Alex Lawther on NYT and playing the young Benedict Cumberbatch

Alex Lawther on NYT and playing the young Benedict Cumberbatch

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 18/02/15

As well as his role in The Imitation Game, NYT alumni Alex Lawther has just finished shooting The Departure in the south of France with Juliet Stevenson. We spoke to the 19-year-old from his flat in Peckham about working with David Hare, his NYT audition, and eating sausage rolls on stage…

I was 15 when I got into National Youth Theatre. 

I did a very dark monologue about this troubled boy who wanted to kill everyone. When you’re 15 you think you need to choose a piece that’s really intense; you think it’s good because it’s about horrible things.

It was a nice audition. I did my piece, and then she told me to do it again sitting still. I was terrified. I’d never really auditioned for anything outside of school before. I remember thinking all these people here are so lovely and so good looking; I’m never going to be part of this bunch.

Why? Were you an unfortunate-looking 15-year-old?

Everyone is a bit awkward-looking at 15, and I was no exception. I remember the joy of finding out that I’d got in – running upstairs and telling my parents. 

Did you already know at 15 that you wanted to be an actor?

Yes, I think that’s why I did things like audition for NYT – I wanted to be an actor but didn’t know how. It wasn’t something my school was particularly interested in, and my family aren’t from that sort of background. Luckily, National Youth Theatre lets anyone audition. 

I did the summer course, and then the next year, separate to NYT, I auditioned for South Downs by David Hare. That was my first job. There’s a line in South Downs, about just getting on with it that I always took as David Hare’s advice to the players. The character Belinda says something like, “Everybody always wonders about your motive for saying something, rather than what you're saying.” It’s like he’s telling you to just say the lines on the paper.

Do you ever wish you’d gone to drama school?

I think about it sometimes. For me, it was a question of where was I going to learn the most. Had I not been able to work solidly for the last little while, I probably would have given drama school a shot. It’s a wonderful place to learn and make mistakes; instead I just made all my mistakes publicly, on stage or screen.

Please tell me about some of these cock-ups.

South Downs was quite a long run – about 150 shows – so all kinds of things happened. There’s one scene where I was drinking tea with Anna Chancellor, and completely forgot to swallow. I took a sip of tea, and then it was suddenly my line so I just said it – I didn’t bother to swallow. All the tea just came out again.

In fact, every professional piece of theatre I’ve done has involved my character eating something. I did a play at Hampstead where my character kept eating Mini Cheddars and in The Last Supper I had to eat mini sausage rolls.

Is it weird being the youngest person in a cast?

So far I’ve always been the little baby of the company. But there’s a real sense of equality – they make me feel that I’m on the same rung, although of course I’m not. On the first day, I’m always very aware that I look about 12-years-old. But I’ve been really lucky to work with people who aren’t interested in their own ego or status.

In The Imitation Game, did you see yourself playing a young Alan Turing or a young Benedict Cumberbatch? 

Oh, a young Alan Turing. I decided not to watch Benedict’s rushes. It’s boring when you see a younger actor imitating an older actor. Young Alan’s part of the story is so human – that story of unrequited love and heartbreak – the character was very clear on the page, without having to emulate Benedict’s performance.

Although we did share a wonderful vocal coach, so the vocal mannerisms we might have in common are down to that.

What would you say to someone considering applying to NYT this year? 

It’s so helpful; the confidence that comes from somebody saying, “You could do this. You’re as good as anybody else here.” You’re suddenly in a place where you could become friends with anyone walking down any of the corridors.


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 Image courtesy of Hampstead Theatre.

National Youth Theatre are currently looking for Britain's best young onstage and backstage theatrical talent. Applications are open to 14-25-year-olds at until March 1st.  

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