Simon Annand: Behind closed doors

Simon Annand gained access to A-list dressing rooms to shoot the stars. As a new exhibition opens, he shares some backstage secrets

Mark Rylance, on a brief breather from playing Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre, stands with his chest puffed out in his dressing room, which is plastered with pictures of roosters. Benedict Cumberbatch looks all-consumed with concentration just 15 minutes before the curtain goes up on Frankenstein at the National Theatre. Dominic West checks that his hands are grubby enough for his Donmar debut playing Segismundo in Life Is a Dream.

These photographs, never published before, were taken by Simon Annand who captures actors and actresses from Keira Knightley to Eddie Redmayne just moments before they face the audience.

Having spent 30 years in the theatre, as a production photographer – he recently worked on Jerusalem and War Horse in the West End – Annand has gained unprecedented access to A-list dressing rooms.

"The dressing room is the physical space where the psychological negotiation between the actor and this fictional character can take place," says Annand. "I'm taking photographs of actors deep in thought as they make the transition over into the fictional character."

His fans include Judi Dench who describes him as "an individualist with an eye for the unusual". She adds: "He is one of the most amazing photographers I have had the pleasure of working with in the theatre."

His first book, The Half, published in 2008, featured backstage photographs of actors including John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Kevin Spacey, taken in the last 30 minutes before they faced the audience. Daniel Day-Lewis, Kenneth Branagh, and Gary Oldman are also photographed getting ready for the evening's work. He has photographed actors before they became household names, too, including a young Colin Firth in 1985, preparing to share the Old Vic stage with Anthony Hopkins in The Lonely Road.

It is of course rare to see an actor in the moments just before they tread the boards but Annand is nothing if not discreet. "Even though I've seen many strange things, rituals and parts of naked bodies backstage, I'll always keep these secrets confidential," he says. "The whole project tries to reject the celebrity view of actors."

He has now built up such a reputation that leading actors are clamouring to have their photos taken by him. "I work in theatre and I understand theatre fairly well," he says. "Actors got to know I'm on their side. I'm not predatory at all. I've become known for a dressing-room genre of photography. People are queuing up to get in the second book."

So far his new acquisitions include Eddie Redmayne, captured checking his appearance in the mirror before he goes on stage to play Mark Rothko's assistant, Ken, in the two-hander, Red at the Donmar Warehouse. "He's quieter than usual as he gets ready. He knows he is about five minutes away from leaving his dressing room. He had his own dressing room – usually it's about six people in one room at the Donmar," says Annand.

Elsewhere, Sienna Miller sits on the window ledge of dressing room number 9 at Theatre Royal Haymarket as she gets into character as Patricia in Flare Path and a serious-looking Keira Knightley, with rollers in her hair, prepares for The Children's Hour alongside Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, who is also photographed. "Keira told me it was the first time she had let a photographer in to her dressing room or trailer," says Annand.

Elsewhere, Rosamund Pike looks like she has made the transition into the role of Bella who loses her mind in psychological thriller Gaslight well before she leaves the dressing room at the Old Vic while at the same theatre, Ethan Hawke applies his arm and hand make up for his role in The Winter's Tale. Michael Sheen is seen deep in preparation for his recent Hamlet at the Young Vic. "He requested no conversation at all when he agreed to be photographed in his dressing room," recalls Annand. Sadie Frost, meanwhile, looks more rockstar than actress as she poses by the stage door of the Trafalgar Studios before her West End debut in Touched.

"Most of the actors are at the top of their game so they are not going to get nervous. All the decisions they make have been done in rehearsal. It's about them readying themselves for the part," says Annand.

He has also branched out into the world of musical theatre, experimenting with colour in his photographs of Amanda Holden in Shrek the Musical and Kelly Brook in Calendar Girls. "Each evening an actor enters the building as themselves but will go on stage as somebody else... To photograph actors when they are getting into character is to see them at their most photogenic, as you can see why they have been attracted to the particular thrill of becoming another."

The photographer's career began when he climbed the lighting tower during a performance of Charley's Aunt at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in 1983. He was working in the theatre bar and wanted to snap the play's star Griff Rhys Jones. "I asked Griff if could take a photo of him backstage before he put his head through a window in the play. Then I took it one step further by asking if I could take a photograph of him in his dressing room. It was the actor's change in mood that is more reflective and melancholic just before going on stage that interested me. I knew photographs like this would make a book but it took 25 years to fulfil it."

Simon Annand: The Half, Idea Generation Gallery, London E2 (020 7749 6850) Friday to 8 April

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