Russell T Davies & Irving Welsh praise Joe Millson's book... and it all began in Newbury
Everything you’ve never heard about becoming an actor
Russell T Davies: This is wonderful. It’s the proper story of an actor’s life – not the champagne and air-kisses, but the graft, the doubt, the debt and sometimes, just sometimes, the bliss.
Irving Welsh: If you are interested in the real life and challenges of a working actor, then this book is absolutely essential. Joe Millson writes in an engaging, honest but highly optimistic tone, and his passion for the craft and the life he obviously loves so much shines through those pages.
JOSEPH MILLSON has written his first book Work ... and other four-letter words. He grew up in deep, dark Berkshire and has been a busy professional actor for more than 25 years, having played leading roles at most of the major theatres in England including the National Theatre, the Royal Court, Almeida, Hampstead Theatre, the Old Vic, Donmar Warehouse and the RSC (where he is an associate artist). He has appeared in West End musicals and has won several awards for his stage work, including the UK Theatre Award and Whatsonstage Awards. He has appeared in a dozen feature films including Angel Has Fallen and Casino Royale. His extensive and varied television career has included regular leading roles in The Last Kingdom, Banished, 24, Campus, Holby City, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Peak Practice, among many others. Joseph has taught in several of the leading drama schools in the UK; he is patron of the Actors Centre London and is a fellow of the Rose Bruford College... And it all began with the BTEC Performing Arts course at Newbury College. Joe chats to N2 arts editor TRISH LEE
I REMEMBER first seeing Joe play the sadistic dentist in the then fledgling BTEC Performing Arts course production Little Shop of Horrors at The Arts Workshop, where I was the venue’s director. It was the 1990s and they used our studio, with its professional theatre facilities, as an annexe. It was an outstanding performance and we all recognised how talented he was.
But does Joe remember this tour-de-force? “I certainly remember the leather trousers!”
Born in Reading, Joe grew up in Stanford Dingley and Bucklebury, attending Bradfield Primary School then Kennet School. His grandmother, who sadly passed away just before Christmas, lived in Compton.
He may never have become an actor had it not been for Newbury College head of performing arts Adam Fotheringham, who, as legend goes, pointed to Joe at a jobs fair and said “Actor”.
“Yes, I was at the Newbury College open day, looking at the carpentry and metalwork courses and Adam called me over to the performing arts table, he said something about the ratio of seven girls to each boy and I asked him where I had to sign.”
Newbury College proved a pivotal experience. “Through the performing arts course there we were lucky enough to mount an almost professional level production of Animal Farm at The Watermill with a professional production team.
“The hours were gruelling and I discovered I wanted more, more, more, which was a surprise to my parents as I was generally a lazybones.
“Adam and that course have a lot to answer for.”
How then did the college, then Rose Bruford, prepare him for the business. “Both colleges gave me freedom to fail, to fall flat on my face, which is the only way to learn.
“Rose Bruford was tough, which I loved, and it was also very low ego – it was not about making stars, it was about making useful theatre and working as part of a team. The hours were long and the rooms were cold, which was a good preparation for the decades which followed.”
Early on Joe demonstrated his ‘the show must go on ethic’ when he snipped the end of his nose.
“Ah, that was a Newbury College production of The Government Inspector – I wonder if you could dig up the NWN report about that, I seem to remember a great headline ‘actor proves he’s a cut above the rest’, this referred to the unfortunate incident when I accidentally sliced through my nose with a pair of scissors mid-performance.
“It was a very serious cut, the scar from which still shows now, but I can’t claim bravery, only greed. The audience thought the spurting blood was a stage effect, because I didn’t show my pain... I was too eager to get the extra laughs.”
His career, however, had a shaky start and I tried to draw out Joe’s thoughts on David Copperfield the Musical. “HAHAHA. A legend in the history of British theatre. For all the wrong reasons and my treasured first professional job, 1995.”
Best forget that one then... But it wasn’t long before Joe was landing major roles.
In 1997, together with his friend Stuart Mullins, he set up a new writing theatre company Pursued By A Bear, to which he is still committed. “We found, nurtured and produced a new play every year, usually touring to parts of the country that didn’t get too much new writing.
