The actor playing the lovestruck young Englishman Alex Dillingham in Aspects Of Love at the Menier Chocolate Factory is actually an American. Michael Arden talks to Caroline Bishop about working with Trevor Nunn, following in Michael Ball’s footsteps and his alternative career… as a baker.
CV in brief
2003 Makes Broadway debut in Big River
2006 Stars in Bob Dylan musical The Times They Are A-Changin’ on Broadway
2007 Tours Europe with Barbra Streisand
2008 Assistant-directs A Tale Of Two Cities on Broadway
2010 Makes London debut in Aspects Of Love at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Texas and then moved to New York to go to Julliard University. I’ve been living between there and Los Angeles.
How did you find studying at world-famous arts school Julliard?
It was quite intense. It’s a very different place from Texas. I obviously got an incredible training there. I had gone to boarding school my last two years before that so I think I was a bit more prepared than some, but I know that definitely some people were really shocked by how intense it was, 9 in the morning until 11 in the evening non-stop drama. So I think if you’re not really prepared for that it can be a bit frightening at first.
What got you interested in acting?
A family member had taken me to the theatre, a community theatre production and I do remember it to this day sitting in the audience being completely swept up in the story and the costumes and the sets and the lighting and the music and the acting. The fact that the people up on stage were other people to the people they were pretending to be was fascinating to me. It was a production of Big River which actually turned out to be the first show I did on Broadway. It was really a kismet sort of situation.
I started to audition for community musical stuff and plays at school, anything I could do whether it be a play or musical. Even if it wasn’t acting, if it was being on the stage management side. Any sort of way I could get involved with being inside a theatre while a play was going on I would do it. And I still feel that way. On my day off [from Aspects Of Love] I saw two plays. I’m sitting in the theatre thinking I can’t believe I’m sitting in a theatre on my one day off but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
What was your first professional role?
My first real sort of Equity gig was working at the Williamstown Theatre Festival which is a quite reputable summer theatre festival in Massachusetts. That was the summer after my first year at Julliard. Then a year later Big River was my first Broadway show and that was quite a substantial role. I actually ended up leaving school to do that. I only went to Julliard for two years and decided to continue my training on the boards.
How does Broadway compare to London?
I think audiences who come to see a Broadway show are truly going for the entertainment aspect of it as opposed to see and hear and learn about a play they might not know. They want to love it, they want to jump to their feet at the end because they have paid an incredible amount of money to see it. Here I think you get a much more honest reaction from the audience, and sometimes to the performer’s unease. But audiences here don’t jump to their feet unless something is truly worthy of it which I sort of like.
How did it come about that you got the part of Alex in Aspects Of Love?
I had auditioned for Trevor [Nunn, the director] for A Little Night Music, the Broadway transfer. I got the word back that I was too young, but Trevor really liked me. My gut instinct, as many actors’ instinct would be, was to say oh well, you know, that was a waste of time. But then I was shooting a movie in Montreal and got a call from [Menier Chocolate Factory Artistic Director] David Babani saying Trevor was really taken with you from auditioning for Night Music and was hoping that you would be interested in possibly playing Alex in Aspects Of Love. It’s not every day that one gets a phone call like that so it was really exciting. Especially because it had been a dream to work with someone like Trevor, and on such an interesting piece that means so much to him and he has such history with. It’s sort of special.
Playing Alex in Aspects Of Love launched Michael Ball’s career. Were you aware of following in his footsteps?
I knew that it was Michael’s first thing. I actually became friendly with Michael when he was over in the States doing The Woman In White. So it was sort of exciting to read it and think of him playing that role back in 1989. But I didn’t know much about it besides the fact that he was in it. I think I had seen a few production photos and thought that looks like a strange piece!
I haven’t spoken to him since I’ve been here but I’m hoping to. I think I’ve been afraid to be in touch with him because I’m quite nervous for him to come and see it.
Alex becomes romantically entangled with three women over the course of many years. Have you ever experienced a similar situation to Alex?
