Gwilym Lee tells us how acting was more of a ‘social opportunity’ than a career choice and why he’s up for the challenge of conquering the US and beyond… probably!
When your interviewee settles down with a cup of tea, ‘so we can have a good chat’ you know it’s going to be a pleasant experience. The charming Gwilym Lee has been steadily building an impressive CV since leaving drama school and although largely under the radar he’s best known for his role as DC Charlie Nelson in the wonderfully English Midsomer Murders and has also appeared in successful shows Fresh Meat, Waterloo Road, Ashes to Ashes and Land Girls. Theatre roles have been plentiful too, most notably an award-winning Edgar in King Lear and he also plays the lead in a BBC drama to be aired this month called A Song for Jenny tackling the sensitive topic of London’s 7/7 bombings.
Despite the very Welsh name, Gwilym moved to Sutton Coldfield aged just one where his father took a role as a consultant at the Good Hope Hospital. Coppice Primary School and King Edward’s Aston provided opportunities for the standard school play japes, but it wasn’t a serious endeavour. He said: “I don’t come from an acting family – sport was my thing. I did the standard school plays initially then I was offered a place on the Central TV workshop which I thought would be a chance to meet some girls! I went to a boys’ school, so it appealed as a social opportunity rather than a love of acting.” Once the old Central TV building moved from Broad Street to the Custard Factory, Gwilym’s walk to the workshop at a time when Digbeth wasn’t as cool as it is now was an eye-opener. “I used to walk from New Steet, passed St. Michael’s church and the market to Digbeth. It was pretty rough then – a bit spit and sawdust. It’s different now. What they’ve done with St. Michael’s Church is remarkable.” Gwilym’s potential as an actor was spotted and at the age of 15 he was picked to perform in Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I was surrounded by proper actors doing amazing work and it seemed like a feasible career which it hadn’t before. I also loved being part of the team – I always have whether it’s sport or acting.” His parents and teachers took the view that he was obviously good at it so they were supportive, but encouraged him to have a back-up, so he went to the University of Cardiff to study English Literature followed by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He’s worked fairly consistently since.
ACROSS THE POND
Gwilym’s been lucky enough not to have endured frequent or long dry spells, but during one period of unemployment he hopped across the pond to try his hand at the infamous pilot season. “The erratic work is something you expect as an actor, but I haven’t done too badly. During one dry spell here my agent said you might as well get yourself to America and do pilot season. Ironically for those three months, I’ve never worked so hard.” Pilot season is famously very competitive and intense, but Gwilym loved it. “It was so exciting. I’m a bit of a home boy, but I loved LA. I know it has this image of being fake, but cruising down Sunset Boulevard on a sunny evening in mid-February was pretty special.” Gwilym’s trip was cut short when he got the Midsomer Murders gig and returned to the UK, but he’s open to going back when the time’s right and has already appeared in a few plays in the US – Hamlet on Broadway, King Lear and the Fairy Queen among others. “I met a few people, but the opportunity to stay and make a go of it wasn’t available at that time,” said Gwilym. The refreshingly innocent Midsomer Murders has been a steady job and Gwilym’s now filming his third series. “I adore it more and more every time I come back. There’s an innocence about it which is lovely. It’s not dark or gritty – I think people have enough of that in real life. It’s also very English… full of chocolate box houses and quaint villages which is probably why it’s taken off around the world.” Filming Midsomer until October, Gwilym’s not sure what he’ll do next, but he’s been lucky enough to find contrasting jobs in between each series. “Contrast and variety is the best thing about acting,” he said. The next chance to see Gwilym on screen is in BBC One’s A Song for Jenny which is an incredibly moving drama adapted by Frank McGuinness from a book by Julie Nicholson. Julie’s daughter, Jenny was murdered in London’s 7/7 bombings. Rather than reliving the details of the incident it’s a much more personal story exploring grief, loss and forgiveness. Gwilym plays Jenny’s boyfriend and both cast and crew felt they had a responsibility to get it right. Gwilym explained: “This is totally different from fiction. It’s such a private and personal story we had a duty to do it faithfully and honestly. It’s bigger than anything we do and it was a privilege.”
So, what would be the dream gig? “It’s hard to say what would be my dream role because perhaps it hasn’t been written yet! There are the big Shakespearean roles like Hamlet obviously. There’s a quote from Monty in Withnail and I that goes ‘It’s the most devastating moment in a young man’s life, when he quite reasonably says to himself, ‘I shall never play The Dane!’ It is at that moment that all ambition ceases to exist’ which I like,” he added: “I’d like to do some Pinter and Arthur Miller. A great American TV series would be interesting and I’d love to work with the Coen Brothers too.” For what it’s worth we predict a Doctor Who or even a Bond in the making. So, quite ambitious then? “Yes I’m really ambitious actually and competitive – just ask my siblings! Whether it’s sport or whatever I’m doing I like to challenge myself. I want to do it all. I’d like to do America properly and see what that has to offer, but I’m also ambitious in my private life too. I’d like a happy, comfortable family, children and all that. I’m quite far from it, so I need to work on that.” Gwilym has completed multiple marathons and half marathons, so he’s no slouch in a pair of trainers either. During interviews stars who’ve grown up in Birmingham often slip into a Midlands accent, generally when talking about family. Not so with Gwilym. He assured us, “Don’t worry. If I’m having a few beers with old friends I do slip into the old brummie twang!” Now living in London, Gwilym’s still very fond of the Midlands. He said: “It’s a special place for me and always will be. My parents live in the same house we grew up in. They make noises about moving, but we’ve disallowed it!”