Paul Clayton: 'The Actors Centre is there to be a breathing space'
Actor and Chairman of The Actors Centre, Paul Clayton, gives the lowdown on 40 years in the business, advice for upcoming actors and sharing a dressing room with Gary Oldman.
Paul, tell us about yourself and your experience.
Well, I’m an actor, first and foremost. That’s what I’ve been doing for 39 years. I’ve also directed. I did give up acting in my 30s for about six years, and directed various reps around the country as well as a couple of national tours. I work a lot in the corporate market, which is something I developed. I suppose out of need in my 30s, and I’ve cast a lot of corporate events, gigs, videos, etc... For the past 10 years, I’ve been chairman of The Actors Centre in Covent Garden. I’m also an author and a columnist for The Stage.
How did you get into acting and the theatre and then TV? How did that journey begin?
Well, I suppose I went the traditional route, in that I went to drama school. I think it was a lot easier in the 1970s. I come from South Yorkshire and up there, there wasn’t much contact with Theatre-land. There’s much less now, so while I think it’s a different and difficult situation now, then there was one dog-eared pamphlet in the school careers room about careers in the theatre.
I went to drama school. I couldn’t get a discretionary grant to go to one so I went to Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre, which was the only place on the National Conference of Drama Schools that you got a grant for. I was lucky enough, when I finished there, to go straight to the Royal Exchange in Manchester for eight months. It was all out into rep in those days. These days, I think a lot of the priority for graduates seems to be getting an agent. In those days the priority, funnily enough, was getting a job. You just went from rep to rep. In fact, I didn’t have an agent for four years, until somebody spotted me at Leicester Haymarket in a play, when they’d come to see another client.
Television wasn’t really an option then. It was sort of acknowledged that you went into theatre and you did a couple of years of rep, and then occasionally you might get a glimpse of a small part in television. I think, even in those days, the television people looked at people who had a little more experience coming out of drama school.
We had a tutor whose wife was a director at Granada and I got my Equity card in my first year at drama school, luckily, and I used to get rung up and asked if I’d go and play tiny little things, with one or two lines, in quite prestigious television. Granada was making a lot of big stuff, like Brideshead, then. I was lucky enough to be asked to do little bits in lots of things. It was virtually impossible if you didn’t have an agent, I suppose a bit like it is now too.
When I changed my agent, funnily enough, that was the time when I didn’t work for 9 months. I think the agent changed what I was going up for. So rather than just writing to reps, and going from Nottingham to Exeter to Birmingham to Chichester, I suddenly started going up for telly, and things in the West End. Like a lot of people, I was getting down to the last two but not getting the parts.
It was a slow transition, but it seems to be part of a prearranged path. I don’t know whether nowadays the path is so clear. I think the difficulty a lot of graduates have is that the path seems much less clearly marked.
You could get on the circuit when I started. It was good to be at the Royal Exchange which was relatively new at the time. Then I went to York for about six months. Six months where I shared a dressing room with an actor called Gary Oldman, in fact. We caught up earlier this year to do a fundraiser for the Actors Centre.
Back then the director of Exeter had seen me in something at York, and I was asked to go to Exeter and then I was asked to go back to York. Back then directors came to see plays in each other's theatres. You were on the circuit. Some people stayed into their 40s and 50s. It was a good living, and it wasn’t a question of when you came back to London and for how long you’d be out of work, it was just a case of which rep you were going to next.
I think that’s gone. These days it’s two days on Doctors or a day on Holby or something, and then you don’t know what the next work is.
That’s very interesting. It definitely sounds like things have changed quite a lot.
I think the thing that’s hard now is sustainability. Sustaining a career. I mean, you start off, and you leave drama school and the world’s your oyster, and then I think very quickly you might come to the realisation that it’s going to be much harder work than you thought. I think sometimes it feels like we are starting again after each job we do, be it in theatre or television. I think that must be very difficult. I’m not sure how different it felt when I was that young, but when you look back on it, you think, well there was much more continuity.
