Richard Lumsden returns to the big screen this week as he stars alongside Ned Dennehy, Jeremy Swift and Karl Theobald in new British comedy/drama Downhill.
We caught up with the actor to chat about the film, working with first time director James Rouse, and what lies ahead.
- You are about to star in new film Downhill, so can you tell me a bit about the movie?
Downhill has been described as a road movie on foot. I know that Benji and James - who made the film - had always loved the road movie genre: it is not something that we can do properly in England, as it is not quite big enough. The road movie on foot seemed to work.
The film follows four school friends who have reunited after thirty or so years, and they reunite to walk Wainwright’s Coast to Cost, which is 192 miles across the UK. In doing so, elements of their lives fall apart and all is not as well as it seems.
- You take on the role of Gordon in the film, so what was it about this character and the script that initially appealed to you?
It was a strange one as I was supposed to read for one of the other characters in it. When I read the script and felt nothing much in common with the other character, but Gordon just leapt off the page to me: there was something about him that I adored from the start. I have a love of maps and I will often put my walking boots on and go off walking. There is so much about it that appealed.
Also, the way I knew that the film was going to work was appealing. There was no trailers and stuff that normally comes with making a film, it was just the fourteen cast and crew members with our rucksacks moving from place to place.
Everything about it appealed, it was one of those very rare scripts that come in that you feel totally compelled to do and really wanted to get. When you go for those meetings, there is a lot at stake: it is much easier to go for a j ob that you don’t really want. Whereas the ones that you do, that is when the nerves really kick in.
- Can you talk a little about your character and how we are going to see him and his relationships that he has develop throughout the film?
Gordon organises the group of friends and brings them back together to do the walk, but he is at a stage in his life where things are not going well for him. He is a documentary filmmaker, but that has not really worked out, so he shoots section of the news: it is not really what he wants to do, but that is how he has been bringing money in.
It turns out later in the film that he has a lot of money problems, and that is really getting him down. His father died very young and so Gordon has tried to be responsible from a very young age. I felt that he was stuck in the 1970s - the time when his father would have died - and he has not been able to move forward. He is at a really difficult part of his life, and doing the walk enables him to just do something positive.
Also, it is a way to get his son Luke to make a film: his son Luke is making a film at film school. The film is Luke shooting his father and his friends as they do this long walk. It happens at a time when Gordon is not having a very happy time.
- The relationship between Julian, Gordon, Steve and Keith is the driving force for the film, so how did you find working alongside Ned Dennehy, Jeremy Swift and Karl Theobald? And how did you go about building the chemistry and the camaraderie that is required?
We had a great time; we had a really good time. We had about three weeks of rehearsals where we came up with a lot of backstory. None of us knew each other really before we started this film, but our paths had crossed at various TV jobs along the way.
When we started rehearsals, it was about inventing a lot of the history that these four men would have had if they were at school together: the relationships and the teachers. We did a lot of improvisation to help build that history up.
Therefore, when it came to shooting a month or so later, - we were working chronologically as well, which is quite unusual - we would shoot the scene and then James Rouse (director) would encourage us to improvise the scene following the beats of the script. In those improvisations would come all sorts of elements of things that we had invented from the past, and that would just keep building and building through the rest of the film.
One of the things that I am very proud of with this film is that I don’t think it is hard to believe that these four friends were at school together and that they have a shared history.
- How much is improvisation something that you enjoy as an actor?
I love it. I think people think of improvisation as like a game panel show where you think of something funny to say that tops something else. Working in drama and my experience of comedy, it is not like that, as it is about knowing when to be quiet as much as it is about when to speak.
It is also about trusting the people that you are with and knowing that you are all working towards the same goal. It is something that I find really exciting and enjoyable in work, however, it is quite rare to get the opportunity to do it.
Obviously, most TV and film projects don’t have the time for you to be able to play around with the stories and the words, and you have to get the scenes done very quickly. With this project, we knew that we would have the time to allow that to happen: it was something that I found really enjoyable. It is a rare chance to be able to go into that detail.
- You have mentioned that it was a cast and crew of fourteen and you were travelling around as you were making and shooting this movie. How much do you think that adds to the performance?
I think it adds a great deal. It puts everything back to the absolute basics. In the rehearsal week, we worked with costume designer Lindsey McLean, and so we knew the type of clothes that our character was going to wear. We were then given a rucksack, we packed it ourselves and carried out own clothes. Each night, if you felt your character would wash his socks, you washed your socks: you would just put them on the radiator to steam through.
The next day, you put your clothes on and carry on. There were no luxuries in this film, and that was so right for the story and I think it really lends authenticity to the film. We wore the same clothes for three or four weeks and it was just a case of having to get on with it. I think that shows in the film, as you can see how bedraggled we get as the film goes on.
- James Rouse is in the director’s chair, so how did you find working with him as a first time filmmaker? And what kind of director is he?
I can’ speak highly enough of James, as he is an extraordinary filmmaker. It was his first feature film, and there is no way that it will be his last. He has a fantastic understanding of human nature and what men are going through at this particular time of their lives.
He knew when to push you until the performance was right, and I trusted him entirely. This is my favourite way of making a film, when you have the chance to just tell a story, but James had a total grasp of what he wanted and knew where to push it, how to keep you moving, and how to push you in the right direction.
