9 July 2020

Plymouth-born international star of the stage and screen, Douglas Hodge, has done a Google Meet interview from New York with two of our sixth form students.

The amazing opportunity came about after the actor and director retweeted the College’s post on Twitter about our Audio Book of the Week, which featured Douglas reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A bit of detective work from the College discovered that Douglas was from Plymouth, so we tweeted him to ask if he would be willing to do an interview - and he very kindly said ‘yes’.

Douglas is best known for his roles in movies such as Joker and TV series’ including The Night Manager, Middlemarch and, most recently, The Great. He is also an award-winning stage actor, winning an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as Albin in the West End production of La Cage aux Folles in 2009. He later won a Tony award for this role on Broadway. He also played Willy Wonka in the enormously successful West End run of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the Musical.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Douglas was in lockdown in New York, unable to return to the UK, when we did the one-hour video link-up. Putting the questions to Douglas were sixth formers Asha and Felix, as Asha has an interest in the performing arts and Felix is considering journalism as a possible future career. Also chipping in were Mrs Clift, Mrs Henderson and Mr Towers.

During the interview, Douglas revealed that although he left Plymouth as a young boy, he still regards the city as the family's home-town - and is proud of his roots: “My father worked at Plymouth Dockyard, but he was promoted to Chatham Dockyard, so my brother, my mother and me all upped and left with him and went to Chatham,” he said. “But most of my relatives in my extended family stayed in Plymouth and are still there.”

From Plymouth to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) seems a huge jump - how did this journey come about? “I had always wanted to be an actor, since I was about 12, even though no-one in my family had ever been an actor,” explained Douglas. “I had never been in a play and my parents had no interest in it whatsoever, so it was all a bit strange. But I could impersonate almost anybody, so I was a bit of a clown at school. I could do the voices of everyone in our class and all the teachers at the school. And then I had a brilliant English teacher who just said to me: ‘Perhaps stop showing off and think about actually doing something properly’. So I auditioned with the National Youth Theatre (NYT) when I was 16 and got in - and that changed my life, really. I just thought I had arrived home, you know that feeling where you think: ‘Oh, this is me, this is really who I am’. I really felt that. The man who ran the National Youth Theatre suggested I should audition for drama school, he really led me. I actually auditioned for five drama schools when I was about 18 - but I didn’t get into any of them. They said I was too young and too inexperienced. So I went out and got a job and waited for a year and then I re-auditioned when I was 19 - and I was offered a place at all of them, so a year made a huge difference to my application and what I knew I needed to do. In actual fact, when I went to RADA, I was pleased that I didn’t go when I was 18. I think I would have been really out of my depth. And the year that I went, it was a rather brilliant term of people who have all turned out to be pretty staggering - Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Kathryn Hunter - there were only 23 in the term at RADA so we were put into a small group.

“But I wasn’t like a lot of the people at RADA. Where I had come from, from Plymouth, was very different to how the RADA people were at that point, so I always felt that I was barging my way into their world. You have to have a deep-seated secret confidence the whole time. I got my Equity card as soon as I left drama school and then I just kept working.”

Douglas has several top tips for succeeding in the arts, which hold true in other careers, too: Be sure this is what you really want to do; prepare as much as you possibly can for every role, train at drama school if you can, and hold on to your self-confidence at times when you suffer rejection and are turned down for roles: “You have to have strength and a belief in yourself. There will be immense rejection - it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Despite all the inevitable rejections and often the repetition involved in acting, Douglas says it is a rewarding career: “I’ve had all sorts of lovely moments. I just did the movie, Joker, which I thought was a fantastic film. They just offered me this part, I didn’t know who else was in it, and I turned up and there’s Joaquin Phoenix in character, and you think, ‘gosh, this is really memorable, not many people get to do this’. There are moments like that where you think ‘wow, this is extraordinary’. And I have got to work with incredible actors. Probably the loveliest thing about being an actor is that you do put yourself into someone else’s shoes every single day. It’s a lovely way to live your life. Whoever you are playing, you try and see the world through their eyes, even if they are a killer or a murderer, an unhappy person, someone who’s gay or is straight or whatever they are, you are living as that person and seeing it through their eyes. I think that is a very lovely thing to do to yourself. It does help you broaden your own tolerance and understanding of people. You have to be constantly empathetic. Certainly, in La Cage aux Folles [where Douglas played somebody who felt that they should be a woman and was born a man], that really meant that I had to do that, and I thought that it really did have an impact on people’s lives.”

At the time of our interview, Douglas should have been at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London with the new musical of 101 Dalmatians, for which he has written all the songs - words and music. That had to be postponed because of the pandemic, and it has been rescheduled for next summer. The interview was also just before the Government announced a massive £1.57 billion rescue package for live performance venues such as Theatre Royal Plymouth - one of the theatres that had faced dozens of staff redundancies. Douglas himself has not been able to work since the pandemic struck - and he cannot wait to get back on the stage or in front of the camera again.

So, what are the chances of seeing Douglas on stage here in Plymouth? “I’ve never performed in Plymouth before, but I have directed there, a farce called ‘See How They Run’ - and I watched it every single night with a different relative. I was very proud, taking them in!  It would be nice to do something with Theatre Royal Plymouth now, to try and raise some money for them - if I can ever get out of New York!”