Inside Look: Christian Cooke

Christian Cooke on the set of Knives in Hens in London, UK on September 26, 2017.

We spoke to actor Christian Cooke about his role as Pony William in the Donmar Warehouse production of Knives in Hens.

Knives in Hens is set in a rugged ‘pre-industrial’ time and place far removed from contemporary life. What was the nature of the conversations with the director and fellow cast regarding how these characters exist, or even your own thought process?
A lot of the early work we did was physical. Lots of movements work to really get inside the bodies of these people and consider how they move. They are people of the land who were put to work from a young age so it was important for us to understand as much as possible, the nature of that hardship and how that reflected in their movement. And with that the economy of how they move when they’re not working.
We also spent hours talking about how relationships between men and women have changed throughout the years and how the ideas of masculine and feminine have also evolved over time. It was important for us not to judge these characters but to understand the world in which they were a part of.

Have your feelings of the play or your character shifted since you first performed it? If so why or how?
I don’t think my feelings towards William have changed. I’ve always understood him and sympathised with him and a strong sense of his own longing and pain. The great thing about theatre is that you’re always finding new things in the work and making new discoveries with the language. That’s the joy of repeating it every night. No two shows are ever the same and sometimes the language resonates in a new or different way.

Do you prefer having a more abstract, sparse setting/ environment for your performances? Does it pose a greater challenge or do you tend to find more with less? 
I think as long as the set and the props you’re working with is true to the nature of the work you are doing  and helps to define the directors vision, then that’s fine. When the set or props start to distract from the language or the work in a negative way, it’s better to strip things back.

What is your favourite moment in the play that doesn’t involve your character? 
I love it when the Miller decides to leave and the Young Woman asks where he’s going and he replies, “to the town won’t call me, Miller.” I love that exchange. In fact that whole scene is my favourite scene in the play. The language is so economical and powerful. Both characters have grown and have a new horizon in their sights. It’s an extremely hopeful scene.

Applause and ovations notwithstanding – what has been the most rewarding moment of your experience on this production so far?
Working with Yael Farber. She’s an artist to her very core and someone who makes me want to be better every day.

What is a small perhaps even imperceptible detail from your performance or the play itself that is an incredibly significant element?
I think the speech that I have at the end of scene one about the field can be easily looked over because it comes so early in the piece. But it’s incredibly important to show William’s longing and pain and it’s a part of him that doesn’t resurface until the end. He hides that side of him for most of the play but it’s important that the audience remember that it exists within him.

Christian Cooke applied his stage makeup in his dressing room.

Cooke pointed to a joke from his fellow castmates.

Before performances, Cooke often listened to the soundtrack of The Assassination of Jesse James.

Props backstage.

Cooke warmed up on stage before the evening’s performance.

Christian Cooke can be seen in Knives in Hens, on now until 7 October 2017 at the Donmar Warehouse, London (UK).

As told to Paul Vaughan for TPJ
Photographer: Jessie Craig

Inside Look: George Blagden

George Blagden on the set of The Pitchfork Disney in London, UK on February 14, 2017.

We spoke to actor George Blagden about his role as Presley in the Shoreditch Town Hall production of The Pitchfork Disney.

What was the most challenging aspect of the play as you read it, that surprised you in how well it unfolded live?
The language. When you read Philip’s work for the first time, your imagination takes you to a million different places of where this sort of story-telling could work effectively. If you didn’t have the luxury of having Phil there (which we did!), you could interpret his writing in lots of different ways, and different productions of this have done the play in a number of different ways. But this is the genius of it. It is applicable and meaningful to a variety of different social/political settings. I think that is why it is just as engaging to an audience now as it was when it was first produced in 1991.

Do you generally have the same expectations for/ of your director from project to project?
Absolutely not. I think the role of director is so important because they are essentially the “chief story-teller” – we are telling whatever story it is that the director would like to express. And this can often be totally different to how you interpreted the piece when you first read it. It’s why one of the most important jobs of an actor is to trust in the director of the film/episode/play you’re doing and wholly engage in their process, because you are a tool in making their story come to life. And not having any expectations going into something is what makes our job so exciting – to be surprised and inspired by people makes you want to follow them into battle.

Much of the commentary regarding the play pays tremendous credit to the direction of Jamie Lloyd. How/ when did you become aware of his work? What separates his productions from others?
I had heard of his productions and knew that his work had inspired a lot of talented people in our industry to want to work with him. But I am so embarrassed to say that I had never seen any of Jamie’s work before this production! So when he asked me to do it, I suppose I had the luxury that I mentioned above of not having any expectations! The only thing I think I knew, from hearing about his previous work, was that I would be working with a very brave director.

