In recent years, Harry Lloyd has played a merry man, a Sicilian immigrant and a Norwegian painter. As he returns to the West End to play a Manhattan rent boy, he talks to Matthew Amer.
Harry Lloyd’s dressing room at the Garrick theatre looks exactly as the dressing room of a 26-year-old lad should. Surfaces are covered in bits, bobs and gadgets, a Macbook sits next to bills, and the obligatory iPhone lounges surreptitiously. He has Chinese lantern lights surrounding a mirror, a lack of cards that he hopes to put right and a chair that will convert into a bed should he need a power nap.
From the looks of him, he does. It has just gone midday, but I am welcomed with a cheery yawn. It is a touch concerning as it is Monday and he hasn’t even given a performance yet this week. Maybe he is just an evening animal.
Lloyd doesn’t take long to wake up. Just asking about his new show, The Little Dog Laughed, makes the heavy cloak of lethargy slip from his shoulders. The play, in which he plays a New York rent boy to Rupert Friend’s LA actor, Tamsin Greig’s acerbic agent and Gemma Arterton’s rising socialite, is a comedy by US writer Douglas Carter Beane, and has been providing a new experience for Lloyd.
“It kind of felt like an indy movie,” Lloyd says, describing his initial reaction to the script. “You kind of jump on this very fast train and you just have to hang on to each other. I’ll be doing a scene with Rupert and suddenly the light will change and I’m in a scene 24 hours later with Gemma. There’s none of that theatricality to it because it moves so fast, it cuts like a film.”
"It’s that New York speed of thought, the audience needs to be struggling to catch up"
The pace of the show is upper most in Lloyd’s mind when we talk. He tells me how the cast was surprised by the audience’s reaction during previews, how they have reshaped the performance to ensure the lines are heard and then lifted its speed. One particular preview had him questioning whether co-star Greig had somewhere to be, so fast was she through her part. “It’s that New York speed of thought,” he explains, “the audience needs to be struggling to catch up.”
To ensure he was attuned to that Manhattan way of life, he took a trip across the Atlantic prior to rehearsals to discover the world his character inhabits; not just the neighbourhood, but also the profession: “I had, as I’m sure everyone does, a very skewed perception of [rent boys]. You think it sounds very seedy, but it’s very much a legitimate business now. They have websites and offices. I turned up and it’s all very nice, preppy-looking 26-year-old guys. These guys make 110 grand a year. It’s like a job you do after university if you don’t know what you want to do with your life; it’s better than working in Starbucks. Yet still, the things you have to go through… especially if you don’t even consider yourself gay.”
This is the case for Lloyd’s character Alex, a rent boy who falls for Hollywood actor Mitchell, played by Rupert Friend. For a couple of lines in the play, Alex’s troubling back-story of a father who abused him when he was growing up is alluded to. They are short moments in the scope of the play, but pivotal in the creation of the character, throwing up questions about why someone whose first sexual encounters came from an abusive middle-aged man would pursue a job which involved sexual encounters with middle-aged men. Revenge? Power? Enjoyment?
“I looked into all that,” says Lloyd, “and I’ve basically spent the last four weeks covering it all up. I think it was important for me to understand it from his point of view, which he never really gets to share, so that the few moments when it does slip through, I know what it is.”
The process has tested him. He likes to know the motivation behind each movement. But sometimes, he explains, you just have to act the moment, to “relax, play this bit and play that bit and let the story be revealed through me rather than being told by me. Just stay on the moment each moment and by the end the story will have been told in spite of all your protestations.”
"I’m very twisty and weird and I worry"
A striking, wiry, six-footer with dark, tempestuous eyebrows, Lloyd relishes challenging himself, possibly because, having not attended drama school, he feels he has a point to prove, not to the outside world, but to himself. Certainly his response to winning the part of Rodolpho in 2009 stage hit A View From The Bridge would suggest that.
“I think it’s the only part I’ve got where I’ve properly shouted down the phone when I got it. I think I thought that if I, public school-educated, boring Harry Lloyd can play a blonde, flamboyant Sicilian immigrant, if I can convince people every night that I’m that guy, I can do anything. He had a song to sing; I hate singing. He loves music and he loves life and he’s got a much more open, European, Italian passion; I’m very twisty and weird and I worry…” he trails off, contorting his limbs and visibly shrinking back into himself. “I got away with it,” he smiles, “which was all I wanted to do.”