I think that professional development is work. When I’m not working I’m quite happy to not develop professionally, and be at home in my onesie and watch Homes Under the Hammer. I’m a fervent believer of the Actors Centre being there as a support network, and I think these days, rather than constant workshops, which has been its modus operandi so far, I think it has to focus itself on helping young actors do what I think they have to do, which is start creating their own work and create their own passion projects.
I don’t think you should leave drama school without a project in your mind that you’d like to do. I’m not asking all actors to suddenly become directors. It might be a part you want to play. I’ve met a lot of young producers in the last couple of years, who are within three or four years of having trained as actors at drama school, and who are now a part of the young producers scheme on the Kevin Spacey Foundation, or working with theatres like The Hope Theatre in Islington, which has got young associate producers creating work, both for themselves and for other actors.
Alongside that, creating opportunities for actors to put their thinking heads on. There can be a conception that we’re all a bit thick, and actually, I know some very clever actors. I think to delve into their imaginations- it’s just a case of whatever you’re doing, whether it’s corporate work, whether you’re working in retail or whether you’re mannying – which I understand is a new craze for young male actors now – it’s important that a bit of your brain is occupied with creativity, because it dies very quickly.
I think that possibly it is the same for most of the creative industries, whether it’s musical theatre or dance.
But the thing is that a dancer can go to class, and a singer can sit down at a piano in their own home, a painter can put up an easel and paint something and a photographer can take a picture, but you can’t act on your own. It’s a bit like sex for one. It serves the purpose but it’s not really as good as the real thing.
Tell us a little bit about The Actors Centre, how you became involved and how you become the chairman?
It’ll have been going for 40 years in 2018 and it was set up for providing a meeting and a networking place for actors out of work. It’s been in its present home in Covent Garden since early this century. It’s unique in that it’s the one actor's support organisation that actually is a place. It is a building. It doesn’t just nest in another building or move from place to place.
The only time I had ever been in the Actors Centre was about 2000 or 2001, to do a read-through for Ali G Indahouse, which we happened to be doing in one of the rehearsal rooms. I rather thought that "it’s not the sort of place I go to because I work. It’s for people who can’t get work". I was approached in 2008, by somebody who was leaving the board, to ask if I would take their place. My expertise was thought to be the fact that I know about actors working in the corporate market, in role-play and training. This was the subject of the first book I did a couple of years ago. I went in to sort of lend a hand with that, and then actually I realised that, given a push in the right direction, there was just so much more it could do.
It didn’t really make contact with graduates. There’s not a lot of alumni support that goes on from drama schools. They’re busy. They’ve got their next intake, they’ve got to take their next £27,000 off the next year of people and so you’re out there. I just thought that in a way we need a longer springboard, a longer diving board for these people. That’s what The Actors Centre could do.
Since becoming chairman I’ve sort of reworked the Alan Bates Award, which is open to drama graduates in any year from all, what used to be, Drama UK accredited courses, but basically any three year BA acting course. That’s got a fantastic package attached to it, which is worth about five grand and includes your Spotlight, Equity, website, showreel and your voicereel. Also some nice goodies like last year we added a year’s theatre tickets to it and a £1000 makeover from Ted Baker.
It also provides lots of networking opportunities, because the graduates are rather insular in their years in drama schools, and suddenly they come and they meet lots of people. I think the real purpose of The Actor’s Centre is that when you are doing your other job, which increasingly everybody at all stages of the profession has to do, that you need to have a bit of your day where you’re an actor. One really easy way of doing that is, if you’re a member, you can literally just pop in for a cup of coffee, and everybody in that building is doing the same as you, you’re with your tribe.
If you’ve not had any chance to do any acting or practice your craft, and sometimes it might be difficult to find the money to take a workshop, you can literally be in there chatting to lots of people in a similar position. Lots of fringe projects and stuff get cast and discussed in the green room and the coffee bar.
We’re increasingly going to provide slots in the theatre, and in some of the other spaces in the building, for those projects to get time to show themselves. On my very first day in rehearsal, a very famous actress took me aside at a readthrough and she said ‘I thought you were very good,’ and of course I was very arrogant and thought well I know I am because I’ve just trained. Then she said ‘Do you know something? When you’re 40, you’ll never stop.’ I was a bit shocked. I was 21 and I thought "she’s basically just told me I’m f***ed for 19 years". She was right really.
