumours come from!"

It was actually Rosa May who convinced Fearon to take part in the reality dance show. Where acting is Daddy's passion, dance is what excites Rosa May. Once he had decided to take part in the competition, the feathers and costumes faded into the background and it became serious, straightforward work again. "For me," he says, "it was going into the rehearsal room and rehearsing some dances, and then going and putting them on the floor with the dancer."

Though his analysis of the flamboyant, imagination-catching show is very dry, he did take great pleasure in being able to do something that brought a smile to his daughter's face. His appearance as centaur Firenze in Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone had almost the same effect, though a much younger Rosa May was less interested in her father then. "It's fantastic when you've got children and you're doing jobs like that because for them it's fascinating. But when she went and saw the film, because she was so young she wasn't interested in my character, she was interested in the troll!"

Appearances in Harry Potter, Coronation Street and Strictly Come Dancing do nothing if not lift an actor's profile, making them a recognisable and, more importantly, bankable face. But again, admirably, Fearon is not concerned about such things, focussing rather on his talent and experience to see him through. "My profile is not going to determine whether I can do a piece of theatre like this," he says. "It's whether I'm experienced in doing a piece of theatre like this."

As for future plans, who knows? Fearon lives his life trying to be "as present as I can, without thinking about tomorrow." You won't see him playing a villain in the third series of Doctor Who – "I don't know where these rumours come from!" – but it is a fair bet that he will be on televisions and stages, producing serious, quality performances for years to come. That, and enjoying watching Rosa May grow into a dance superstar.

The Soldiers' Fortune is running at the Young Vic until 31 March.

MA