Our Head of Screen Acting Tom Colley returns with the Acting Diaries, revealing how a drought in auditions lead to some of the most exciting opportunities of his career, including a part in the movie The Happy Prince with Rupert Everett.
The Judas Kiss in New York ended abruptly and I was back to London with a rather sobering overdraft limit to contend with, a lack of acting auditions, and no agent (he decided to fire me a week before I came back, and I’m not bitter...). Obviously I spent all my wages in the trendy Brooklyn cocktail bars; most artists are used to having no money so when an influx of it enters your bank account the natural reaction is to get rid of it in the most decadent ways possible (read A Moveable Feast or Fiesta by Ernest Hemingway for further proof). Luckily, I was getting “mates rates” on a room in a nice little three-bed flat in Kensal Rise, and so I hunkered down and prepared myself for another frugal summer.
I did, however, get a call from David Hare to be involved in a rehearsed reading of his play Stuff Happens at the Lyttleton Theatre in the National. I was very grateful to David for thinking of me again and he was starting to become a kind of fairy Godfather, giving me little nuggets of work when despair darkly crept around the corner and threatened to punch me in the face. Performing (albeit a rehearsed reading) at the National was also another thing to tick off the bucket list.
A month went by and still no word from Rupert about having a part in his film. I wrote it off. I rolled another cheap cigarette and trudged my way to Chelsea to work in a horrendous cocktail bar where you got giddy from the clientele’s excessive perfume and clicked at too many times than one would care to remember. Another mojito, another espresso martini, another caipirinha, and on and on and on like an overnight train to Edinburgh. It was relentlessly exhausting, not to mention the two-hour night bus trips back home after work. I quit after a month; I just didn’t have it in me anymore.
On a hot Friday evening in July I was off to Hackney Wick for some party or another and I got off the train, about to head down there and my phone buzzed in my pocket. Rupert Everett. Oh God, oh Jesus, oh please…please! Please let it be good news. A short text message read something along the lines of “Have spoken with the producers, we would like to officially offer you the part of Maurice Gilbert in The Happy Prince. Would you like to do it?” I hit ‘reply’ instantly and got as far as “I would love to, thank you so-” then my phone lost battery. I contemplated heading straight home to finish and send my acceptance, then decided that beers on the canal to celebrate was a fitting tribute, and I would go straight back to send the text later that night.
And so, it was formally arranged, I signed a contract and I was officially on the cast list for The Happy Prince. Rupert sent me the script and I read it through twice in one evening, marveling at the sharply comic one liners, the dry sarcasm and wit that Oscar was renowned to display often, and Rupert’s script oozed beauty and humanity in so many ways. I loved it. He had lined up a star-studded cast, and this was to be by far the most high-profile job that I had done in my tumultuous career as an actor so far.
There was just one minor little hurdle to jump over in order to play this part; my lines were all in French. I don’t speak French. Immediately I found a tutor and did sessions every week leading up to the time when I would need be flying out to Germany to start filming in late September. It was a similar challenge to that of The Judas Kiss, and so I was used to developing a realistic grasp of a different language (only the necessary lines!) in a short amount of time. I prefer to see these as exciting little challenges, rather than daunting prospects for failure.
Tom Colley (middle) in The Happy Prince
I arrived a couple of days before I was due to shoot; a short flight to Munich and a long taxi journey to the hotel in Bayreuth (Hitler’s favourite town, apparently). I met Rupert and a few of the crew that night as we had dinner together in a lovely restaurant down one of the many cobbled streets lit by the orange glow of the old street lamps. I felt that I was in a Hemingway novel, transported back to the 1920’s in the company of exciting artists. I’ve always been a bit of a nostalgic.
The following day I was up early and on set with Rupert, Colin Firth and Colin Morgan, and I had to pinch myself on more than one occasion. Is this real? Rupert was a joy to work with as a director; he knew exactly what he wanted from every line and every scene and every shot. It was truly admirable to see and I guess that’s what happens when you’re the writer, director, lead actor and producer in your film; truly a passion project. He’s such a supportive person to be in the creative room with, and yet again (like all those years ago in the rehearsal room at the Hampstead Theatre) I was learning in every moment of our new collaboration.
It’s always funny how things turn out. Coming back from New York earlier in the year, I was lost at sea; no agent, no money, no idea of how I was going to start acting again, and then something just materializes. Years later, with the benefit of hind sight, there is one sentiment that I would (if I am at all qualified) offer as some fragment of advice, a culmination of these last seven peculiar years:
There are no small parts and there are no bland characters. Your job as an actor is to breathe creative and colourful life into the offerings of the writer and there is no excuse in failing to do that. And be nice! And be good to work with: it will come back to help you in unexpected ways in the future.
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