Julian Ovenden interview: ‘We are still obsessed with celebrity and how we're viewed in the world’

The actor Julian Ovenden's life has been punctuated by experiences that would cause most people to stop and pinch themselves.

By richard.blackledge1
Thursday, 4th April 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Monday, 8th April 2019, 6:28 pm

Born in Sheffield as the son of a parish vicar, he won a scholarship to Eton based on his talents as a choirboy and later, on trips home from Oxford University, enjoyed visits from the Queen after his father became chaplain to the monarch at Windsor.

Impressive roles in musicals, plays and TV series have followed. He took the lead in the acclaimed original London production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, played Peter Pan author JM Barrie on stage in Finding Neverland and appeared in Downton Abbey and Foyle's War. Blessed with the looks of a matinee idol, he's also released his own albums as a singer of sophisticated easy-listening numbers and has performed for audiences at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Now he is mid-way through the West End run of All About Eve, playing a movie director opposite Gillian Anderson who stars as actress Margo Channing. It is the first theatre version of the classic Hollywood picture from 1950 which won six Oscars and featured Bette Davis as the legendary Channing, whose career is stolen by a calculating young rival, the titular Eve.

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Julian Ovenden as Bill Sampson and Gillian Anderson as Margo Channing in All About Eve, which is being broadcast live to cinemas from the West End on April 11. Picture: Jan Versweyveld

Appropriately, given its genesis on celluloid, it is about to be screened at cinemas across the country as part of the popular National Theatre Live series.

Ovenden has found time to talk from his dressing room at the Noël Coward Theatre, just before warm-ups start for that night's show - although these preparations sound quite relaxed, mainly consisting of eating cake and biscuits people have brought in, having a chat and doing a bit of yoga.

"I've got two kids so I've been up since 7.30 anyway," he says amiably. "It doesn't take too much mental preparation to get back into the zone, it feels quite natural now. It's a long run. I think we'll end up doing about 100 shows."

The play has revealed aspects of itself that were perhaps not apparent in rehearsals.

Julian Ovenden as Bill Sampson and Gillian Anderson as Margo Channing in All About Eve, which is being broadcast live to cinemas from the West End on April 11. Picture: Jan Versweyveld

"It seems to still have a lot to say about fame and ambition and age, and how we perceive age, even though it was written in 1950. At the moment, especially, we are still obsessed with celebrity and how we're viewed in the world, especially through phones and Instagram. This play says quite a lot about that and the mirage that is created by showbusiness, I suppose."

Is it something that stalks performers, fearing being usurped by younger competition?

"I don't feel that personally," he says. "I think it's perhaps more of a female thing, especially in Hollywood. But I think the last two or three years we're starting to address those issues and starting to realise women should be celebrated for who they are, not how old they are or how they look."

Once they reach 40, he admits, actors are aware of 'another generation coming up'. "I suppose that can feel threatening to some degree. But the theatre is one of those professions where we're joined by a common thread, whatever age."

Julian Ovenden as Bill Sampson and Gillian Anderson as Margo Channing in All About Eve, which is being broadcast live to cinemas from the West End on April 11. Picture: Jan Versweyveld

Radical Belgian director Ivo Van Hove has adapted the film for the theatre in a co-production by Sonia Friedman and Twentieth Century Fox. Friedman faced 'quite a tussle' to secure the rights, Ovenden says, and the end result sticks closely to Joseph L. Mankiewicz's screenplay.

"It's amazing it hasn't been done before but I think, with film companies, they're a little nervous giving away the rights to something. They don't want to see its reputation changed in any way."

His character, Bill, is in love with Margo, an infatuation that forms 'the bedrock of the play'. "He really wants to do anything to make that relationship work. We think that's not going to work out, but in the end it does."

Bill, he says, is 'quite highly strung'. Has he drawn on the personalities of any directors he's collaborated with?

Ovenden laughs. "Erm, no-one in particular. I've been lucky to work with some really fantastic directors. There are certain things that characterise them. Some are very charismatic and some are very quiet. I try not to do something that's cliched and feels hackneyed, I've tried to make him a real person."

Acting with Anderson has been 'a treat', he says. "It's a thrill to work with someone who you feel is at the top of their game."

