How We Met: Johnny Flynn & Ed Hall

'I was doing a scene when Ed slammed the book down and said, "Do it again, differently!"'
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The Independent Online

Johnny Flynn, 27, is an acoustic folk singer-songwriter, poet and actor. He released his second album, 'Been Listening', in June. He lives in east London

I first met Ed around the end of 2004. I was at drama school and his agent Rebecca came to see a show I was in. When agents are trying to suss you out as a young actor, they get you a meeting before they sign you, so Rebecca got me one with Ed. Ed's company Propeller seemed like my dream company, doing Shakespeare around the world in such a bold, un-precious way.

Ed is much more personable than most directors. Our first meeting was at his house, and instead of getting me to read first, he got me to play various instruments. Then we read a bit of verse, but he cut me off halfway through and said: "We're leaving next week on a tour of The Winter's Tale. Do you want to come?" I left in a daze: it was my dream job, but I was still at drama school, and in the end I bottled it. But I auditioned for the next tour, and ended up playing Sebastian in Twelfth Night and the cook in The Taming of the Shrew. It was a big deal: my first professional theatre job and a big tour – exactly a year from the beginning of rehearsals to the last night.

As a director, Ed doesn't stand for any nonsense. When I was doing my first scene as Sebastian in front of him, he slammed the book down and said, "Give me another reading." I was stammering, "Wh.. what do you mean?" and he just said, "Do it again, differently!" He won't tell you how to do it, he moulds you to your best performance.

What's great about the way Ed and Propeller work is that everyone gets paid the same amount; there are no stars. That was a good lesson when it came to touring as a musician: we tour with bands all the time who are too big too carry their own stuff, whereas there's never going to come a day when I wouldn't help out.

In terms of my music, he sends me texts asking, "When are you playing next?" and he also hears about it through his daughter. At the end of the Propeller show, he cornered me and said, "I've got it, we'll devise a show which will be a version of Romeo and Juliet but they come from rival factions of musical genres." I was a bit like "OK..." but I'd love to do something like that.

Once you know Ed, he'll never not know you – he's not some pretentious, theatre-y person who moves on to the next big thing. He honours his relationships. I think that's because he feels an obligation to people once he knows their story. For example, he might know they've got two kids and get them a job because he knows they have a mortgage to pay. He's real in that way.

Edward Hall, 43, is an acclaimed theatre and television director and founder of the all-male Shakespearean ensemble Propeller. In June, he took over as the artistic director of Hampstead Theatre. He lives in south London with his wife and daughter

I met Johnny while he was at drama school. I was looking for a young actor who was also musical. I remember very clearly the morning he came round. I said, "Could you play something?" rather feebly and he played something casually on the piano in my front hall and was rather brilliant. I just had this incredibly talented young guy sitting there with this music flowing out of him and he also spoke verse brilliantly. It was so startling that I thought to myself, "I've got to work with this guy." I sat there trying to persuade him to leave college, but I failed because he said very rightly and very properly that he had to finish his training.

The following year he came back and was part of the company. When I cast the Propeller ensemble, I'm obviously looking for good actors, but I'm also looking for people with all sorts of skills: we don't have massive light rigs or hydraulic sets, so the way we tell stories relies on the actors' abilities. Johnny played trumpet, guitar, the piano, the fiddle and the uke. For The Taming of the Shrew, he wrote a brilliant song which he sang while wearing a chef's hat and holding a big knife.

Johnny not only thinks really deeply about the people he's playing, because he's very sensitive, he also has rhythm, which is essential for Shakespeare. I always compare speaking the verse to playing a piece of blues: there's an infinite number of ways of playing it, but there's a basic key, and you've got to stay in that key. People who have music in them such as Johnny always have that natural aptitude for it.

During the tour, when he wasn't acting, he was always listening to and writing music. In fact, I believe he wrote quite a bit of his first album while he was working with us. He was never idle for a second.

I'm going to see him play for the first time in Shepherd's Bush in December. I'm not a folk aficionado, but it's hard for me to describe him as a folk musician because I just hear him as Johnny. When people hear the word folk, they imagine something old-fashioned, and it's not that at all; it's wild, beautiful, imaginative and lyrical. I think there's a role in a musical for Johnny out there somewhere. I haven't found it yet, but I'm looking, because he's that rarest of creatures: somebody who can act and sing but in a contemporary way, not in that showbizzy way.

Johnny Flynn's latest single, 'The Water' featuring Laura Marling, is out tomorrow on Transgressive Records

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