The Big Interview: Lisa Dillon

Published April 17, 2008

Shooting stars, rockets, cheetahs on motorbikes: all move at a particularly alarming rate of knots, but none of them move fast enough to catch the tail of Lisa Dillon’s comet-like rise in the acting world. The young actress, who only graduated from RADA in 2002 is one of Britain’s hottest young talents and is currently starring as Desdemona in the RSC’s production of Othello at the Trafalgar Studios. Matthew Amer caught up with her for a chat before her ascending star got any higher…

It is a marvellous achievement to finish at RADA and find yourself a small part in a small play. Finding a role with more gravitas is an even greater and rarer thing. But to graduate from drama school and make a name for yourself so quickly that you move from job to high profile job, not playing bit parts but major characters, is just plain ridiculous. It just doesn’t happen. Unless you are the unhealthily talented Lisa Dillon, who has taken the British acting world by storm.

“I used to get so angry with Othello”

Less than two years out of drama school and Dillon, having already garnered a reputation and some fairly hefty supporters – Patrick Stewart, Sue Johnston to name but two – is a fully paid up member of the RSC and starring opposite Sir Antony Sher in a production headed by Shakespearean director extraordinaire Greg Doran. Although already a recognisable theatre name, Dillon is not yet able to command roles and had to audition for this one like everybody else. Her interest in the part is easy to understand: “Well, it’s the Royal Shakespeare company, which kind of speaks for itself really. I think every acting student around the world wants to have a taste of that. You get a whoosh of pride when you first join. It’s this honour thing that goes with it because you’re joining a company that is so much bigger than you or the work. It’s amazing to be part of that.”

The character of Desdemona is similar to Dillon in many ways. They are about the same age and may share the same young and precocious views on life; wanting to get the most from it, striving for something better than they already have. But, having now performed the role over 80 times and on two continents, Dillon still finds one of Desdemona’s character traits as foreign to her as an England football fan is to the fado songs of Portugal, “She’s a tough character, because what is asked of you is to play this huge embracing love that very rarely exists. She continues to love [Othello] even when he doubts her, hits her and ultimately murders her. She still loves him in death. I used to get so angry with Othello because, as Lisa, I didn’t like him very much at all.”

Having started life at the Swan and journeyed to the far reaches of Japan, Othello has now set up home at the West End’s newest venue, the Trafalgar Studios. The revamped innards of the Whitehall Theatre now houses two separate theatrical spaces, the largest of which is currently holding the RSC’s production. In a quirky twist of fate the stage at the Trafalgar Studios could be a twin separated at birth from the stage at the Swan. The auditorium, though, is ever so slightly different, and is a thing of wonder for Dillon “It’s intimate, because you have the audience practically two feet away from where you are acting, sat at your level. Then the whole theatre rakes very steeply upwards and you get a kind of epic, amphitheatre quality about it, which is absolutely brilliant.”

The vibrancy and intimacy of London theatre comes after a rather strange trip to the Far East which took the young Dillon a little by surprise. The five week tour, which involved five separate press nights, took the RSC to Japan where they were not welcomed with rapturous applause, a carnival of theatrical celebration and brow furrowing discussions about the subtleties of Shakespeare’s work, but with a ringing silence in which you could hear a pin drop: “We had 700 in the audience and the silence… In the interval there was no chatter, no laughter. There’s such intensity to their listening and the applause is very muted at the end.”

“I don’t think Othello is the most tragic, but there aren’t many laughs!”

A point of contention among many a Shakespeare-phile is the claim that Othello is the most tragic play, with more misery than King Lear and more gut-wrenching than Hamlet. Although the exact equation for measuring tragedy is yet to be announced, though scientists somewhere must be working on it, it would be fair to say that Othello is not a particularly happy story. It follows a fairly simple pattern; man and woman fall in love, but their love is not an easy one as there is an age gap and racial conflict. Then ‘best friend’, driven by a burning malevolence, sees fit to engineer an end to the affair, and maybe a life or two. Not much to raise a smile about there. Dillon, though, has her own opinions on the tragicness of the tragedies and Othello’s place in the rankings; “All the tragedies are tragic, aren’t they? I don’t think [Othello] is the worst, but there aren’t many laughs! Shakespeare is brilliant at writing about bad communications. He invents crossroads where at any point anything might happen… and inevitably the worst thing does. It’s pure genius.”

