Julian Forsyth is currently returning to a third run in the West End’s most famous ghost story The Woman In Black, based and adapted from Susan Hills haunting novella of the same name. Julian takes time out in between shows at the Fortune Theatre to chat to Executive Editor John McRoberts
Where did your love for acting come from?
My parents were very active, amateur actors, and producers/directors and they used to drag me and my younger brother along to everything they did. It really put me off. it was only when I think it was in my last year at school, a teacher got me to take part in a Christmas reading. I got up in front of the whole school and read a couple of poems. I suddenly thought, ‘oh, I like this’. Everybody’s having to listen to me. I still remember how it gave me a bit of a thrill and another teacher said, it’s time we got you involved in the school play. So, I was then Shakespeare’s, The Winter’s Tale, and it kind of took off from there. I just kind of made up for lost time. So maybe my parents were onto something after all.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a professional footballer, but I was at a rugby playing school. But I wasn’t playing any real games. After hours, some of us boys used to get together and play football on the rugby pitches – it was probably frowned upon by the masters. But it was either football or acting. It would have been nice to be a professional footballer and I did teach for a while. The reality is, I came into acting relatively late. I went to drama school when I was 24, rather than kind of usual 19, 20, 21. That’s because I did languages and I taught in Germany at a university there for a couple years, which because I didn’t have to pay any tax saved me enough money to then pay to go to drama school or at least pay for the first year. I enjoyed the teaching but even then I was thinking if I can get a place at drama school and it takes off – I would rather be acting.
You have had a rather illustrious career so far, but what’s been your personal career highlight?
Probably playing Salieri in Amadeus at The Derby Playhouse. Salieri is arguably one of the best parts ever. Most people will know the film I suppose rather than the play. Funnily enough just before I played that role, I had just been in a production of Mozart’s, The Marriage of Figaro – this was with a company that used to put on operas with actors as opposed to opera singers – but they sadly don’t exist anymore. We used to perform in smaller venues and halls and the text would be updated and full of modern jokes and things. So it was enormous fun to do that. And just a few months later, I then found myself playing Salieri – this rival to Mozart. It was such a fabulous part to play. I have also played Fagan several times in Oliver! It’s been a while since I last did that, but I have always enjoyed playing him.
Do you have any dream roles that you still love to tackle?
I can’t think of one specifically. I mean, you get to my age and I suppose one should be thinking of King Lear, but that always feels like a huge mountain to climb. Unexpectedly I have ended up doing less Shakespeare than I thought I would. So much emphasis was placed upon it as drama school back then – 40 odd years ago but I guess it’s probably different now. The reality is i’ve done far more musicals – and it something that I really do enjoy. You can’t beat that feeling when you hear the band strike up. It brings you an energy that you can’t get from an ordinary play – especially when you have been performing a role for so long. I get that with Woman in Black a little at times – the moment before the show starts and I’m waiting in the wings to go on, and I think ‘This would be great with a catchy little overture’ but obviously that can’t happen with Woman in Black as it starts very differently of course. But yes music really does carry you on stage and give you this lift onto the stage. I’ve been lucky to be in some really, really fabulous shows. Not always playing big parts. When you get to a certain age, you’re usually playing somebody’s dad, the father of one of the main characters and that was certainly the case in An American In Paris. That was such an extraordinary show to be involved in, I was sharing a dressing room with nine young male ballet dancers and that was quite an experience. In fact, two of them are coming to watch me in Woman in Black tonight.
Staying on The Woman in Black – I believe this is the third time that you’ve appeared in the show, what is it that keeps drawing you back?
it’s the only role I’ve ever done where I think I’m never gonna get bored with this. At this time I think I have played the role for about a thousand performances, but there is something about the role and how it leads an audience with it. How they are confused with the character to begin with and then as the play progresses they start to understand especially when the tension and suspense builds up. Then you have the payoffs in the second half – when all the really frightening things start to happen – every audience reaction to the show is completely different. It helps that I get to play around six different characters who Kipps meets along the way and that provides a great challenge. It also helps me keep the role fresh – I can experiment and give slightly different moods to them. For example if I had a two show day I might make him slightly more anxious to please, more unassuming, almost with a child-like sense of wonder at the way the theatre works. Then in the evening I might go on and make him a bit shirty and not at all impressed by all this actor stuff. Finding myself initially disliking this young man that I’m going to spend the next two hours with and that then leads to kind change with slight alterations in the playing of the rest of the show.