Adding to the previous question, have you noticed these distinctions in Lloyd’s work altering your performance or outlook in any way?
Absolutely. When you work alongside people who are fearless in their approach to the work, it is infectious. And I feel much braver as an actor than I did before I started working with Jamie.

What made this particular project so immediate/ relevant /appealing to you at this point in your life and career?
I have wanted to work on stage for so long, and never been given the opportunity until recently. The idea that I could work with this incredible cast of actors on a Philip Ridley play with Jamie directing as one of my first professional experiences in theatre was too good to be true. It was an opportunity to challenge myself in a way that I haven’t been challenged over the last few years, and I knew it would definitely be a very rewarding experience.

What has been your favourite memory of The Pitchfork Disney that wasn’t onstage?
There were a couple of times in rehearsals where we were reminded (in amongst the chaos of trying to put on a play in 3 weeks!) of why we do this. Some real “pinch-me” moments. In an industry where you can easily get lost in focusing on stuff that isn’t about story-telling, there were times when I realised that this project is exactly why I do this. Being part of one of the best creative teams in our industry to tell a story every night that affects people in some way. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Want more? Watch our behind-the-scenes film.

George Blagden in the dressing room he shared with his castmates.

Notes on the script for The Pitchfork Disney.

Blagden changed into his all black costume.

Blagden led us from the dressing room to the performance area that had been constructed in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall.

Props which were used in the play.

Blagden gave us a tour of the performance area, standing by a bare bulb – one of many small fixtures which atmospherically lit the set.

Talking through various scenes, Blagden sat with castmates Seun Shote and Tom Rhys Harries in the chairs reserved for audience members during a performance. Unlike traditional plays with a separated stage and seating area, the audience was placed within the set.

Blagden sat for an interview with Shoreditch Town Hall.

Before every performance, Blagden ordered the soup of the day at a nearby restaurant.

Blagden and castmate Hayley Squires rehearsed a key scene.

Squires and Blagden continued to work through the scene.

Back in their dressing rooms, Blagden, Squires and Rhys Harries finished getting ready for the night’s performance.

Blagden mentally prepared himself by listening to the soundtrack to The Revenant. Hear him speak about this in our behind-the-scenes film.

Blagden and Squires worked through a few final points in the countdown to the evening’s show.

Blagden took his first position in character, awaiting the audience to enter the set.

George Blagden can be seen in The Pitchfork Disney, on now until 18 March 2017 at Shoreditch Town Hall, London (UK).

As told to Paul Vaughan for TPJ
Photographer: Jessie Craig

Inside Look: Arinzé Kene

Arinzé Kene in his dressing room at the Donmar Warehouse in London, UK on November 25, 2016.

We spoke to actor Arinzé Kene about his role as Same Cooke in the Donmar Warehouse production of One Night In Miami.

Cooke was a ground-breaking artist beyond just a creative capacity in that he crossed genres (at risk of losing his gospel career) and took control of his music management. How much do you think these chapters of his life would influence his role in the civil rights movement, or vice-versa?
There were several differing views at the time on what the best methods to combat racial injustice were. Some saw peaceful protest as an ideal route while other activists took the ‘eye for an eye’ approach. Sam Cooke, being the businessman that he was, fought a unique fight. He put his politicals in his music and it can be heard in A Change Gonna Come and that’s why the song became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement.

What was a seemingly small detail about Cooke that had a significant impact on your understanding of him?
When he started his own record label and saw the benefits of keeping all of his music, he didn’t keep it to himself. He evangelised. He tried to get other artists to do the same. And live on air, when asked what his ultimate goal was, he replied “for all of my artists to have hit records”. He really wanted others to do well. He wanted to share his success and went to great lengths to do so. He hired people he knew growing up and he signed people from his church to his record label. He changed the course of music because he was so generous.

Amongst the figures depicted in the play, Cooke is unique in that he is the only one among them who is an artist rather than an athlete or a political figure. How do you feel that may have set his perspective apart from the other ones in the room, if at all?
I think that in 1964 black artists were idolised in quite a similar way to black atheletes. Sam, Cassius Clay, and Jim Brown, there was a lot of common ground they shared. I think Sam’s unique perspective comes from him being an individual, not so much that fact he was an artist or a performer.

Do you feel that there are any contemporary cultural figures who represent the people depicted in One Night In Miami? If not, why do you think that is?
I don’t think there are many but there are some. The LeBron James Family Foundation donated $41M to send kids to college. Draymond Green doesn’t make half as much as LeBron and he donated $3.1M to Michigan State. Colin Kaepernick, NFL player, took a knee during the Star Spangled Banner and when asked about it afterwards his response was, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder”. I think if there are contemporary figures who represent the people in One Night In Miami, its these guys, to name a few.