What if the situation had been different, if Iago hadn’t been such a bad guy? What if life for Othello, Desdemona and Iago had more resembled that of the cast of Friends? Maybe Iago could have settled down to watch a video with them, enjoyed an occasional stroll in the park. If he hadn’t engineered their downfall would Othello and Desdemona have struggled through their other problems, finding strength in each others love? Hopeless romantics will be sad to hear that Dillon thinks not. “Love can conquer all? I think that’s a fairy tale idea. [Othello] is not just a great guy that suddenly becomes jealous, there’s something fundamentally not quite right there in the first place.”

“Love can conquer all? I think that’s a fairy tale idea.”

Dillon’s own story is almost as compelling as one the Bard, with his lyrical poetry and all conquering theatrical might, could have thrown together on a cold winter’s night in Stratford. Having graduated from RADA, her first theatrical job was playing the eponymous heroine in Iphigenia at the Sheffield Crucible. Not a bad start to a career, and not a one off either. From there she went on to perform in The Master Builder at the Albery, in two of the BBC’s highest profile dramas Cambridge Spies and Hawking, and in the Stephen Fry directed film Bright Young Things. Although she is already starting to receive star billings, the ‘nervous newbie’ in her is alive and kicking. “Its terrifying, absolutely terrifying. You have to try and trick your head, because the minute you start going ‘Oh My God, it’s… whoever it might be’, you lose your bottle. And that’s no good.”

You can’t really blame her for feeling slightly intimidated. Already, in her short career, Dillon’s list of co-stars reads like a who’s who of British acting; Bright Young Things alone starred half of Britain’s quota of actors. In Cambridge Spies she worked with Toby Stephens – ‘who is just so confident and bold with his choices’ – Sam West and Tom Hollander. The Master Builder saw Dillon acting alongside sci-fi Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart and Sue Johnston, who both became fans of the young actress’s talents, “[Stewart] and Sue Johnston kept going on all these chat shows and talking about me. They said they were going to charge my agent!” Now, in Othello, she is working with one of the great Shakespearean actors of recent times, Sir Antony Sher, who is certainly making an impression on the young actress, “it’s like having a masterclass everyday with him in rehearsals.”

Dillon, in true aspiring actress style, is on a continual learning curve, drawing on the knowledge of those who have gone before her. “They say that learning comes from doing, and it’s true. Every job I have just absorbed what’s going on and taken something away with me onto the next one.”

“I’ve already been quoted in ‘Luvvies Corner’”

At one point in her life, Dillon’s future did not seem to lie in acting. Having received some extremely good A-level results, she was convinced by those around her that pursuing her dream of acting professionally would be a waste of her grades and intellect, and that she should go to university and get a ‘proper degree’. Their advice, although it may have been well intentioned, pushed her in the wrong direction and, in hindsight and having left her degree course after barely half a year, Dillon considers their view flawed. “Acting can be one of the most intelligent, academic things somebody can do. But [their view is] just the way some people look at it, especially in an all girls grammar school in Bournemouth.”

The talk of acting, and what it means to her, is when Dillon is at her most passionate. Always eloquent and with a keen interest inherent in her voice, talk of acting brings a real sparkle to Dillon which cannot be quenched. The attempts of others to put her off a career treading the boards seem to have had a lasting effect on the young headliner. “If that is all you know and all you want, you have to pursue it – otherwise you’ll be disappointed for the rest of your life. Don’t listen to all the sceptics out there who say you mustn’t do it.” Talking about what the profession means to her personally, Dillon is equally adamant; “it’s as much me as being a daughter is and being a friend is. It’s such an integral part of who I am.” Having been stung in the past though, she is wary not to sound too enthusiastic. “I’ve already been quoted in ‘Luvvies Corner’ in Private Eye, so I won’t do an ‘If I don’t act I’ll die’ quote for you.”

So, if dying is not the answer, what would Dillon be doing if she couldn’t act? “Nothing I think. I wouldn’t have stuck at anything, because nothing would have maintained my interest or fulfilled me. Maybe I’d have ended up with a little art studio in St Ives!”