Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Adrian Lukis, star of the BBC's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, talks to us about revisiting one of his most famous roles in new play Being Mr Wickham, his role opposite Oscar-winning Renée Zellweger in Judy, advice on acting for stage versus screen, and Mae Martin's new Netflix series Feel Good.
For those who don't know, our film festival's hometown of Basingstoke enjoys an exciting history with the literary legend that is Jane Austen. In recent years the town has celebrated its affiliation with the novelist with various artistic exhibits and even commissioned a life-size statue of Austen taking pride of place in the old market square.
So it's very fitting that Olivier Award-nominated actor Adrian Lukis should be bringing his one-man show Being Mr Wickham to The Haymarket this summer. It's one of the reasons for our chat, however it's not where our conversation begins.
It's been a couple of days since the 92nd Academy Awards and Renée Zellweger has just won Best Actress for her role in Judy, in which Lukis has a key one-on-one scene with the Oscar winner. Lukis plays a doctor brought in to treat the troubled actress at one of her lowest ebbs during a punishing work schedule.
"I had worked with the director Rupert Goold nearly 20 years ago when we did a play at the Hampstead Theatre called Gone To LA by Lolly Susi. It was great. Then the years went by until this offer came through to be involved in Judy. I'd just been on Dolittle so I thought, 'Aha, I'm ticking off my Hollywood A-listers here.' [laughs]
"Renée Zellweger was absolutely great, exactly what you hope an actor will be like, very modest and good fun. When I say modest, I mean just completely unpretentious. We sat and chatted away for a couple of hours while they set up.
"Our scene was actually more complex than it looks in the film. There was quite a lot of rigmarole and protocol regarding the medical test I was giving her. Everything had to be done in a certain way, you couldn't do this before you'd done that. At one point she said, 'Don't ask me if it was alright, was it okay for Adrian? It's a really hard scene he's got here.' She was very helpful. She was very sweet."
It's a scene that director Rupert Goold was very pleased with, and told Lukis so when the two met at the press night for a play on the West End. In fact, it would be an encounter that would eventually lead to an Olivier Award nomination for the actor.
"David Haig had a play on the West End that he'd written called Pressure. I went to the press night and saw Rupert in conversation with the theatre director Jonathan Church. I waved across the seats at them, and then we all had a chat. Rupert said 'The scene looks great, you'll be really happy with it.' Then two weeks later an offer comes through for Jonathan's production of The Price, the play that I did at the West End with David Suchet, Brendon Coyle and Sara Stewart, for which I ended up being nominated for an Olivier Award.
"I'm not really crowing about that. It was more the fact that people say, 'Does it ever help to go the first night?' and I would say, 'I don't know. Probably not.' Then here we were in the theatre and Jonathan Church says to me, 'I was thinking who could play brother to Brendon Coyle? I saw you at the press night and I just thought, of course, Adrian should do it!' When people talk about the luck required in this business, that is how it works. So, doing Judy and then going to the press night was a profitable experience all round!"
Lukis is greatly experienced performing on both stage and screen, and he is very clear on what technique is required for each. We spend some time discussing the differences between the two, with some great insights for new actors to consider in their own work.
"If you're sitting across the dinner table, and you're talking to somebody, which is effectively the close-up on camera, the audience can register everything you're thinking, but they can't see that when you're 30 yards away on stage.
"If you're doing a close-up, you see all the flickering of your features. You don't need to portray that you're feeling uncomfortable. You just have to believe in the situation enough to make yourself feel uncomfortable. You don't need to ramp it up because the camera will see the emotion.
"Now, on the stage if you're playing to 800-900 people, people have got to understand what the character is feeling from the back of the house. You have to have enough resonance, enough power and expression to portray that emotion through your speech, through your intonation.
"In my opinion, if you don't understand that, if you don't make the stakes high enough and have the technical ability to portray that on a stage, then your performance will die. It won't register, it won't be exciting and it won't be interesting. I think some young actors tend to go on and do stuff that works well for television, but you can't do that on a stage. They'll be bored to tears in the audience."
We then talk about the differences that the final product of each can give to an actor, both of which Lukis finds very rewarding in their own unique ways - even though screen acting can at times be a little problematic for a performer.
"I think they're very rewarding. The trouble with film and TV is that if you do a scene, you can have a feeling of great accomplishment when you're finished doing a take. You can think, 'I really got that.' Then, you go away and you see it later, and there's two things.
"One is the vanity side. You look at it on screen and say, 'I look so fat, plain, my nose is too big', and all the other things that come out which is just a problem with being a human being. The other thing that can happen is that the director then cuts away.
"So, let's say I have a scene with Harrison Ford, unlikely, but let's say. I have a scene with Harrison Ford and the chances are that the editor and the director and producer will keep cutting back to him. So, there I am chatting away and the editor has gone, 'Let's play all this off Harrison's expression.' Then they cut back to Harrison until the end of the scene [laughs]. That can be disheartening when you feel you've done good work.
"Then in theatre you have all that adrenaline and fear. There is nothing like the primitive fear of standing in the wings as the lights go down and the music starts up and you're about to walk on for a three-hour play. All those lines have to be in your head and learned and it's a challenge. Therefore you get a corresponding hit of endorphins when you come off stage and feel like you've done it well, the audience have liked it and you've been on fire and you think, 'This is great'!"
Of course, a big part of the job for actors is auditioning for roles to make their own in the first place. It's something that Adrian still has to do, even to casting directors to whom he confesses he's old enough to be their grandfather. He's often told he's known for his work from when they were younger (watching Pride and Prejudice with the family at Christmas, for example) but still finds himself having to re-impress.
