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Alex Hassell interview

We chat to the talented actor about his work on The Miniaturist, The Isle, Suburbicon, The RSC & more.

Credit: The Forge - Photographer: Laurence Cendrowicz/BBC

Alex Hassell has made a real name for himself in the world of theatre and has recently worked on some very high profile film and television projects. He will next be seen in the BBC’s highly- anticipated adaptation of Jessie Burton’s best-selling novel The Miniaturist alongside Romola Garai and Anya Taylor-Joy, on BBC One at 9pm on Boxing Day (26th December) and 27th December.

Alex is well-known for his extended turn as the RSC’s Henry V and starred in George Clooney’s latest directorial film Suburbicon opposite Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. This 1950’s set tale, which sees a home invasion rattle a quiet, family town, is written by the Coen Brothers.

Alex Hassell, who trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, is a co-founder of The Factory Theatre Company whose patrons include Ewan McGregor, Bill Nighy, Mark Rylance and Emma Thompson.

With TV support roles in the likes of Silent Witness, Robin Hood, Torchwood and Miranda, Alex is most well-known for his three-year stint leading the RSC Company, playing Hal in Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry himself in Henry V. He also appeared in Shakespeare Live! From the RSC which was televised in 2016.

On the stage, he has also played the role of Biff in Death of a Salesman, which transferred to the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End from the RSC, and was nominated for a UK Theatre Award for his performance in the show.

Alex recently shot the feature film The Isle, a hugely anticipated ghost story set in 1840, and has also recently finished filming The Red Sea Diving Resort with Chris Evans and Ben Kingsley in South Africa.

We had a chat with Alex about his recent projects, and his career to date.

Alex Hassell, Suburbicon

Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/© Paramount Pictures

First off, congratulations on Suburbicon! How did you first get involved with the project?

I made a tape! That’s how it goes these days. I met Ellen Chenoweth who casts all of George’s and the Coens’ stuff; we got on well, so she came to see me in a play and asked if I would make a tape for George’s new movie that the Coens had written, and I said yes – as any sane actor would.

They were having trouble casting the part, and when I read the script I could see why; it was clearly a great part in a brilliant script, but I couldn’t really get a handle on the guy, and neither, I think, could they. To just play it down the line felt wrong, but I couldn’t really work out where to go with it. Then all of a sudden, I got the image of a rockabilly-type grease ball with a cigarette behind the ear, rolled up sleeves, a tooth pick in the mouth, and I thought that was pretty funny; this knucklehead who thinks he is really edgy and tough, but is actually just a little weasel. I thought I would either be totally wrong and not get the part (which I didn’t really think I would get anyway because I’d hardly been in any films), or it might just click and solve their problem.

So, I kind of dressed up like the part, and asked Jasper Britton, who played my father in the play I was doing at the time, to make the tape with me in our dressing room. We have a wonderful relationship and laugh a lot, so he really got behind what I was doing and we just made this guy as dumb as we could, and had a ball. I was really happy with what we did, so I sent it off all excited, and then heard nothing for weeks and weeks so assumed I hadn’t got it. I was gutted but, as I say, I never actually thought I’d get it because I’d heard that lots of more well-known actors were interested in the part.

Then over a month later, I got a call saying the part was mine and that was it! I did nothing else but meet Ellen and make the tape, so my first day on set was also the first time I even spoke to George at all! I kept thinking someone was going to jump out and say it was all a trick.

The Miniaturist, Alex Hassell

Credit: The Forge – Photographer: Laurence Cendrowicz/BBC

How would you describe George Clooney as a director?

Fast! He really knows what he wants, and his crew are the best you can get, so often there was very little rehearsal and just a couple of takes before you move on. Having not done a proper Hollywood studio film before, and never one with quite so many people I had dreamed of working with, it was quite a steep learning curve, but George is very relaxed and goofy so, while he cracks the whip, the atmosphere is very laid back and jovial as you’d imagine.

I remember one particular instance, while we were filming a very tense scene, in between takes George played some disco music on his phone and we all danced about and sang together and laughed. There was a lot of laughing in general which was nice. I seemed to find it useful to take the piss out of him quite a lot to normalise the experience, and luckily, he didn’t seem to mind – I think he likes it actually! He was very excited to be at work which was very infectious. We would do a take and he would call me to the monitor to show me what we’d done and point and laugh at how dumb my character was. He loves the funny stuff.

You have a great chemistry with Glenn Fleshler in the film and you make an imposing duo. What was it like to collaborate with him and how did you work on that rapport?

He was great. It wasn’t hard really because, while he is a lovely man, he can turn scary on very easily and I believed it! We talked a bit about whether or not our characters knew each other well, and how big they were or weren’t in the criminal game, and then just played about really. George wasn’t a big one for backstory and stuff so we kind of just got on with it.

