Interview: Actor/Director Cameron Jack on leaving the South Pacific, The Dark Knight Rises and a blossoming movie career..
Fresh from Bartlett Sher’s incredible production of South Pacific – which came to an end this week after a very successful UK touring spell – I caught up with cast member, Scottish actor/director Cameron Jack to discuss the show, his directorial work and the little matter of a featured appearance in The Dark Knight Rises…
You’ve recently been playing and covering Luther Billis in the fantastic UK tour of South Pacific, with the tour coming to an end, can you tell us about your experiences on the show?
When I got the South Pacific offer I actually had two other offers on the table, I could’ve gone out to Germany to do Rocky Horror for seven months, or I could’ve done All the Fun of the Fair – I was desperate to work with director Nikolai Foster, I still am! When the South Pacific offer came in, I did my research and saw it had won so many awards; obviously you want to be associated with a show that you know is quality.
Working with (director) Bartlett Sher was an amazing experience, it didn’t get any better than that. The guy is a theatrical genius, he’s brilliant – one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever worked with, and also with Christopher Gattelli who’s just won the Tony Award for Newsies on Broadway, they made the whole job worthwhile. I’ve always liked working with Americans coming over to the UK. Bart had done his research on the show inside out; his direction was all about the trip of the piece as a serious story; unfortunately for me, that meant I had to cut back on the comedy which, playing Stewpot, I found quite difficult, because I like to do new stuff every night! But I thought it was beautifully staged and incredibly well cast, Sam (Womack) was brilliant and Alex (Ferns) was great too. Alex made a fantastic job of the comedy playing Billis – he unfortunately got a back injury in Birmingham which meant I got a couple of weeks on – it’s a really high energy, up-tempo role and as an understudy you can never ever tell just how hard it’s going to be when you’re playing it – but you learn soon enough! I think it was a real classic R&H show and touring audiences absolutely loved it.
You have a very illustrious CV, you’ve originated roles in We Will Rock You and The Drowsy Chaperone as well as appearing in Les Miserables at the Palace Theatre. Away from musicals, you have acted in and directed numerous plays, appeared in a variety of television shows and now you can be seen on the big screen; how much importance would you put in a varied CV?
What you’re looking for an as actor are good credits and good directors; where I think some actors can fall down, particularly in musicals, is staying in the same show too long or staying in the same genre too long. What I’ve always tried to do is mix it up a bit; I always tell younger actors that if you want an interesting career, try and mix genres up. I was fortunate that my first job out of college was at Regents Park, so that my first two roles were Shakespeare and the next one was a musical, then I got a telly role, then I got a Christmas show then another telly, then a straight play… what happens is casting directors can’t say “well, that’s a musical theatre actor”, they have to look at you and take you a little more seriously, because you’ve covered different genres.
You have considerable directorial experience on the fringe..
I’m directing Lord of the Flies at Catford Broadway Theatre in September; which I think is my fifteenth play. I have directed bigger budget productions, but what I most enjoy are plays on the fringe – you can just step off the stage and pass what you’ve learned throughout your career onto younger actors.
Which aspect of performing do you enjoy most?
If I had to pick one single thing, it would be acting for camera. That’s what I’ve always absolutely loved. When I did my first telly role in 1995, I kind of realised that was where my heart lay. But as an actor, unless you’re very lucky or you evolve in a certain way, you have to move around to keep working. I’ve had a lovely and varied stage career, but perhaps now at 40 it doesn’t fill me with as much excitement as my other ventures.
I want to congratulate you on being the first movie star we’ve ever interviewed at Chewing the Scenery! How did your role in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, come about?
I felt like I needed a new challenge, that I was repeating myself month after month – year after year – I was directing a lot, I was doing a lot of musicals.. My agent, Claire Saunders – who is fantastic, said to me, “What sort of thing would you like to do?” and I said “Get me into a film. It’s been a while!”. It’s no secret that when you audition for Chris Nolan, you don’t know what you’re auditioning for when you go in. The Dark Knight Rises had the working title of Magnus Rex - and when you’re auditioning for him, the whole thing is top secret! So I went along to Spotlight in Central London to meet a lovely casting director named Toby Whale, who I’d never met before. They’d sent me a scene where I had to mug somebody and basically I had to do this scene two or three times, while they moved around with a camera. I must’ve been in for maybe five minutes before I left; you know when you leave whether you’re right for something or not and I felt I’d done well. I’ve got nine tattoos, I’m 5’6”, I’m Glaswegian and I’m stocky. In film you tend to work in the area you look like, and since I left Mountview (Theatre School) at 24, every so often I’ve played these darker roles. Thugs, drug dealers, wife beaters, junkies, whatever, so it’s not an area I’m unfamiliar with!
