In Series 10 of Call the Midwife, Olly Rix joined the show as regular character Matthew Aylward, with him being introduced when his wife gave birth, and he has been developing the role throughout both Series 10 and the recent Series 11, where he works alongside a cast including Helen George as Nurse Trixie Franklin. Prior to joining Call the Midwife, Olly played Edward Stafford in both series of The Spanish Princess, and his other roles have included Bones in Our Girl and David in Of Kings and Prophets. Speaking with us, Olly talks about joining the cast of Call the Midwife, playing Matthew Aylward in the show and his time as Edward Stafford in The Spanish Princess.
Can you tell us about your character Matthew Aylward in Call the Midwife and what is he like to play?
He’s a decent man. It’s an odd starting point – to morally assess a character – but it actually seemed the best way to begin as he is so often trying to work out who he is. Who is he as a new father? Who is he without his wife? Who is he in the community he’s consciously stepping into more and more? In every situation he seems to strive to do the most decent thing he can, or at least ask himself what that would be. He’s intelligent but also sort of guileless, which I find quite an odd combination in people, and he’s been out of his depth with so many things owing to the storms that throw him around. What keeps him moving forward is holding himself to a high standard and helping people around him.
How was it joining the cast in Series 10 and how is it seeing the viewers’ response to your character?
It was slightly disorientating because it all happened in the middle of lockdowns/COVID restrictions. So the aim of the game was distance and isolation, whereas normally you’d be doing everything you could to get to know everyone. It wasn’t until it aired that any of it started to feel real. Until it came out, I’d not met the writer, producers or even most of the cast. In fact, that didn’t really happen until Series 11. So Series 10 was enjoyable but really quite a strange experience and not like anything I’d ever done before. I don’t mean it critically, the entire world was standing on its head and so naturally that bled into the job. The fan response has been kind and I’ve been quite taken aback by how many people reached out to tell me that they’d lost their partner and that watching it on the show was cathartic, or difficult, or whatever each individual response was. I replied to everyone that shared a story like that with me. I wasn’t really expecting that.
What has it been like developing the role over the episodes so far?
Well, to elaborate on the first answer: it’s been confusing, but I think it’s because he’s in such uncomfortable situations. I’m pretty sure I’d be confused if all at once my world changed and I became a father and lost my partner almost simultaneously. As an actor, I found it challenging. I don’t think I’ve ever been so uncertain or off-balance on a set. I just couldn’t work out who the hell he was and kept turning up to work thinking “all I can do is take this one scene at a time” and inevitably I started thinking perhaps that’s sort of the point – he’s a man continuing on as best he can and trying to work out what on earth to do next and what everyone wants from him. You don’t get reassurance and nobody is coming to save you, you just have to keep taking it day by day.
Is there anything you enjoy most about being part of the show and how much did you know about Call the Midwife before booking your role?
I actually knew very little specifically about the show, but on a macro level was obviously aware of its success. I was honest about that too. I met Annie, our exec, before coming onto the show and told her that openly and honestly. There was no point pretending to have watched nine years of a show, but I told her that it’s a world I find fascinating and would really enjoy the chance to explore that because it’s not something I knew a lot about or had any real life experience of. Without a doubt the most enjoyable thing about it is seeing the care with which people handle it. Cast and crew. They nurture it and are diligent about every story within it and I find that very humbling. There’s a deep affection for the show from within. It’s also quite incredible to see its reach in everyday life. I have had conversations with the most unlikely people who love it and take real meaning from it. That’s pretty extraordinary.
What is it like on set of the series and working with the rest of the cast?
The cast are wonderful. They care about the work they’re doing but it’s always handled lightly. It’s not done in a worthy or pompous manner. It’s a lovely balance of being able to respect the stories and content whilst still being playful and not stifling. I naturally balk at earnestness, rarely does it lead to anything decent in our industry, things have to stay light and fun in the creative process even if the subject matter is weighty. I think everyone is great at that. They also work very hard, as do the crew, which gives everything an invigorating energy. It’s contagious and everyone leans into it nicely.
You played Edward Stafford in The Spanish Princess, what was this like and can you say more about it?
Stafford was rewarding. Across two series he was asked to move from a sort of playboy to a grounded statesman – trying to carry him differently from one season to the next was something I really enjoyed. It was a surprisingly physical process. I felt it was rewarded by the showrunners, Matthew Graham and Emma Frost, also. They honoured and developed the arc and the shift, and it culminated in a moving and genuine relationship between Stafford and Catherine that a lot of people seemed to respond to and was quite an evolution from their difficult first series relationship. I was grateful to them for that. As I was grateful for the work Charlotte Hope and I did together, she’s very good.
Do you have any highlights from your time as Edward?
The whole thing was pretty awesome. We got on so well as an ensemble and enjoyed telling the story. It’s special when a cast gels like that and it’s a privilege when you then get to continue working together and creating more. Personally, the final episode of Stafford’s was a highlight. I’d lost all this weight and boiled down for the Tower scenes and the execution, and it was pretty exhausting. Rebecca Gatward directed it and she was just a perfect director. She had reassuringly clear vision but was so trusting and gave me free rein to offer stuff up. I was so grateful to her. I walked onto the courtyard of ‘The Tower’ pissed off – all dehydrated and starving hungry and then the heavens opened. We did the entire scene all day in the pouring rain and as the first drop fell I had a sense that it was going to have been worth it.
Can you tell us about playing Bones in Our Girl and how was it getting into character?
