His performance in Henry V has been hailed by the media as ‘career making stuff’ and as the Royal Shakespeare Company begins its run of the entire cycle of History Plays - Richard II, Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two and culminating in Henry V - Alex Hassell’s talents are showing no signs of wavering.
Not content with performing in one of Britain’s most renowned theatre companies, Alex set up his own - The Factory – which kicked off with a production of Hamlet that used only props supplied by the audience, and in which any of the actors could be called on to play the lead role with just 30 seconds notice. A big ask you might think, but not for someone with the best possible training…
Alex – we’re alumni of the same drama school - The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama! What are your memories of it?
I had a great time, we had a fantastically talented year and that really helps I think, it all depends on who you’re surrounded by. Having done amateur stuff since I was 12-years-old, going and being among people who were incredibly talented, better than me and that I could attempt to emulate was important. Performing Chekov and Shakespeare, and being cast-against-type. It was really exciting - I loved it.
Some people in that situation would say ‘Oh God, I’ll never make it’ whereas other people push themselves to do better.
I think that tends to be what I do. I’ve realised over the years - mainly because of insecurity – that I have a really strong work ethic. I’m worried about being humiliated and therefore I work really hard to guard against that!
Well you’re pulling it off!
Thank you – at least people so far are conned!!
So what led you into acting?
I was the youngest of four kids, and the only way to get attention was to show off! Going into acting was the best way to clearly show-off and be given reign to do it. I went to see a musical when I was 12-years-old and instantly fell in love with it. I looked in the local paper and they were doing auditions for Bugsy Malone which was my favourite thing in the world at the time. I auditioned and got the part of Bugsy.
Straight in at the top!
Exactly! I thought my life might continue to be that easy, unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that.
Am dram to RSC. That’s quite a jump!
I’ve been knocking away at it for 15 years now. But I still really use the stuff I learned in amateur dramatics – it got the sense of the mechanics of being on stage into my bones which I still use now in the RSC. I’m just pleased to be given the opportunity to play parts which are complex and challenging, and make me sort of scared that I might not be good enough to do it. That’s what I’m after I guess.
How often as an actor are you actually in your comfort zone?
I love a challenge, so I feel compelled to put myself into positions that are scary and make me uncertain and that I don’t know if I can live up to. It drives me on – to attempt to inhabit the imaginative space of a complex situation and brain of a person in a turbulent experience in their life. That’s really interesting to me.
You’ve acted in lots of Shakespeare plays – you’re currently in Henry IV Part One and Two, and Henry V for the RSC, and you’ve also played in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, The Tempest… Which has been your favourite so far?
Hamlet is an amazing role and that was with my own theatre company, so had a whole added sense of achievement, pressure and fear to it! It’s also a unique experience to get the chance to play three Shakespearean characters over the course of three plays as I am now at the Barbican in the History Plays - to put them all together and play out a character on such a long arc and on such a wide canvas – eventually becoming Henry V.
And what part are you yearning to play next?
There are lots of parts I’ve not played yet that I’d love to – Macbeth, King Lear. But Hamlet is a part I’ve always gravitated towards since I was young, so that holds a special place in my heart.
It must be a heart stopping moment when you’re standing up there doing your ‘To be or not to be’ monologue!
Yeah – and like the St. Crispin’s Day speech I’m doing now in Henry V which is famous. It’s in your brain certainly - every time I say, ‘This day is called the feast of Crispin’ I feel the audience sit forward thinking – ‘Right, come on then!’. That’s scary, but useful in a way. I guess part of me wants to be measured against the great actors of the past. Part of the compulsion to play these parts is to see if people think I’m crap or if I’m good in comparison.
And there are some biggies before you – Gielgud, Olivier, Branagh… You’re not just walking into this part thinking I’ll just do my own thing.
Even at the RSC the lineage of actors who have played these parts are incredible. I try and make it useful to myself – the play is very much about the pressure of your ancestors and trying to live up to what history is asking of you, your lineage and your bloodline. So the fact that I feel that I am to some degree carrying a torch to those actors who came before me in the RSC, I try to allow it to be useful rather than scary.
Prince Hal who you play is very different to our current Prince of Wales… He’s a bit of a bad boy isn’t he?
Yes – it’s interesting having our royal Prince Harry who was wayward, controversial and naughty in the past, and who is now doing an amazing U-turn into an incredibly upstanding and admirable young man. Prince Charles came to see Henry IV Part One and Part Two…
No pressure there then…
I did think of him – doing all the stuff about lineage and history – and what he would think of that notion. Of course being a prince these days is very different to what it was then, but still, to think of young Harry being talked of all the time as being disreputable… I wonder what he made of that.
So how would you describe the History Plays to someone not familiar with Shakespeare’s work?
