Broadway and TV actor Liam Lane talks working in London, NYC and Los Angeles
Liam Lane is an actor and dance captain who has worked in three of the biggest entertainment cities in the world: London, New York and Los Angeles. After a successful stint on Broadway with Fuerzabruta, Liam appeared in HBO series Vinyl as well as Law & Order. Here he shares his story of how he got started, his thoughts on the differences between TV and theatre work along with some amazing advice to actors.
Liam, tell us where you’re from, when you first decided you want to get into acting and how you went about pursuing it?
I’m originally from South East London, Greenwich borough to be specific. I decided I wanted to be an actor pretty young. I think I was 10 when I was adamant that this was what I wanted to do. It came at primary school. Before you go to secondary school, you do a school show. Our teacher decided that we were going to do Macbeth with a bunch of 10 year olds. I was chosen to play Macbeth and I think that gave me a lot of confidence and one of my best mates at the time got to play Macduff. I absolutely loved it.
After that performance, when we were 10 years old, my best mate’s dad came up to me and said "Hey Liam, have you ever thought about pursuing acting, becoming an actor?" and I replied "Um. No. Not really." He looked at me and said "Good. Don’t." [laughs] I was like "You bastard!" and I don’t know why but I really remember that and really had this kind of stubborn response of, "Well you know what? I’m going to be an actor, because you said I shouldn’t."
From there I went to secondary school and, early on, was doing little performances in front of the whole year in assemblies – goofy characters. That, combined with being quite physical and athletic and good at sports, running fast in particular, was a good combination at school. Then I just continued to pursue it and each drama teacher that I had was really encouraging and introduced me to avant garde physical theatre and companies like DV8 and Frantic Assembly and plays by Steven Berkoff, who were the kind of gateway into physical or alternative theatre for a lot of us.
Then I went to drama school, to Bretton Hall in Yorkshire. I Left London, which was the done thing at the time. Not many people wanted to stay in London – everyone wanted the University experience. So I went up to Wakefield, Yorkshire, which was very different. Living, next to a reservoir and a sculpture park, next to an old mansion. Not having a pub. That’s how small it was.
I spent three years at drama school, training, specialised again in physical theatre and met an amazing teacher, called Rachael Karafistan who introduced me to the work of Grotowski. Alongside that, we were doing classical theatre and I got the opportunity to experiment. I graduated in 2005 and then joined a Polish physical theatre company called Teatro Cosmino and devised a show called Double with them that we performed in Erlangen, Germany for one summer.
I moved back down to London, got myself an agent, somehow, through some friends who’d set up a cooperative agency. Then it just kind of took off from there. I started with doing theatre in London.
Tell us about London and what the scene was like when you were there. What did you do with that particular theatre group?
I did this show with the Polish company, at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. That was my first real, professional theatre gig in the UK. We’d done the show in Germany previously, at the Arena festival, and then we brought it to Hammersmith. Following that, my very first audition through this agency was for a co-production between a company called Theatre Centre and The Unicorn Theatre, in London. Both are leading companies for young audiences. They do a lot of really good community work. I booked it and I played this ethnically ambiguous actor. It’s quite hard for people to place me. My mum’s Indian, my dad’s English. Everyone thinks I’m Mexican or Spanish. Especially in America, people are just like "What, you’re English?" or "What, you’re Australian?"
I auditioned for this role as a half-Brazilian, half-English kid who lives in the Amazon rainforest in a production called Journey to the River Sea. That was the beginning of building my pool of directors and actors and movement directors and musical directors and writers in London. I was lucky enough to do that show at The Unicorn and then we toured the UK with it and it had a really good reception. So good that it was revived the following Christmas with the same team. It was directed by another amazing woman – Rosamunde Hutt – who ended up being a dear friend. So from then, I actually kept going back to both of those companies. Once I was in, I did multiple productions with both of them around the country. I went from doing Journey to the River Sea and to a new telling of the Ugly Duckling story called Duck!, in which I played Ugly and again was directed by Ros. That was a massive success as well.
