Gwilym Lee will be returning to the stage that made his name in 2014 – and he tells Mark Kebble why a starring role in Midsomer Murders fits right in
First things first Gwilym, I believe you’ve only recently moved to North London…
I was originally living in Hackney for eight years. At the end of August I moved to Haringey. It’s still quite new, but I have got lots of friends who live in and around Finsbury Park. Every time I go running I see a different actor, the other day it was Juliet Stevenson. There’s plenty of them around.
Where did you grow up and how different is it from North London?
I went to university in Cardiff, but I grew up in Birmingham, in a place called Sutton Coldfield. I was born in Bristol, but the family moved out before I was one – so Sutton Coldfield was my home. I am from a Welsh family, our heritage goes all the way back there. My dad’s work took us round the UK when I was younger, but the family settled in Birmingham.
Right, onto your day job Gwilym… Were you always going to act?
I don’t know really. It has always been a hobby. Some people say they knew they were going to be an actor, but it was nothing like that. I wanted to keep it as a hobby, but I joined a drama group at 12-13 and I got a couple of jobs from that. Then at 16 I worked with the RSC, doing Richard III. That was the first time I encountered ‘proper’ actors in the flesh, and I thought ‘OK, this is quite cool’. It was the first time I realised I could make a living out of it.
How inspiring was it to work for the RSC?
It was great – the prestige of it all. I did a TV job a couple of years before, a lead character, but for some reason that didn’t seem real. You get treated in a different way when you do TV. Doing a play seems like you are properly at the coal face, the heart of the industry in a way. It made me realise what proper acting was – I could see it as a feasible and tangible option. We did a tour of the UK, going from one town to the next, and it was an absolute blast.
Is the theatre still important to you?
Massively so. I graduated from drama school five years ago and I spent the first three years pretty much only doing stage work. The National Theatre was my first job, doing Oedipus, and I did a couple of plays at the Donmar, going to Broadway with one of those. That’s how you progress really, learning from great, older actors. It’s acting in its purest form. You can follow a journey from the beginning right through to the end.
You mention the Donmar, where you received acclaim for playing Edgar…
It’s very challenging, but when you are doing a play there’s a five week rehearsal period. It’s behind closed doors in a completely safe environment. Edgar is a complicated character, and the language is complicated, but you are together with a group of actors and you are all in the same boat. Playing Edgar, it’s a matter of trying to be as bold as possible. It’s an extraordinary journey he takes, the sequence of madness. Every play has a different challenge and you don’t know what it’s going to be until you get the rehearsal room.
And you have a big theatre project to come…
Yes, I’m going to be doing a play at the Donmar, Versailles. It’s a play by Peter Gill and we start rehearsals in January, and the run starts on 20 February. It’s a new play and it’s about the end of WWI and is about the peace process at Versailles. It’s asking how far we have really come since then. It’s a really important play that needs to be heard. Next year there’s so many commemorative events to mark the beginning of WWI, so it’s quite important to ask how far we have come. It’s going to be fascinating and great to get back on stage after a year and a bit.
I believe there is a new Midsomer Murders on the horizon?
We finished filming about a month ago, we filmed five episodes and it’s coming out around about Christmas/New Year time.
Why were you originally keen to join the show?
To be able to play a regular part in a TV series so well established… You know you are going into something that’s really popular. To play a character over a period of time, you can evolve him and that’s really exciting. I can also learn my craft from so many amazing actors. The beauty of the show is that every 4-5 weeks a new influx of guest actors come in – last time we had Bernard Cribbins and June Whitfield, who have decades of experience. It’s like going back to school.
Do you have an idea of the kind of actor you want to be in the future?
I always think it’s difficult to plan a career in this job, you never know what’s around the corner. Every role in the last five years has been a different challenge, so I have always taken something new from it and learnt. As long as I can keep doing great work with amazing actors and directors, then I will be happy.
Versailles runs from 20 February-5 April at the Donmar Warehouse; donmarwarehouse.com
Midsomer Murders transmits from Christmas Eve 2013