Poldark star and More Like Trees frontman Josh Whitehouse talks creative process
Josh Whitehouse is a multi-talented modern creative passionate about music, art and acting – Mandy News talks making things with the Poldark star.
Josh, you are an actor, musician and artist. Tell us how you’ve ended up doing all these things?
I started this venture when I was around 15, I guess. When I was in school I was desperate to ‘not have to be in school’ anymore. I thought: “I’ll get through it and then I just need to find some way of not being stuck inside a box or an office or something that I just didn’t want to do.” I had trouble focusing a bit. My sister's boyfriend at the time was the drummer in a band called Mansun and I used to always see them rehearsing or coming back from a tour and that used to make me really want to do something similar.
When I got out of school, I started a band. I’d been playing the guitar and writing songs and starting bands since I was about 12. Trying, anyway. I played in every bar in Chester I could. Then, at 18 I moved to London because my brother Tim said he thought he could get me some gigs. He was surprised I’d been playing the guitar as much as I had and was quite impressed with some of the songs I’d written.
We moved to London with the intention of finding gigs for the band I was in, had a few victories here and there and managed to get ourselves on the scene and into the festival circuit. Eventually, we moved into warehouses where we met a lot of people and had a great time but ended up wanting our own warehouse with our own rules. Tim quit his job as a teacher and took the money from that to rent a warehouse with planning permission. He/we then went on to build our home; our walls, our bedrooms, our living space. We didn’t shower as much as we’d like to because there wasn’t one unless we asked our neighbours politely [laughs].
The intention became to create a place which would enable us to live affordably in London and to get musicians round, trying to encourage a house full of creativity and an environment where people could gather and would help each other in the same industry because it’s very difficult to get anywhere as a musician in London. We decided we would call it The Hub.
We were playing gigs and Tim was managing us at the time – along with Chris Greenwood – and my only goal was music. Well, music and art but art was more of a hobby with very occasional sales. Music I was seeing as my career though rain or shine. We ended up getting signed with BBE in London and by then the band had become More Like Trees. We released an album, began playing more and more gigs and many UK festivals where we met many musicians who we later went on to collaborate/live with. We joined an improvisational group called Local Posse lead by Joe Driscoll where we met loads of amazing musicians and bands - later this went on to sub-create the group High Cross Society which is my other band. But anyway…
One day I got scouted while performing with More Like Trees. Over my first few years in London I’d been scouted for modelling a few times and at first I was kind of against it, really, but I ended up doing a few jobs and thought ‘It makes a bit of money. I could do with it. That’s cool. Music makes me nothing after all.’ [laughs]. Then I got scouted for a Jack Wills campaign which was to be directed by Elaine Constantine, who I’d heard was a well-known, British photographer and she would be with Paul Sadot, who I knew from a film called Dead Man’s Shoes (directed by Shane Meadows) that I absolutely adored, so I was quite excited about meeting both of them when I went into the casting.
I’d been to other modelling castings that were really static and boring and involved standing in front of a camera feeling very still and useless. But this was completely different to all of those. We were screaming and shouting and being asked to dance and fight and kiss and roll on the ground. I thought "This is fun" and just gave it everything, really… Which was odd because I would normally have considered myself to be quite shy. I was always very socially anxious growing up. I ended up getting the job and did two campaigns with them. They really motivated their models and brought this energy out of us. I didn’t realise I had that kind of confidence and it was probably my first taste of realising I enjoyed acting, whether I realised it or not at the time.
Elaine then invited me to come along to some dance clubs to learn to dance to Northern Soul (which at the time I had never heard of!) She said she was making a film called Northern Soul (later nominated for a BAFTA in 2015) and she was hosting dance clubs to get young kids dancing. I started going to those every month because she said I might get to be an extra or a dancer in the background. At first, I was pretty terrible at dancing but I got better and she started testing me more, testing out my acting too, though I’d never done it or learned lines or anything. She sent me to see other actor friends of hers like Claire Garvey (Betty in the film) who were really helpful and relatable and gave me a lot more confidence to practice. I was introduced to her friend Simon and he agreed to let me play a character in his short film ‘Chips and Blood’ as a little test.
I saw several acting coaches – many of whom said I didn't have what it takes – and we did workshops in Elaine’s kitchen. I was also sent to have a series of one-on-one dance lessons with an amazing dancer and DJ called Keb Darge. After two years and all these different sorts of training we shot a couple of test scenes to show to the rest of her team. To my absolute surprise they gave me the role of Matt in the film. At this point, I realised I needed to really put some work in if I was going to live up to it. I didn't know what it was yet but it was there. I would be working with a lot of people who’d had about 100% more experience than me, so I couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong really!
