Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Q&A with John Simm - Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass June 21st 2016 (notes)

(This post is in the process of being edited)
On the 21st June 2016, I had the opportunity to be present at a Q&A with John Simm at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the heart of London's West End.
John Simm is best known for is roles in TV Shows such as Life on Mars and Doctor Who and also for his stage roles in Hamlet, The Homecoming and Speaking in Tongues. He held a Q&A session as part of the Masterclass programme, offering workshops and advice for free to people aged 16-30.
I took as many notes as I could as I was very interested in what he had to say and I wanted to share it all with you. I have separated this blog post into categories, they are (in order): Hamlet, Stage vs Screen, Advice for Young Actors, Social Media, Three Days in the Country, Working in America, Reviews, Accents, The Master, Life on Mars and Influences.

One of the first questions put forward to John was about his portrayal of Hamlet at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. He talked about how he really enjoyed the role, despite the very fast-paced 4-week rehearsal time and also the fact that he had to have an osteopath because he "shouldn't have been playing the role at the age of 40". 
John also mentioned a piece of advice he had been given by Mark Rylance that he had written on the front of his script: 'Hamlet is a family drama. Be in the moment. Don't let the audience worry about the ideas'.
During his talk about Hamlet, the topic of going 'dry' on stage (to forget your lines) arose. John had a laugh at the fact that you simply cannot improvise Shakespeare and that Philip Glenister had once said, that if that does happen you should say 'I am away to my corner to think a while'. The audience laughed at this, including myself. Continuing about being dry, John explains that if that does happen when performing Shakespeare then you should just carry on with the next line and hope the rest follows, however, he knows how nerve racking forgetting your lines is, explaining it almost like an out of body experience where everything slows down and you fly above your own body and see yourself on the stage.
Each performance of Hamlet was different and John reflected that the further it got into the run of the show, the more he started to discover how bits could be said differently and acted differently. An example of this was on the last performance of Hamlet during the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes. John said a certain line (he couldn't remember the exact line) differently to how he had said it in all the other performances and he just thought "ah bollocks, why didn't I say it like that before?". You are always learning as an actor even up until your last performance of a show.
The press night for Hamlet was nerve-wracking for John and he says he could remember standing in the wings, heart pounding and he "actually considered pretending to have a heart attack". Looking back on it, he said it was silly but it was genuinely terrifying as all press nights are.
"I remember looking up during 'to be or not to be'and looking straight into the eyes of Sir Ian McKellen. I went 'to be'and then there was Gandalf as if he were going to finish it for me"
When asked which was his most challenge role, he choose Hamlet, along with Speaking in Tongues. Hamlet had been challenge not only with the short rehearsal time but also physically, however John made the excellent statement that "if you don't do the work, it's nobody else's fault but you're own"

Stage VS Screen

John trained at Drama Centre in London, where he mainly studied Stanislavski's method of acting, however, he was not trained for the screen but for theatre as this was the reason he started acting (despite his first role being on screen). He says that with both screen and stage, you have to deliver your lines as though you are delivering them for the very first time as sometimes in the theatre, you can hit a brick wall where the words you've been speaking sound like Korean to you because you've said them so much. 
As a teenager, John found comfort in Harold Pinter's plays (The Caretaker being one of his favourites) as at that age, he identified with the "anger, poetry and darkness" within Pinter's work. John spoke highly of Harold Pinter and said he would put him second to Shakespeare in the best British play writes list. He also mentioned working with Jamie Lloyd when performing Pinter's plays (The Hothouse and The Homecoming) and said that Jamie does a fantastic job with Pinter's work and really understands Pinter's vision.
There was a question that brought about the topic of separating character from actor. With a character, you need to 'shed' them at stage door. John goes on to explain that there are certain characters you just don't want to 'take home'. 
"My first child was born during the filming of Crime and Punishment and I went to the Hospital as Raskolinov. I didn't want my son in the room with me until I had changed out of it" 
The difference between theatre and screen is that, on stage, you can fully put yourself into a character for two hours or so but on screen, you have to dip in and out "some actors struggle to let go of characters"
The way John approaches the scripts in both disciplines differs as well but as always, if the work isn't put in, it will show. Some of the directors John has worked with have trusted him and have allowed him leeway on how he puts across a character, for example, in ITV's Prey, there is a particularly heart-wrenching scene where Marcus finds out his wife and son are dead. John said they did two takes of this scene but the director, Nick Murphy, pulled him to the side and told him that he was just going to keep it rolling. Nick trusted John to deliver the scene. John spoke about how he had to go to a dark place and just imagine if it actually happened to him and he described it as a place he didn't want to go but he had to. 
Going back to the approach to script, Life on Mars was a jigsaw for John who confessed to "learning lines in between light changes". He had to be on the ball and thinking about where he was within the series or the episode and what emotion he needed to be, what has just happened and also what is going to happen. Sometimes, they would film different episodes in one day and he would only remember when they put a different coat on him.
John then explained that with a play, the direction in which the director wants it to go is more collaborative and collective as you are a group and a company working towards to the final product.
The audience is another thing John loves about the stage, each and every night the audience is different and they give off a different entity. Sometimes, however, this can be a bad thing as during The Homecoming, the cast often worried about the laughs they were getting. They were thinking about the laughs they had got the night before on certain line and they wondered why the audience weren't laughing again the next night. John explained that each audience is different, he hardly laughs out loud in the theatre himself, so he can understand that some people and audiences are more intensely focused on the play and don't feel the need to laugh. 

