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Interview with Actor Paul Higgins

17 December 2014 | Jessica Johnston

“I first did John the Baptist and my lines were taken off me because they said I couldn’t act.”

Actor Paul Higgins is best known for his role as foul-mouthed Press Officer Jamie McDonald in political comedy series The Thick of It. But as well as being a pro in profanities, he is also well versed in the world of theatre. London Calling managed to catch up with Paul backstage at the Royal Court, ahead of a performance of his new play Hope, directed by John Tiffany, to find out about local authorities, government cuts and becoming an actor.

London Calling: So what’s Hope about?

Paul Higgins: It’s about a Labour council in a working class town that has to implement government cuts. This is something that is happening across Britain, with local authorities having to administer cuts imposed on them by the government, which means their budgets are reduced by millions of pounds every year. The play is really about these people in the council who went into politics to do one thing and have ended up doing something completely alien to them; making cuts is not the sort of thing Labour councillors want to do.

LC: Tell us about your character Mark...

PH: Mark is a divorced, recovering alcoholic who is a committed member of the Labour party. He is also Deputy Leader of his local council and is committed to being a good professional counsellor. At the start of the play he is quite gung ho about making these cuts, legally he has to do it and so he tries to find the areas where the cuts can be made, but during the play he struggles more and more with the things he has to cut and close down.

LC: How was the rehearsal process?

PH: It was really good. We did a lot of research during the rehearsal process, with each of us adopting a different council from across Britain to follow. We used to report back on the sorts of things our council was doing and the decisions the councillors were making day to day. It was interesting and people may find it somewhat surprising that the nature of these cuts means that they hit poor towns much harder than they hit rich towns. In the play it is revealed that Hart district council in Hampshire, which is the least deprived council in Britain, has cuts resulting in the loss of £28 per person whilst in Liverpool District B, the most deprived area, the figure is over £800 per person.

LC: How is it to work with John Tiffany again?

PH: It’s great to work with John again. We did the original production of Black Watch together, which was a massive international success and such an amazing play to be a part of. John also directed a play that I wrote and he did a fantastic job on that! So we know each other quite well and I really enjoy working with him. John knows exactly what he is doing and because we have worked together before, I have got such a lot of confidence in him. It’s great, as an actor, to go into rehearsals knowing that if the director asks you to do something there is a very good reason for it.

LC: What did you think when you first read Jack Thorne’s script?

PH: I though it was very unusual, because you don’t usually see plays about local politics. Local politics is very important and I think most of us don’t realise what an influence local politics has on our lives, we just notice when are bins don’t get emptied and that sort of thing. This is an untold story about the people who don’t get paid, except a small amount of expenses, but who are really dedicated to doing some good in their community.

Usually if you watch anything about local councillors they are presented with that kind of satire that belittles them, but Jack doesn’t do that, he likes these people and he thinks they are good people struggling to do a really difficult job. It’s very unusual to see a play written from that perspective. It’s important to mention that the play is really funny but just not in that satirical way.

LC: Did you always want to pursue a career in acting?

PH: No I actually never wanted to be an actor. I got into drama through singing and performed in musicals at my high school. I first did John the Baptist and my lines were taken off me because they said I couldn’t act. Eventually they did give me some lines in another musical and that production was seen by a professional director who invited us all to a drama camp a few weeks before I was heading off to university. The director ended up giving me the lead part in the play and told me that I should be an actor. I had enjoyed the experience so much that I deferred my university entry, auditioned for drama school and got accepted into every single one I applied for. When I went home and told my mum I got in, her face fell and she said ‘well if you’ve got any talent I can’t see it’ because she was so keen on me going to university. She hates me telling that story.

LC: You are best known for playing Press Officer Jamie McDonald. Did you find it challenging to muster such viciousness for the role or was it surprisingly easy?

PH: Oh it all came naturally to me. I have always been able to channel rage from somewhere. Rage is on tap.

LC: As well as acting in plays, you have also turned to writing them. What inspired you to put pen to paper and write Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us?

PH: I always wanted to write something, it just took me a very long time to decided to write something right through to the end regardless of whether it was good or not. I started with an autobiographical story because I wanted to capture the voice of my dad. He had a very particular way of speaking, he was very bright, somewhat poetic and a complete bullshit artist as well. I just wanted to try and get his voice, which was my main goal at first and then a fictional story developed from there. Seeing the end result being performed on stage was thrilling.

LC: Do you find that that there is an overlap between acting and writing?

PH: There is definitely a huge overlap. Actors are reputed to be good at writing dialogue and I think we probably are because we know what is ‘say-able’. Sometimes you look at a line and think, well that’s good writing but its not very ‘say-able’, it’s too long or it’s too well written. Sometimes you have to think really hard about what you are going to say but most of the time the characters are improvising, so the way they speak should have that quality and I think actors understand that.

LC: And finally, what should audiences expect when they come and see Hope?

PH: They should expect to be entertained; the play is funny and it doesn’t out stay its welcome as each half is less than an hour long. Audiences will learn about local government in general and about the massive problem in local politics right now, this second. You really couldn’t see a more current play and there are even councils in Britain who are considering doing what we do in the play. There is stuff in the play about divorce and having a teenage son and coping with work and family life so this really is a proper human drama as apposed to an education.

Hope is on at the Royal Court from 26th November – 10th January. Tickets cost £10 - £32, available here.

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