The Unicorn was a great beginning because it’s this flagship theatre and there are so many amazing patrons that support it. You have the royals, Emma Thompson, Jude Law, Judi Dench and Philip Pullman. Just all these amazing people in the industry who are really supporting theatre for young people.
I formed this network of people within educational theatre and then a couple of years later joined The Unicorn’s ensemble, which was a group of six actors that were hired for two or three years to perform in every single show, including new adaptations of novels, new writing and stagings of Shakespeare or classical texts. We did The Tempest, The Three Musketeers and adaptations of contemporary novels for young people. The London Eye Mystery was one and The Garbage King, which was set in Ethiopia was another, in which I played an Ethiopian street child. They had this thing called colorblind casting which meant myself, a white Yorkshire lad, a Rwandan actor and three amazing female actors of Caribbean, Nigerian and Indian heritage were able to play a group of Ethiopian boys living on the streets of Addis Ababa. It was amazing.
My whole six years in England was shaped around those few companies. I did a few jobs out of London, I travelled to Northampton and did a show there, and I travelled to Cardiff, to the Sherman Theatre and did a Christmas show there. That was really it. It went really quickly and smoothly and I think a part of me – once I was in – coasted. Through that six years, it was pretty much constant employment.
It’s taken me a long time to develop an understanding of casting directors and different companies and how to market yourself and that whole side of things. I didn’t want to touch that. But it’s much more prevalent here, in the states. I don’t know what it’s like in London now, really, because it’s been six years. But back then, six years ago, no one was using Instagram for example.
What was the reality of your day-to-day life doing those jobs? Was it fairly normal working hours or was it quite crazy?
Well, the main part of it was working at The Unicorn. It was pretty full-on. We were working on multiple things at the same time as part of this ensemble, so we would have new productions coming up in a couple of months which we would be doing read throughs for, or workshops to develop the material with the writer, at the same time as rehearsing or performing a show on the main stage in the mornings or the evenings, depending on whether we had school groups coming in or if it was more for the public.
It was a fully-rounded daily schedule. We would start rehearsals early and would either do physical exploration of characters or text analysis. Or we would work with the educational department developing workshops that would engage young audiences with the material and introduce them, for example to the concepts and themes of The Tempest. Some days we’d be offsite in schools across London running these workshops with kids that had never been to the theatre before. Really rewarding stuff. It really made a difference when those classes came to the theatre knowing about the play and then seeing actors that they’d already met really going for it on stage. Or, during the Three Musketeers, they would be divided up into character work, chronologically working through the scenes, and then spending hours with movement directors or fight choreographers training in sword fighting and getting those skills down.
On top of that it was our job to be at Galas and fundraising events where all those patrons I mentioned earlier would be.
It was a full-on daily life. We were really a family and you really were part of this machine that was constantly going. I was lucky not to be sitting on my arse too much in London. I had to do a few resting jobs over the years. I spent a lot of time gardening and working with a tree surgeon, when I wasn’t acting. I think what I learnt the most in England was the value of this thing that we used to call the collective brain, or a collective mind, where we would sit in rehearsals and decipher the script together. I miss that, massively. I miss that kind of process where you had time to do stuff. That was a luxury I had in England with a lot of productions. We had more time to rehearse something without the pressure of "we’ve got two weeks to do this massive production and let’s just fill in the spaces and do it by numbers and then figure out how it flows naturally later on."
I think that was also the case at drama school. You had all this time and you didn’t realise you had the time. If you were devising something or you were figuring out one scene, you had weeks to do it, and I think that’s the strongest challenge for me now as an actor, the speed at which you have to get to grips with something and be competent and make it full bodied and believable. Back then, you were like "I’m not quite there, yet. I’m still exploring"
Now, with TV and film in the states and I’m sure in England as well, it’s instant. You have to prepare those sides and you have to make interesting choices and be on it, immediately, whether you’re auditioning or whether you’re on set doing it. There’s very little time to let something stew. Very little time to get good and I think that is what I’ve learnt about what makes a good performer these days, is the speed at which they can just pull something out of the bag.
