Manipulation, execution, murder, poisoning; it’s all been part of an average day’s work for William Houston over the past year. As part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gunpowder season, now playing at Trafalgar Studio 1, Houston has just finished playing the remarkably evil Sejanus in Sejanus: His Fall only to move onto the only-slightly-less-odious Flaminius in Believe What You Will. Matthew Amer met the RSC regular to discuss the toll the roles are taking on him, the draw of the RSC and posing for Vanity Fair…
“It’s a bit tight backstage, but the feel on the stage and the feel through the audience is excellent.” Such is William Houston’s take on working at the Trafalgar Studios. My own take is that ‘a bit tight’ might be an understatement; we have to pass through what is more like a kissing gate than a door to find our way from behind the scenes, into the auditorium, where we perch at the very top of the steeply raked stalls and gaze down on the stage.
You’d think it would be an odd feeling for an actor, to take the position more normally associated with those paying to watch them perform, but apparently not for Houston, who, in his younger days, used to ritualistically touch every seat in the house before a performance. These days he has left superstition behind and has a quick shout and a coffee instead.
"You have to keep reminding yourself that you are not a complete sociopath."
It is a cold day – when haven’t they been this year? – and Houston’s mane-like ginger hair is peeking out from beneath a woolly hat when we meet. He speaks in a drawl which gives away his Irish ancestry, but also owes much to both Lloyd Grossman and Sean Connery; it is a kind of bass rumble that you can feel in your chest, but is as quiet and unthreatening as a sleeping bulldog.
Houston looks physically tired as we chat, occasionally rubbing his eyes as if to check they are still open. This state of affairs is not due to constant partying, but to the exertion that playing the nefarious Sejanus has put him through, not just during the recent two week run, but also the prior year spent rehearsing and performing. One can see, at the end of Houston’s performance, that the show has drained him. The eyes which previously glared manically while spouting the torrents of a madman now show nothing but glazed emptiness. “It’s one of those plays where you have to go into the dark recesses of yourself in order to pull it out and make it convincing,” Houston explains. “The man is morality free, and I’m not. It’s tiring on the soul, because you have to keep reminding yourself that you are not a complete sociopath. I think I’m ready to let it go.”
In Stratford, while Houston was playing one evil Roman – Flaminius – in the evening, he was rehearsing the other – Sejanus – during the day; he had no respite from the horror. This is not a great position to be in when you are an actor that takes a character into your very heart and soul, as Houston does. So soul-wrenching was the run that for a time it gave him nightmares; he was being visited by Hitler in his dreams: “Every night he was holding a gun to my head and screaming at me as only Hitler can. It was horrifying!”
It is lucky, then, that the company performing the Gunpowder season have such a strong bond with each other. Houston suggests it may be due to the nature of the shows: on stage they deal with tragedy and evil, so they compensate with friendship off stage. Whether it is for that reason or not, he is grateful: “I’ve never needed more love within a company of actors than I have doing these roles, because the characters are so loathed by everybody else; they’re hated.”
Talk turns to the method of acting and it is clear that Houston knows exactly the technique he would like to employ. He talks with respect and awe about actors such as Christian Bale and Daniel Day Lewis, who turn themselves over to a role, going to extreme lengths to ‘become’ a character. “I just think it’s a fascinating way to work, absolutely become someone else”, he says, “as long as you can bet back to the self.”
"I’ve never needed more love than I have doing these roles."
The pitfall that he draws attention to is something he is having to deal with at the moment – “these [characters] that you have to dig so deep to find, they’re also much harder to let go of” – playing Sejanus and Flaminius. It takes longer to draw the real William Houston out of the depths he has sunk to while playing the nefarious Romans. Drink does not help – “you just forget character, it’s still there” – so you have to rely on others to drag you out. It is lucky that Houston has a partner in London to remind him of himself, but, as Houston says, “[if] the self is all about the work, that’s the tricky thing”. Even when he has drawn the real Houston out of the character he faces another stage of the process: “There is a sort of a no-man’s-land where you have to sit with yourself for a while and that can be painful.”
It all sounds rather glum, even the story about finishing in Henry V and not believing he should take public transport, being royalty, but don’t be fooled, it’s not all bad. It has turned Houston’s mind to the idea of having children – “I think I need something that’s just going to make me rush home and really forget about myself” – and he really does love working with the RSC.