Advice for Young Actors 
A lot of question that were asked this afternoon were about advice for actors fresh out of drama school and John had no shortage of wisdom to share.
When asked for advice in the first year out of drama school, he encouraged the audience to "stick at it" and to keep on it. John was lucky enough to get an agent whilst still studying at Drama Centre London and he finished his degree a term early. 
John gave this wonderful piece of advice to any young actor doubting why they are doing what they are doing "you become an actor, not because you want to, but because you have to" and I think this is one of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard. 
His other advice was reading, reading and more reading. John didn't stop reading when studying at drama school, especially all the classics. This was to prepare as you never know what role could come your way. 
A question about dealing with the lack of structure after leaving drama school came up and John said that this prepares you for the line of work you're going into. After a show has ended its run, it's done, it's over and you loose that structure again. The first year will prepare you for the blunt end of shows and productions that you're in.
As mentioned earlier, John studied Stanislavsky's method of acting at university, however, when asked if this has been used in his roles, he said "I don't believe there is any particular method it's a box of tricks" and that he uses lots of methods he has been taught.
Auditions are a struggle and can be a big deal for actors starting up. "Walk in there like you're going to do THEM a favour if the pick you". At an audition, they can afford to just wait for the perfect person to walk in, for example, when John auditioned for The Lakes, he'd been back about 20 times and it got to three of them and one of the other two guys turned to John and in a Scouse accent said 'alright mate?' And John just new that the director would've found the guy for the role. So, he went back into the audition room and gave a massive long speech about how he wanted the role. He got the part, however he doesn't recommend doing that.
Again, he was asked about the first year as an actor out of drama school and how he went about sustaining his income when he wasn't in a role. John said the longest time he had off was 6 months, however he was working jobs left right and centre scrubbing tables and sweeping floors. He even had a job in a place called buzz bar where he danced in a cage and poured pints.
There was a lot of things that John didn't learn at drama school that he wished he had been told about. The first one being how different screen was to stage as screen was not what he had been trained for. He also wished someone had told him how brutal the industry could be. Although it was brutal (especially to a young actor) John says "you're going to get knock backs, don't let them get to your soul, get back up again" and even though actors are sensitive by profession, they must be able to develop a thick skin to rejection.
During his years working in the industry he has found there can be a lot of rude people on set. "Sometimes you're just shocked and you think 'What a wanker'". John said that you should be nice to everyone involved as everyone is working just as hard as you are - don't be moody.
A final piece of advice from John was "just keep going. Keep going".

Social Media
John is no stranger to negative comments on social media. Some on Twitter led the actor to leave his account at the end of 2014. "I came off social media - it wasn't for me. I feel, that when you're well known, you're not tweeting your broadcasting and I don't like that" and I supposed he's right. 
He once had a Twitter account and explained he received many lovely messages and a few rather nasty ones, but, when talking about the nasty ones, he used the best analogy I think I've ever heard: "it's like going to the pub down the road and you're at the bar and at the other end of the bar down the room are two people who you don't know at all and one of them goes 'wanker' and then the other says 'you're shit!' - why should I care? I don't even know you
When he came off of Twitter he said it was "a weight lifted from my shoulders

Three Days in the Country

When talking about this play John spoke about how the cast were very close knit and also he enjoyed working alongside Mark Gatiss who is great (John correct the lady in the audience who pronounced Mark's surname wrong) and that Patrick Marber was brilliant. 
The rehearsal process for this particular play was a lot longer than the time for Hamlet and the rehearsals consisted of a lot of drama school type exercises that made Mark and John feel as though they were back in Drama school. 
Before going on stage, he would review part of the monologue he performs at the end of the show to The tutor (my favourite part of the whole play. He actually brought me to tears during it).