Bones was really enjoyable. I had no idea what they were after and the cast were really close. I was aware that I was definitely an outsider – in the story and on the job. So I tried to go with that. I tried to be a bit haughty and aloof. I tried to be irreverent and dismissive. I’m not sure it worked it’s not my place to say (and I loved the cast – it wasn’t personal), it just seemed like the bravest thing to do. Any timidity would have struck the wrong note and it wouldn’t have worked at all. I started improvising lots of dialogue, which is something I like to do anyway. The initial producer went berserk and didn’t like it, but I figured the worst that could happen was I’d get fired so I just continued doing it anyway. When Tony Grounds saw the rushes, he really enjoyed it and I was allowed to keep it up. I think that meant that scenes we were doing were always alive because none of us ever quite knew what exactly was about to be thrown into the mix. Don’t get me wrong, it was scripted beautifully, I’m not trying to take a writer’s credit, I just mean there was an unpredictability that suited the role/job.
What were your episodes like to work on?
Just a whole lot of fun. Lots of shouting and shooting and driving things fast. I was enjoying the job in such a pure way. Work can be hugely rewarding and meaningful, but of course that doesn’t always mean ‘fun’. It can be challenging and uncomfortable, and one is always grateful for the experience, but sometimes you’re relieved to throw a character away and to shrug it off. In Our Girl I was like a kid on a playground. And off screen it was fun too. The cast were great – just talented, young and game. The energy that comes with that is so valuable. I think that was our way of trying to get a sense of military camaraderie. We had these military advisors on the show (themselves retired soldiers), and they sort of whipped up and encouraged that sort of behaviour. Kind of a ‘work hard, play hard’ ethic on steroids. They’d been there and done it, so I think we just went with it and tried to keep up. Michelle (Keegan) was great too. Like any good number one, she lead from the front and set the tone for the on set work dynamic.
What are some of your favourite memories from playing David in Of Kings and Prophets?
Of Kings and Prophets was one of the greatest years of my life. It started with me being an unknown stage actor being flown to LA four times to screen test. The process was exhausting and I never really thought I’d get it. But I did. I lived in South Africa for a year and filmed the series, then we wrapped and came back and it aired shortly after. After two episodes they pulled it citing numbers (it wasn’t numbers, but it’s a long story), and then they buried it. I went from being on top of the world to back in my parents’ spare room working out what the hell happened. I had to go to LA shortly after wrapping and by the time I’d arrived it was yesterday’s news. Never even got to see the billboard on Sunset. Needless to say, nobody would pick up the phone for a while. Welcome to Hollywood, kid. I wouldn’t take it back for anything. I think about it all the time. I’m still in touch with so many people on it. Ray Winstone is still generous with time and advice. I even met my partner on it. One never wants to be hung up on or reside the past, but I will always be so deeply grateful for that year. It’s extraordinary to film knowing that the camera will rest its gaze on you. To have the scope to just breathe and fill every moment and know full well that it’s being covered – creatively, it’s freeing and demanding so you just give everything to the project.
Having previously worked in theatre, can you say about some of the shows you’ve performed in?
My first job out of drama school was to play Cardenio in Cardenio for Greg Doran at the RSC on the company’s 50th anniversary. I was terrified. And probably sucked. But it was an incredible education and there were so many seasoned actors that looked out for me and encouraged me. Sir Tony Sher wrote me the most generous note that I still read from time to time. I went back a few years later and did Richard II with Greg and David Tennant. I played Aumerle and we changed the telling to make Aumerle Richard’s killer. I think Greg was being kind and giving me more to do. I was restless. I’ve always been too restless for theatre. I also covered David, which meant the equally daunting and exhausting task of constantly running all of Richard’s lines every time I took a shower for about six months. David was phenomenal, it was quite something seeing him prep that role, but I so badly wanted on. It never happened. Jane Lapotaire was in that ensemble and she’d lurk in the wings of the Barbican before the half. I used to do the same, just feeling out the space, and she’d often find me in the darkness backstage. She’d smile and say “pazienza, pazienza”. She’d always say it to me and when I finally asked her why, she told me “patience, I promise you your day is coming, just be patient”. I always smile when I think of that. It’s quite something when veterans gift these things to the new generations. That’s one of the best things about working in theatre, for me: being part of a continuum of excellence that is often literally right there in front of you. What a way to learn.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you start?
Cinema. All from the movies. I should have been born American. Being British is wasted on me. I never had the means, financially or geographically, to experience theatre and I’ve always felt an imposter here. I’ve always been on the outside. I was just a kid that wanted to be in the movies, it’s that simple and that ridiculously naive.
I look at the younger generation and I wish that I’d arrived at a time when you could just pick up a phone and make a movie. It just wasn’t in our experience in the way it is for these guys. It’s amazing to watch them. Anyone can now create and edit in a way that simply wasn’t the case before. I love watching others do it and I like meeting young actors who have come into the industry via that route. It feels so meritocratic and authentic, somehow.
I started late – on stage at university. It’s just what everyone did. I never had an opportunity at school – I never even went to schools that did drama – but at university it felt like everyone had been doing Shakespeare since about the age of five, so I just tried to get involved. My first role was playing Oedipus at Christchurch College inside the cathedral. I think we were the first production ever staged in the cathedral. I was almost certainly god-awful, I was definitely terrified but mercifully it only ran for a few nights and I had great fun.
How do you like to spend your time away from your career and do you have any upcoming acting plans you can tell us about?
Plans are tricky. I’m not sure I’m in the part of the industry that gets to make master plans. Besides, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. One has very little control and I try to sit with that and be ok with it. I suppose every artist, deep down, is still planning on not starving to death at any point. It’s an incredible industry and whatever happens, if I plan on anything, it’s to grow in generosity and collaborative spirit, to continue to be grateful to anyone asking me to work with them and create something with them. When you really appreciate the privilege and weight of that, everything takes on a different colour. I have a good team of agents and that really helps, that’s by no means a given. I plan on staying grateful for that too. Other than that, I guess I’m improvising and praying.
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