Glass interviews British actor Alex Hassell

“You can’t win them all,” says Alex Hassell – Glass talks to British actor and co-founder of The Factory theatre company, Alex Hassell

British actor, Alex Hassell is known for both his stage and screen roles and is currently playing Henry V with the t, who he has been working with for over two years. Aged 35, his previous career highlights include Demetrius in Royal Shakespeare Company‘s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Biff in Gregory Doran’s Death of a Salesman for which he has been nominated for a UK Theatre Award.

Born in Southend, Alex trained at Central School of Speech and Drama and is co-founding artistic director of The Factory theatre company, whose patrons include Ewan McGregor and Mark Rylance. From now until January 2016, Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings (Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V) is being performed in the Barbican, London, to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Hassell is reprising the roles of Young Hal and King Henry.

IMG_5032 Alex Hassell. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

You are currently starring in Henry V, which recently transferred from its run at Stratford Upon Avon to the Barbican. How do you think working in the new space has impacted on the performance?
At Stratford, there is a thrust stage, the audience surrounds you on three sides and you feel like you are performing in one room. You have to cheat yourself around the stage to share information and invite the audience into the production. Whereas in the Barbican, you are in one room and the audience is essentially in another.

The energy doesn’t work in the same way and there is a change in communication. Hopefully it makes your performance subtler, because the currency is focused between you and the other actors on stage, rather than through the audience. I cast” the audience throughout the performance, as my troops or the French and at Stratford this was very palpable and apparent to them, whereas in the Barbican, it’s a slightly different task.

Henry_V_production_photos_2015_2015_Photo_by_Keith_Pattison_c_RSC_171527Alex Hassell as Henry V. Photograph: Keith Pattison ©RSC

Did you find yourself looking to well-known portrayals of Henry in your preparation for the role?
No, very much the opposite, I didn’t look at anything. I haven’t ever seen the play on stage and I am thankful because even though there is a received notion of Henry V, it’s useful to clear these out of your head and look at it as a new piece of writing.

It’s important to figure out moment-to-moment what the script is doing and let it filter through your brain, emotions, conscious and subconscious and let it pour out of you the only way it can. I don’t mean I have one way of playing the play, as I like to be alive, and let it adapt and grow.  But when I think of what Henry is concerned with, frightened of or what weighs upon him, it has to come through me, rather than someone else’s idea of it.

IMG_5011 Alex Hassell. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

So would you say playing young Hal first in Henry IV impacted on developing your role in Henry V?
It made a huge difference. We are about to start cycles of all four plays together so it will be even more ingrained in my body and my memory. Henry is a messed-up kid thrown into an incredibly difficult moral situation, and he has to prove everyone around him wrong to fulfil his father’s dying wishes and unify his country. I can’t imagine many situations more complex, trying to do what both your father and your God want you to do. Playing Hal allowed me to tap into this history of potential self-loathing, fear and doubt, which is what drives me in the play, rather than confidence bravado and patriotism.

What is it like working with Gregory Doran?
A while back, we worked together on Cardenio or a “Double Falsehood,” which is known as Shakespeare’s lost play. I played a cross between an Iago and Mercutio character, so really dark but also charismatic. It was a real joy, as the audience had no idea what was going to happen next. Greg has always been very encouraging to me throughout my career and we really trust each other and always work collaboratively.

Henry_V_production_photos_2015_2015_Photo_by_Keith_Pattison_c_RSC_171474Alex Hassell as Henry V. Photograph: Keith Pattison ©RSC

Part of your theatre company, The Factory’s manifesto is “just imagination, passion and whole lot of spontaneity”. Has this affected your work with the RSC?
It has massively affected every part of me as an actor. It is the bedrock of who I am in terms of the type of acting I enjoy and am drawn to watch. The manifesto highlights the nature of being alive and responding in a fresh way, not for the sake of it but because we are all different human beings. I have learnt a great deal from The Factory because we were set up for such failure.

I played Hamlet in front of hundreds of people with 30 seconds notice and was thrown into most insane situations. You have to be pushed out of comfort zone and all you have is the ability to tell the truth and engage. In acting you should try and be a human being rather than be a good actor. The audience know what is going to happen in Shakespeare, but they don’t know how it’s going to happen if you play it like a human.

IMG_5001 Alex Hassell. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

What is The Factory working on at the moment and how much involvement do you get to have in the process while performing?
I am launching a huge new project, but it’s too early to speak about and I will be directing it. I’m excited to grow in that area. I want to take what I’ve learnt from The Factory and RSC and reapply it. However the term, ‘director’ in the Factory is a loose one. You are more like a manager or coach. You set up the game and get people to play as well as possible. The Factory is such a part of my being that I don’t want to give it up but it’s hard to balance at the same time.

You’ve featured in both stage and screen but will theatre always be your priority and preference?
I would definitely be interested in doing more film and TV as I haven’t had the same level of responsibility or depth of parts yet as I have on stage. When I leave the RSC I will have been with them for two and a half years, which is fantastic and I have loved but I am excited to explore a different rhythm of performing. Having said that, I love theatre roles and there are many parts I would love to play, particularly ones which haven’t been created yet, as I haven’t done as many wholly new plays as I would like.

Henry_V_production_photos_2015_2015_Photo_by_Keith_Pattison_c_RSC_171413A scene from by the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry V. Photograph: Keith Pattison ©RSC

What has been your favourite or most memorable role to date?
Hal into Henry has been an amazing challenge, which I have loved. Biff in Death of a Salesman is such a brilliant part, a character which is so different to me as a person. I loved playing Hamlet. I have just done a film called ‘Two Down,’ and I played a character who has Asperger’s and is also a hitman. It’s hard to choose… I hope the best is yet to come!

What would you be doing if you weren’t acting?
I do think about this from time to time. Maybe writing of some sort, though that would still be in the arts. Possibly something to do with psychology. I am very interested in the way that people work and more and more I find in acting what’s exciting is finding out people’s blind spots.

What would be your one piece of advice you wish someone had told you about the theatre industry when you first started acting?
You can’t win them all! When I came out of drama school, I think I thought I was going to be like Orlando Bloom and I wasn’t. It really hurt and I had to redefine my notion of myself. Now I am so pleased for that struggle because it has made me a better actor and a better person. You won’t be the right person for everything and actually that’s fine!

When we set up the Factory I wrote on my wall “if you build it they will come” from Field of Dreams.  If you spend your time focusing on what you care about and what others care about, then someone will take notice because what you are doing is worthwhile, not to be impressive or famous.

by Heather Doughty

all photographs: Justin van Vliet

Part of Shakespeare 400, Henry V is playing at The Barbican until January 21, 2016

One Response