Working In America 

I did want to ask John a question, however it was about Hamlet and since Hamlet had been spoken about at the start of the session, I struggled to come up with another whilst listening to him talk. During the session, someone spoke about monitors and watching scenes back after they were done and John mentioned how this was different in America and from that I had my question.
I started by saying hello and that I had been watching The Catch and I was really enjoying it. John thanked me and asked if I had seen the end, I said I had not but promised I would and I was looking forward too it. I then proceeded to ask my question "you mentioned before, about the monitors in America and how they don't really give you a chance to look back at the scenes, I was wondering if there are any other ways that filming in America differs from filming in the uk" 
"Oh absolutely" John went on to talk about how the Americans on set are so much more positive, for example, if it was near the end of filming on a set on the UK and a director said they wanted to do a sweeping camera shot, there would be groans heard throughout the studio and people complaining that they will have to set another monitor up and another track, whereas in America, they would go 'brilliant' and they'd do it. Over in the UK they would be like "we're going to need track... Get the crane out - Bill, we need the fucking crane'" (John's words)
The budgets are also bigger in America meaning there is no using your own clothes as costumes or getting changed in Tesco car parks.
John loves working over in the USA, I fact he is over there right now filming (series 2 of The Catch I believe) and he loves the sun however, he says it's hard being away from his family for so long and his misses them.


It's hard not to look at reviews, John says but sometimes you can't help yourself. It can also be dangerous because you think everything is going really well and you get a bad review and you think 'oh maybe not'. It's not just the bad reviews, John says, it's also the good ones. You'll read a review that is about a bit you did well and every time you get to that bit you'll think 'this is the bit I do well' and that's not good.
During The Homecoming, Johns father sadly passed away. They had an understudy fill in for him and John read the reviews for the understudy and decided to go back.


Accents, John says, like anything else needs practice. If it's an accent you're good at then just keep on practicing, if it's not one that comes naturally to you, sleek help. Practice whenever you can and record yourself speaking in the accent to them listen back. Get others to listen to you speak it and get feedback and improve on it and also, as ever "if you haven't put the work in, you're fucked

The Master

The whole way through the the Q&A I was just waiting for a question about Doctor Who to crop up and there was only one. It was something like 'you were in Doctor Who and earlier you mentioned about being given freedom with the characters and being able to go with what you want to do sometimes, I was wondering if you got to do that for Doctor Who or if, because it's such a big show, that you had to stick with what had been given'
John spoke about Russell T Davis and how he had written the character to be insane and John wanted to put a darker spin on The Master "there were times on set when Russell would go 'more more!' And I'd be like 'really? Okay then...'" He wasn't going to argue with Russell T Davies, that's just not what you do, he had written the character with insanity and that's how it was going to be - "I just did what I was told, but it was fun. I had a lot of fun

Life on Mars 

When asked if he would return to the show for a Christmas special or a one off show, he said he would love too and that he had recently spoken to Philip Glenister about it. John then asks the audience if it had been in the press before jokily saying that Glenister "can't keep his big mouth shut", but to confirm he was definitely up for it.
Earlier in the Q&A he had been asked about what he looks for in a script when choosing a role. John said that, as a fan of literature, he looked for good writing and a grabbing storyline. He says that he can usually tell how well a show will be or how much he'll enjoy it buy a few pages in. He confessed to throwing the Life on Mars script in the bin after reading 6 scene because it was "confusing and rubbish" and he didn't think it would do well "boy was I wrong" he said. 


Throughout the Q&A, John spoke of many influences into his acting career but one there was one he mentioned throughout. His dad, as I mentioned, passed away during John's run at the Trafalgar Square studios in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, and something that John kept referring too was his dad words: 'get back on that bloody stage'.
There were lost of actors and performance who influenced him but he named his dad as the main influence. John performed with his dad in pubs and bars from just aged 14, playing the guitar. This was where he discovered that being himself on stage didn't work as he was shy and self-conscious. He said he couldn't ditch his dad to form a band with his mates so acting was the way out. John briefly mentioned that in the end he did have a band (Magic Alex) that went on tour, however they broke up in 2005 and only released one album 'Dated and Sexist'. 

This has been very long, I hope you managed to read it all and you enjoyed it. This is obviously not everything he said as I couldn't write that fast and I missed bits out, but either way, I hope it's some help to those who couldn't be there! (Some of the quotes mate also be slightly off on some words as I was writing very fast).

Thank you for reading!
Ellie x 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing sounds like an afternoon well spent