All the while, my brother Tim was letting me live in London, for free. Well, not for free, but rent was stacking up. I was living on barely anything because my band wasn’t making much money even though we performed a lot. For a couple of years, I was basically just gigging and learning to dance to Northern Soul. I would go to classes and practice in my lounge every morning. It all paid off because the film did well.
Then about two years after we’d made the film – while it was being edited – I was introduced to an agent at United through James Lance who played Ray Henderson in the film. He suggested I meet them because he thought I was doing good and he thought I would get along with his agent Lucia. Meetings were had and I got signed up with both Lucia and Kirk who are brill. That’s the story, I suppose, to acting becoming something that I do with my life.
So what happened after that?
Once Northern Soul came out and I’d signed with United, things all progressed rather quickly and I had a very busy, scary and exciting first year. I started casting for jobs pretty much immediately - which was scary since I hadn't actually practiced any acting since filming. I was introduced to the commercials department around a week after signing and they wanted to talk to me about the possibility of a job with Burberry, which ended up actually happening. Crazy. We shot the Mr. Burberry campaign (directed by Steve McQueen) not much later that year starring myself alongside Amber Anderson, which was an intimidating leap but such a huge honour and something I was very excited and proud to be a part of.
A few weeks after signing with United I had a call from them to say that a really good agent in LA called Josh Lieberman who works at CAA had seen Northern Soul and loved my performance. He wanted to talk to me, so we had a chat on the phone and, soon enough, I joined him at CAA alongside another rep Tracy Brennan. Slowly, over the following months, my team began to grow. I was introduced to a manager from Untitled in LA called Todd Diener who's amazing. We clicked. I started working with a PR group called Premiere and my team there – SJ and Laura – began giving me a helping hand with interviews and press. At that point, it had actually been two years since I’d done any acting whatsoever, but Northern Soul had just come out. I’d never really expected anything to come from it in this kind of way – I’d never really thought about the idea of actually being an actor - but I figured "what the heck?" I would be insane not to go with it and try.
Surprisingly for me, when we shot the Mr. Burberry campaign – which felt a huge leap – I found it was actually a really nice way to reacquaint myself with acting because despite being such a big step for me exposure-wise, it was a short film. It was a two-day shoot, there weren’t any lines to learn and I would be working with an amazing team and incredible director so I felt pretty safe. It was a great boost of confidence for me. After that, I got my second role in a feature film – called Alleycats – which was a perfect next step. It was a smaller role than Northern Soul but a good opportunity to try another film and try a character without my Northern Soul team. It was certainly harder without that backing but the film turned out great and I got to work with some amazing actors. It is also where I met Eleanor Tomlinson who I later went on to work with on Poldark. But I’ll get to that.
I then went on to do The Receptionist which is written and directed by Jenny Lu (writer/director from Taiwan) who I met because she is married to Lazy Habits, a rapper who I work with a lot. I live with both of them also. The film is dark and thought provoking and it was a challenging role for me to take on. I played the boyfriend to the lead character played by Teresa Daily. I had a similar amount of screen time as Alleycats but it was a step up and a chance to work with a director who I actually knew very well. It was a good time to test the water again and see whether I could keep this up.
When I was preparing I started trying to think of everything that I possibly could that I had learnt when I was making Northern Soul, what Elaine and Paul and everybody involved put me through to get me into that character. Hot seating, improvisations, research, interviewing people. I started trying to rely on my memory of that as gospel and inspiration for my own techniques, but also develop new techniques to handle what I was doing. Paul actually came in to work with us for The Receptionist, doing a few workshop sessions with the cast.
After that I did short film To Trend on Twitter (directed by Andy Wooding) about a mother who becomes world famous for having a terminally ill son. Again, I was very much in that phase. I had done a film and people had gone "Oh! He can act," and I thought: “I think I can… I’m not 100% sure but let’s see.” It was all terrifying at first but when things started to work I found it so satisfying. I just wanted to keep challenging myself.
After that, I finally got my first lead role since Northern Soul, which was in Modern Life is Rubbish alongside Freya Mavor. It was a huge leap for me and a really defining moment in believing in myself and thinking "this is my chance to see if I can actually do something as challenging as Northern Soul all over again" in that I would be taking on a role intended to carry a film. That's a very intimidating thing if you think about it. But it's not so intimidating if you don’t [laughs]. That was a really crazy, positive, wild experience - and pulling it off gave me that feeling I've found you get from being on a film when you’re playing a lead because it means that you are there for the entire process and you develop a family – it happened on Northern Soul – happened on Modern Life is Rubbish.