It’s about the battle for the throne and the generational cycles of leadership – a lot like Game of Thrones. And what it means to be a normal human being thrown into the role of prime-minister, war-lord and the king. Plus God is speaking through you – that’s a mental thing to get your head round! Hal’s father stole the crown, so he wasn’t even born to do it. He’s just a posh bloke, who suddenly finds himself prince and then king.
Like our church, our government and our obsession with celebrity all rolled into one! Plus going to war. Did you have a lot of stage combat to learn for such a physical role?
In Henry IV Part One I have a massive stage fight. I say massive – it’s only about two minutes long – but it feels massive! It took a long time to create and choreograph, and in all the armour and costume it’s knackering. It’s the first time Hal kills someone, then his surrogate father dies, then his real father dies, then he has to take a load of people to war and lots of them die! It’s pretty serious stuff! But it’s also funny – the plays are full of humour – which is unexpected for the History Plays. War is absurd to some degree, and the camaraderie needed to go to war often involves trying to make each other laugh.
It’s a real skill to negotiate and persuade people to do what you want, especially in a field of war.
At the moment as well, with the whole situation in Syria in terms of whether we should be bombing them or not and what war costs – innocent people’s lives – it’s very prescient.
You’re working with Sir Antony Sher – that’s amazing.
I’ve worked with him a bunch now, we did Death of a Salesman together too, and my mum in the play was played by Dame Harriet Walter – so I had a Sir and a Dame as my parents! You learn a lot from being with actors who have done such incredible work.
And wasn’t your wife in it too?
Yes, and she’s in Richard II and Henry IV Part One and Two. It’s very lucky, because I was around and knew I was doing Death of a Salesman, she read it and saw the part of Miss Forsyth and wrote to the director Gregory Doran, and he agreed she’d be great in the part too! And through that she’s ended up in the History Plays as well.
Well that’s a lesson in being proactive!
You’ve got to. This is something I’ve learned with creating my own theatre company – as an actor you can’t sit and wait for the phone to ring. If you wait for someone to hand you something all the time you might be waiting for ever. You need to push yourself out there and engage with the work. At best we are a craft trying to be an art, which has been turned into an industry. If you wait for the industry to allow you to engage with your art then you’ve got it the wrong way around.
So you set up your own theatre company [The Factory] - how did you do it?
Well it wasn’t that I wanted to be an artistic director, I just wanted to act in complicated stuff and I didn’t want to wait for someone else to let me. So me and a friend from drama school set it up. It started very small – doing workshops once a week – then shows on Sundays to small audiences and allowing it to build up. It didn’t feel intimidating because we weren’t aiming to be huge. We’re ambitious for the work in the room to be as truthful as possible, rather than ambitious to get bigger all the time as a company. If you’re constantly thinking about the industry it can warp your creativity and imagination. It’s nice to have somewhere that isn’t about that.
Your company has some pretty impressive patrons Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Mark Rylance – are they friends?
I worked with Mark Rylance at the Globe and he’s very inspirational about the way he thinks about work and the company.
Is it true he had a chicken coop on the roof of the Globe when he worked there?
I don’t know about that, but at the beginning of every season he would create a ‘bundle’ I think it’s called, which is part of a Shamanic ritual about putting all of the company’s wishes and good will together. It would hang under the stage and at the end of the season he would throw it into the Thames. He’s very spiritual - a bit of a wild cat! He ploughs his own furrow and if people want a piece of it they have to come to him. I think that’s a really cool way to do things, but it takes a lot of nerve and talent to pull off!
And Ewan McGregor – that was a wonderful turn of events. We were doing a rehearsal session for Hamlet at the Globe, and I walked through the foyer and he was there. I thought, ‘That’s Ewan McGregor, but I’m not going to say anything because that would be weird.’ And then he came up to me and said, ‘You’re in that TV show at the moment [Bonkers, on ITV].’ I was like ‘WHAT! I’ve only ever played the main part in one TV show. It turns out Ewan and his wife were massive fans! He hadn’t seen the last episode, and as we had the same agent I sent him the episode plus a letter about my theatre company and he came to see Hamlet – our first production. The way we did Hamlet was mental – we threw loads of stuff to chance and it was really spontaneous. He came to a really exciting performance and became a fan of the company. He’s an amazingly charismatic and lovely man. You want to be his best friend the second you meet him.
Well it sounds like you’re well on your way! That’s so serendipitous! To bang into him and it turns out he’s a fan of you!
It was really cool. People responded to the purity of intention of The Factory. Doing it for the love of the art and the craft, rather than just trying to get bums on seats and make money. People were very generous and charitable because they knew they weren’t being had.