I did the RSC and everything in my 20s, but I didn’t get anything as to what I would call success until I was 40. When I hit 50 I had been incredibly lucky, and it’s gone up and up and up since I’ve joined Peep Show and various stuff. It’s really great to be enjoying that but I’m worried that a lot of actors who are like me, who possibly have potential coming up within 10 or 12 years of leaving their drama school, they won’t be around. They’ll have been battered down, they’ll have given it up. The profession seems to cater for the sprint runners, and I want to make sure that we’re catering for the long-distance runners, the people who are going to be there for a while.
I hope people can read this information on our website and know they actually have a place where they can come and do this.
I think that’s just it, doing your work, doing what you want to do, what you aimed to do when you were a child. I do a series of chat shows for the Actor’s Centre, and mainly with people I’ve worked with, so we’ve had Judi Dench and most recently Stockard Channing. Celia Imrie, Mark Rylance, Alex Jennings, Gary Oldman and Harriet Walter, all people I’ve worked with. All would start with the same question, which was ‘When was the moment for you, that began the journey to where you are today?’ and it’s always some incredibly revealing lovely thing in their childhood or in their teens.
Juliet Stevenson talked about reading a poem at school. Derek Jacobi talked about putting on his mother’s wedding veil, running down the street, and realising he liked to dress up and be other people. It’s just that when that moment hit you, it was a moment of passion. It wasn’t a rational decision, nobody chooses acting, it chooses you. So The Actor’s Centre is there to be a breathing space, for you to come and do that and not feel frightened.
You were part of the RSC at the same time as Judi Dench and Zoe Wanamaker as well. How was that?
It was brilliant! I think it’s what everybody in those days aspired to. When we were both young actors in York, Gary Oldman and I, that’s what we aspired to do. There was no way that anybody could have a Hollywood career, and as I was talking to him when I interviewed him I said ‘What you did was just unheard of for a young English actor at that time.’ When we used to sit in the cafe and share a cup of tea and a toasted teacake in York, between matinees on Thursdays, our aspiration was to be at the RSC or the National. I got there within about two years and I remember him coming to one of my first previews and being really jealous. Then he was there a couple of years later, doing something probably much nicer. We’d both done it.
I think for some people you do it, and it becomes part of your life. There was one actor there who did his first season with me and I think he was about 40 then. When I worked with him again in 2010, I think he was still going back. He ended up doing about 26 years on and off. For some of us, it was a bit like doing your National Service. You did three or four years and then you came back to the real world. Although I don’t think I do hanker for security, but if you hanker for security as an actor, I think what you actually mean is money.
The thought of knowing today that next July I will be doing Twelfth Night in the afternoon and Comedy of Errors in the evening, I thought that was terrifying. Having done four years of it I was quite glad to come back out into the world and not work for a while. I thought ‘Oh God, it’s all been for nothing. I’ve come out of the RSC, the world should’ve opened up,’ but, of course, what it had done was made me a better actor. It made me much more confident in the rehearsal room. It made me much more secure about being able to hold my place and my own worth in the rehearsal room.
It did f*** all as far as getting me any extra jobs, and I think the next two years were pretty ropey. I think I went back to Birmingham Rep, after about eight months out, to play some quite small part in a couple of Shakespeare plays, and I probably remember simmering with jealousy thinking ‘Why am I not playing Camillo? Why am I playing Dion and Second Lord, or something? I’ve done this at Stratford.’
Ultimately, it’s a job, and that time at Birmingham was great, because you made new friends, got a wage packet and it’s added to the richness of what I'd done. We had great fun at Stratford. I did Mother Courage with Judi at the Barbican in London, which was great, and it’s a great privilege to get to work with, and get to know somebody like her and, and to become a friend.
For me, it was something you did and then I wanted to move on. I think that’s why I like working in the corporate world. I do very big events but they don’t last for very long. Last week I was in Portugal directing a big conference for McDonald's, which I’ve been working on on and off now for two months. It's for one day so you’ve got one chance to get everything right, then you leave it and you move on. I love that.