The NT Live initiative is very important, he believes. "It's a shame a show like this is not being put on in Manchester, or Birmingham, or Sheffield. But that's just the slightly London-centric way the theatre works. It'll be the first time I've done one so I'm excited and intrigued. It's not just a question of sticking one big camera in the middle of the stalls, it's a real painstaking process of getting the right shots."

His father, the Reverend Canon John Ovenden, was a parish priest in Sheffield for two years, leaving when Julian was still an infant.

"I don't really have any memories, sadly, of Sheffield," he says. "I do feel, when I go back up North, at home there, and I do love the people. But it would be stretching it to say I feel a Northerner or a true Sheffield native. It's a great city and culturally it's thriving."

One of three children, he was sent to boarding school on a choir scholarship aged seven. His grandparents had done exactly the same with his father.

"Too young, really, isn't it," he says. "I don't blame my parents for doing it, because they didn't have any money and thought that was the best way of getting a good education."

Aged 43, he has a son, Johnny Beau, and a daughter, Audrey, with his wife, the soprano Kate Royal; a similar schooling for them was off the cards. "I'm rather happy to have my children at home. I sort of want to hold on to them until they have to go."

Does he feel it necessary to point out his place at Eton wasn't secured through wealth and privilege?

"I don't feel I have to excuse myself. I know people are terribly reductive and assume you've got some castle somewhere. Of course, it's not like that at all. I don't blow that particular trumpet. I mean, I'm probably the least successful Old Etonian actor there is, everyone else seems to have won multiple Oscars. It's a terrific school, full of brilliant people and teachers with fantastic facilities which I took full advantage of."

He downplays his own encounters with royalty - his father retired seven years ago and he 'wasn't really much of a witness to it', he says - but he's talked in the past about some extraordinary occasions. The Ovendens' home adjoined the church at Windsor, meaning the Queen would visit twice a year, usually with Prince Philip and sometimes with Andrew or Edward.

"It seemed like she was having some downtime with our family," he told The Sunday Times in 2012. "I've never had to worry about what to say to her because she's always very engaging and never short of conversation."

When he wanted to research Noël Coward for a school project, he popped round to see the Queen Mother to discuss her love of Coward's music over gin and tonics. They spent at least an hour together, by all accounts, with Ovenden playing the piano and the Queen Mother joining in with her favourite songs.

He is looking to do another musical once All About Eve is wrapped up. "I haven't done one for a while, especially in London. That would be nice. In terms of screen work, we'll see what comes along."

The second season of Knightfall, a TV drama Ovenden is contracted to, is now airing on the History channel. "We might go back and make a third later this year. It's a great time to be an actor, there's a lot of material, especially on television. Pretty much everyone is doing it, whereas 20 years ago movie stars would not touch it, because there was a stigma involved - 'second tier work'. It's the same with musicals."

All About Eve will be broadcast live to cinemas across the UK from London's Noel Coward Theatre on Thursday, April 11 as part of National Theatre Live. Visit http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk for details and tickets.

‘Harvey Weinstein was a difficult man with demons’

Julian Ovenden was at close quarters with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein when he acted and sang in the original stage production of musical Finding Neverland.

The show started as a film without songs starring Johnny Depp and released in 2004 by Miramax, the company Weinstein co-founded. The musical was backed by Weinstein and premiered in Leicester in 2012, with Ovenden taking the top role of JM Barrie. It eventually transferred to Broadway in 2015 in a rejigged form with a different cast.

"It changed course because the producer decided he wasn't happy with where it was going, and decided to fire everyone and hire different writers and all the rest of it," says Ovenden. "That was quite frustrating having devoted quite a lot of time to it, but that's the way the world works."

Weinstein has since faced multiple accusations of sexual abuse that sparked the #MeToo movement and led to similar allegations against men in the public eye.

"Certainly the stuff I read doesn't surprise me," says Ovenden, who worked with Weinstein 'pretty closely over a period of about two years'. "I don't want to get too much into that, but he's not the easiest of people to work with and for. But then on the other hand he was responsible for a lot of great films that came out of the 90s and the independent film industry. It's a two-edged sword and it's not quite as black and white as perhaps it's portrayed. He's certainly a difficult man with demons."