THEATRE / Casting Shadows

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The Independent Culture
Scientists have yet to announce the discovery of an acting gene, but there's plenty of physical evidence in the famous theatrical dynasties - the Oliviers, Redgraves and Cusacks to name but three - to suggest that stars are spawn. Be it nature, nurture or both, many of those born into a spotlit world find it impossible to resist, despite the deterrent of odious comparison and the inevitable accusations of nepotism. Georgina Brown rounds up members of the next generation determined to make a name for thems.


I STARTED acting when I was five. I remember missing school and having comics and action men to play with. It didn't mean I wanted to be an actor - I wasn't pushed and I wasn't discouraged; it brought money in and I was given pounds 10 a year to spend. I acted at school but that was to meet girls. I got a bit of ribbing for the professional stuff I did but people at school (St Paul's) were much too arrogant to be impressed. I paid my Lamda fees with what I earned on a Young Sherlock Holmes, and bought a house when I was 16. When I was 15 I thought I could leave school and start working but my parents weren't keen and I agreed to do A-levels. Actors' children grow up hearing their parents' lines but there's always a choice - the education was about that. Dad's a different weight of actor from me. I'm from a middle-class background - thanks to him, who came out of a working- class background and put me here. He's hefty and solid and I'm a bit more lightweight - that's the area I feel I need to work on, the wild streak that makes you interesting - but to play juvenile leads you need to be light. You'd be daft if you didn't acknowledge that people are interested in you because of who you are - but it's often a bloodsports appetite, a 'let's see if he's terrible' attitude. But that's their problem.

Alan Cox is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company


I WANTED to be a vet and Peter Pan. Then I saw Peter Pan and realised he was my Mum and felt betrayed. But when I was doing A-levels I decided I wanted to go to drama school. Once Mum and Dad (Derek Waring and Dorothy Tutin) saw me in the school play, they very supportive. I used to worry a lot when people said I sounded like Mum. When I applied to drama school I used my real name, Barton Chapel (Waring is her father's stage name), so people didn't know who I was. Acting isn't my whole life in the way it is for my parents. I run a production company, and adapt and direct as well as act. I've had the opportunity to be versatile in a way that Mum didn't because she was doing great classical leads. I wouldn't want to go to the RSC because I don't think I'd function well in a large company. In some ways I think it's difficult for my mother; physically and professionally I'm a mirror of the past and there is bound to be a certain competition between us. I have shied away from doing certain classical roles to avoid comparison. I think if I'd been better at anything else I would have chosen to do it. Having parents in the business puts you off - you see all the pitfalls, the disappointments. You may pick up a feel for theatre but I don't think you inherit talent - so many fantastic actors come from totally non-theatrical backgrounds.


I'M THE fourth generation of actors in my family and my parents (Timothy West, Prunella Scales) made pretty sure I didn't want to be an actor. My brother and I grew up able to recite the figures of Equity unemployment. They needed to plant the cynicism in me so that I didn't think the world owed me a living. When I was six and my brother was four we played Edward VII's sons - my dad was Edward VII. I earned pounds 236 which I lived on for five years. I think the romance of theatre was in me the moment I saw my father playing Claudius to Derek Jacobi's Hamlet when I was 14. It was very good, but I also thought how nice to get the adulation. Acting became difficult to avoid - there wasn't really another world. In my year off before going to Oxford I wrote off to Equity and dropped a lot of names and got a job at Birmingham Rep. If your parents are well known, no director will cast you, but they will see you. I certainly had auditions that I wouldn't otherwise have had. My parents are inspiring and very supportive. I constantly go to my mother for advice and she asks me to comment on her work too. My acting owes everything to both of them. Having parents as professional colleagues makes being a son easier - we talk the same language. Rivalry? My first review said I didn't have the stage presence of my father or mother. On the other hand I can't hide the fact that when I'm in work and father isn't, it's an odd feeling. In Howards End I got fifth billing and my mother got 'And Prunella Scales' - we never worked out which was better.

