JAMIE BAMBER'S 1999
INTERVIEW WITH A&E
At the tender age of twenty-five, British actor Jamie Bamber has already starred in three A&E productions. He played Midshipman Archie Kennedy in Horatio Hornblower, Lord Tony in The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Ralph Paton in Poirot : The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (scheduled to air early next year). Jamie spoke with A&E by phone from his home in London.
A&E: What was it like to leave drama school and then almost immediately get cast in Hornblower?
JB: I was at drama school for a year. I was lucky enough that while I was still at school I was auditioning for things and I had a relationship with my agent already. I actually auditioned for the part of Hornblower first, so I was waiting on that when I got told that I hadn't gotten the part of Hornblower but they had something for me. I guess I was kind of spoiled because I knew I had this job to go to after school. It was a cozy introduction to working as an actor. It was a dream come true. I remember going to the read-through and sort of pinching myself. Finally I was working with actors I admire. Doing a show like Hornblower is every boy's dream -- running around in ships with guns and working with great people and going abroad and working on location. I was very nervous. On my first day I drove down to the location and there was so much going on, it really blew me away. I had never been on a film set before. I had done commercials and things but it took a while to sort of find my feet. My first scenes were with Ioan and we were good friends already by that point.
A&E: Was it hard to get adjusted to learning how to act in a film?
JB: Yeah, it was. I knew what everyone knows: that you wait around and you have to make your performance slightly more contained. But it was a real revelation to me. One of the hardest scenes that I had to do occurred during the first few days of work. It was the very opening sequence of The Duel where I welcome Hornblower aboard ship and it's pouring rain. I couldn't hear anything the director was saying. I didn't know when to go. I'm sure I didn't start a few times and the director wondered what had happened to me. I hadn't heard anything because of the wind machines and rain. I had to usher Hornblower all through the ship and it was basically just thirty lines of me speaking and nobody else saying anything and big long tracking shots and hitting marks and finding the camera. I didn't know what volume to pitch my voice and all sorts of things like that. I remember going up to the sound guy and saying: "Is this all right with me shouting? Can you hear me?" And he said don't worry. Everyone was great and it went fine in the end but there were animals running around and extras everywhere and it was confusing, very confusing.
A&E: Would you want to work on Hornblower again if more episodes are produced in the future?
JB: I would very much like to. It would depend on a lot of things, on what they have in mind. But I don't think it's really in the cards cause I've spoken recently with Andrew Greive (the director of Hornblower) and he's working on new scripts. As far as I understand it, my character was only ever very small in the original novels and was greatly expanded and sort of rolled into other characters. It's grown, I think, beyond what it was originally supposed to be and I was very grateful for that. I don't think they'll pick up my character and take it further because it doesn't appear in the books and the C.S. Forester estate is quite a strong power within the production.
A&E: How did it come about that they wrote a bigger role for you than was in the original script?
JB: I was initially just hired to do the very first episode and I went to the read-through and read for the first episode. This was in September '97 and then I went out to the Ukraine to start filming and I think I got a call from my agent even just before I flew out saying they liked the read-through and were thinking about bringing me back, but they weren't sure. As soon as I arrived in the Ukraine and started working there were rumors and Andrew Benson, the producer, came up to me and said "Listen, I don't know if you've heard anything but we're thinking about expanding your character and bringing him back." At the end of the first episode he's missing, presumed dead. He wasn't ever conclusively killed off so there was always an opportunity to bring him back. They were just looking for a friend for the character of Hornblower who otherwise I think can be a quite closed, isolated figure. I think the relationship with Archie brought out a more compassionate, more down to earth, less formal side to Hornblower. He's constantly around superior officers and he has good relationships with them but he never really gets a chance to open up except with Archie. That worked well for both of us and I think that's why they brought me back.
A&E: Why do you think that there isn't more jealousy between Archie and Horatio -- Horatio rises in the ranks so much faster than Archie does and yet it doesn't seem to strain their friendship much.
