Glass meets young actor on the rise – Orlando James

WHEN Glass meets Orlando James at the Barbican Centre, it’s his wide-reaching smile that greets us first. Having taken his role as Leontes in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale around the world, the young East Sussex-born actor, and now London resident, is finally back and performing on home turf. The Barbican is therefore a second home of sorts for him, at least until the play ends its run there later this month. The day is unseasonably sunny, and he remarks affectionately about the building while we navigate the stunning outdoors section of the Barbican’s grounds.

He clearly feels at ease there, and knows his way around. Tall, with a swoop of blonde hair and a defined, kind face, James is very clearly leading man potential. It’s fitting then that he is starring as the lead in the production, brought to life by the theatre company Cheek by Jowl, portraying the maniacal king Leontes in what was one of Shakespeare’s last plays. James has also appeared on television in a range of roles including Doctor Who and, more recently, the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  Our conversation covers everything from James’ long-running affection for the bard, to training alongside Emilia Clarke, to his under-the-radar music career.

_ONO1087selection_webOrlando James. Photograph: Camilla Glorioso

Going back to a time before all of this began, how did you first get into acting?
I had some really great teachers in school and they really pushed me to give it a go. I was quite young, but I’m glad I was bitten by the bug so early because I had all sorts of things I had been interested in but nothing I was really passionate about. I don’t know if I had that absolute penny drop moment, I think it developed over time. When other people start to validate that you actually do have a talent for something, it changes things.

Because even if you are just 16, you can think, “I would like to do that, I’m good at it and I’m passionate about it”, but when other people start saying you should think about actually pursuing something, it sets you thinking about the actualities of that career. And as soon I started to do that I recognised that this is what I wanted to do.

So after leaving school in Battle, East Sussex you went to the prestigious Drama Centre London, which counts actors like Tom Hardy, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth as alumni. How did you find that?
It’s an amazing school and it lives up to its reputation. It’s based on very intensive training. A lot of people have very personal relationships with their drama schools and I think that the Drama Centre is no exception. It somehow creates this magical familial bond among its students. Graduates from 40, 50 years ago would meet up with us whilst we were there, and we would talk for hours about drama. There is a real unseen bond between the community of that school and I think it is down to the intensity of the training, and the fact that it is a very collaborative space you are all marking together.

My best friends in the world are from that time in my life, because those are formative years and they form you collectively. And it is also great fun, the entire thing was an incredible experience. I had just moved to London, the big smoke, I was living in a big flat share and just enjoying everything London had to offer.

And you were in the same class as Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke, were you close?
Oh, we were all really close in our year. You all get really really close together at the Drama Centre, it was a very open plan sort of place so you’re all off to ballet together in your tights and such, there’s not many places to hide, and that’s a really comforting thing to be that close with people. And yes, people go on and are very successful in very different ways. Some people catapult to stardom and some have a much slower ascent. I think that everyone’s journey is different even though you all came from the same place, and I like that.

_ONO1042selection_webOrlando James. Photograph: Camilla Glorioso

You seem to be very drawn to working with Shakespeare in your career. Where does that come from?
When I was at school we did a lot of Shakespeare in drama and we also studied Shakespeare in English literature. Some of my best teachers were my English teachers, so even before I started acting properly I had a real interest in his works as literature. It’s one of those things that people are scared of because they think it’s not for them, they think it’s way too high brow which I can understand, but actually I think it’s one of the most universal bodies of work that I know because it has such a real, human truth to it. I know I said people shouldn’t be scared of it, but it is really challenging, and I find that challenge really thrilling.

Why do you think people are so apprehensive of Shakespeare?
People put a lot on top of Shakespeare, trying to make sense of it and trying to make it accessible and actually that’s just muddying the water. Yes, it is written in a strange, old language, but it talks about things that are very universal and very pure, and if you get rid of all of that extra construct, you get to the nub of the story. That’s when you arrive at something that is very understandable and I think that’s the goal with any Shakespeare production and certainly the way that Cheek by Jowl works, which is to clear away the rubbish. As a result, one of the main things you can say about their productions is that they are incredibly clear and they tell a story, and that story is one of the most important parts of the experience.

The archaic language definitely plays a part in people feeling overwhelmed by Shakespeare, so how do you find working with the dialogue?
It has lots of limitations, like the verse and the pentameter and all of these big scary words. But actually, they’re your friends, they’re the things that really help you, if you stick with the rhythm of the text, and the poetry of it, the way the words are crafted, all the hard work is done for you. If you give yourself to those rhythms and you are technically supported, then it will make sense. It’s so different to the way you talk normally, but it’s not difficult to get into if you’re prepared to go to the text rather then trying to drag the text to you. Trying to make it modern won’t make it easier, you have to be the one that takes the leap to it, then you and the text are working together.

_ONO1079selection_webOrlando James. Photograph: Camilla Glorioso

In The Winters Tale, you’re portraying a character that does terrible things due to his own ego and insecurity. How do you identify with a character like that?
When you look at the story of play and you look at not only what Leontes goes through, but what he drags everyone else through, the stakes are so high it’s unbelievable. He destroys his Kingdom, his marriage and his children and so there are very destructive elements to him, but I think when you approach a character like this, or any character that’s acting in the way they shouldn’t be, you can’t judge them.

