Interview: Olly Alexander

*Originally written for Exeunt*

Olly Alexander didn’t originally audition for Peter and Alice. Though he did a table read for the show a few years ago (“God knows why they got me in to do that; at that point I’d only done one play”), it was with aspirations for a part in Privates on Parade that was auditioned by Michael Grandage. The next thing he knew, he was being offered the part of Peter Pan in a different play. “I was so shocked,” he tells me, “so I said ‘You can’t just offer it to me.’ And he said: ‘I can do whatever I like, I’m the director.’

Peter and Alice is the second play in Michael Grandage’s West End season, and tells the story of a meeting between the real life inspirations for Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Written by John Logan and starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, the imaginations of its central characters are played out by Ruby Bentall and Alexander himself, who speaks to me after rehearsals one day, enthused and excited about the project.

What’s it like playing a character which means so much to so many people? “I’ve always, always wanted to be Peter Pan – for example when I was a kid, I was always dressing up as him and I just loved the character so much, so I was so excited I was just going to be able to do it. So I never had that moment of ‘I hope I don’t upset anyone’. But all you can do is do the best you can do and do what you think is right, and hopefully people will respond to it in whatever way…You just have to take the material you’re given and the direction you’re given and just trust that what you’re doing is good.”

There’s been little time to worry about this, however; on day two of rehearsals, Grandage had already began staging the play, whilst by the second week the cast were off book and the blocking was finished, allowing them to “discover completely new things” as the process continues. Alexander is no stranger to challenging roles either, having played a susceptible teenager in his theatre debut in Annie Baker’s The Aliens in 2010 and Naz in Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur last year, with a host of intriguing films on his list too. Is it just as difficult to play Pan? ““I sort of think it’s in the same vein. Every time you play a character as an actor, you’re always going through the same process; you’re using stuff from you own life and your own experience. And I guess the actor brings that to every role they play… I have this idea of how he is – what he’s like in the book and what he’s like in the play – and all these different thoughts. I’m still figuring it out.”

In Honour Bayes’ review of Mercury Fur for Exeunt, Alexander is described as “Puck-like”. I ask whether this is useful at all to a portrayal of Peter Pan, and Alexander laughs: “I don’t want to think I’m cornering the market in corrupted boys, but I think that’s definitely helped in some ways. I’ve always wanted to be Peter Pan and this play is interesting because the character is the storybook character but it’s also a figment of someone’s imagination, so you get a bit more room to do a bit more with it. I’m trying not to make it too dark and hopeless. A Philip Ridley Peter Pan would be a whole other kettle of fish”.

After a short discussion of the ethos of the Michael Grandage Company with its 100’000 £10 tickets (“Good old Grandage!”), we chat about Alexander’s life outside of acting. He’s also written a few films (“the most interesting thing I’ve ever done”) and plays in a band called Years for Years, and when I ask him what he’s currently working on he chuckles down the phone: “I get so embarrassed when I get to these sort of questions, as I say ‘And I’m in a band… And I do this…’ We’re working on an album, which is really exciting, and hopefully some people will want to listen to it. So I’m trying to fit that in as well…”

Alexander is more than just an actor, and it feels to me like he’s part of a wider shift which sees performers and artists not limiting themselves to one discipline, so that interdisciplinary projects and exploration through a wider variety of mediums can be achieved. “These opportunities come up. Why wouldn’t you want to work with these people? And the creative process is such an odd thing and so difficult to define that I just feel like I want to explore it in as many ways as possible. Acting can be difficult because you have to wait for someone to employ you, but I can play music when I want to or write songs when I want to or write scripts when I want to.”

Alexander’s enthusiasm and general positivity is hugely infectious, and it’s difficult not to imagine him going on to do even bigger and greater things in the future. For now, though, he just wants to enjoy working with the current team assembled around him and make Peter and Alice the best it can be. “I still can’t believe this is my day job,” he says, “but it’s still not really a normal day at the office, because I rock up and Judi Dench is there giving me a chocolate bar. And that’s supposedly normal.”

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