Then I got Poldark, which technically came from Alleycats because Eleanor Tomlinson – who became a good friend of mine and plays my sister in Alleycats – later put me forward to casting for the role of Hugh Armitage. When I heard I’d got it I thought "Oh, Poldark. Wow! That's the BBC! The BBC!" I don't watch much TV these days but I'd been watching the BBC since I was a child. Getting it – and being on an actual TV show for the BBC – somehow made me feel like I was "officially an actor now". It was strange how long it took me to feel like that. It must have been 5 years since shooting Northern Soul. I guess I couldn’t see how doing one or two projects meant that you got to call yourself an actor. I would wonder - “when do you?” I was never really sure, to be honest, but acting in Poldark kind of did it for me.
After we finished shooting series 3 of Poldark, I landed the lead role in a musical reimagining of Valley Girl (the 80s film starring Nicholas Cage and Deborah Foreman). I would be starring alongside Jessica Rothe and many other amazing young actors who are doing incredibly well for themselves. Weirdly, I was actually in meetings for it about two years before I even heard about casting for it. I genuinely thought it had disappeared forever. It shows how long these things can take sometimes. I must have sent around six rounds of self-tapes for it and had some back and forths over Skype with the director Rachel Lee Goldenberg. I remember feeling unsure if it would be my kind of thing but then found when I was making the tapes that I really enjoyed playing this character as he came more and more to life for me.
When I got the role it was a really big shock. This was probably the most challenging role I’d have ever done. In Northern Soul, I had to use a very different accent to my own but I had grown up near Manchester so it wasn’t a huge leap for me. The American accent I had mainly only heard in films so I knew that if I was going to make it in any way convincing then I would really have to level up my game. Not to mention I would be singing. Talk about terrifying, but also an awesome chance to tie together the things that I love doing: music and acting.
I went to America and saw a vocal coach, Bob Garrett, who’s awesome. We studied the American accent and also my singing techniques. I went on to record the soundtrack with Harvey Mason Jr - absolute legend – and spent a lot of time walking around LA by myself and pretending I was American. It was much scarier than you’d think. After I got my head around it all and we got to filming, I had such a great time. Crazy, family vibes and many friends made. It was a very fun, crazy, weird time for me. I learned so much. Even got my driving licence while I was out there! [laughs]
So music, acting and art. How do you fit it all in?
I think it’s a necessity thing. Music’s what I came here to do and is something I’ve been doing since I was a kid. I just love it. It’s fun. My ultimate fun is just making tracks, putting sounds together that make me happy and resonate with me, finishing the track and then finding out it has resonated with other people. It’s just one of my greatest passions and always has been.
Now that all of these other things are happening, I often want to be making music a lot of the time (rather than learning lines) but consider myself very lucky to have had an opportunity to have an agent and be trusted on camera, which is something I know so many people in the world want.
So if there’s a script sent, then I read it immediately and try not to put it off. I tend to struggle to focus when I’m reading. I’ve got a short attention span… or something. My instinct says to tear the paper up and make collages. That’s where my head goes. Every plastic bag I carry home has holes in it because I keep sticking my finger through the holes. I’m a bit of a fidgeter. So I find it quite hard to focus when I read but I put acting or anything that comes from my agents as priority, as my work, as my lifeline.
When I have actually reached a point where all my scripts are read, my lines are learned or my tapes are sent, I have earned some time in my day to write a song or draw a picture.
How do you go about doing what you’re doing on an average day?
I have a to-do list, which I make every morning, mostly consisting of things I need to read, tape or learn. Every time I tape for an audition I usually record myself doing the scene as an audiobook, then talk back to myself using the recording. So I make that in the morning, listen to it at the gym because I find it helps me learn the words if I am doing something active while I listen to it. Then I come home, practice whatever I've been listening to and see what else is on my list.
By about four o’clock in the afternoon, I’ve pretty much hammered through everything and I have made it to the last thing to cross off - “MAKE MUSIC”. I plug in my instruments and just jam away and usually end up making something I’d like to use for a project. I’m currently in the process of organising my recordings. I’ve made quite a lot of songs and some of them are finally saying “We are album worthy! Use this for More Like Trees! Or use this for Kenjo! Or use this one for High Cross Society!” or even "this could just be released as Josh Whitehouse."
I’ve developed a home studio – soundproofed with instruments and software to enable me to record some reasonably decent demos from home. In the long run I’m hoping to be able to just record stuff there and not have to worry about going into studios at all. I’ve actually got most of the stuff I need and it sounds good enough but I am nowhere near that point yet.
