Interview for the Radio Times
“I bashed a cymbal at the back of the stage – I wasn’t even good enough to play a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
What was your first acting role?
Hugh Bonneville: I’m torn between saying a shepherd and a sheep at my school Nativity. I must have been about four. It was a non-speaking role and it involved a beard, so it must have been… it could have been a sheep with a beard, I suppose…
RT: Did you covet the role of Joseph?
HB: Yes, I tried to spike his drink! I remember trying not to fall off the back of some perilous rostra while holding a crook… so I must have been a shepherd after all!
Sheridan Smith: I bet you were a brilliant shepherd. Better than all the other shepherds. My first part was Annie when I was 11. My first TV role was one line in a period drama that ended up being dubbed! It was called Wives and Daughters and all I had to say was: “Bless us and save us! What’s this in the bed?” I kept saying it too high and the director kept telling me to bring it down.
HB: I didn’t have a line in my first professional job at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. I bashed a cymbal at the back of the stage – I wasn’t even good enough to play a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was my first job with my Equity Card and I watched Ralph Fiennes being rather brilliant playing Lysander and tinkled away with my cymbal.
SS: No way! What a waste.
HB: Yes, but where is he now?
When did you decide to become an actor?
SS: My mum and dad were a country and western duo and I had sung with them since I was a kid. I didn’t really know if I wanted to be an actor as such, but I knew I wanted to do some kind of performing. So I moved to London when I was 16 with the National Youth MusicTheatre [NYMT] to do a show. I was going to move back to work on a burger van, but I got an agent…
HB: Did you say a burger farm? Diction, diction, Sheridan! A burger farm – that’s more interesting than a van!
SS: Ha – well 14 years later I’m still here. I always knew I wanted to do something on stage, but after I got my first professional part on stage at the Donmar, in a musical called Into the Woods, I really got the bug for theatre. I was 17 and I played little Red Riding Hood – Damien Lewis was my Wolf. And then my first telly job after that was the one line that got dubbed – I think theatre was what I should have stuck to.
HB: What swung it for me were my years at the National Youth Theatre [NYT]. I met some great actors who I am still in touch with: people like Alex Kingston, Gina McKee, Lloyd Owen, who is now playing the bodyguard in The Bodyguard musical. All a great bunch of people.
SS: So you were NYT and I was NYMT? They’re great, aren’t they?
HB: They’re terrific, really important in giving people great life skills, whether they end up doing theatre or not. People I have bumped into from my days at NYT have gone off to so many walks of life.
SS: I got my confidence when I joined the NYMT. I have never been that confident… I am quite shy, aren’t I?
HB: You’re very shy, darling – it’s impossible to get her to speak most of the time!
What was your breakout role? Where you thought, “This is it now, I’ve made it”.
HB: Any actor who says that is a t****r, frankly.
SS: A thespi-knob!
HB: Haha! Thespi-knob! I never look at any work like that, I’m just very happy to be working. My career is a sequence of good luck and not bumping into the furniture – or even bumping into directors.
SS: And being very good at what you do!
HB: OK, so would you say Legally Blonde? That turned you into an international superstar. That’s what I say.
SS: It’s rare that big female leads like that come along, so that probably did change things for me – especially theatre-wise.
Have you had any horrific auditions?
HB: Yes! I auditioned for these modern versions of Shakespeare on TV about five years ago and they said I was a bit quiet and reserved, so I asked if I could go back and do it again. I had a late night, didn’t shave for two days and didn’t wash, and went storming back in like an old soak. I kicked the door open and said, “Right! Let’s start this read-through! Let’s do it!” Unfortunately, the director wasn’t there so the wind went out of my sails. Needless to say, I didn’t get the part.
SS: I have disastrous days all the time, which is why I am so pleased that Hugh is doing these awards with me. He’s got to hold me upright – I’m so scared I’m going to trip over my dress and fall flat on my face, or forget where I am, or what I’m saying. I cringe at auditions, I just find them so excruciating.
HB: You never get used to it, do you? The only thing that works for me is visualising people in their underpants.
SS: You have to! It’s terrifying otherwise.
HB: Now I just insist they’re naked.
SS: I’m picturing you in your underpants now.
HB: That’s not a pretty sight!
SS: Ha! I do get nervous though. It’s been more in the last couple of years, weirdly. I was so fearless when I was younger. Now I have become a nervous wreck.
HB: At 19 you know absolutely everything in the world, don’t you? And by the time you reach the grand old age of 49, you haven’t a clue, frankly. Well, I haven’t anyway.
Have you had a favourite part?
HB: I really loved playing the poet Philip Larkin in a tiny little BBC2 film ten years ago. I found him fascinating and love his poetry. He was easy to play because I basically copied what I did in the film Iris – a stammering, bald academic. That was a very special one.
SS: Playing Mrs Biggs [Ronnie Biggs’s first wife] in the ITV drama last year. I met her and we ended up becoming good friends, so I wanted to do her, and her story, justice. We filmed half of it in Australia, where she lives, and after filming she sent me the most beautiful letter. Everyone knew the story of Ronnie, but no one knew hers.
How does acting on stage differ to TV?
SS: I love the live buzz of hearing audience reactions – something lands one night and it doesn’t the next – that keeps it interesting.
HB: And the fact that tomorrow night you might get it right! I can’t tell you the number of times I have sat bolt upright in bed and thought, “Now I know how to play that scene!”
SS: PTT – Post-Take Trauma! I get that all the time. I literally can’t sleep with it. I wake up thinking, “Why didn’t I do that?”
HB: I do miss the stage – it’s been nearly nine years now. My ambition was to keep working in theatre, so it’s strange to think how things have turned out. My three years at the RSC were probably the happiest of my working career. I love what I do now, but working with a company, that’s what I love. You do get the sense of a company on a show like Downton Abbey, but the repertoire system – discovering four different plays and their intricacies rather than turning up and hitting your marks – that is absolutely what I love.
Any ambitions for Hollywood?
HB: Not for me. I love working there and I would do so again, I hope, but my roots are here. I had two gorgeous films lined up last autumn, both of which disappeared for various financial reasons.
SS: I do what I love and I get paid for it – and I can’t do anything else.
HB: You can always go back to the burger farm.
SS: I can go back to my burger farm! My mum will kill me – she keeps saying, “Stop talking about burger vans.” Sorry, Mum!
Are you happy to be famous?
HB: Well, you can forget the famous part. Fame is a by-product of what I am lucky enough to do. I was a bit stunned recently when I went to a drama school and asked a group of ten students: “Why do you want to become actors?” Two of them said it was because they wanted to be famous. It’s a strange life goal.
SS: It’s a shame that kids want that instead of a skill or a craft. I just feel so lucky to keep getting work – I could be outside the motorbike shop off the M1 selling burgers.
Do you get recognised a lot?
HB: I was in Thailand with the family and… actually, I don’t want to tell that story now. But it’s weird when people come up and apologise for recognising me and then tell me it’s strange that I wear jeans. Like, “How dare you!” The worst thing is when people stick camera phones in your face. I’ve got quite good antennae on that front. I’ve got my eye on them. I know when people are taking pictures.
SS: That is annoying, but everyone, on the whole, is very nice when they spot you and I like to communicate with fans on Twitter – or the “Twit Fam” as I call them – they are always really supportive and lovely. We’re both big Twitterers.
HB: Yup, big Twits!
SS: Massive Twits!