Tell us about New York and how you ended up going there?
I ended up in New York not because I had plans to ever move to America or be in America. I had very little interest in ever coming to America, but a friend of mine from school, Andrew, who’s not in the entertainment or performance world, joined me on a trip to Berlin and we loved it and decided to go to New York for a two week holiday.
Another friend of mine in London, Clara, who is a performer and an aerialist – and was in a show called De La Guarda which was at the Roundhouse in London in the late 90s – had another show, when we were just graduating, called Fuerzabruta. The shows just kind of had this amazing dream-like quality in the back of my mind even though I’d never seen them and I was gutted that I’d missed them.
Well Fuerzabruta was still on in New York when I was on vacation. Clara put me in touch with the cast in New York, so that I could go and see it, and she put me specifically in touch with my now-wife, Brooke Miyasaki. So I came to New York and met this community of artists and completely fell in love with one of them, as well as the community and the vibe of New York in general. I didn’t think, coming from London, being this huge cosmopolitan metropolis, that it would shock me in any way, but New York is really like no other place on Earth when it comes to being a melting pot. When it comes to people expressing themselves and walking down the street wearing whatever they want, saying whatever they want, doing whatever they want.
I saw the show and it was the epitome of what I wanted theatre to be at the time. It was so visceral and so involving, and I saw myself doing it. After going to New York I said to myself "I want to be in that show, and I want to be in New York, and I’ve fallen in love with this girl." So we got engaged, we spent a year doing long distance while I still worked in London theatres. We then discovered that Brooke was pregnant.
We already had a day for me to move over, so I arrived in NYC in August 2011, engaged, with a pregnant fiancée, and basically had to hit the ground running. I spent six months doing horrendous jobs, worked for an ex-Russian gymnast, painting entire brownstones on the upper west side for a few weeks and spending all day at the top of a precariously-balanced ladder. I did removal work too for a mysterious man called Frank who I never met face to face. It was really soul destroying. It was super stressful, super hard, knowing I was about to have a baby as well.
And then the week that I got my green card, they were holding auditions for Fuerzabruta.
I was so determined to be in it. One of the main actors is this guy running on a giant treadmill. I spent a lot of time running on a treadmill, pretending to be shot – he gets shot in the scene. So I’m in a gym running, trying to physicalise and imitate what it would be like to get shot while running, so all the people in the gym were just staring at me, thinking I'm a weirdo. My wife helped me, and an ex-cast member Freddy Boschr, who was also the officiant at our wedding and is now a brilliant painter and artist, taught me one of the dance numbers in a sauna. I went in, auditioned, and booked it, against all odds.
From then on, from 2012 February to January 2017, I went from being a swing in this show, which is someone who comes in if one of the main cast is sick, to being Dance Captain, which is one of two cast members who figures out what part everyone is going to do and coordinates with stage management and the directors to maintain the artistic integrity. I ended up, alongside Brooke, who came back to the show after our daughter was born, hiring new cast members and training them. I went from being this physical actor on the ground to being this guy that flies 30 feet above the ground through the air in harnesses and through walls and a whole new world opened up to me.
I got my first agent in New York in 2014, after taking Fuerzabruta back to London, which was amazing. We ended up finally going back to the Roundhouse and doing it there, which was a really cool homecoming, and then went back to New York. I got my first agent through a friend and amazing performer called Marlyn. She had worked as a dancer with Madonna. In New York, everyone is connected to big things, somehow, that I wasn’t really aware of in London. My experience of the industry in London, and this is just my experience, so I can only speak for myself, was that it was much more closed door and I don’t know whether that’s because the industry’s smaller, but in New York you feel like these people were willing to take a chance on you. You’re just one step away from the dream all the time. I don’t know whether that’s really clever marketing or not, but you really get that sense.
In England it was almost impossible for me to audition for a big feature film or a guest star role in a popular series, unless you had a certain agent or unless you went to a certain drama school, whereas in New York it seemed like it was game for all. So I started getting auditions for TV and film and did a spot on Vinyl, the HBO show and did a guest star role on Law & Order last year.