Do you have a personal favourite moment in the show?
I do yes (laughs) but sadly I can’t say what that is without spoiling the show – so in order to answer the question, I will say its probably the moment where I actually have to act properly for the first time. because I spend the first 15 minutes or so playing somebody who is completely out of his depth on a stage. Then he’s confronted by this young actor, who’s obviously totally at home there, completely confident and is trying to help this older man tell his story and you can tell that it’s going to be very difficult for him to tell the story anyway because it’s kind of bringing back awful memories of encounter with this ghost and everything that happened 30 years before. What I find so fascinating about it, are all the things that you are taught at a theatre school, and how to become a director, you know, how to get an audience to listen to you, how to project, how to bring the energy on to the stage, a sense of depth to a scene, all of those kind of thing and in this show we completely at the start let all of that go completely out the window, you come on, and play somebody, who as the young actor says, ‘if you’re gonna try and tell your story like that your audience is gonna be bored senseless’. So, of course, it’s enormous fun to come out and just act really, really, really badly. And you sense the audience thinking, ‘oh my god, is it all gonna be like this?’ Then, at some point, they clock that something is going to happen.
How does the process work when you are brought back into a production already running?
If you’re not in the original cast, if you’re on the second, third, fourth, fifth sixth cast on something like Wicked or whatever. You’re not dealing with the original creative team. You’re dealing with somebody who’s been put in charge, who’s kind of working from what they often call the Bible (A book of all the direction of the show) But in the case of The Woman in Black, we always work with the original director Robin Hereford – who is still doing it after 33 years. It’s wonderful because he’s an actor himself. So, he knows how to handle actors, he allows you to feel as though, it doesn’t matter who’s played it before. This is now your role and It’s your part and you’re creating it anew. Even when you’re coming back to do it again, it encourages you to discover new things. Obviously, there are one or two things that are in the script but otherwise he kind of leaves it up to you, for you as an actor to discover your own way through the story. And I always feel if I feel that moment works and I can suddenly feel the audience going.
Theatre and indeed Woman in Black have many spooky goings on – do you subscribe to any superstitions yourself?
I don’t, we get asked that question a lot from people who have just seen the show, probably because of the experience they have just had. I think there are people who are susceptible to that kind of thing and I’m perfectly prepared to accept and maybe, you know feel something like that exists, but I’ve had a personal experience. I kind of feel, I’m too pragmatic, probably too red, to really believe. It always seems that ghosts are usually people who’ve died with unfinished business. They don’t need to come back and take revenge on somebody they need to communicate something or other. And I always think there must be so many people who died on this planet with unfinished business and if they did exist we would all be seeing them. However, I do love those stories when people say they have seen a ghost.
What’s been the biggest piece of advice that you’ve ever been given in regards to acting and the
There was one phrase that came from a wonderful acting teacher at a drama school, called Hillary Wood. I remember her saying, at some point, – I mean, her classes were always full of memorable phrases and memorable bits of teaching. But one thing she said, was “audiences, go to the theatre to watch actors think.” I think what she meant was you can’t just learn the lines, you’ve got to actually internalise somebody else’s thought processes. So when you are thinking about that character’s thoughts, you appear to be thinking spontaneously, even though you might have done it as in my case, with The Woman in Black about a thousand times previously. I think that probably is the biggest challenge. That’s why it’s good for any actor to be in a longer run. Get yourself in a position where you have to say ‘maybe i’m relying on muscle memory a little bit too much now – I need to challenge myself to find something new, something fresh. The audience wants to see a good story and it’s our job to make it the best story it can be.
And finally what advice would you give to a drama student?
Learn to sing and play an instrument – if you can do both of these things, you will never be short of work. It’s always better to have more skills than being asked for as you never know when they might come into good use in the rehearsal room. I was in a show just before The Woman in Black, a wonderful musical called The Wicker Husband at the Watermill Theatre. Myself and the leading lady were the only ones who didn’t actually have to play musical instruments. Everybody else seemed to be able to play two or three different instruments, it adds something really, really wonderful. And of course there have been many shows over the years that have their success built on exactly those skills.
The Woman in Black is in an open-ended run at the Fortune Theatre in London