But yes, everything happens in this little room. I make a lot of tapes, I do a lot of reading. It’s priorities and fun and I’m really determined these days to make sure that my music is something that stays fun.
Because I work so intensely on projects, it’s actually really useful for me to switch up my mediums. Otherwise I get sick of things. The way I see it, I couldn’t just do one of them. If it wasn’t what they are it would be something else. I feel like I need to have separate activities to fill up my day.
Fortunately, I’ve managed to make them all into things that I could technically consider a job, or something that I could maybe sell; a painting, a song, or something else.
Talk us through your process of coming up with songs, from beginning to end.
That varies, I guess. It depends if I’m working with other people. Usually I write by myself. I’m quite closed in that way. I like to get my ideas down and know what I’m doing and then be able to work ideas from that sketch. Because if someone just goes ‘Alright, let’s write a song,’ then sometimes I’ll go blank and become a deer in headlights. Not all the time, but sometimes. I think its because for me, I find a song idea is an expression which you can only find within yourself, so when I am alone often ideas tend to be more coherent in my head, there’s no pressure, whereas when you’re starting from scratch with someone else your ideas start coming from a different place… And I just like to come prepared I guess.
Writing wise I play guitar mainly, so I’ll start there, often, although recently I’ve been learning the piano a bit and I’ve been playing a lot of bass. Normally I just write everything on a guitar and with a note pad, but more and more recently I’ve been writing with the computer, getting a vibe started and just jamming over it with vocals to see what happens. The problem with doing that is I don’t so much write chord changes in that process, and I end up with something that feels like a loop.
Whether I’ve worked it out acoustically or on the computer then I take it to a member of a band and say ‘Listen to this, I’ve made a song today,’ then I’ll play it and we decide if it feels like a More Like Trees song or something else. If we don’t really think it would work with the band, then I try and find where it belongs.
If the band connect to the idea, I’ll teach them the bits which I’ve already worked out working out new ideas as we go. Usually, that completely changes how we feel about the song and the vibe of it and everything. It becomes different and we re-record it; guitar first, then bass, drums and then build things on top of that as a whole, with this new live perspective brought into the mix.
I find if I go away – I have to have all my musical equipment with me. There’s nothing worse than being away and being really inspired because you’re in this beautiful (or ugly) new place that you’ve never been to before, you’ve got all these new feelings, your head’s clearer, and you’ve get a bit of spare time - but you forgot to bring your instruments and equipment with you to make them happen.
Do you have any thoughts towards doing theatre?
I’d consider doing theatre, but at the same time I feel like I’ve also got a lot to be playing with at the moment as it is and I’m kind of just starting to get a grip on film. I feel that’s a world that I’m beginning to understand, which is a nice feeling, and I don’t really feel like I’d just want to juggle it up and do theatre right now.
At the same time, it depends what it is.
So what have you got coming up next?
At the moment I’m shooting season four of Poldark. To Trend on Twitter is on its way to coming out.
The Receptionist is playing in September at Raindance. Keep your ears and eyes peeled for Modern Life is Rubbish at some point. And Valley Girl is also due to come some time in 2018.
More Like Trees are working on our second album. We’re also possibly going to try and work on a second album for High Cross Society which is a collaborative group that More Like Trees are a part of along with Lazy Habits, Reeps One and Fjokra.
There’s a lot of creativity going on. I’m probably trying to do too much, but I’ve got a bit of free time now, so I’m trying to make sure that I use it.
And, what kind of projects are you looking to work on in the future?
I think I just like the idea of always trying something new. I want to play characters I haven’t played before. I want to play characters that people wouldn't expect me to.
I was recently sent my first casting for a cartoon, to try doing a voiceover for a character and I find that really appealing. I love trying to do voices for cartoons because you have a lot more freedom to just be kind of wacky or to do extreme emotions which I really enjoy. I don’t really get to do that so much in normal acting.
I like making audio books, building atmosphere and doing sound effects/different characters. I want to keep making music. Recently I have been using the same techniques more and more in music, the two are beginning to cross over.
Also forgot to mention until now but along the line me, my brother and some friends have all invested in a property in Portugal which we are now calling The Hide and we are looking at converting it (like the warehouses) in to a place where people can work and create - so that really is going to be a big project which I am looking forward to getting stuck in to… I suppose I just want to keep on trying new things and doing whatever I can to merge the things I am passionate about.
Follow Josh Whitehouse and his escapades on social media.
More Like Trees on Facebook.
High Cross Society on Facebook.