It’s a totally different culture in New York, and people, I think, are more proactive here, you know. Everyone is hustling, all the time. The downside of that is that everyone’s hustling, so the social aspect, you kind of feel like there’s an agenda some of the time, behind your social experiences. It took me longer to develop friendships in New York, but once they developed, honestly, they’re for life.
Tell us a little bit about Law and Order and Vinyl. How did those come about? And what's the difference between theatre and film prep-wise?
The dance captain job was all the time. Constant. I was always performing in the show, but it was also my role to keep tabs on what the other performers were doing or how they were developing in certain roles because in Fuerzabruta we didn’t have set roles. We rotated every single role, every show. We’d do six to eight shows a week, which is intense for something so physical. We were super athletic. I've never been so physically fit in my life. I could eat anything I wanted without putting on a pound.
As well as that, it was also my responsibility to write the tracks, which is putting each performer in to each show. We’d do that outside of work, and it took a lot of time. On top of that, I would be performing in the evenings, writing the tracks just before the performances, a couple of hours before so that I could send it to wardrobe and stage management and they could OK everything. Then auditioning multiple times a week for commercials and TV and film, during the daytime. In New York, you’re zipping around from one casting office to the next, all day long. You might have a little break here and there but you’re really on the move the whole time.
My first TV experience in New York was Vinyl, which is an HBO production. It was only one day’s work, but we were shooting in the Chelsea Hotel, which is a very famous hotel in Manhattan, where Andy Warhol stayed and various sixties figures of importance were. I’ve never felt so comfortable. It was my TV debut.
The other thing that should have made me nervous was that I was stark bollock naked. Full-frontal. Everything out. But it was so professional. I was working with Olivia Wilde in this scene, and a brilliant Danish actress called Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, who I think most people would remember from a really amazing episode of Game of Thrones, where they go beyond the wall. She’s this badass wildling woman who befriends Jon Snow and then ends up becoming a zombie at the end.
I did the scene with those two and another amazing Puerto Rican actor who is based in New York called Armando Riesco. Everyone was so real and so professional.
I think the biggest difference, immediately, that I recognised between theatre and television is the structure of the day. You start work around 5.30-6am in the morning. You really, really have to pace yourself with TV, because you might start work at 5.30, but you’re sitting in your trailer, you’re going into makeup and wardrobe, you’re looking at a script, you’re getting updates on the script on the day. So you’re like "Oh, that line’s cut, and that line’s new," and you’re full of caffeine to keep yourself awake, but you might not start filming till two o’clock in the afternoon. They’ll be dressing the set and they’ll be setting up the lights. There’s so much going on around you, with TV, that you’re not necessarily aware of, whereas if you’re in a rehearsal for a play, you’re there in the space, everything’s happening and you see it happening.
TV, everything’s prepared for you and it’s constantly being prepared and changing, and then it’s "Okay, we’re ready," and then you go in and you do it. I remember walking onto the set for the first time, because the trailers are parked up on 23rd street, in the middle of the day in New York, and I’m going to be naked in this scene. Someone comes to collect you and gives you this kimono to wear and takes you onto the set and then you do a read through of the script. I remember feeling like such a theatre actor in that read through, because it was the four of us and I had the first line in the scene. When we did it, I was projecting, you know? Then they delivered their lines and I could barely hear a word any of them were saying. It still blows my mind, on set with film, how quiet everyone talks, and I’m really bad at it. I don’t know whether it’s that I naturally project, but I’m like "I can’t f***ing hear you!" I know we're mic-ed up but it's crazy how little things become.
Coming from a world of physical theatre, and being grotesque and ritualistic in theatre, it’s such a challenge for me, now, to condense everything, because I feel like I’m being really boring on camera. You have to find the same kind of intensity but just scale it down and place it behind the eyes. The importance of relaxation on camera is amplified. It’s really important to be relaxed in theatre, it really is, but if you notice that an actor’s tense on camera, it just doesn’t work. Everything falls apart. So, yeah, Vinyl was an amazing eye-opener.