He took a research holiday before that production too, spending time in Sicily. “I’d just feel like a real liar if I turned up on day one and I’d never been there,” he explains. “It just gives you confidence. It doesn’t teach you anything that you couldn’t have learned in a book. But something about going there and just wandering around for a few days on your own, just looking at people and reading, watching how people move. When you turn up [to rehearsals] it frees you up so you’re not worrying in the back of your mind ‘That’s not how they do it…’ You just do it and don’t worry that someone knows more than you.
“And there were lots of Italian people on that play, who spoke the language and knew it. Ken [Stott] is half Italian. Mary Elizabeth [Mastrantonio] is half Italian. I live in Hammersmith. My parents are Polish. I don’t know anything about Italian-ness.”
I wouldn’t be entirely surprised, I offer, if I heard Lloyd had turned down a project because it was set in Croydon. He laughs at the suggestion, and adds that “It’s lovely to have a part that requires you to learn something that’s also interesting. I learned how to sing; that’s not a chore, that’s something I should have done ages ago. I learned a bit of Italian, brilliant. It’s not like you have to learn how to swim in s**t.”
"I went in and slightly took the p**s with this character, had a bit of fun with it. They loved it"
The role for which viewers of early Saturday evening television may know Lloyd best actually resulted in him taking a prolonged trip abroad, spending 14 of 18 months living in Budapest while he filmed two series of the BBC series Robin Hood, in which he played Will Scarlet.
I hoped that filming a show about running around a forest shooting arrows and thwarting baddies would be every boy’s dream to film. Lloyd sits back, smiles and confirms that a lot of it was. Then again, a lot of it wasn’t. Much of the time as a supporting merry man he found himself standing around in a scene, not really part of the action but needed in the background.
“The best days on set were the days when you had a big fight to do. That was brilliant. Those days take care of themselves. The days you get paid for are the ones where you have to find something to get you through it because actually there’s not much for you to be doing. You bring a book that day or you throw sticks at trees, which we did quite a lot. You don’t get grumpy about [being in the background of a scene], but just relax and try and enjoy it, otherwise you go a bit mad trying to work out ‘What am I doing in this scene?’ Just sit there. Find something to do.”
Lloyd may be seen on screens more often if the American pilot he recently filmed is picked up. Game Of Thrones is based on fantasy author George RR Martin’s series A Song Of Ice And Fire and sees Lloyd play the Beggar King Viserys Targaryen opposite a host of British acting talent.
He describes the process of getting the part as: “One of those auditions which you have every now and again for some big American TV series and you’re like ‘Great, thanks.’ You go in and put yourself on tape and send it off and you’ll never hear about it. So I went in and slightly took the p**s with this character, had a bit of fun with it. They loved it.”
"I didn’t know five years ago that I was going to be playing a rent boy, but I’m very happy to do it"
So when The Little Dog stops laughing, and with the American pilot in his pocket, Lloyd will head off to the US again to see if he can find an American agent who can get him some juicy roles stateside. The commissioning of a series of Game Of Thrones or landing other major US roles would place Lloyd firmly among his peers – “your Eddie Redmaynes and your Andrew Garfields and your Ben Whishaws and your Tom Hiddlestons” – the young British actors who regularly work at the highest level on both stage and screen.
“I think there’s a great generation of 20-something British actors,” he says, “who are all doing exciting things here and abroad in a very different way to the generation before. There is a whole bunch of great British actors of my age who aren’t film stars or theatre actors; they’re very much both. There used to be this… You were a British theatre actor, and when you were a bit older you went over there. Now there are people who can do both.”
While he sounds eager to see what waits on the far side of the Atlantic, Lloyd is not blind to the reality of trying to crack the US. “You can’t really have a big strategy about it because it will just f**k up and you’ll get really annoyed. I didn’t know five years ago that I was going to be playing a rent boy, but I’m very happy to do it.”
Those last five years have seen him grow in experience, stature and reputation. The Lloyd who moved straight from university to professional work and felt he did not know the magic secrets of drama school has since been banished to the dark recesses of his mind; still there, I’m sure, but less vocal in its assertions that he is not good enough. The “twisty and weird” Lloyd has been supplanted by just a little New York swagger and Sicilian exuberance.
“Having gone from the person who was massively insecure about that and felt very unworthy to be on stage because I didn’t know the rules, to now being someone who actually, for someone my age, has got quite a lot of theatre experience… I’m very proud of that.”