Sam Cooke and Malcolm X would not make it out of the 60’s without tragic and violent ends, whereas Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali would continue to carry on their legacies of civil/ social/ racial equality. To what degree do you feel Sam Cooke would have enhanced his legacy and social change had he lived?
I think he’d have continued to fight through his music and through music management. Music changes lives. It saves lives. Through Sam Cooke, several people at the time who had aversions to black people, were able to see different. I think he’d have inspired more artists similar to him that they can do both, make money while doing what they love and fight for equality.

How aware were you of the relationships depicted in this play prior to your involvement in the project? What did you find the most intriguing or illuminating about it once you invested so much thought?
I had no idea that these men knew each other so intensely. I knew that Clay and Sam were friends and that Malcolm helped Clay become Ali, but that was all. Exploring this play really opened my mind. It showed me that it’s important to do the right thing with your power. These men gained a platform and they all used it for something that was greater than them. Greater than their legacy combined will ever be.

What Sam Cooke song does everyone reading this need to drop everything and listen to immediately?
A Change Is Gonna Come

Kene’s dressing room was filled with archive images of Cooke for reference and inspiration.

After changing into costume, Kene exited the dressing room to give us a tour of the theatre.

The stage wings of the Donmar.

Kene strummed out a Cooke song which features in the play.

The bedside table on the stage.

Kene looked out to the empty theatre before the evening’s performance.

Kene held up a prop from the play.

Back in his dressing room, Kene took a call from his agent to organize the week’s schedule.

Kene’s wig was removed to reveal his shaved head underneath.

Kene shared his dressing room with castmate Sope Dirisu and Josh Williams.

Kene changed back into his regular attire to go grab a bite to eat before the show.

Kene joked around with castmate Williams.

Arinzé Kene recently won Best Supporting Actor at the Evening Standard Film Awards for his role in The Pass, in cinemas now (UK). He can also be seen in Crazyhead on Netflix (UK). He wrote the play good dog, which opens at the Watford Palace Theatre on 14 February 2017 before touring nationally (UK).

As told to Paul Vaughan for TPJ
Photographer: Jessie Craig

Inside Look: Bethan Cullinane


Bethan Cullinane in her dressing room at the Barbican Theatre in London, UK on November 19, 2016.

We spoke to actress Bethan Cullinane about her role as Innogen in Royal Shakespeare Company’s Cymbeline.

What line from Cymbeline did you look forward to saying the most on opening night?
“A large Gin and tonic, please”.
My second favourite was probably my first line of the second half. It’s the first time I directly speak to the audience. I walk out, disguised as a boy and say “I see a man’s life is a tedious one”. It tends to get a laugh, and after a very emotionally heavy first half it’s a nice refresher. It is a moment of “lighter” relief before it all goes downhill again.

Whether they knew it or not, who was most helpful in helping you find your performance or the character ?
Hiran who plays my husband, Posthumus and Ollie who plays Iachimo are both very good friends of mine. We were in the same year at drama school so I’ve known them both for 8 years (our director Melly had no idea when she cast us). I think being in the rehearsal room with those two meant that I was able to take risks at a very early stage of rehearsal. Had I not known my co-actors so well I might not have felt as brave. We had a short hand and could be very honest with each other about what felt right and what didn’t. And although it’s weird kissing one of your mates, at least it’s not awkward afterwards.

What do you think is the most subtle but significant element of Cymbeline? Whether related to a character, or a theme, setting e.t.c.
I’d say it’s to do with Truth. Roughly 90% of the characters in Cymbeline tell lies or believe them. It’s those few characters that search for the truth that guide the story back to safety. If characters like Pisania, Innogen or the Doctor (who is the unsung hero of the play), were unable to see through others deceit, the play would end as a tragedy. It’s in the final scene when everybody decides to come clean that families and countries are reunited.

What was the first important detail you learned about the story or your character?
It was Innogen’s use of language and the insight it gave me into her imagination. Not only does she talk a lot, but she has a mad, creative way of seeing things too. I think once I embraced that as part of her character I could use the language rather than finding it intimidating.
I would also say that Melly’s decision to change the gender of many of the boldest characters to female was hugely important. It created a world where women could be in charge, and behave however they liked. I was given freedom from the “pious heroine” stereotype and the chance to find a woman with her own real strengths and flaws.

There are overlapping elements between Cymbeline and Hamlet, Othello and Romeo and Juliet. In what way is Cymbeline a unique departure from Shakespeare’s other works?
Well I think the fact that Cymbeline has it all makes it a significant departure from his other works. I like to think of Cymbeline as Shakespeare’s greatest hits. It’s as if he took all of his favourite bits and smashed them together into a completely wacky story. Cymbeline does not share a genre with any of Shakespeare’s other plays. In Hamlet, Polonius makes the audience chuckle when he starts listing all the genres the players could possibly perform. Starting with “tragical-historical” or “pastoral-comical” – he concludes with “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral”. I think it gets a laugh because it seems ridiculous to have so many genres in one play, but fast forward 10 years or so and Shakespeare has done it! If Cymbeline is any genre it’s “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral”- it really has it all.