What was also appealing to me about this project is that it is a film that can be very funny at times and then heartbreaking: quite often in the same scene. One of the problems that you often find with work, is that it gets pushed too far in one direction and neglects the other: my favourite stories are the ones who allow the characters to be funny if they are funny, and then allow it to twist over and be heartbreaking in the next moment. It is a balance that is very hard to get right but James has the sensibility and really understands what that is about.
- Have you been able to gauge any early responses to it?
The film seems to be getting really good feedback, the film seems to be going down very well. It has had a number of screenings and the press who have seen it do seem to have taken to it so far. But there is something that you can’t control with film - with television as well - where you are reliant on a chemistry that happens between the screen and the audience: you have no idea if that is going to work or not.
You can make a story in good faith, and then all you can hope for is that the audience want to see it, understand it, and then word of mouth spreads. Certainly, a film like this, where there isn’t a big film company behind it that can afford to splash posters over the side of buses, you are reliant on an audience really taking to it and spreading the word.
It would be lovely if that happens, but it is something that you have no control over. You just have to put your heart and soul into the story, make it as good as you believe it can be, and then keep your fingers crossed that audiences will get it too.
- Away from Downhill, you have also completed work on Heart of Lightness, so can you tell me a little bit about that project?
Heart of Lightness was an extraordinary experience. A Norwegian director called Jan Vardoen is behind the project, and he took eight British actors over to Norway, and we filmed in the Arctic Circle where it didn’t go dark: we filmed it last July.
The story is about the making of Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea, in an environment where everyone goes a little bit mad when they are making it. The frustrating thing for me is that it opens on the same day as Downhill and I can’t go to the premiere in Oslo, because it is the same night as our opening in Ambleside.
It was a lovely experience: I have never been into the Arctic Circle before, so that was a fantastic time. I am really looking forward to seeing that film, as it really was a great time.
- Over the years, we have seen you work in film as well as in TV, but how do you find the two mediums compare/differ? Is there one that you prefer working in?
It all comes down to the scripts, the stories and the people. I have had really good experiences in all of those areas, as well as one that I haven’t enjoyed as much. I have always enjoyed that you try to make sure that each job is different to the one that you have done before, and they shouldn’t necessarily follow on.
The notion of a career never makes any sense, as you just stumble from one thing to the next. It is down to an individual experience, people and a script. I can genuinely say that Downhill was right up there in terms of experiences.
As you travel through life and you get more of an idea of how you would like things to be - of course, most of the time, you compromise and you have to find your way thought because things don’t work out. Downhill really did tick every box: it has been an extraordinary highlight for me.
- You have enjoyed a career that has so far spanned over twenty years, so how has the way that you choose your projects changed as you have got older and more experienced?
It’s getting closer to thirty now, it is scary (laughs). It doesn’t really change. There is a lot of luck involved: often you go for things and you don’t get them. I can remember a long time ago, getting down to the last two for numerous jobs that I desperately wanted and didn’t get; the ones that you didn’t get are the ones that you see be massively successful when they come out.
You just have to roll with the punches because when you do get the jobs that you want, it means that someone else has not got them. I think that is what I meant when I said there is no such thing as a career, there is just a succession of different experiences. I would like more experiences like Downhill, where there is more freedom to be imaginative and join in with the history of the piece.
I have liked working on it post-production wise and being actively involved and having meetings with various indie cinemas. It has been very enjoyable working alongside James and Benji, and throwing ourselves into that side of things to help push the film.
It is really down to what you are offered and then what you feel about what you have been offered, then either doing or not: you will usually do it because you need to keep earning the money.
- Earlier in your career, we also saw you do some writing for TV series Wonderful You, how much is this something that you would like to explore further? Does directing hold any interest for you?
I write all the time. I am writing a play for Radio 4 at the moment: that will be my fourth play for them. I had a couple of scripts bought by the BBC - one was last year- however, the controller of the channel moved along and the script was dropped. I am always writing.
I wrote the series Wonderful You with a friend for ITV, and that changed all sorts of things in my perception of casting. For example, there were two girls who were down to the last two for one part, and I went in to read with them on camera.
The first girl came in and was just stunning - she really did read it so beautifully - it really was very exciting to hear those words come to life. A couple of other people cam in for other roles, before the second girl came in. She opened the door and said ’hi’ as she opened the door, and the way she said ’hi’ was exactly right for the character. She read it no better or worse than the girl who came before; there was just something about her that was right.
The great thing about that to remember when you go and meet for jobs, as long as you are prepared it is not because you have done something wrong; it is that someone else fits the idea of how they think that role should be. It really was a huge walking into a casting room after that, because I would just think ‘there is nothing I can do, I either fit when they are looking for or I am not’. It was very liberating to go through that experience.
In terms of writing things and seeing them get made, that is an extraordinary privilege. I write every day if I can.
- Finally, what is next for you?
I don’t know what is next for me, other than we will see what happens when these films come out. I did a BBC mystery thriller called Remember Me recently - I did a couple of episodes for that - and that is out later this year.
I have to get this play finished for Radio 4; I am being a little bit slow on it (laughs). After that, I don’t know, we will see.
Downhill is released 30th May.