Then, going from Vinyl to Law & Order, again, was totally different, because Law &Order was this network production and it’s much more of a machine. It’s been running for 18 seasons, so they go in and they do it. The scripts are being written and they’re casting and they have a week to shoot one episode. That was around a week of filming and that felt more like a normal job. They all came in, and from this hour to this hour, they would churn out these scenes. It was the same set that they always use, the police precinct, interview rooms and the courtroom, and all of those places were within this big studio complex. So from going to shooting on location in Manhattan, you’re then in this fake world.
For example, there are actors that play cops in the precinct, and it’s their job to be that one cop that answers the phone. But they never speak. It’s their day job – they go and sit down and pretend to be this cop to kind of fill out this place and they’re all used to it. Permanent extras. For me, I had to be a lot more on my toes. I had a lot more lines, as well, and more scenes, but because everyone was so used to the process and the way in which this show is made – it was second nature to 90% of the people on the show – you really had to pay attention and figure it out to. They would leave you behind if you didn’t. It was like "you’re here, let’s go!" Boom.
So what led you to Los Angeles? What’s the plan?
We ended up coming up to LA because Fuerzabruta was our bread and butter in New York and closed after nine years. Nine years is quite a rare run for any show in New York. Theatre shows can come and go within a couple of months. Because we now have a little girl who’s five years old and needs to go to school and my wife is from LA, we decided it was time to try the west coast. The three cities that we have at our disposal are London, New York, and LA and they’re probably – I don’t think many people would argue with this – the three best cities in the world for performers, acting, and entertainment.
We just decided to head out here, give it a go and be with family. We’ve been here officially for about three months, so it’s super early days, but we’re lucky enough to be working for the LA opera, right now, in a production of The Pearl Fishers, which is a Bizet opera. I’m playing a Sri Lankan fisherman, so again some non-conventional casting, ethnically.
The plan is to knuckle down with the work I have under my belt, from London, from New York, TV, theatre, film, and get an agent here. I have a manager who’s representing me here right now.
What advice would you give to any actor thinking of going into the business?
Well firstly, everyone, including me, wants instant success and it’s really, really easy to give in for understandable reasons and pack in the pursuit of acting, or assume that if you’re only doing one type of acting, if you’re only working in children’s theatre, for example, that you’re never going to be able to do TV or film. I’ve learnt that perseverance and patience get you somewhere. Yes, you could potentially be more secure and have more money than you do with acting, because it is a ridiculously unpredictable profession and lifestyle, but that’s also the beauty of it.
Patience and perseverance, for me, are crucial. I graduated in 2005 and it’s 2018 now. But if I chart my progress, it’s really tangible. But if you charted the progress by year, it would look flat. For me, it’s such a slow, steady curve, and you just have to trust that things will happen. Alongside that, I think the most important thing that I’ve learnt is to keep studying the craft of acting. I wish I had more time, now, to become a better actor and explore plays, scripts, different methods of acting, whether it’s traditional classical training, or method and Meisner.
This is something that I've noticed in America as well – people go to class a lot more, fine-tuning and doing scene study classes. A lot of people think you go to drama school, you do three years or four years or a masters or whatever, and then you’re an actor. And if you’re not getting the jobs that you want, maybe you’re not quite good enough. But you’re not an actor when you finish drama school, you’re just not. You might be lucky enough to get work consistently where you learn as you’re doing it, but if you’re not doing it you have to be investing in training and classes, constantly.
So, patience, perseverance, training, all the time. Honing your skills, developing your skills, and then being around other people that are doing the same thing as you. Stay with people that you trained with and chart each other’s progress and be on the same journey together and share. Don’t be a loner. Share everything. Be totally open about your process as an actor and your struggles. Because as you grow together, your networks will grow together and you’ll still be connected.
I think, strangely, a lot of actors go it alone and do their own thing and isolate themselves when it comes to pursuing jobs. Just speaking to you, for example, today, I haven’t spoken to you for years, but the importance of maintaining those connections from when you were young and sharing your experiences, I think, is also crucial.Tags: