📷 : Danann Breathnach
With A Confession airing on ITV1 a few months ago, Jonny Lavelle played the role of Marcus Beresford-Smith joining a cast including Martin Freeman and Imelda Staunton, based on a real-life story of the disappearance of Sian O’Callaghan. Earlier this year, Jonny appeared in an episode of long-running drama series Vera and he will be seen in the upcoming release of Sam Mendes’ 1917 as well as in BBC1 series The Trial of Christine Keeler. Speaking with Jonny, he chats about filming for Vera, his time on set of A Confession and receiving the BAFTA Scholarship Award.
What was the experience like on set of A Confession and playing the role of Marcus Beresford-Smith?
I was so happy to be involved. I read Steve Fulcher’s book Catching a Serial Killer, and I learnt straight away that Beresford-Smith’s police work was actually a vital part of the investigation. So I felt pretty honoured to be playing him. And I was so excited to work with Martin Freeman, who’s been a bit of an idol of mine for years now. I met him my first day on set, and he was just great; really welcoming. I managed to keep the fan-boy in me quiet as well… I think I got away with it.
How much did you know about the role of Marcus before filming began?
I tried to find as much as I could. As I say, the book was so useful. There’s a scene we did in the show, that’s described in the book, where Marcus comes running up to Fulcher, red-faced, and out of breath, after having had the idea to check the patrol cars that automatically take photos of passing licence plates, and it was this idea that led them to find Christopher Halliwell’s vehicle, and so on. So to be able to have a first-hand account of that moment was priceless.
Did you watch the series on TV and how is it being involved in a production based on a true story?
I did, yeah, I was just so proud to be part of it. I think there’s a certain sensitivity needed when you’re handling anything based on real life, and definitely with a story such as this, but I think Paul Andrew Williams and the rest of the team did a great job making sure it was respectful to the facts, and to everyone involved.
Had you seen Vera before being cast and what was the show like to be part of?
Yeah, coming from that neck of the woods I knew the show, and thought it would be great to get a part in it. When I first got into drama school, my friends and family used to joke about me being in it one day, you know, as they do… and then it was the first thing I got when I finished. I had the best time on it though. Lawrence Gough, the director of the episode, was so great to work with. He really looked after me. And, of course, Brenda Blethyn, who was a joy. In between scenes she’s showing me videos of her dog, she’s absolutely crazy about him. It might be common knowledge actually; members of the public kept bringing their dogs up to her all day. She was loving it!
How different was it filming Vera to A Confession?
I think every job is bound to have its differences if you’re working with a different director, actors etc, but with Vera I had a lot of fun exploring that type of character. Someone with complexities around trust, shall we say. Maybe it’s just human nature, but playing a bad guy is always fun.
When did you find out you had booked the role of John Hamilton Marshall in the upcoming BBC series The Trial of Christine Keeler and how was it being part of the cast?
It seems so long ago now! I think it was just over a year ago because I started filming on it towards the end of 2018, and in the early part of this year. It was so cool to do something set in the 60s era. It’s centred around so many issues of equality; gender, class, race. Sophie Cookson is incredible, I think people will be blown away by what she does in this. I had such a blast working with her. And I also got to dress up in loads of cool 60s gear as well – so that was a winner.
Are you able to say about your time filming for the upcoming film 1917?
I’m far too scared to say anything with it not coming out until January, but I had the time of my life on it. Working with Sam Mendes was amazing, he was just so down to earth. And if you’ve seen the little behind the scenes featurette that’s out, to be a part of such an incredible project like this was a dream come true. I will say it was incredibly humbling however, putting on the WWI uniforms, seeing all these other men around you in the same kit, and thinking just a hundred years ago we’d have had to do it for real. A hundred years! It’s nothing! We’re incredibly lucky. Also, George MacKay is the nicest guy you will ever meet. I’m so excited to see where his career goes after this.
Can you tell us about your training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama?
