Most recently in theatre, Bill Ward was cast as Bant in The Glee Club, which opened in Doncaster at the end of February, and had just done their first week on tour before theatres closed until further notice. Prior to joining The Glee Club, Bill had spent three months playing Hugo/Loco Chanelle in the West End production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and the previous year, had played Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love and Callahan in Legally Blonde. Bill is also known for his screen work, having appeared in the new series of After Life on Netflix as Simon and spent a number of years in both Emmerdale and Coronation Street. Alongside acting, Bill has had an interest in photography from a young age and as a professional landscape photographer, his work can be seen on his website and Instagram. Chatting with Bill, he tells us about his recent role in The Glee Club, playing Hugo/Loco Chanelle in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and his screen work including After Life.
Before theatres closed, you were touring with The Glee Club as Bant, how had this been going and can you tell us more about this show/character?
Oh, goodness. What a shame this was. The Glee Club was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding shows I’ve ever worked on. A beautiful, beautiful show. It was produced by Out of Joint, who are one of my favourite theatre companies, and a company I’ve wanted to work for for twenty years. We had a brilliant creative team, led by Kate Wasserberg, the Artistic Director of Out of Joint, a wonderful play, written by Richard Cameron, and an absolutely first rate cast. It was about a group of miners from Doncaster who sang close harmony Barbershop songs in their spare time. It had everything: comedy, drama, tragedy, and some fabulous songs which we sang live every night. We’d opened at Cast in Doncaster, and had just done our first week out on tour at Theatr Clwyd when the government closed the theatres. For all the right reasons, obviously, but from a professional point of view, absolutely heartbreaking.
Bant was a joy to play: a scrapper, a boozer, an absolute livewire on the surface, yet hiding a vulnerable, perceptive and timid soul beneath. I really miss him.
We were all absolutely gutted as a company, and very much hope that the show can resurface at some point in the future.
Last year, you joined the cast of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie in the West End, how was this and what was Hugo/Loco Chanelle like to play?
I loved Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. I’d been touring the previous year with Legally Blonde, and had heard a lot about it through the cast. When I got the call to audition, the first thing I did was get on a bus (we live in Bristol) to see it. I absolutely loved watching it. It has everything, I think. Great story, characters you warm to, great songs, and wonderful cast. Hugo/Loco Chanelle is one of those characters that you’ve just got to properly commit to; I’d never done anything like him before. I loved him.
How did you prepare for taking on the role?
The first thing I did was get the shoes. The costume/makeup dept had me in for a fitting six weeks before I started rehearsals, and they also let me try on the dress with full face makeup and wig so I could see “Her”. As soon as I saw her, I had a pretty good idea who she was. I’m pretty big on research (I’ve a History degree – it’s one of the parts of the job I like the most), so I was practising in my stilettos, tottering around our kitchen for thirty minutes or so every day. I also have a couple of friends who are Drag Queens, so I had long conversations with them about Drag in general, its history in this country, and who Loco might be in particular. Also, their own characters and how they came to create them. I watched a lot of drag on YouTube, as well as Drag Race (obvs), and all sorts of films/TV shows for reference (including Paris is Burning – an extraordinary piece of work about the Ball culture in New York in the 70s). And I went to see a friend of mine who was in Funny Girls up in Blackpool, who introduced me to Betty Legs Diamond, who is the real life character on who Hugo/Loco Chanelle is based.
Can you tell us about playing Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love?
I jumped at this when it came up. It was directed by Phil Breen, who I’d first met years ago doing Oh What a Lovely War at Theatr Clwyd in Wales, he as a director on the Channel 4 Young Directors programme, and me just starting out after drama school. I love his work. Always funny, bold, with vivid, striking pictures. Very happy to take big theatrical risks. Shakespeare in Love itself was absolutely beautiful: lyrical, whimsical, but also very funny, and very dark, in places. Wessex is one of those parts where you’re providing counterbalance and jeopardy in the story. The antithesis of Shakespeare. Where Shakespeare was warm, witty and humble, Wessex was vicious, calculating, and entitled. A thoroughly nasty piece of work, and huge fun to play.
You toured with Legally Blonde a couple of years ago, what was this show like to be part of?
Great fun. It was the first proper full on musical I’d ever done. I’d been part of plenty of plays with music before (Oh What a Lovely War, A Christmas Carol, Million Dollar Quartet etc. – I’m a jazz clarinettist myself, and love music), but apart from Spamalot, I’d never really had to learn full on steps, or sing a song on my own. So. From a technical point of view, it was quite a big deal. I loved it. Great cast, and such a positive show to be a part of.
What did you enjoy most about playing Callahan and being part of the cast?
You’ll probably have noticed by now that there’s a recurring theme in my career about playing nasty pieces of work! Callahan is a belter of a part: he doesn’t have much stage time, but he’s absolutely integral to the plot, and what time he does have, he really makes it count. Blood in the Water is a wonderful song: pure essence of Callahan. Twinkly, smart, hugely charismatic, with an absolutely ruthless twist.