“We believed very strongly in helping writers tell new stories. We handed the company over to more able hands after a decade or so and I’m thrilled to say it’s still going strong.
“Please look them up and support their work, readers.”
I wondered how it felt when Joe returned to Newbury as a professional in 1995 in the Magnificent Theatre Company production of Frederick Reynolds’ The Dramatist at the Corn Exchange. “I’d forgotten that toured to Newbury! So I can’t really remember, I suppose at that point I hadn’t been away for too many years – it would be far stranger to return to Newbury to perform now...
“Paging The Watermill and Corn Exchange...”
His stage career embraces the West End performing with David Tennant, Nichola McAuliffe, Anna Chancellor and Desmond Barrett; Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy at the Comedy Theatre in 1998; directed by Peter Hall, partnering Hall’s daughter Rebecca in As You Like It, touring in 2003; playing The Bastard King John with the RSC in 2006 along with Tamsin Greig in the Swan and Much Ado About Nothing, also in the same theatre. “All of these experiences were extraordinary, in the exact meaning of that word, and the best thing I could say is read the book to find out more.”
Something else I’d heard and was curious to ask if it was true was starving himself with a diet of nuts and soup for Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the National’s Olivier in 2009, with Toby Jones. “Absolutely right, I had to convincingly look like my character had been on a hunger strike for many weeks, and only had six weeks to achieve the look.
“Long runs every morning, EVERY morning.
“And three meals a day which could be almost anything, but each meal had to fit inside one of my then toddler children’s little plastic dinner bowls.
“I was absolutely regimented about it and lost two stone in a month-and-a-half.
“Silly behaviour really, and a tad dangerous. It worked, but I don’t recommend it.”
So what does being an actor mean? Joe is unusual in working at the top level on stage, on television (Campus,
EastEnders, Peak Practice, The Last Kingdom), on radio (like plays by Jonathan Holloway) and on film including James Bond, as well as his zombie film in India among others.
“Being an actor means living with uncertainty, bouncing from eating well to bankruptcy in the space of a year. It means being
comfortable being uncomfortable, it means rejection on a weekly or sometimes daily basis, but it also means almost religious highs when things are going well, it means self discipline and creative joy.”
I’d also heard wild stories about an agent screwing up and filming in the Caribbean, but by way of confirmation he advises: “For all those wonderful bonkers gigs, including James Bond, it’d be best to buy the book.”
With such a vast repertoire of work, Joe finds it hard to pick a favourite role: “OOOOOH, so difficult. I’m going to close my eyes, pick almost at random and say playing The Rover in The Rover for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I can’t imagine I’ll ever hear an audience roaring with laughter like that again.”
The industry has taken a devastating hit from the pandemic, which has affected Joe alongside his fellow professionals.
“Denial is not just a river in Egypt. I’m crossing all my digits that our industry will survive, but it’s looking very very uncertain.
“I have rent to pay and children to look after, no furlough in our line of work and no Government assistance for us either.
“I’ve been teaching online, writing, acting online a bit, recording radio, plays sometimes from my wardrobe, and I have had a part-time job in my local supermarket stacking shelves. Whatever it takes.”
So what made this a good time to write the book? “I’ve been writing it on and off for a few years and lockdown was a great chance to put the hundreds of hours in to get it finished edited and sold.
“It’s been a joy, the cheapest, funniest therapy I’ve ever known.
“It’s not just for actors, it’s for anyone who might wonder what the reality of a real actor’s life is like, not the champagne and air kisses, but the graft.
“It’s also for anyone who wants to understand the benefits of falling in love with work itself. It’s also funny and moving, so I’m told...”
Finally, what advice would Joe give any young person considering an acting career?
“Go for it!! Fall in love with being an artist, doing the WORK, not with being famous and DEFINITELY not with being rich! Oh, and always keep a sense of humour in your pocket...”
Joseph Millson Work ... and other four-letter words. Book £8.99 and kindle version available via Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08NRZGDBW also through www.josephmillson.com
Harriet Walter: ‘...looks back on the bluster and blunders of his early career with a candour that sometimes seems dangerously unfiltered. From dole queues to dramatic heights, he captures the randomness of the acting profession while bristling with enthusiasm for the job