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British actor Johnny Harris has developed a successful career taking in the theatre, TV shows like This Is England ’86 and films including London to Brighton, Snow White and the Huntsman and Welcome to the Punch. Here he writes about his journey from stage to screen, and why hindsight is a powerful tool.
I ran off to Paris when I was in my late teens, and it was there I got the acting bug. I stumbled on a group of street mime artists in the Les Halles district, and they were kind enough to let me work with them. I also discovered an independent cinema around the corner from the restaurant I was working in; I saw Backbeat there, and was so astounded by Ian Hart’s portrayal of John Lennon that I wanted to know how he did it.
I returned to London and enrolled at my local adult education centre, Morley College in Lambeth, where I met my acting tutor Craig Snelling and trained for three years. One of his previous students had written a play, and he suggested me for the lead. I got the role and performed it in a tiny theatre above a pub in South East London. Shortly afterwards my local pub theatre, The White Bear in Kennington, were auditioning for a full-length play; I got a part and was up and running.
I then did countless plays in fringe theatres all over London, and took parts in student films, pop promos and adverts. I also became a member of the Union Theatre, a 50-seat venue under a railway arch in Southwark. We had a fantastic company of actors and I learnt a huge amount whilst there.
It was while performing in one of these plays that I came to the attention of casting director Jina Jay. Fear of rejection or failure had stopped me from writing letters to casting directors, and so it was only by chance that she saw me performing, and invited me to meet with the film director Paul McGuigan. I prepared an epic, over-emotional monologue to perform for him and burst into his office full of nervous energy. He was a lovely man and—thankfully—a very calming influence, and we ended up having a cup of tea and a chat about my experience and background instead. After a few weeks I got the call to say he’d given me a part in his new movie, Gangster No. 1. Just six or so years earlier I’d been watching Malcolm McDowell on that Parisian screen in A Clockwork Orange, and now I was being flown to Berlin to work with him.
During my fringe theatre years, I was very resentful that I was not being considered for work by any of the bigger London theatres, and it was only with hindsight I realised two things. Firstly, I’d never contacted any of them and, secondly, it was the best possible training for my future film career. In those tiny theatre spaces you are inches away from your audience; it feels as if they can see right into your character’s soul, so you have to find an absolute truth in your performance. It’s a similar feeling in front of a camera. There are lots of technical things you pick up along the way, but essentially it boils down to hitting your mark and finding the truth… and the small halls were a great training ground for that. Often an actor starting out in TV or film will be given a script on the day of the audition and, as a result, will only just have time to learn the piece, let alone be able to create an interesting character. I think this system can force young actors into simply playing themselves and, while it may produce great results in certain scenarios, it doesn’t encourage longevity or creativity. Again, with hindsight, I feel blessed that I was encouraged back in those formative years to be brave and take chances with my choices.
I finally got my big chance in 2006, when Paul Andrew Williams gave me my first prominent role in his movie London to Brighton. It started life as a short film called Royalty and I met Paul when he auditioned me for that. I got the part and when it later evolved into London to Brighton, he very generously—and courageously, as I was still completely unknown—cast me again. The film opened to great reviews and won awards at the Dinard and Edinburgh Festivals in 2006; it felt like a real breakthrough moment.
Shane Meadows saw the film and wrote a broadsheet article about actors to watch out for, and included me in his list. I was working on building sites at the time to make ends meet and I caught the article by chance over someone’s shoulder on the Tube home one evening! Four years later, Shane auditioned me for the part of Mick in This Is England ’86. It was a huge opportunity for me, and working so closely and intensely with Shane was a life-changing experience. It felt like the culmination of everything I’d learnt up until then about acting and filmmaking, and led to BAFTA and RTS award nominations.
My next two projects will be Welcome to the Punch and Snow White and the Huntsman. In Welcome to the Punch, I play Dean Warns, an ex-soldier now working freelance, and a dangerous man committed to his beliefs. The film is directed by Eran Creevy, who made Shifty, although this film is very different in both style and content. Eran created a fantastic atmosphere on set, and cast an amazing ensemble of British actors including James McEvoy, Mark Strong, Peter Mullan, Andrea Riseborough and David Morrissey. I’m honoured to be among that group.
In Snow White and the Huntsman I play Quert, one of the eight dwarves. It was a wonderful experience, and slightly surreal in the best possible way. Describing my working day would be like describing a strange dream; ‘I was running around in an enchanted forest with Kristen Stewart, and Ray Winstone was there, and Bob Hoskins, and Ian McShane too… and we were all dwarves!’ Although some CGI is used in the film to get us to the right height, we still had to learn to move correctly and spent weeks training with a movement coach to get it right.
I’ve worked in both small independent films like London to Brighton and huge productions like Snow White and have discovered both have their benefits. I think it’s more about whether you believe in the work you’re doing and the people you’re working with. If you can simply remain true to yourself within both your choices and your performance you’ll have a good chance of being happy in your work and proud of it too—in hindsight, of course!
Snow White and the Huntsman was released on June 1; Welcome to the Punch is due for release later in 2012.
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 28 (May/June 2012)
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