Cullinane came to her dressing room after a cast warm up to get ready for the performance.


Cullinane did her character’s makeup.


(L) Cullinane’s costume. (R) The hairpieces she wore at the beginning of the play.


Cullinane with castmate Graham Turner, who plays Belarius.


In a separate room, Cullinane had her long hairpieces attached in sections to appear more natural.


A container of fake blood that was to be used in later scenes.


Before long, Cullinane’s hair transformation into Innogen was nearly complete.


Cullinane constantly had a water bottle with her to stay hydrated backstage.


For Innogen’s costume, her shoes were Converse with customized lace detailing.


Cullinane changed into her costume.


After final adjustments, Cullinane headed out towards the stage for her performance.

Bethan Cullinane can be seen in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Cymbeline, on now until 17 December 2016 at the Barbican Theatre, London (UK).

As told to Paul Vaughan for TPJ
Photographer: Jessie Craig

Inside Look: Chanya Button


Chanya Button at her home in London, UK on October 25, 2016.

We spoke to director Chanya Button about Burn Burn Burn, her first feature length film.

Much of Burn Burn Burn is comprised of a road trip – if you could pick three people to share the road with who you do not know, who would you pick?
My next film is about Virginia Woolf and her relationship with the poet Vita Sackville-West. They had an intense friendship, they creatively inspired each other, and they had a passionate romance for a time. I’d like to take a road trip with them and bear witness to the fireworks! They sounded like a riot. That’s only two companions, but from what I know of them they’d provide quite enough entertainment.

When you are showing one of your films to someone, do you typically have a certain scene or minute mark in mind where you consciously think “I need/want a laugh or a cry here.”
After months developing the script, shooting the film, and then crafting it in the cutting room, you do find the rhythm of a film embeds itself into your subconscious! It becomes part of you, and you part of it – often reflecting the cadence of your own thoughts – and the way you see the world. So, when I watch with an audience, I definitely have a sense of the shape of the emotional journey I hope they’ll go on.
It’s been fascinating to watch with audiences internationally; the audiences at BFI London Film Festival where we had our World Premiere responded to different moments to the US, Italy, Serbia, the Ukraine. It’s a fascinating way to explore what moves different cultures; what we share, where we have disparate expectations and experiences.

Why do you personally feel that ‘road trip’ stories are so prevalent in film? What makes them so effective?
As an art form, film is an escape. A means of totally immersing yourself into another world. The act of going to the cinema itself I find so releasing and relieving from the strains of the outside world. So in many ways this tradition of the ‘road trip’ narrative is a perfect metaphor for that sense of escape that film offers. Seph and Alex are breaking free from their lives in order to grapple with grief for their best friend, for many of the same reasons as we choose to scurry into the comforting darkness of the cinema.

What is your favourite road-trip film? (That you haven’t worked on)
Thelma & Louise was a guiding light for this film; as was Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. The sense of fighting through the thorny knots that life challenges you to unpick with a dry wit, a chaotic irreverence – both of those pieces of work share something with Burn Burn Burn I hope.

How much did your preconceived vision for the film compare or contrast with the final product? What surprised you the most about the film, either over the course of production or how it ultimately turned out?
The greatest creative evolutions the film underwent were provoked by our wonderful cast. Jack Farthing, Laura Carmichael, Chloe Pirrie and Joe Dempsie are such thoughtful, detailed actors – they brought the script to life in new and exciting ways. I think this often about putting a cast and crew together; fill the room with people who are bringing things you aren’t. If you think you’re the cleverest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room!


Chanya Button got ready for the UK premiere of Burn Burn Burn at her home in London, UK.


On Button’s coffee table was an old copy of TIME Magazine featuring Virginia Woolf, who will be the subject of her next film.


The marquee at The Screen On The Green in London.


Choe Pirrie, one of the stars of the film, stopped for press shots.


(L) Button and actress Laura Carmichael joined other members of the cast and crew for drinks. (R) Button posed with the cast of Burn Burn Burn.


Button spoke to fans and friends out front of the theatre.


Pirrie laughed as she took a friend’s arm to balance in her heels.


Button and Carmichael before the screening began.


Actress Zawe Ashton came to support her friends involved in the film.


Button watched on as Candy Says performed. They composed the soundtrack for Burn Burn Burn.


Following the screening, Button alongside the cast members and screenwriter Charlie Covell sat for a Q&A session.

Burn Burn Burn can be seen in cinemas now (UK) and on Netflix globally.

As told to Paul Vaughan for TPJ
Photographer: Jessie Craig