You need to find  the logical, instinctual reasons why this person is behaving this way. As soon as you start judging the character, as an actor you won’t be able to communicate them properly. You need to find the reasons why these terrible acts are good decisions and you have to find the logic behind your character’s choices.

Leontes commits some terrible acts in this play. Since you have to embody him wholly night after night, do the effects of that ever stay with you?
Sort of. I think, in order to access these emotions, you have to bring parts of yourself to the table. You have to investigate your own life and find things that you’ve experienced that you can then endow your performance of what this character is feeling with. You have to put yourself in the mindset of the character. There are residues of that when you go home, but you sort of have to shake it off and understand that it is part of the job. The rewarding joy of it is that you only bring it out on the stage in the moment with other characters telling the story. If you give yourself that licence to just let it go when the curtain falls, that’s actually doubly rewarding. It means that you can keep yourself and your character separated.

What was it like to tour this play around the world, how did the audiences differ in their engagement with the performance?
It’s an inexplicable thing really, we opened the show in Paris almost two years ago and we had our previews there, so you are still forging what your production is going to be, but with a French audience and a French sensibility. Then before you know it you’re going off to Italy, then you’re in Spain, so you’re constantly having to shift your understanding of how the play is being received. Audiences in different countries react differently en masse to ideas that they see in a play, so it’s interesting to see what changes from country to country. The most ready reaction is laughter, if you get that you can hear and feel it, it’s tangible, and so different cultures laugh at completely different things. It constantly keeps you on your toes because you can’t play to a certain thing every time as you don’t know how it will be received. 

We were in America just after the election, and this play is about a tyrant who is a misogynist and acts on impulse, someone who is very childlike in his reactions, and that’s not judgemental, he just has very little filter between what he believes is true and how he acts. Those parallels are something that didn’t exist when we rehearsed and opened the show, so it’s kind of weird that our production has become more relevant than it was a year ago. It is sad but also interesting. At a time when conflict seems to be the most prevalent thing in society, this play is ultimately about hope, and if people who come and see the show take that away from the experience, then I guess that’s a triumph in itself. 

_ONO1105selection_webOrlando James. Photograph: Camilla Glorioso

Whereas many young actors gravitate towards screen acting, and you have appeared on television several times, you’ve mainly stuck with stage performances. Why is that?
I think it’s certainly what I have more experience in, and the opportunities that have come my way have mainly been stage work. I do feel like there is something unbreakably magic about theatre, about performing live in a room with an audience who are there sharing the experience with you at the same time. That’s not to say acting on screen is any less rewarding, but it is a different thing. I don’t put a barrier between the two because I think to be an actor is to have a varied career and have work that spans all the mediums, for example I do a lot of voice work and radio as well.

Outside of acting you also sing – what influences your music?
I’m a kind of modern folk singer, I take influence from Irish music and traditional English music, but it’s very much in the singer songwriter vein of the the gaslight years in New York. I like rambling songs about romance and I try to be very lyrical and poetic, I love people like Jackson C Frank, who is a really unsung hero of folk music. Thats kind of where I come from, I do have a big blues influence as well but in general I do light story-based songwriting.

I couldn’t find any examples online to listen to – do you plan to record anything soon?
I am planning on recording something this summer when I’m done with this show but in general I prefer to just have things heard live in the room. There’s just something about performing live that a recording can’t compete with. I’m much better live than I am in the studio tracking something down, and also because of the storytelling nature of the songs I write, I operate best when I’m looking at people and telling them the story, whether that’s on stage or with a guitar. Maybe that’s a bit analog of me, but I prefer to not have much recorded and just have an experience with the people who come and see my shows.

The way in which I work, I focus very much on what I’m doing at that moment in time. So whilst my most productive time of writing songs is actually when I’m working in theatre or film and have breaks to fill with songwriting, that is also the time when I can’t perform because I’m either on stage every night or filming. I tend to go in cycles but I think I’m quite happy with it as a hobby, it’s just another form of self expression and another form of being an artist.

What are your aspirations for the future of your career?
I would like to bring everything in my career up to a level playing field. I would like to ideally do some film work, I’ve been obsessed with movies since I was a kid so to be in films would be amazing. I also love the way in which television is moving now, with these very long-form shows and with Netflix. We will just watch hours and hours of television in one sitting, binge-watching what is essentially a massive film, and I love that because it gives the actor the opportunity to really go into detail. Its the perfect combination of the quality and drama of film, but with the scope of a television series to do it in. I’d love to do that. Also, more theatre, more tv, more radio, more of everything! I’m very hungry for it.

When you first graduate as an actor, you spend a period where you’ll take anything, and then you cool down a bit and think, “what are my steps forward”? I’ve now come full circle and I’m in a place where I’ve got this hunger again, which I really don’t want to ever lose. I want to be 80 years old and be hungry to do some theatre, you know? I think that would be a good way to go.

_ONO1061selection_webOrlando James. Photograph: Camilla Glorioso

by Thomas Marrington

Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale will be showing at the Barbican, London until April 22, 2017. Book tickets here.

The Winter’s Tale will be streamed live from the Barbican Centre on April 19 at 7.30pm. You can watch here.

Orlando can be found on twitter @_OrlandoJames_