It’s really difficult to summarise the whole experience, but applying to Guildhall is the best decision I’ve ever made. I had no idea just how much I would actually end up taking from the training – I just knew I wanted to take a run at it. But the expertise across the teaching staff was something I wasn’t prepared for, and it just blew my mind, pretty much day in day out, for three years. I’m not saying it’s for everyone, but at the time things just weren’t happening for me in the North East, which was obviously such a shame, because I love the place, but after a certain time I had to think ‘What do I want? And how am I ever going to get it?’. The idea of applying to drama school, moving to London etc, was obviously scary, but it just made sense for me personally. I’m more sure of that than ever now.
You’ve appeared in a few theatre shows, one being King Lear with Guildhall, can you say more about this role?
Yeah, two of my Guildhall teachers, Eliot Shrimpton and Tom Morrison, directed me and ten other students in an adaptation of King Lear, with every cast member taking one scene playing Lear, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity, so it was a pretty remarkable thing to be able to perform that on a stage in Beijing! We took it to a theatre festival there, and another in Venice, which was another unbelievable experience. At the centre of King Lear there’s this huge storm, and in Venice we were performing on an open stage, under the night sky, and as we were performing on the first night there was an actual lightning storm in the distance. It was just one of those insane magical coincidences, and it’ll stay with me.
We understand you won the BAFTA Scholarship Award, how was this?
I applied thinking obviously I haven’t got a chance here but it’s worth a try, and in the end, they basically paid for me to go to drama school. It was beyond words. I would absolutely encourage anyone to apply. The charity side of BAFTA is incredible, they do so much, for people in all types of fields throughout the arts, not just in front of the camera. I was given a mentor, and invited to BAFTA events where I met loads of amazing people working across the industry. Such a wonderful thing to know that there are huge organisations like BAFTA out there looking to help. Drama school fees can be so daunting, and I didn’t have any money at the time, but as well as BAFTA I had a lot of help from so many people. I was constantly overwhelmed by generosity and support – family, friends, strangers… I can never really thank them enough. But thank you! There are also some amazing foundations out there if you look for them. When I really needed it, I had help from the Winship Foundation, and The Sunday for Sammy Trust which was actually set up to help people from the North East pursue a career in the arts. So, to anyone who’s thinking about taking that big step or similar, but is maybe put off by the sheer expense of it all, I would just say that there are people out there who want to help.
Was there anything that drew you to an acting career?
I can’t do anything else! Or, more accurately, I’ve never wanted to! When I was really young, my dad would take me to drama groups on a Saturday, and I had a lovely drama tutor in Durham. I’m sure it’s the same for many, but it was like something just lit up in me. It was the only thing I enjoyed trying hard at. But then after college and as I got a bit older it just seemed to dry up, nothing was happening for me, and I lost my way a bit. I stopped pursuing acting, I worked at some awful jobs, and was pretty miserable for a time. Eventually I realised I was living with the regret of never having really tried at the one thing I had a passion for, but I’m very lucky in that I’ve always had an incredibly supportive family around me. Thanks to them I eventually got my finger out and decided to make a real go of it, but I had to get my confidence up again somehow. The prospect of auditioning for drama school was utterly terrifying. So, I did an amateur course at Northern Stage and then I joined this amazing amateur theatre in Newcastle called The People’s, which turned out to be the biggest stepping stone for me in getting to Guildhall. It was full of all these passionate, hard-working individuals, whether they considered it a career, hobby, or whatever. There’s a brilliant director there named Brian Green, and he actually became a real mentor to me. He directed me in my first big role as Macbeth, and I think I learnt more in that brief time than I ever had before. If it wasn’t for him and that organisation I wouldn’t be anywhere, simple as that. So, go and support your local amateur theatres!
Do you remember how you felt booking your first professional role?
Of course! I was buzzing! My first thought was I can’t wait to call my mam and tell her, so I guess you never grow out of that.
What are your plans for the next few months?
It’s been a pretty surreal year to be honest! I’ve just finished doing the third series of Tin Star for Sky, so I’m working with these incredible actors like Tim Roth and Genevieve O’Reilly, and in between takes all I’m doing is gushing to the make-up assistants about how I had a Reservoir Dogs poster on my bedroom wall all through my teenage years! It’s nuts, but I’m just so grateful for anything that happens, and for any opportunity. Sounds cheesy but you have to enjoy the journey of it, or you’ll always be chasing something. It was a pretty action-packed shoot though, so I am looking forward to Christmas and going back up north to relax with friends and family!