JB: In the third episode, The Duchess and the Devil, there was a subtext, a quite strong one, that Archie envied Hornblower's success and the fact that everything works out for him and he's going to be the hero. Hornblower rescues Archie and that's what finally brings him around. Archie is a broken, broken man. Obviously he's been in prison for a couple of years and he has lost the will to live and when Hornblower gets thrown in the same cell he thinks his only course of action is to starve himself and allow Hornblower to get out. He feels like a dead weight and it's a sort of misplaced sense of duty. Hornblower does sort of bring him back to his feet by showing him what camaraderie could be like and was like before he ended up in this awful position. There was a scene which I think was cut which made it much more explicit that there was a distinct feeling of jealousy. Kennedy felt that everything works out for Hornblower and that, "Look at me, I have fits and I screw up missions and you're walking around on the cliff." The scenes were slightly edited, and I think that rivalry was played down a bit in the end. I was disappointed by that because I think the relationship would have been much more interesting if you had seen the trouble. For me it's still there, though, when Archie's ill in bed and he says something like: "You're only doing this so that when you go back and you've rescued your friend you'll be the hero" and Hornblower says it wouldn't be like that and Archie says it would be just like that.
A&E: What was your audition for Hornblower like?
JB: I had been meeting the casting director for another movie, and I'd finished that audition and they said "Wait a second, we're casting this other show, and we think you might have a Hornblower in you" or something. I looked at them strangely and then I went downstairs and met the casting director for Hornblower. He thought I looked right but he said that I'd need to have a bit more hair. I had short hair at the time. I came back to meet the director, Andrew Greive, the next morning. I got on very well with him. He's a very well-spoken, nice, sensitive sort of guy. We had a good chat and talked about life. I didn't even read anything. Then he called six of us back to do a screen test. My screen test involved doing three or four scenes, playing Hornblower in the first episode in full costume and make up in front of the camera. I really, really enjoyed that. Andrew was good to work with and he had a lot of input into how the scene should be done. I didn't expect to get cast as Hornblower. I had no experience. When I read a bit more of the book the character really is not physically like me -- he's tall and gangly and has a pronounced nose. I think there's a funny line that goes something like: "He's got the kind of good looks which only women recognize and men call awkwardness." I was very pleased to get the part of Kennedy, which is a part that grew with me. As my first job, it was a real treat to do. I still feel a great deal of affinity for the character. I think his weaknesses make him, if anything, more human than Hornblower sometimes comes across. Kennedy is a real person who understands that war is dangerous and you might die. I don't think Hornblower really ever thinks about that too often or he pushes the thought to the back of his mind. When I did get the character and I looked at it, it was an obvious thing for me to do and I'm very glad that I did.
A&E: Do you think people relate to the character of Archie because he seems more fearful and vulnerable, not as super-human as Hornblower?
JB: I hope that's true. That was certainly my take on it. Hornblower is a dashing character. He's not your classic hero. He has subtleties and idiosyncrasies that make him interesting. He is slightly awkward physically. But Kennedy is always a flawed person. He's a rounded individual. He finds himself in the Navy. He likes the life and he likes the idea of going to war. His first experience of battle isn't so bad. But this traumatic element of being bullied by the Simpson character is something that people respond to. He's a likable person who finds himself completely beaten down and victimized and can't deal with it. Hornblower has an ability to grit his teeth and stand up to the bully and Kennedy just doesn't. I think people relate to that. There's a lot of heroic behavior on our screens which is all very good and exciting but I think a bit of fragility and humanity is what people really empathize with. None of us are really sure whether we would act heroically in those situations, and Kennedy doesn't and he falls down. He has this tendency to have fits as well, which really attracted me, and I thought "Well, that's going to be a challenge." I was very scared. I'm grateful that I have gotten a few letters from people who have epilepsy or who have close loved ones who have it. Some of them have said that I at least approached giving something of a realistic account of what that can be like. For me the important thing was not the condition of the epilepsy but what brings it on. I spoke to people in this country who deal with that disability and the symptoms of stress and of being traumatized definitely lead to that kind of condition manifesting itself. This character, because he's bullied and because he's traumatized, could as a result have a fit which obviously in the end almost undoes him. It sends him off to prison because he has it at the worst possible time. And so the character was very convincing for me psychologically. He has a very strong journey. Even in that first episode, he was a very defined character. That was great because as a young actor so often you wind up playing sort of generic young people who don't actually go anywhere or do anything. They're just there because they are filling up the cast. Kennedy wasn't like that. He had a very real relationship with the lead character and there was a lot of screen time establishing that relationship and they have very different journeys. Hornblower obviously has a steady, progressive journey and mine was a more problematic one. It was a lovely thing to be able to do.
A&E: On the Hornblower message boards of the A&E Web site, there has been a lot of speculation about whether or not Simpson was sexually abusing Kennedy ...
JB: That is certainly something that interests me. There was a very, very threatening element physically. A lot of people have said "Was it a sexual thing?" I wasn't specifically playing that, but I think certainly what brings on the seizures is the presence of this man who beats me, he violently abuses me, whether it was sexual or not. All that really interested me was that there had to be a plausible reason for these fits and the fits could be caused by a stressful situation like being bullied by a superior or even a peer. Kennedy's fits sort of fade away in the last two episodes and that, too, is medically plausible I'm told. You can never really get rid of the condition but you can certainly play it down, and adverse circumstances will bring it to the fore, which happened in episodes one and three.
A&E: What was the most fun aspect of playing Kennedy?
JB: There were loads of amazing moments throughout the whole shoot. Standing on top of the highest yardarm with Ioan and having the helicopter swoop around us in Portugal was definitely a really big buzz. It was one of those moments when you pinch yourself and you think "This is me standing up here playing a well-defined character in a huge epic" and I loved all that. When the bridge was being blown up in the fourth episode that was a real buzz as well. Mainly because we were rushing home to watch the World Cup game when England were playing Argentina and it was getting late in the evening and we had to blow this bridge pretty quickly, so that was fun. The best moments for me playing Archie were the scenes we played out in the prison. That was the most sort of intensive acting I had to do. Ioan and I enjoy working together and there were real scenes to be acted there. They weren't just sort of set pieces or two- line dialogue. They were much more like playing a theatre scene, so for me personally the high point was those scenes which were filmed at Pinewood Studios.
A&E: Did you know Ioan before you worked with him in Hornblower?
JB: I had heard of him because we have mutual friends but I met him for the first time at the read-through. He's a very friendly, giving person who's a great deal of fun to work with. He's not arrogant at all. Hornblower was a great responsibility for him. When I first got to know him he was under a great deal of stress. He was working on the first two episodes out in the Ukraine and he worked extremely hard. He didn't have a day off in three months, working in a very strange place, and he didn't get to let his hair down much. He was working every day so he couldn't wander around the town and experience life in the Ukraine. He'd work every evening on his scripts so it was harder to get to know him out there, but we spent a lot of time together on set and we always had a laugh. I think we have similar interests. We both played a lot of rugby as kids and we'd throw a ball around occasionally. He's very warm and he's not at all anxious about maintaining his standing on the set or anything like that. He's a good guy to work with and he's a good friend. Out in Portugal when we sort of re-grouped it was like going back to school for a new term and he was very, very different there. He was much more in control of what he was doing and he'd already had the character set up, having played him twice in three months already. He was much more self-assured and as a result he didn't need to spend as much time working and we went out and had a lot of fun.
A&E: Tell us about working with the rest of the Hornblower cast.
JB: I got along well with everyone. It was an all-male cast in the first two episodes and it was sort of like a team-building session. It was very much like being in the armed services, actually, because we were out in the cold in the Ukraine and there wasn't much to do on days off. We would just hang around together. We got to know each other really well, so as a result when we finished filming the first two episodes and went to Portugal after the break it was like seeing old teammates again. Sean Gilder [Styles] and I get along very well. I play golf with him now. Roger May [Lieutenant Chad], he was in the first one, I see him a lot. Robert Lindsay is fantastic. He was our avuncular captain figure who was great fun. I'm good friends with Sam West [Lord Edrington]. It was great to have a couple of actresses come in -- Cherie Lunghi [The Duchess] and Estelle Skornik [Mariette]. We were getting a bit stir-crazy, a bit ship mad, before they arrived.
A&E: In which ways are you alike or different from the character of Kennedy?
JB: When I started off playing Kennedy in the first episode, the first time you see him he has a huge grin on his face, he's making jokes about the ship. He's actually quite an enthusiastic person. And that's something that I relate to. I'm enthusiastic about life. I tend to enjoy things and have a good time and enjoy people a lot. Archie also thinks about the situations he's in and that I relate to as well. I do think a lot about what I'm doing and why I'm doing it and that's very much Archie for me and that's why Archie cracks up a lot, because he sees the risks and thinks about them and dwells on them. I think that's something that I tend to do -- I dwell on things and as a result I have quite big mood swings, I guess. Other than that, everyone said Archie was a wuss when we were filming. All the other actors would tease me. I don't think I am. I think I'm different from him in that respect.
A&E: Do you think you'd be braver than Archie was in some of the situations in the films?
JB: I don't know about that. I think Archie was probably a bit frail in certain physical situations. I don't tend to lose my head like that. I'm better under pressure. I do relate to the character because he's sensitive and reflective. As we discussed earlier, I think he is jealous of Hornblower and I certainly tried to play that. I'm very sure of myself but I also look at what other people are doing. When you look at Ioan, for example, that scene was easy to play. I'm not jealous of Ioan but I'm very respectful of what he's done -- you know he's doing so well in the business. It was a very easy scene to get the motivation for. His character is Hornblower who can do no wrong and he is being played by Ioan who can do no wrong at the moment and is a fantastic actor and Archie and I who are sort of left having a less easy time of it. In a funny, cheeky kind of way that was easy to do. It didn't escape me at the time, although my relationship with Ioan is nothing like that. We have fun and see each other every now and then and go out and have a laugh together. But it was sort of ironic I think. People pointed it out at the time.
A&E: Tell us about the different locations where Hornblower was filmed.
JB: The most amazing location was the Ukraine, which used to be part of the Soviet Union. Yalta is very historically important. That's where the peace treaty at the end of the second world war was signed. Being there now, it's a very economically depressed region with lots of unemployment. People look to Russia and Moscow more than they do to Kiev and the Ukraine. It was very interesting talking to our driver and members of the Russian crew. There's a lot of dissatisfaction with the search for a viable form of capitalism. A lot of them wanted to go back to the ways of the former Soviet Union. It was trying as well because Yalta used to be a playground for the Muskovites Party faithful and now that they're no longer part of the Soviet Union it's very much in disrepair. When we first got there the summer was just ending so there were lots of people on the beach going for holidays. Towards the end it got sadder and sadder and emptier and emptier. It was frustrating and boredom set in a lot. It was a stark contrast to Portugal, which was just lovely. We were all in apartments overlooking a swimming pool, which in turn was on a cliff overlooking the sea. It was just beautiful to be there in the summer and you can surf and swim and go to beautiful fish restaurants and stuff. I played a bit of golf with some of the cast. That was just like being on a working holiday. If you had a day off you'd see one of the other cast members by the pool and you'd go down and lie by the pool, except I couldn't get a tan, I had to wear 30 sunblock. The time in the Ukraine was much more interesting and harder and as a result we bonded a lot more. We went through tough times in the hotel, like not having any hot water or any towels and being absolutely freezing.
A&E: Did you have any time off during the months when you were filming at these locations?
JB: I did in the Ukraine. There wasn't a good deal to do. We explored Sebastapol and the old Crimean wall and stuff and went to Chekhov's house, which was very interesting to us as actors. I read a lot. There was a casino which we went to a few times and which Mr. Lindsay was very good at plundering. And we sampled the local vodka and things like that. There were two weeks when I did nothing at all and it was hard to keep interested and sane during that time, staying in this huge monolithic hotel with 1,600 rooms. Every room was exactly the same. It was sort of soul destroying at times but it was very interesting.
A&E: Please tell us about your experience working on The Scarlet Pimpernel.
JB: It was great fun. I didn't have a great deal to do but I was out in Prague for five weeks and it's a great city. We filmed Hornblower from September to December 1997 and then I did the The Scarlet Pimpernel between doing the first two episodes of Hornblower and the last two episodes of Hornblower which started in May. It just sort of filled the gap perfectly for me. And Hornblower was my first job so it was great experience to go straight onto The Pimpernel and work with more actors and another director. Jonathan Coy who played Lieutenant Bracegirdle in Hornblower was also in The Pimpernel playing the Prince of Wales. He and I became good buddies. We actually went to school together, although he was there quite a few years before I was, and we went to the same university so we had a lot in common.
A&E: What was it like working on Poirot?
JB: I finished working on Poirot a few weeks ago now. It was good fun. It's great to work with David Suchet. He's an actor I admire very much. It was the first time I've done something where the show was already up and running and I'm already familiar with the show cause. It's been on the air for years obviously over here and in the U.S. as well. So it was kind of weird arriving on set and seeing Hercule Poirot running around, a character I've already been familiar with. And David stays in character all day long, so it's fascinating to watch him work. He's an amazing actor. And that program was directed by Andrew Grieve, who had directed Hornblower, so it was good to see him again.
A&E: If you weren't an actor, what career do you think you would pursue?
JB: I have no idea. I think about that every now and then. Any suggestions would be welcome. I really haven't thought about doing anything else. I studied languages at Cambridge. I got a degree in French and Italian and people say I should use those but my argument is that I use those all the time when I go to France and Italy and I open my mouth. I share a flat with two old friends of mine; one's a barrister and the other one's a banker. I couldn't ever see myself doing either of those jobs, although I'm sure if I wanted to I could do them. Nothing really sort of interests me apart from acting. But as a contingency I'd like to write, but always in the same world, maybe write scripts and plays or produce or direct. But I've never tried any of those things really to any degree. I've always acted and that's what I enjoy.