Not necessarily similar situations in terms of falling in love with someone much older or falling in love with a cousin or anything like that but I think it’s quite modern in its portrayal of relationships. I think it almost is better suited to be seen now than it was when it came out. I think you really do have to get on board with the idea that this young man falls in love with these three very different women and I think that’s not that hard to believe. Some of it is a leap in terms of one being his cousin, one being much older. But luckily I have three women that I work with every night who make it very easy to fall in love with. That helps.
The characters are very accepting of each other’s multiple love affairs…
I think it all comes from the Bloomsbury group which the author of the novel, David Garnett, ran in. But it’s definitely not a pro-free love piece. It says well this is what can happen if you build a playground in which you can play in this way: you have to be willing to live what you preach and there might be consequences. Rose has a lover and Alex is in love with both these women and everyone seems quite alright with it. It is a bit of a stretch I give you that, but I guess with enough wine in the French countryside everything seems ok. If you live on a vineyard it’s not as much of an issue!
When creating the show were you constantly aware that Nunn had directed it before?
It really did feel like starting from scratch. I’m sure his doing a fresh production obviously influenced us in ways I’m not aware of. But I think probably the main thing that influenced him was his familiarity with the text. He really wanted to approach this with a fresh eye. He’s incredible with actors. Whether you are or not, he lets you believe that you are creating the world within the room. Who knows, it might be just a skilful mastermind at work but he does it better than anyone.
What has been your favourite experience in your career to date?
I toured with Barbra Streisand a few years ago in a strange turn of events. It was incredible, I got to perform to sold-out audiences at the O2 and all over Europe and get to see Europe in the best possible way. She’s lovely and to get to listen to her sing every day, it was an incredible learning experience.
In terms of other experiences I recently was an associate director of a Broadway show, A Tale Of Two Cities. Getting to be on the other side of the table was definitely incredibly exciting and provoking and rewarding and that’s something that I’m hoping to do more of.
What is the best thing about being on stage?
Getting to completely create an environment, a story, and a group of people with a company of actors and technical artists. Until we walk into that space nothing exists, and to get to share that with an audience for the first and only time every night and breathe the same air, I think that’s thrilling. Probably it’s the only way in which one can be immortal, because you get to live a thousand lives.
…and the worst?
Sometimes it takes a bit of wear and tear on your body and emotions too. Luckily by the end of the show I feel like Alex is on his way to a greener hillside so it’s not like I’m walking off stage carrying my two dead children, so it’s definitely a better ending to leave the theatre with. But I do find it a bit exhausting. It’s a lot of singing and sweating and being in every scene having some sort of emotion or climax, whether pulling a gun on the woman I love or trying not to get in bed with my cousin. But I’m lucky to be asked to go so many places in an evening, I think it’s exciting and a challenge and I definitely welcome it.
If you weren’t an actor what would you be?
I would definitely want to do something involved in creating theatre, whether that be a designer, lighting or set, or a director. But if I couldn’t be involved in theatre I think I would love to either be a baker or a teacher. I would love to have a bakery, that would be fun. But I think the hours might kill me, you have to get up quite early for that. I think possibly half the reason I do theatre is so that I can sleep in. It would be a big life change! And I would definitely weigh about 500 pounds.
What is the best advice you have been given?
The best advice given me was when I was having to choose whether or not to leave Julliard to continue doing this production of Big River. I would have had to quit the play and go back to school or finish the run of the show and then [Julliard] wouldn’t let me return. A director I was working with called Jeff Calhoun said to me, ‘anything that you do should terrify you if it’s worth doing’. I think that’s very true. I think the times I have been most fulfilled have been when I’ve truly thought ‘oh I’m not going to be able to do this, I’m not prepared I don’t have enough information, enough knowledge, enough experience’, and I really have to take that leap into the unknown and the terror of that is when you actually end up learning the most and gaining the most experience and getting all those things that you think you don’t have. That helped me make my choice to leave school and say you know what, there is a lot I don’t know but I’m going to learn it by just attempting to do it. I’ve tried to apply that idea to everything I do.