His first season with the Stratford-based company came in 1994, taking small roles to begin with and working his way through the ranks. Houston holds these formative years with the RSC as the ones that made him the actor he is today. He talks with great pleasure, and again, respect, of understudying Iain Glen, Clive Wood and, in particular, Alex Jennings when he was playing Hamlet. “It fundamentally changed me as an artist. He made me aware of what was possible on stage”, explains Houston. “His choices; so high stakes, highly dramatic, but not going over the edge, not going over the top. Actors that get to work in Stratford and understudy people of that calibre; they’ll be the classical actors of our future.”
But there is more to it than just enjoying the work and the ability to grow as an actor, for Houston the environment built by the company is also very important. Houston’s parents divorced when he was young, he also lost a sister in his childhood. Without psychoanalysing things too deeply it is clear to Houston that the feeling of community and safety that the company promotes means a lot: “The security of a family is very important to me. The RSC certainly provide that. They really care for their people, their staff.”
He’ll be back with the RSC next year too, taking part in the ambitious Complete Works Festival, which will see all of Shakespeare’s plays performed over the course of a year in Stratford. In fact, Houston has the honour of leading the cast for the very last show to be staged in main house at Stratford before it is gutted. He will play Coriolanus opposite Janet Suzman as his mother in a production directed by Gregory Doran.
"The Complete Works is about a lot more than the Vanity Fair cover shoot!"
As a taster of what is to come, he recently took part in a photo shoot for the front cover of Vanity Fair in which he appears with other Complete Works stars including Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. I get the feeling he enjoyed the experience. “They had rails of fantastic clothes and you could choose whatever you wanted,” Houston says, beaming. “I was wearing a watch that it would take me a year to earn the money to buy. Obviously the Complete Works is about a lot more than the Vanity Fair cover shoot!”
With the spirit lightened after talk of roles sapping the soul, and with chat turning to Coriolanus and the possibility of bulking up for the role, Houston expounds on his theory about Roman names: “Maybe Coriol actually is Roman for ‘big fat’, whereas Sej, I think, is probably Roman for ‘likes it up the’.”
Houston’s work is not limited to the RSC. He has also performed at venues including Salisbury Playhouse, the Bush and the National Theatre, where he starred opposite Greg Hicks in the Peter Hall-directed Bacchae. “I was playing a fascist, racist, sexist, homophobic, psychotic king who is manipulated and seduced by Dionysus and becomes a sort of pre-op transvestite and is then eaten by his own mother. I played the mother as well!” Houston’s own mother wasn’t taken by the production, but he had a whale of a time working with Hicks – “We spent most of the time talking to Greg standing on his head” – and Hall – “He is like the big daddy of classical theatre”.
Houston is nothing short of effusive about the theatre professionals he respects and has enjoyed working with. Of Gregory Doran, who directed Sejanus: His Fall and will again direct Houston in Coriolanus, Houston proclaims “I find being with him ludicrously easy”, while future co-star Suzman is “the business”. “Being in a room with Ray Winston”, who Houston worked with on ITV’s Henry VIII “is enjoyable. You could be eating grapes or anything, it wouldn’t matter what you were doing, he is one hell of a man.”
When something or someone intrigues or pleases Houston, he is nothing but enthusiastic about them. He reacts the same to the playwrights whose words he speaks, proclaiming that they are offering him an education. This enthusiasm is spread far and wide through Houston’s own work in education. He teaches courses for students from Duke University, utilising his own love of acting and Shakespeare as a teaching tool.
"He is like the big daddy of classical theatre."
Talk returns to performance, and the fact that Houston does not think about the lines or the blocking on stage, he is so consumed with the character. It’s a process he refers to as taking the role into his muscles, and gives him the ability to react however he wants to what is going on. It is an effect that is possibly hard to explain without sounding ever-so-slightly silly: “You can listen to an incredible rendition of some violin concerto done by an absolute master or you can hear it done by an incredibly proficient musician, and you can hear the difference. They’re the same notes, [or for acting] they’re the same words, but digesting the text right into the muscles leaves you free to play jazz in the moment.” Thinking back over the explanation, Houston qualifies it with his head in his hands: “That may be one of the w**kiest things I’ve ever said!”
Believe What You Will plays at Trafalgar Studio 1 until 11 Feb, when it is followed in the Gunpowder season by Speaking Like Magpies, in which Houston plays James I.