Samuel West is a member of the National Theatre Company


I USED to do my homework in dressing rooms - I often worked as dresser to my father (Frank Finlay). I loved it, but I was quite good at art so I resisted going to drama school, did a foundation course at art college and then a degree in art and drama. I wanted to keep my options open. At college I got into avant-garde theatre and began writing (he has written and performed two one-man shows) and from that drifted back into more conventional work as an actor. I remember a handful of plays that I can see now played an important role in making me want to be an actor. My father was in Philomena with Joan Plowright in Boston. I was 14 and went over there with my mother for Christmas. I must have seen it about 16 or 17 times but once when I went the American audience just lifted off. It was amazing and I clocked that theatre is a two- way thing and I became aware of the possibilities. There were lots of actors among my parents' friends but we were a very down to earth - but I knew it was special that time we were in Boston and had Christmas lunch in the Ritz Carlton with the Oliviers. I enjoy writing but acting is the job - you know it's a luxury profession, but there's a craft side to it. Dad has set standards and you just hope you'll meet them. I watch him and learn from him and aspire to being as good an actor - the star bit doesn't come into it. It's him being a happy, balanced, nice person that I'm proud of. My mother gave up acting and is now a journalist but she's always involved in reading scripts - I value her judgement as much as my father's. I think the writing bit comes from her.


I WAS 14 before I decided definitely - I think it was probably the only thing I could do, I was dreadful academically. I saw a lot of theatre as a boy and loved it and at school we used to learn poems and recite them and I had natural facility for it. My mother (Maggie Smith) and step-father (Beverley Cross, the playwright) were pretty hard on me and emphasised how bleak the outlook was. With a parent like Maggie Smith you do get an angle on what is good and what is bad. I was lucky I got a job before I left Lamda with Peter Hall on The Camomile Lawn. Then I didn't work for three months - I was waiting for my contract with the RSC to begin - and I realised how low my boredom threshhold was. I hardly saw my father (Robert Stephens) on stage until I was about 15. Now he gives me really useful notes on my performances. The effect of having famous actor parents depends on how you deal with it - it would be a problem if I thought people were comparing me with them all the time, but happily I'm never going to play Millamant. If I play Benedick they might say I'm not nearly as good as my father, but I'll have to cope with that. It's been said that I've got great breeding, but I was once deeply humiliated by Olivier when I was 15. We went to his house for lunch and he kept asking who I was and my step- father kept saying, 'He's Maggie's son.' And when he finally grasped it he said, 'Well, it always skips a generation.' It was the biggest blow of my life. But if it's true my kids might be very, very good.

Toby Stephens is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company


WE USED to come here (the National) and go round with dad (Jeffry Wickham) when he was in rep. I loved going backstage. I did a telly ad aged eight and I remember dad's agent wanted us to audition for The Water Babies and my parents said no, we could wait until we were 18 and see if we still wanted it. I applied to do drama at university but realised that what I really wanted to do was go to drama school. My parents got lots of people round to say how hard it was and grill me about why I wanted to go. It wasn't until I got in that I realised how pleased they were. I saw the tough side of it. My dad had to work very hard - it wasn't always the National and lots of claps. I always thought he was great - I was so proud of him when he came on stage.

I loved him not being like other people's dads - even though he did walk me to school in his pyjamas. We were always surrounded by really jolly ebullient people having a good time. Part of wanting to be an actor was wanting to be enclosed in that magic circle, constantly having people telling you you're lovely. My dad now introduces himself as 'father of Saskia'. I do think about the fact that I might be more famous than Dad - but he went into it because he loved acting, not to be famous. When I got a job at the National I didn't want to tell him until I knew he had got his job here too. He played my father in Clarissa and it was brilliant. People will always make comparisons and want to knock you down. It's horrible not to be recognised for your own self.

Saskia Wickham, like her father, is a member of the National Theatre Company

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