How did the process compare to casting calls for the stage or television?
This is what I find bizarre, you’re working at the very top level in the world of entertainment, yet they make decisions so quickly! For example, when I did We Will Rock You, I had six call backs – I had five call backs for South Pacific.. and it gets more and more difficult the closer you get to the job. When I got The Dark Knight Rises, Chris Nolan saw the tapes and made the decision within a few days. I auditioned on the Tuesday, I was given the job the following Tuesday and I was on set the Tuesday after that. It’s mind-blowing!
It must have been a very special experience…
It was an amazing experience just to be in the film and see yourself up there. To be honest, when I was in the cinema watching these Hollywood blockbusters I always hoped that I would one day get the opportunity. It wasn’t everything I hoped it would be – it was like 250 times more! It was an incredible experience and we were unbelievably well treated. I worked with Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy and they were absolutely fantastic. The highlight for me was working with Gary Oldman – he’s an absolute hero of mine. I remember seeing him in an Alan Clarke movie called The Firm in the eighties thinking ‘This guy is just incredible’ – he lit the screen up, and has done in every single thing that he has done since. To stand next to someone like that, to be able to act with them, to pick up tips, was amazing – he is a genius. We had the cast and crew screening in Leicester Square; it was so well put together, beautifully shot, tied up and written. I absolutely loved the film, it was just a fantastic experience.
Are you a fan of the Batman franchise?
I had seen Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – obviously Heath Ledger’s performance was probably the most memorable part of that movie. I am generally a fan of good directors – and good movies, I loved Inception, I loved Insomnia, I loved Memento... (all Christopher Nolan movies). I’m a massive, massive fan of Chris; people forget he produces, which is not to be underestimated, and he also co-writes the movies with his brother.
I was only on set for a week, but I learnt so much. What I noticed about The Dark Knight Rises was how high the stakes are – how important it is that you get it right. There’s not a lot of mucking around or laughing and joking as there are on some other types of job, it’s a very high stakes set and that’s exactly how it should be, because there’s a lot riding on it.
You have a featured role in a record-breaking Christopher Nolan Batman movie; your stock in the casting room must be high right now…
I’ve just had an audition for a new Ridley Scott movie, which I’m keeping my fingers crossed for! It’s playing a hitman – the usual! (laughs), it’s called The Counselor and it has an unbelievable cast. It proves to me that I’ve done the right thing already. I’m waiting to hear about Kick-Ass 2 and I was also cast by Tom Hooper in the Les Miserables feature film which was due to film in February/March while I was doing South Pacific, so unfortunately that didn’t work out.
Most actors I know tend to go the small independent route first…
I’d really love to! There’s a couple of those that haven’t come off, because I’d been working in theatre or the dates didn’t fit. I’d love to do some independent film – it doesn’t always pay well – often, it doesn’t pay at all! But fortunately my agent has helped me cross into different areas and they would be perfectly happy for me to do an independent film or a television role, as long as it felt like it was the right move.
Classic cliché question time – which roles would you love to play on the stage?
I suppose I might be a little different to some actors you might come across in that I don’t really covet any of the musical theatre roles – although I did when I was younger. I can give you a favourite role I played on stage; I was fortunate enough to play Begbie in the stage version of Trainspotting in 1996 opposite Gerard Butler. That was the pinnacle on the stage for me, very early – only a year out of college, but I loved it because I could identify with that type of writing, being Scottish and working class – and also being a huge fan. I loved the book, I loved the play, I loved the movie – to play Begbie was brilliant. There are rumours they might be doing a prequel to Trainspotting called Porno on stage; if they ever brought Begbie back to the stage, I would love to play him again. I’d also love to do another Shakespeare, maybe The Scottish Play – I’m not gonna say it – but I’d like to play that part. I also like discovering new shows – We Will Rock You. was my favourite experience of doing a musical; everything you do as a cast, and bring to the performance, people are still doing ten years later. It is a very weird experience! I wouldn’t find as much thrill now in taking over in a musical, because the template is already set and I might feel restricted by that. I wouldn’t rule out a new musical, but because of my height and build, unless it’s a comedy part or an understudy role, I don’t fit into the classic leading man thing, that’s not where I’m put, which in the end means you can play the more interesting parts!
Cameron Jack is currently appearing in The Dark Knight Rises in cinemas worldwide and Lord of the Flies opens in September at the Broadway Theatre, Catford. Follow him on Twitter @rentathug