There was this whole section that didn’t make the final cut: I was driving a bus and Glenn chases me, forces the doors open and hits me, and we have this petty squabble which gave us a bit more story to play with. It was interesting because we were all figuring out the tone of the film while we played. We did some very silly slapstick versions and then some more serious versions so George had options.

This film is a classic throw-back to yester-year but with a very dark and sinister tone running throughout. What is it about 50s American nostalgia that always makes it such good fodder for movies?

In this case, I guess it is fertile creative ground because it was a period that saw the widespread explosion of the idea that consumerism and life style are almost more important than morals. That doing whatever it takes to have more than other people is part and parcel of the American Dream, and therefore okay. For me, the film says something about the darkness and prejudice that can be born out of the fear that we will lose our things, or not get more of them; how being overly possessive about space and objects can encourage people to feel the need to draw dividing lines between themselves and others. But also, it was an era that from the outside looked so good and bright and hopeful – plus there was cool hair.

Alex Hassell, The Isle

Credit: Fizz and Ginger Films

You have some big projects coming out in 2018. I’m really excited to see The Isle. Can you tell us a bit about that movie and what we can expect? It sounds very creepy and atmospheric.

Yes it is! It’s about a group of sailors that get shipwrecked in weird circumstances, and find themselves on a once populated island that now only has four inhabitants, all of whom are very troubled by something that has happened there. It’s a taut supernatural thriller that is, it seems to me, exploring mythology, grief, and the things we do to protect those we love.

It’s unsettling, and scary and beautiful. It was also an amazing challenge to shoot. We had just over a month, moved very fast, and all lived together in a couple of massive houses on a real isolated island. My wife (Emma King) is also in the film, and a lot of us had worked together before, so there was a wonderful all-hands-on-deck family attitude which was really special.

You’ve collaborated with The Isle’s writer/director Matthew Butler Hart before. What does he bring to the table and how did you find working with him again?

He and Tori Butler Hart, who is the other half of Fizz And Ginger Films with Matt, and who also stars in The Isle, are two of the closest friends of my wife and I, so we love working together. The Isle is the third film we have made together actually, so we are all learning in each other’s company, and have developed a shorthand and understanding of how to work, which is really quite unique for me at this point in my film career, and is very nourishing.

They are very collaborative and like to rehearse if possible, and talk through the scenes and change stuff if it seems appropriate, which I think shows real bravery and openness on their part. Knowing how much we all care about each other is very important I think, because it means that we all know that whatever we do or say it is done with love, and for our idea of what is best for the film. They are so hard working, savvy and multi-talented that I am constantly amazed and inspired by them, and I hope we can keep working together into the future.

Two Down, which is an odd and funny crime story about a hit gone wrong, with me as a hitman called John Thomas, is about to have a limited theatrical release, as well as come out on Amazon and iTunes and all that. It’s already won a dozen awards at international film festivals, so I am really excited for it to reach a wider audience.

Alex Hassell, The Isle

Credit: Fizz and
Ginger Films

From horror to thriller, another one of your upcoming projects looks incredible. The Red Sea Diving Resort sees you starring alongside an all-star cast including Sir Ben Kingsley, Chris Evans, Haley Bennett, Alona Tal, Michiel Huisman, Greg Kinnear and Michael Kenneth Williams. What can you tell us about that movie and the character you play, Max Rose?

It is based on the true story of a bunch of Mossad agents in the 1970’s that go to Sudan to rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jewish refugees and smuggle them out across the Red Sea to Jerusalem. However, to enable them to hide out there, they decide to open a diving resort as cover and run it as a real hotel. It’s an amazing tale about reaching out across borders to those in need, and we had a brilliant cast.

I play one of the Mossad team along with Chris, Haley, Michiel and Alessandro Nivola, and it was a wild shoot. My character is an assassin, so he is quite a loner who doesn’t play well with others, but has to learn to deal with being surrounded by needy tourists all the time, and working on a humanitarian mission rather than what he is used to.

It was my first taste of some real action stuff which I loved. I drove trucks, scuba dived, looked all shifty and had a gun. I do actually think guns are terrible things that should be banished out of all existence, but to play a spy with one fulfilled some kind of childhood adventure fantasy which I found it hard not to enjoy.

The Miniaturist, Alex Hassell

Credit: The Forge – Photographer: Laurence Cendrowicz/BBC

Those releases are out later in the year, but fans can next see you in the eagerly-anticipated new BBC TV historical drama The Miniaturist. Could you tell us what it’s about and about the character you play?

It’s based on Jessie Burton’s best-selling novel, set in Amsterdam. It’s about a young country girl who gets married off to a mysterious and exceptionally wealthy merchant, only to arrive and find that he is aloof, hardly ever there, and leaves her in his rather unconventional and, at first, hostile household run by his terrifying sister.

