Julian Wadham: A patient Englishman

Exclusive interview by Peter White

Actor Julian Wadham modestly describes himself as a jack of all trades, but master of none. Maybe the first part of his analogy cannot be brought into dispute. In a career that has already spanned 33 years, Julian has displayed his versatility on the big screen, on stage, on television and on radio.

But contrary to his humble suggestions, he has been recognised as a true master of his profession in a variety of roles that have enthralled and entertained audiences. He has figured in such cinema classics as ‘The Madness of King George’, ‘The English Patient’ and ‘The Iron Lady’, as well as appearing in a host of popular TV series, ranging from ‘Bergerac’ to Midsomer Murders’ and ‘Marple’ to ‘Lewis’. His work has taken him worldwide, yet whenever he can he and his family return to the Island, where they have enjoyed many years of fun with long-time friends. Julian was introduced to the Island by his godmother Caroline Weeks, who lives with her family near Calbourne, and he has maintained strong ties here ever since.

On a recent trip to the Island, I caught up with Julian who explained he did no acting until about the age of 13 – apart from appearing as a scarecrow at junior school. But when he joined the drama group at Ampleforth College he soon realised he wanted to make acting his career. He often appeared in school productions alongside his friend, the well known actor Rupert Everett.

“After college, Rupert and I kept in touch. He didn’t tell me at the time he failed to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but had been accepted by the Central School of Speech and Drama, which he told me was the best and only place to go. So I applied on his say-so and got in,” Julian smiled.

They were there for three years until 1980, before Julian became stage manager at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich – a route to obtaining his acting Equity card. He said: “I was so inept I was sacked as stage manager, but thankfully that gave me the opening to move into acting.”

After six months at Ipswich, followed by a few small cameo roles, and appearing in ‘Another Country’ in the West End, Julian got what he described as ‘a lucky break’. He explained: “An actor pulled out of a play about the Falklands War at the Royal Court in Sloane Square, one of the most influential theatres of new writing in the world. I never expected to be given a chance there, but I auditioned and they took me on. I later saw the casting director’s notes which described me as ‘good – posh’, which for me was both a pleasure and a disappointment!”

Julian admits acting is a very difficult profession, and there are many times when he has been out of work, and has had to be patient. He said: “In between acting jobs you are effectively redundant. I would say it is a lousy job, but then it isn’t a job! However, it is also a hugely rewarding life, although it is full of both highs and lows. I would never say I am well established; very few are – the likes of Dame Judi Dench, who I worked with in a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Rose Theatre, Kingston a couple of years ago.

“In 33 years of being an actor I have never done anything else, and I honestly don’t think I could do anything else. Not many have that magical other job that you can pick up one day, and drop the next to return to acting.”

Julian has appeared in well over 20 films, possibly the most famous being ‘The English Patient’ in 1996, which won nine Oscars, more than any other British film. It was directed by Islander, the late Anthony Minghella, who cast Julian in the role of Madox, and to his delight allowing him to share screen time with friend and actor ‘hero’ Ralph Fiennes, who was nominated for the Academy Award of Best Actor.

“I am lucky that I have been involved in some outstanding theatre shows; one or two rather good films and even the odd good television, which is the bread and butter of any actor’s life. Good jobs have come along, and although I may never have been a star in my own right I have enjoyed being an actor, and I have kept going. And I have worked with a lot of my heroes, both actors and writers,” he modestly reflected.

“I don’t think it matters whether you are doing a film, television show, stage play or radio, if the script is right it is equally pleasurable, although your approach towards each one is slightly different.

“I have always been a dramatic actor rather than a comedic one. Initially I never thought of acting as entertainment at all, but more therapeutic and psychologically developmental for me. So I was more into introverted characters like William Pitt the Younger, who I played in ‘The Madness of King George’.

“But as I have got older and maybe resolved some of my personal issues, I have become more interested in the entertainment aspect of acting, and hopefully I will do more comedy in the future.”

Julian’s versatility has also embraced ‘voice-overs’ for many TV commercials, and he jovially revealed: “In £ per minute it is the best pay an actor can make! The enjoyable thing about the acting life is that you never know what is around the corner.”

The 54-year-old still comes to the Island whenever work schedules allow. He recalls: “Caroline, my godmother, was absolutely right when she said I should spend time here, because it was the perfect place to come with the children when you are normally holed up in London. We would be here for weekends, and it meant two days of relaxation and escape, as well as endless beach holidays.”

Caroline became Julian’s godmother when she was 14, and in an amazing tit-for-tat exchange, he later became the godfather of Caroline’s daughter Romilly; she became Julian’s son William’s godmother, and William is now godfather to Romilly’s daughter.

“Old friendships are best, so no wonder I now feel like part of the Weeks family,” smiled Julian, who once owned Combe Farm Cottage, near Brighstone for 10 years.

Later he and his family rented a cottage near Wolverton for a further 10 years, cementing their close affiliation to the Island. He said: “We have introduced lots of friends from London to the Island, and many now have homes here. I miss it when I am not here, and I hope to spend a lot more time here when my children have children of their own. I may even retire to the Island one day.”

After his latest break he is back to work, rehearsing for stage play ‘This House’ which re-opens on February 23 and plays through to May 26 at the Olivier Theatre, named after Laurence Olivier, the first director of the National Theatre.

“It is a brilliant new play about the politics of the Labour Government 1974-79, which was a Hung Parliament, with no overall majority. It is an extraordinary story, and I play Humphrey Atkins, the Tory Chief Whip, a comic villain who says shocking things, and who I relish playing,” added Julian.

A new TV series could be looming, but Julian would not reveal details, claiming: “I think it is bad luck to talk about a role until you are actually offered it.” So we must wait and see…