What was it like playing DS Roy Grace in Not Dead Enough?
I took over from Shane Richie (who’s a lovely bloke – I also took over from him in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, funnily enough) half way through the tour, with about eight days rehearsal spread over three weeks. The company were brilliant – hugely supportive and generous throughout. My very first performance was on a Tuesday night in the Bord Gáis Theatre in Dublin, in front of an audience of 1500 people, including reviewers, journalists, TV people etc. having done my one and only dress rehearsal fully four days previously on the Friday of the week before in the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, and with no time to do a run that day in the Bord Gáis itself. Hairy doesn’t quite cover it!
How was it returning to stage following your time in Emmerdale?
Really good. I’d really missed it. Apart from the odd panto here and there, I hadn’t been on a stage for three or four years. Theatre is, and I suspect always will be, very much my first love. There is a visceral pleasure in sharing a story directly with an audience – it’s part of our DNA as humans, I think, sharing stories together.
Having played James Barton in Emmerdale for a number of years, what do you miss most about playing this character?
This is going to sound like a funny thing to say, but his hopelessness! The things I really liked about him, and had drawn me to the part in the first place, were his flaws: he tried to keep everybody happy all of the time, and in doing so ended up pleasing pretty much no one. Also, I really miss the Green Room at Emmerdale. One of the friendliest (and most talented) casts you’ll find anywhere.
Can you tell us about your character Simon in the new series of After Life with Ricky Gervais?
Simon is Tony’s (Ricky Gervais’ character) nemesis. He’s a confident, forward, pretty positive kind of a guy. He has his eye on Emma, and isn’t afraid to tell her. He fancies himself as being a rather rakish, dashing individual but unlike Tony, isn’t blessed with particularly deep reserves of emotional depth…
Was there anything that drew you to the show and what was it like filming for the Netflix comedy?
After Life is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television. To dare to make a comedy about grief, which is both genuinely funny and hugely moving, is an extraordinary achievement. It made me laugh, and it made my cry. Often within a minute of each other. I honestly think Ricky Gervais is a genius.
You played Charlie Stubbs in Coronation Street, can you say more about your time in the show?
I’ll always be enormously grateful for my time on Coronation Street. I learnt so much. Charlie Stubbs was one of those characters that comes along very, very rarely: nuanced, troubled, funny, dangerous. He was an absolute delight, and I still feel very lucky to have had the chance to play him.
What TV shows and theatre productions do you enjoy watching?
Good question… I suppose I tend to be drawn towards things that are brave, both physically and emotionally. On TV, for me that often equates to new ideas, shows where genres get mashed together a bit. Killing Eve, particularly the first series, is a good example of that – genuinely scary, but funny too. Norsemen on Netflix: very funny, but also violent, and you still care about the characters. I also like an epic: Game of Thrones was extraordinary. And a good thoughtful drama, like Homeland.
In the theatre, I do like a bold, imaginative, theatrical risk. I’ve always been a big fan of physical theatre: when I was at drama school twenty years or so ago, I lived round the corner from Battersea Arts Centre, and saw pretty much everything that came through. Told by an Idiot, Kneehigh, Spymonkey etc., all made the kind of theatre I’d never seen before. Elsewhere, companies like Theatre de Complicite, Shared Experience, Out of Joint, Frantic Assembly, who had bold, new ideas about how theatre should be made, and weren’t afraid to commit to them. More recently, immersive theatre exponents like Punchdrunk. Their “Masque of the Red Death” is still one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen.
We understand you’re also a photographer, how did you get into this and can you say more about this side of your career?
When I’m not acting, I’m a Landscape Photographer. I’ve taken photographs since I was six, and have been a professional landscape photographer for about the last ten years or so. It’s very much a Yin Yang thing, a perfect compliment to my acting. I like the quiet of it, the solitude. Whenever I’m not working, I’ll take myself off somewhere with my camera, and immerse myself in whatever’s around me. The more remote the better. My mindfulness, if you like. You can see more of my work at www.billwardphotography.co.uk, or follow my work on Instagram @billwardphotography.
When photographing scenes etc, what do you look for to make a good photo?
Interesting. For me, photography is all about the time, and specifically the quality of time, that I spend in any given place. It’s a deliberate attempt to explore how it felt to be there: specifically how it felt to spend this particular time, with this particular place. And that goes for anywhere, really. From a busy city centre, to a secluded mountain top. I’ve also for some time now been experimenting with ICM (Intentional Camera Movement – the process of deliberately moving the camera whilst taking a picture – the whole “wobbly camera” thing) and in-camera Multiple Exposures, which I find can be particularly revealing of the “essence” of any meeting between a person and wherever they happen to be.
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