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes recently said that Shakespeare’s language was inaccessible without ‘a very expensive education’. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that’s bullshit! I went to a comprehensive in Essex. I think it’s useful to think of Shakespeare as another language. It’s English – as in our language is built out of it – but lots of the words are now not in use, or Shakespeare created them, or the meaning of the words has now changed and the grammatical rules are all different. Having a love of it helps too.
And the fact it’s written in verse.
I think Shakespeare wrote in verse because it mirrored the way we talk. So if you try to think of it as a different language that you need to learn the rules of, you start to understand it more just like a foreign language. The difficulty with people doing Shakespeare is that they try to make it ‘accessible’, which I think is a difficult word, because it often means playing to the lowest common denominator or treating the audience like idiots. I think if the actors and the company understand the verse and the way to speak Shakespeare it’s very clear. Usually people don’t understand it because the actors don’t understand it either and essentially they don’t know what they’re talking about!
Recently a celebrity gossip column commented on the tattoo on your right arm. They thought that Shakespeare and tattoos didn’t mix.
[Alex shows me the circular tribal tattoo on his forearm.] We talked in the company about whether I should have it out or not. Part of me thought, ‘Well everyone knows I’m an actor so what difference does it make?’ And also the production style is part medieval, part Elizabethan but with modern influences. So it seemed fine, and fitted in with Hal being disreputable. What’s more important to me is what is going on between me and the other people in the scene. Are the audience seeing something useful? You can do that in a pair of pants, it doesn’t matter!
Now that’s an idea! Have you got more tatts tucked away?
I haven’t – but I think if I wasn’t an actor I might have a lot more.
Onto the quick-fire round. You’re stranded on Desert Island – what three things do you take with you?
Can my wife be one?
My wife, an iPod and a DVD player.
What one song and one DVD?
Atoms for Peace by Thom Yorke – I LOVE that song. And film wise – I think it would have to be A Streetcar Named Desire because just watching Brando in that blows my mind. His performance knocks me out, he’s the god of acting as far as I’m concerned.
You’re an Essex lad originally - from South-end – do you miss the sea?
When I go to see my mum, the sea’s there. And my mother in law lives in Portobello in Edinburgh, and when we go and see her we’re right by the sea there too so I get enough of it.
Beach holiday chilling or physical adventure exerting?
We try to travel around in-between jobs, back-packing and getting as many experiences as we can, throwing ourselves into the county we’re visiting. Then maybe we end by lying on a hammock for a week reading books. There’s an amazing pattern in my life at the moment where I learn lines for the next job I’m doing lying on a hammock in some beautiful country which is very jammy and I don’t quite know how that’s happened!
When you get time what are you watching on TV?
House of Cards and Generation Kill with David Simon. And The Wire is the best TV programme in existence!
My boyfriend is still trying to get me to watch it!
People can tell you to watch The Wire and that it’s the best TV show ever, and big it up to you as much as they want. And it will still be even better than that when you watch it. It’s amazing.
OK, you’ve convinced me. That’s my New Year resolution.
Now, it’s a well-kept secret that when you are at drama school they make you charge around a room pretending to be an animal. I know this. You know this. What animal were you?
I was a potto which is like a very slow moving Koala type thing and its centre of gravity moves around its body as it moves so that was really interesting. And I was a cockatoo. Because they smash their beak against trees, I remember I sellotaped a pillow to a table so I could smash my face into it.
My pony went down in Central history. I even jumped a chair. Do you have any recurring dreams or nightmares?
I used to have a recurring dream, this was before I did Hamlet, about being in the wings of a production of Hamlet and being pushed on stage and I didn’t know the moves. I then weirdly created my own production whereby the audience would choose who played who on the night, so I wouldn’t know I was playing Hamlet until literally 30 seconds before it started. So essentially I made my own nightmare come true. And now I have a lot of zombie based dreams which is weird. I was incredibly stoned when I went to see 28 Days Later and it really, really fucked my head up! I think maybe that might be part of it! Having weird flashbacks!
28 Days Later is a great zombie movie! Christmas jumper and mulled wine or quick cold dip in the Serpentine?
Christmas jumper and mulled wine – I can’t afford to be ill at the moment.
Fake tree or real deal?
Real, a Fraser Fir I think. It smells good and doesn’t drop its needles.
Lastly, what is the saying or quote you live your life by?
When I set up The Factory we painted ‘If you build it they will come’ onto our wall from Field of Dreams. That seems to be very useful. With acting, if you just concentrate on the thing that you care about, and don’t worry too much about trying to please other people, one day it will all pay off.
Alex will be appearing in ‘Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V’ on tour in China and Hong Kong from 18 Feb – 13 March Joined by ’Richard II’ when they tour to New York from 24 March – 1 May at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.’