It’s a beautiful, and hopefully very moving story about hope, love, secrets, shame, and what happens if you don’t conform. I am really proud to be a part of it and can’t wait for it to be out in the world on Boxing Day.

The Miniaturist features some amazing acting talent including Romola Garai, Anya Taylor-Joy, Hayley Squires and Emily Berrington. What was it like collaborating on such a rich and diverse project, and one that is going to get a huge audience over the Christmas/New Year period on the BBC?

It was truly an enormously special experience for me, and a really important story to be telling right now. The cast were all very, very lovely and very, very good without exception. I learnt so much, especially from Anya and Romola, who are both so experienced, intelligent, and intuitive. Every day was a pleasure. The creative team and crew were also uniformly wonderful. Guillem Morales, the director, worked so sensitively, carefully and with such fine detail that I think he brought the best out of everyone.

The Miniaturist, Alex Hassell

Credit: The Forge – Photographer: Laurence Cendrowicz/BBC

At the moment, you are most recognisable for your three-year stint leading the RSC Company, playing Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry himself in Henry V. What was that experience like for you looking back? Do you approach theatre work and screen acting in a different way?

It was life changing I think really. I am still processing what it means to me and will do for many years to come. To have that set of tensions, preoccupations, and passions bubbling around inside me for so long, and then to get to stumble around this massive canvas over and over was a deeply profound experience. To be drawn so far and over so long into such rich material, and to continue to be moved and surprised by it, and to connect with it was a great privilege.

It tested my imagination, my empathy, my resilience, my emotional availability, my body, my voice, and I got to see the world. I think to have been given that responsibility and not to have been seen to have majorly fucked it up, has done something very useful to my sense of self that I am sure is allowing me to get these other opportunities, and for that alone I am extremely grateful.

Do you have a preference between theatre, TV and film work?

They are so different; I am really only, after this much work on camera, beginning to understand specifically how. The core is the same obviously – you are imagining that things that are made up, are true, and mean something to you. However, the differences in where you place your performance and when, I think is the thing that I am now learning about.

On stage, you and your fellow performers are making the story there and then. You may have rehearsed and been directed, but your relation to each other and the audience is what tells the story in that moment, and then you go home. In film and TV, it is the camera that does the bulk of the storytelling, and it is your relation to it that seems key. This means you have to know what to give it and when, because only what it catches matters. On stage, everything you do tells the story; on camera, you could do all sorts of amazing stuff, but if the camera doesn’t get it, it doesn’t count. I love learning and attempting to get better at my job, so this is a great period of exploration for me as I do more screen work.

I’m reading, watching actors I admire and taking notes, and I’m buzzing about it. I just finished looking at Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, and he is a technical master. It is very well documented how far he will go to immerse himself in a role, but I was so excited to see how technically gifted he is at the same time. It seems to me that he has a very deep understanding of the camera and how to play with and hide stuff from it. The way he keeps secrets from the camera after a big reveal was a good lesson.

Alex Hassell, The Isle

Credit: Fizz and
Ginger Films

Many people believe we are in a golden age for TV, and it has overtaken Film. What do you think?

I think they are both very valid mediums and that a lot of good work is being done in both. There will forever be something so perfect about a story encapsulated in a couple of hours, but at the same time, as an actor, the opportunity to explore a character over the course of five seasons (if the character has that much going for it anyway!), is very appealing: the subtly you are afforded; the depth of detail you could find. Also, it often happens that the lead actor ends up as a producer, so you get a chance to have more of a collaborative part in the process, which I would love.

Do you think it’s easier to break into the industry now then it was when you first started out?

I think it was hard, is hard, and will always be hard. Especially for women. I am so glad that opportunities are broadening for female-led stories, and I hope that continues.

With 3 big projects due out soon, can you tell us about any more of your upcoming projects?

I am directing a version of Macbeth for my theatre company The Factory, which should be on sometime in the new year. The way the company works is quite unusual: we have been looking at the play together for well over a year, and will most probably only perform it once a week all around London, only releasing the details at the last minute. We have no set, no props, and all the roles can be played by up to about four different people with no regard for gender, age or type. There is no blocking and the show is totally unique and different each time we play.

While having so many opportunities in film, it has been really incredible to be working on something that will be as live, and one-time-only as we can possibly make it. I am lucky to be able to keep that other plate spinning at the same time, and also to fire my directorial synapses. We have been going 10 years now, and I am extremely proud of the work we have done and the talented group of people who are involved. Come and see it! You can sign up to get the information about the show at factorytheatre.co.uk.

The Miniaturist is broadcast on BBC One on 26th & 27th December at 9pm.

Suburbicon is in cinemas now.

The Isle & The Red Sea Diving Resort are both released in cinemas in 2018.

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