An Interview With Actor Orlando James

3rd April 2017

We sat down with actor, singer, filmmaker and photographer, Orlando James. The multi-talented actor has appeared in a number of theatre productions and will star in The Winter’s Tale showing at The Barbican this month.

Hi Orlando, Thank you for joining us today. Can you tell us about your background and when you realised you wanted to become an actor?
I grew up in East Sussex, near the coast. I always loved to play with different dreamed up characters when I was young. My older sister, (Jemima James) who is now a director, was a huge inspiration to me. She carved the path for us both.

I was very lucky to have some incredibly passionate and alternative drama teachers at school. They were curious and inspiring beyond the confines of any syllabus. They really opened my eyes to the possibilities of actually being an actor. By the time I was finishing school I knew that what I craved was the discipline and rigour of a training. I got into The Drama Centre London when I was still seventeen, and by the time I was eighteen I had moved to North London, in a big shared flat on the Holloway Road, and I've never looked back from there.
The training was as intense and as rewarding as I'd hoped. Now a few years in to my career I'm so glad I took that decision, and was certain of what I wanted, because there's a possibility I might still be trying to find that out if I had procrastinated, travelled, or approached acting in a less direct way. But that's me, it's different for everyone. There are so many approaches that make an actor.

You’ve been part of some incredible theatre shows – working with Cheek By Jowl and starring in Macbeth and ‘Tis Pity She's a Whore. Can you tell us about your career in theatre?
I have worked predominantly with Cheek by Jowl, an international touring company who have been at the cutting edge of theatre for over thirty years. I was cast as Malcolm in Macbeth when I first graduated. I learnt so much during that job and working with Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod has given me a confidence and a bravery that has hugely informed the way I approach all work now.I was lucky enough to be in the first major revivals of two iconic plays, firstly Alan Bennett's ‘The Madness of George III‘ starring David Haig, directed by the amazing Chris Luscombe – there is nothing that man doesn't know about comic timing – and secondly ‘Another Country' by Julian Mitchell, which was directed by Jeremy Herrin. Jeremy is so good at breaking preconceptions, and is currently creating some breathtaking work as Artistic Director of Headlong.

I recently played William Shakespeare in the West End comedy ‘Shakespeare in Love' – now that was a fantastic experience. So joyful, so full of the wonder and power of theatre. A dream job.
This amazing array of creative inspirations has really made my formative experiences on stage so rich and varied. I'm very lucky.

Out of all of the productions you’ve appeared in, which character was your favourite to play?
I would have to say, although the others were challenging and exciting in all the right ways, you can't beat playing William Shakespeare.

You play Leontes in The Winter's Tale. Can you tell us about the character? 
Leontes is the king of Sicilia, and right from the outset of this play we are plunged into his jealous paranoia. He suspects his wife, Hermione, of having an affair with his best friend, and King of Bohemia, Polixenes. This belief sets in motion a downward spiral of despair, violence and ultimately the destruction of his family, his kingdom, and himself.
Over time, and with acts of repentance, through sorrow, the kindness of strangers and the good will of humanity, we find our way back to some sort of redemption and hope. It is a very challenging role, one I am finding incredibly rewarding and the more I delve into the depths of this play, the more I find and am bowled over by. It is a very complicated play thematically, and requires some very sensitive interpretation and exploration. It's such a ride though. We are very proud of this production. We can't wait for it to come to The Barbican.

As well as a fantastic career in theatre you’ve also appeared in television series Dr Who and Six Wives. Did you find acting in a TV series very different to theatre? What did it teach you?
It is different. It's a difference that is quite subtle. It's not about completely shifting your mind set, but rather just adjusting your approach. In the end, truth is truth, whether you are performing live in a theatre, or navigating the intricacies of a film set.
I did get the chance to act with John Hurt. This was an entire schooling in just four short days. His intensity, his readiness to pick up anywhere in a scene, his technical prowess. I stood and soaked it all up.
I learned that though they are two very different environments, a TV set and a Theatre are inherently the same beast. A group of people coming together to craft a production. Each individual part, creating a whole. It's thrilling to collaborate in both, and to see or experience the end result is no less rewarding in either form.

Do you have any plans to explore any more TV roles or do you prefer acting in the theatre?
I would love to do some more screen work, whether that be in TV or Film. I think the way in which we consume our Television is changing. We will quite happily sit and watch what is essentially a 12 hour film, in episode form. I find this so intriguing. The fact that, as an actor, you can build a full character journey with the best of both worlds.
The detail of film but with the longevity of a series. That's something I'd love to do. This of course does not detract from my love of live theatre. Being in a room with a full audience, listening, watching, breathing the same air as you. That is as real as it gets.

We hear you’re also a very talented blues singer, can you tell us about that? 
I have always written songs, and when I first moved to London I got into gigging. I was a regular in Camden and Hackney. And it was a really exciting time for folk and blues music. It was the quiet before the storm. I supported bands like Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, Lucy Rose. They were the headline acts of small gig nights at this time. Within a year, they had all taken off. It was amazing to see.

Have you ever thought about pursuing a musical career? Or starring in a musical?
I could have pursued my music further, but chose to immerse myself in my acting training. But since then I have continued to write, and still perform regularly.
I love musicals. I'd love to be in a Sondheim or something similar with a more obscure style. I wouldn't profess to have the required training to sing in a more traditional musical theatre production. But never say never. I can confess to having a mild obsession with Mama Mia. I've seen the live show about ten times.

You’re very passionate about giving aide to young and aspiring actors and artists – can you tell us about your work with them? And why you believe it’s so important?
As a photographer and filmmaker, I learnt my skills doing free work for mates who needed a hand. Everyone was a winner, I got to learn on the job – which is really the only way – and they got the material they needed. And, as I progressed and started shooting professionally, I never really wanted to change from that way of working.

I will find theatre companies, musicians, artists, who need promotional material, funding application films, music videos, headshots, production shots, trailers for theatre shows, anything that will help them get the exposure they need. I personally get involved with the projects they are working on, this gives me the creative satisfaction, and gives them the level of input they would usually have to bust a gut to pay for. I keep my fees as low as possible.
This is important because media and promotion is moving on so fast and is so expensive, shutting the door to a word of unbelievably talented people. I developed all my skills through a creative community and from helping hands, and I think it's important to pass that on.

How would you describe your personal style and taste in fashion?
Hmmm. I can either be very smart or very casual. I tend toward a classic old Hollywood look in the vein of James Dean. Americana.

Who are you favourite designers? 
I love high end high street lines like Cos, Reiss. They do really interesting cuts. But I tend to shop more boutique. New York Saturday, ACNE, folk, Samsoe and Samsoe, Kestin Hare.
I also have a lot of time for Vivienne Westwood. Pierre Cardin. Helmut Lang. I like to be expressive but sometimes get disheartened by the lack of variety in men's fashion. There's a bit too much caution.

Finally, can you tell us your plans for the next year? 
We finish The Winter's Tale in Russia in June then it's back to London where I will be gigging a lot. I have a plan to record an EP too. I have a few screen projects in the pipeline, but nothing confirmed yet. I wait with baited breath; very excited about this year

Photography by Will Bremridge.
Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale will be showing at the Barbican, London from 5th Apr 2017 – 22 Apr 2017. Book tickets here.
The Winter’s Tale will be streamed live from the Barbican Centre on 19 April at 7.30pm. You can watch it here.

Interview by Sophie Exton

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