As it says on the posters splashed outside the Adelphi theatre, a bodyguard never lets his guard down. So it’s somewhat of a surprise when musical theatre’s newest star Lloyd Owen tells me outright that he initially turned down his current role, leading film to stage adaption The Bodyguard, on the basis that “it sounded like a terrible idea”. When he puts it like this: “The idea of some fella singing ‘I will save you, I will protect you, I’ll dive in front of a bullet’ sounded awful ,” it’s hard to argue.
Luckily for us, as we’ll come to later, Owen changed his mind and, for the record, now the show has opened to the press I can reveal he doesn’t sing… much. But this characteristically no holds barred comment is only the start of a surprising interview, conducted a few days after previews began in a stolen half hour break between all the demands that come with being a West End star. To be honest I’d expected to talk about the pressures of being a heartthrob, uncover a secret desire to be a dancer and wrap it all up with a chat about his time in glamorous LA. Instead, the conversation quickly led to funding cuts, the danger of acting becoming an elitist profession and Iraninan film directors.
It’s not that surprising when you remember that aside from his long-running role as the Paul in Monarch Of The Glen – and I’m casting no aspertions on the intellectual depth of that very popular series you understand – his theatrical CV is more Cheek By Jowl than West End Wendy. Born to actors Glyn Owen and Patricia Mort, he grew up around “a mob of entertaining, troublesome, fascinating” actors involved in challenging the Lord Chamberlain during some of the most exciting days of a very controversial Royal Court. Falling into acting himself when, as a schoolboy who hated reading aloud in class, he ended up cast against his will in the school play and found he excelled at it, Owen tells me he thought “‘Okay, I’ll carry on doing this for a bit’ and then the next thing you know, that’s how I make my living these days.”
Of course, it wasn’t quite as easy as that. After leaving school at 16 he spent time with the acclaimed National Youth Theatre before his “little claim to RADA fame”, as he refers to it, followed. In short, Owen was expelled for taking a job that required him to take a term off in order to get a much-needed Equity card. “It didn’t make too much difference,” Owen tells me, an element of pride in his voice, “I joined Cheek By Jowl about six months later so I was fine.” Although his dad had both “the wild welsh streak and the very pragmatic Lancastrian,” so we might imagine he may not have taken the news well, these career decisions were where having a father who understood his profession became something Owen clearly treasures. “Once he realised that I was determined and wasn’t going to change my mind about it, it was great for us because we had loads to talk about. He’s dead now and I miss him a lot because I could always run any situation by him and he’d been through it.”
Like Owen, his father appeared at the National Theatre so would no doubt have agreed with his son’s reasons for taking a second look at a project that first appeared so “awful”. The first was Olivier Award-winning director Thea Sharrock’s involvement. “I’ve worked a lot at the National, never with Thea but I’ve known her for years. I thought that was quite incongruous that she was directing The Bodyguard.” While Owen claims that he’s done enough straight theatre not to worry about any stigma that may or may not exist about moving into such a high-profile musical production, Sharrock’s input was vital to his decision. “I did think about it,” Owen tells me, “Particularly because Thea was directing it, because that means the drama that exists was going to have as much weight as the music.”
“If you’d have told me I’d be doing The Bodyguard, I’d have laughed, but here I am, slap bang in the middle of it and loving it”
The second was the script. “The way that Alex [Dinelaris] had adapted it from the screenplay, he did a terrific job. It was a no brainer once I’d read the script actually. Frank Farmer is a great role.” Mysterious, cold and hardly your average romantic leading man, Owen will admit no pressure to make the audience fall in love with him the way many a filmgoer did in the 90s when the original Farmer, Kevin Costner, becoming a brooding icon. “It’s almost the opposite of a romantic lead in the sense that what’s clear about Frank Farmer is that he has a secret; nobody quite knows what he thinks or feels and that’s what becomes attractive to an audience,” Owen tells me. “What’s fascinating to me about its success [as a love story] is that it’s a sad ending. It’s about self-sacrificial love. It’s complicated and that’s again why I liked it.”