"Auditioning is a weird thing because in a sense, none of us really want to audition. I don't know many actors who actually want to audition, but unless you're in a very rarefied 0.001% of actors who are just offered work all the time, you essentially have to audition.
"I don't find it nerve-wracking anymore. I had one the other day and I thought, 'It's so nice when you don't care'. I don't mean that you don't care about getting the job because you do care about that, it's just realising that it's out of your hands. It's not often to do with your talent, or lack of talent, if you get the job. There's no point thinking 'I knew I shouldn't have told that really bad story that isn't funny at the interview', or, 'I knew I should have worn my blue shirt and not my Mandarin-coloured one' [laughs].
"It has nothing to do with that, nothing to do with it at all. They might have thought you were brilliant and you might have done by far the best audition, but they've gone, 'Actually, we want a blonde.' I've learned that now. I just go in, do the audition, throw them in the bin straight after, forget about them, and if I get offered the job then that's great.
Many of those auditions have resulted in Lukis featuring in a number of TV series over the last few years too, such as The Crown, Vera and Poldark. He laughs off the suggestion that this has meant a boom in opportunities for him also, but we will soon be seeing him in Mae Martin's series Feel Good coming soon to E4 and Netflix, starring opposite Lisa Kudrow.
"Mae had a stand-up show at Edinburgh, then Channel 4 decided to develop it, then, Netflix got on board and suddenly it went whoosh! It's a six-part series of her troubled life, falling in love with another girl and her relationship with her parents.
"One of the reasons it works so well is the writing is very good, but there's something going on between those two girls because they really liked each other and genuinely make each other laugh so it gives the script an authenticity and a freshness, which you can't buy, you can't legislate for. You just can't. It's just the luck of those two women genuinely liking each other.
"I play her sweet, English academic father, which Mae said I am. She said, 'I just thought immediately of you to play the part', which was nice. Then they got Lisa Kudrow on board. One of the writers, Joe Hampson, was saying at the press conference that when you write, people will say, 'She's a Joe Pesci type.' so you send the script to Joe Pesci and you never hear another word. The mother character here was a Lisa Kudrow type. They just took a punt and sent the script to her, and she said yes.
After that, Lukis returns to touring with his new play Being Mr. Wickham, bringing him full circle back to the character that charmed viewers as well as Lydia Bennett in the BBC television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Now in his 60's, the play explores what happened in the life of George Wickham after the events of the book.
"Catherine Curzon, who's a Regency historian, and I got together and talked about this for quite a while. Then, we started writing and came up with a script. What I'm performing is essentially Mr. Wickham at 60 talking to the audience about how they've misunderstood him and how he was mis-portrayed in the book [laughter].
"We talk about it as a book, but I say 'you' because you've all heard the story and that's completely wrong. I also talk about the bits that Jane Austen didn't write about. What was his childhood like? What did he feel about his mum? Where did he go to school? What happened in that school? What happened to Cambridge?
"Darcy says at one point he went to London to study law and seemed to have led a rather dissolute life. I come out and ask the audience, 'You want to know what happened in London? I'll tell you what happened in London. This is what fun I had, these are all the women I went to bed with and it was great. [laughs]."
It's a rare thing for a character to be revisited at all after such a long period of time, let alone in a different medium and storytelling format. What has the writing process been like in putting this together, especially when Jane Austen's work is one of the most scrutinised by fans across the world?
"I've enjoyed it. It's torturous at times. It's hard work because you have to go back to the source material. Obviously, you're reading all the pertinent sections in Pride and Prejudice that talk about Wickham, and Darcy's view of Wickham, and Elizabeth's viewpoint of him and what we know happens.
"He certainly went to Brighton, he absconded from Brighton with Lydia, they went to London, Darcy tracked him down, paid Wickham off, Wickham married Lydia, Wickham certainly made love, as in the old fashioned term, to Lydia Bennett. All of that we know to be true.
"What I've done is I've taken the facts and said, 'Yes, but you see, Darcy told the story, so he's told it like this. What actually happened was this...'. Lots of that is extrapolating and imagination and thinking, 'If a man was going to defend himself, how would he do it?' None of us say, 'Do you know what? I was a real shit and I was really guilty. I shouldn't have done that.'. We might do that, but we'll add, 'She had really driven me to the wall by that point. I had to behave like that because I was so unhappy.' We pick our own story.
"What was also required was quite a lot of reading around the period of Regency England because if Wickham's going to the theatre in 1812, where would he go and what would the theatre look like and what would the streets be like? Where would he have drunk? Where would he have gambled?
"I have a book of Byron's letters and I went back those and got a sense of how Byron spoke, and from that, got a sense of the period. I keep rewriting and updating and trying to add more to it to make it more interesting."
He enthuses about the work of Cathering Curzon on the project, and the work they put in to get the show ready for the first performance in Bath, before they take it to the US and Australia later this year. That first showing could have sold out twice over, but Lukis is quick to say the appeal of the show is more about Jane Austen than what he brought to the BBC's retelling. Did he have any idea how successful and impactful that series would be?
"No. We had no idea. I don't think you ever do. It's remarkable how people still talk about it and, actually, the younger generation still come up and say, 'It's so nice to meet you. I can't believe it. I was brought up on this.' The amount of people that say, 'The family sit down every Christmas and we watch the box set of Pride and Prejudice, all the episodes, so brilliant.'. It's lovely, and if it's an inducement for them to read more Jane Austen, I think that's great."
Being Mr. Wickham will come to Basingstoke on Wednesday 1st July. Click here to book tickets.