Plunging headlong into stage work after graduating from RADA in 2006, Chris New has since honed his craft in roles at the National Theatre and Sadler’s Wells, London. Wonderland pinned the promising young thespian down to talk all things Weekend – his debut film role, on screens across the UK now.
Film acting is a fresh challenge for you. Was it a nerve-wracking transition from stage performance?
I was pretty cautious about getting into film, because I don’t think I understand it as well as I do theatre. I was a bit shy about it, really. But when I met Andrew [Haigh, director] and read for Weekend, it seemed like an obvious place to start. To me, Andrew was obviously a really safe pair of hands, so I just felt really comfortable and confident to make the transition.
How did he go about introducing you to the world of screen acting, and easing you into how it differs from stage work?
Luckily, I’d already done a bit of TV work and had worked with some great directors for them. They made time to answer my stupid questions. With Andrew it was all about getting me relaxed enough to perform well. People tend to let their guard down around him.
He’s quite new to film as well isn’t he – Weekend is only his second screen project. Was he nervous about the film too, especially considering its risqué subject matter?
I think he approached it quite tentatively, yes, but he’d never admit it. He always claimed he wasn’t nervous about the project, but I think he must have been, because we all were. He wrote the script thoroughly, and put a lot of thought and energy into how it would be filmed to create the right atmosphere. He made a lot of important decisions, too, like hiring a very small crew so that there was a closeness to everyone on the set.
What was your offstage relationship with Tom [Cullen, co-star, Weekend] like? Did you attempt to build a friendship with him outside working hours?
When we first met each other in a meeting, we didn’t really have any time to speak, so we just started reading together. It was obvious from the start that we kind of matched; our acting styles gel. It was just a matter of relaxing with each other and with Andrew. We always felt like we were in safe hands, and thus able to commit more intimate feelings and thoughts to the camera. There was a theory at the beginning that we shouldn’t spend too much time together off-set, because the characters don’t know each other – but that didn’t really work. We were just stuck in a little flat in Nottingham, so we were forced to spend a lot of time with each other. We didn’t really talk about the film too much when we weren’t shooting – we just had as much fun as we could.
You’ve said in the past that you aim to bring as much of yourself into characters as possible, and that you always try and draw parallels between your own personality and theirs’. Is that how you went about developing the character for Weekend?
Yeah, I think so. It’s like you’ve all got all these dials in your head – say, for example, you’ve got to turn down your natural shyness and turn up your aggression. So you just learn to tweak the dials – but it all comes from your own complex personality I think, otherwise people can tell. People can sniff a lie a mile off.
So you went into playing Edward II at the Manchester Royal Exchange straight after Weekend, which was quite a hefty role to employ. How did you go about getting to grips with the character, especially so soon after filming?
I feel much more at home on stage, so if I get a huge role in a stage production I tend know I’ll be alright, whereas with film I do get a little nervous. The main thing I do with both film and theatre work though, is get to know the script very, very well. If the writing’s good, there’ll be hundreds of clues as to how to play the role best. And you kind of end up giving up ‘yourself’ and doing what the script says – which can be quite difficult, because there may be things in it which you don’t want to reveal about yourself. There might be elements of the character that you don’t find particularly attractive – but that’s just the hand you’re dealt as an actor.
Is it interesting, though, to force yourself to betray natural urges?
Yes, and to allow an audience to believe that you are a separate person. A lot of people now see me as an aggressive homosexual after seeing Weekend, which I’m not – it’s just that it was my job to let people see me that way.
What’s the plan for 2012?
I’ll be doing a lot more plays, for certain. Because I’ve had a solid stage career, I’ll always keep it as my home, I think. I’ve got a few projects lined up, but nothing confirmed as yet. In terms of film, I don’t really know – I’m going to be a bit more cautious about that. When I came out of drama school, the emphasis was on getting as much work as possible. But now I don’t necessarily have to do that, so I’m trying to appreciate the freedom as much as possible. When I left school, I fulfilled a few of my life’s ambitions quite early – like acting in a play in the West End and at the National – and quickly got into a position where I thought: “Well, I don’t know what I’m gonna do now.” And I’m still in that kind of place – I’m open to ideas. It’s a nice position to be in, because when someone like Andrew comes along with an amazing project that you couldn’t have predicted, you’re really ready to go for it.
Words: Jack Mills