As an added bonus the producers cast Grammy Award-winner Heather Headley as his source of complication. From the show’s press launch event in May when she wowed even the most cynical hacks with a hair-raising performance of the show’s iconic I Will Always Love You, it was clear that she would do Whitney Houston justice while giving her own spin on the project. “I’ve said this before, but she’s a triple threat,” Owen enthuses with genuine admiration. “It basically means you can sing, act and dance. She’s fantastic and I always find that people with supreme talent are always quite humble because they have nothing to prove and she’s terrific.”
Owen is a self-confessed single threat; a reputation he’s hoping will draw people to a production he admits straight theatregoers might write off as sounding like “a cheesy idea”, sure that it will surprise a lot of people. “It’s not quite a full musical, it’s not quite a play, it straddles somewhere between the two. It’s a hybrid and that’s what’s really interesting about it.”
It may not be quite a “full musical”, but the experience has still been vastly different from the process the actor, previously more at home at the Donmar Warehouse, Young Vic and Royal Shakespeare Company, is used to. “What’s intriguing and slightly different is if you do a play at the National Theatre with 12 actors in a room, you just get 12 actors’ egos in the room with a director trying to work out how to do the play and it’s not always guaranteed if everyone’s going to get on. A lot of the time we do, but sometimes not and those egos cross. Here you have about 31 [people] – the dancers, the musicians, the band – and all these supreme egos, which of course they need in their different disciplines, cross over and meld and they don’t conflict at any point. There’s a totally different vibe from straight theatre, and I love straight theatre, but I’m really getting a kick out of the different energy that comes from musicals.”
It’s clear that Owen gets a kick out of theatre in general, telling me “If you could make a living on theatre wages, then I’d stick to doing that.” As the son of a working-class actor he’s worried about the future of what is undoubtedly a true passion for the actor. “London is its own weird market place, but the talent for the future is all over the country and all that needs to be supported. For me one of the major issues is the lack of funding for drama schools, it’s becoming a middle-class profession. I saw something recently when I thought ‘it doesn’t have any edge anymore’ and that’s sad in comparison to what my upbringing was around the Royal Court.”
“The talent for the future is all over the country and all that needs to be supported”
While Owen has worked extensively on screen to fund his less wallet-pleasing theatrical passion, recently living in LA – an experience he describes as residing in a truly working city, “Even when you’re at what is considered a ‘glamorous’ party, everyone’s working the room” – it’s the truth in theatre he always returns to, citing David Mamet’s famous observation as his inspiration. “When people go to the theatre once and they witness a moment of truth, seeing that moment and that truth, they’ll pay their money for the next 30 years to try and get that feeling again because it’s so special. Black Watch was the last thing I saw which did that for me. You get taken away and I think that experience is unbeatable.”
Of course landing the leads in two pilots in the US within three days of getting there, as Owen tells me, must have been exciting on its own merits. “Working with Hugh Jackman and Melanie Griffith at CBS was extraordinary, but it’s a longer story that I’ll tell you another day.”
While we could talk about the manipulative nature of cinema and what did happen with Jackman and Griffith all day, this interview is about The Bodyguard, the production that will have many people talking this week as the reviews are published. One person who won’t be affected however, is Owen, who throughout the interview radiates unashamed, unapologetic confidence but also an integral sense of sensibility. “I gave up reading reviews about eight years ago. Someone said ‘if you believe the good, you have to believe the bad’ and ultimately I’ve made the choices with the writer and the director so I’m just going to rely on those people to tell me where the changes need to be.”
So for a man whose life can “literally be changed in a phone call” from the right casting director, what’s next when he eventually stops playing the hero? “My favourite film of last year was A Separation, which is by the Iranian director [Asghar Farhadi]. It just blew me away, but I won’t be working with him because I don’t speak Iranian.” But, for the man who told me the most important thing was to keep an open mind because “If you’d have told me I’d be doing The Bodyguard, I’d have laughed, but here I am, slap bang in the middle of it and loving it”, who knows? All Owen can tell me, is that “there are plenty of people I’d love to work with and I hope they come my way,” adding with an ominous laugh, “or I hope I can knock my competition out of the way so I can get there.”