A&E: Have you wanted to be an actor your whole life?
JB: Yes, if I'm honest I think I have. I lived in Paris when I was very young and my mom was an actress before she got married and moved abroad. She had a theatre group and we used to perform in the American Cathedral in Paris. I played the wicked witch of the west. In the back of my mind, acting was always what I wanted to do. I don't think I really admitted it to anyone until my last two years at school and then the last couple of years at university when I decided to go to drama school. I'm very aware that saying "I want to be an actor" is like saying "I want to be an astronaut." It's a dream and dreamers don't always come across that well. So I didn't really tell anyone until it became more than a dream and I had a place at drama school. That was the first time that I admitted to anyone that that was what I wanted to do.
A&E: What films or plays really inspire you?
JB: Shakespeare is the short answer. I love working with language and I think that's my strong point. You don't really see that in film and TV scripts. That's how I started working. I did Shakespeare at school and Arthur Miller plays. I love modern writing as well, modern theatre. Tom Stoppard. Harold Pinter. I just think those are amazing texts to work with. Shakespeare really caught my imagination at school and at university. And the British stage was always my first love. I went to the theatre all the time and I still go regularly. That's really what inspires me. In some ways it's the most direct form of acting where technique and honesty and truth all combine into a finished product and you can sort of see the actor at work every night and that's what really engages me.
A&E: Are there any actors or actresses whom you particularly admire?
JB: I usually admire performances more than actors. I think when I was young it was Laurence Olivier. When you're young you admire the symbol of where you want to be and he was the symbol of the consummate British actor that could just as easily open a show in the West End as star in a Hollywood movie. He was respected on both sides of the Atlantic and all over the world. More than anything I admire just working actors who have versatile careers and keep paying their rent and feed their families and keep being creative.
A&E: Do you have a dream role?
JB: It's Hamlet. I'd love to play Hamlet.
A&E: Have you traveled much in the U.S.?
JB: I'm actually half American. My dad's from Michigan and I have a lot of family down in Texas. I've traveled a great deal in the States.
A&E: Is Hollywood appealing to you?
JB: I went there for the first time in February to do what you call pilot season. It has an appeal to me like it does to any British actor. The amount of work that comes out of there is phenomenal and the very best of it is excellent. Even American TV I think is very good at the moment. We get a lot of the best dramas and sitcoms over here. For a working actor it's a great place to be. I'd love to get a good resume of work over there and I definitely plan to go back. I have an agent over there. It would never be my be-all and end-all I don't think because realistically unless you have a degree of control over there I think it could be a tough place to be. It was a tough place to visit because I didn't know very many people. But I loved it. I liked it a lot more than I expected to. My vision of L.A. is from movies like L.A. Story and Grand Canyon,two of my favorite films. I find it sort of an eccentric kind of a place but I think I could live there for a while. The lifestyle appeals to me; the beach and the weather and the skiing. I love skiing. But I'd need to have some really good buddies and a nice place to live and steady work. I'm just trying to establish a career here first, basically. I think it's much easier for a British actor to go across once you've got a body of work that they're familiar with. When I was there it was kind of hard because it was before Hornblower even came out and nobody really knew what it was, even in the business, so it wasn't as straightforward as it might have been.
A&E: Do you have any upcoming projects that you can talk about?
JB: The only other thing I've done recently is a radio play over here but that wouldn't affect you over there. I'm waiting on a couple of things over here but at the moment I'm not doing anything.
A&E: What types of projects would you most want to work on in the future?
JB: I'd love to get into movies. My priority at the moment is to try and get a lead role in a TV show because that's sort of capitalizing on what I've done so far. But I also am very interested in working on the stage since that's where I started off and trained.
A&E: What do you like to do in your spare time?
I play golf every now and then. I have always been a very sporty person. I played a lot of rugby to a fairly high standard. I don't play rugby anymore because it would be risky, but I play touch rugby with friends. I go to the theatre, travel, and read a lot. I'm very sociable and I like going out. I love being with actors and creative people. I go to see exhibitions. I love living in a big city and exploring and tapping into different kinds of creativity and going to see bands.
Write to Jamie Bamber:
c/o Shepherd & Ford Associates Ltd.
13 Radnor Walk
London SW3 4BP
(c) 1999 A & E (text and images)