Actor and producer Alistair Petrie is perhaps best known for his roles in Star Wars: Rogue One and The Night Manager. In 2019 he will star in Sex Education (Netflix) opposite Gillian Anderson and in the new Hellboy film, as well as returning to the second series of Deep State (Fox). Andrew Peters spoke to him about his outlook on his acting career, his likes, dislikes and his involvement with the Borne charity.
ALL IMAGES Photographer: David Reiss. Stylist: Krishan Parmar. Hair: Ben Hards. Makeup: Rachel O’Donnell @ M.A.C.
Q Alistair, as your father was an RAF pilot this meant you had a variety of homes in the Middle East, Europe and West Africa and your mother took part in amateur dramatics. Did any of these experiences influence you to become an actor?
A I saw my mother on stage when I was six playing a small part in an amateur production of Toad of Toad Hall in Germany where my father was stationed at the time. She had a line which was: “He called me Fatface” and when she delivered it the audience roared with laughter. I remember looking around thinking what is this sorcery? That fired something in me. Moving every three years meant we lived a nomadic lifestyle which unquestionably informs my work. It meant having to constantly meet new people, discover new places, to be open to new things, being fully OK with having to be ‘somewhere else’ at the drop of a hat and not being intimidated or overwhelmed by it. Right now, I’m working in the Northern Sahara. It’s astonishingly remote, it’s beautiful and bleak and a great adventure.
Q You began in theatre and your early career was very much centred around theatre work. In your heart of hearts is this still your greatest love?
A I wrestle with this constantly. Finding the right part, in the right play, at the right place with people you really want to collaborate with can be a difficult alchemy to find and, of course, you need to be asked. I am looking though and trying to wave at the right people. I was shocked to realise recently that I have only done two plays in the last eight years, but that’s no reason just to grab the nearest piece of theatre you can wrench off someone. The process can and should be all consuming and time is so finite that it has be the right piece.
Q Did (and do) you compare yourself to other actors?
A I think most actors do, but the key is not to ever buy into the notion that the grass is always greener in someone else’s garden. Jealousy is a destructive and tiring emotion. I’ve never watched a piece of work I was up for but not cast in and thought I would’ve done that better. Different maybe, but not better. I know I can do things that others can’t and vice versa and what I can do is what some directors are after and sometimes it’s not. That’s perfectly reasonable and OK.
Q Have you ever regarded acting as ‘just another job’?
A In our first lesson, on our very first day at LAMDA, the vice principal stood up and said: “Remember, acting is just a job”. We were dumbfounded. This was our life, our vocation, the thing that was most important to us. We were going to change how the world looked at itself, play parts to explore and reveal the ever-changing human condition. His point was that you must also find a way to pay the rent. Try to do all of the above, but keep in mind if you want to be able to do that you need a roof. You need to look after yourself and in the future others too. So yes, it does need to be a job. But after you acknowledge and look after that bit, the interesting stuff really begins. Actors also refer to getting a part as ‘getting a job’. Our work revolves around the word ‘job’: ‘I need a job’, ‘I’ve just got a job’, ‘who got that job?’...
Q Confidence plays a huge role in life, especially in a public-facing job such as acting – is that how you see it?
A Confidence ebbs and flows. When you have opportunity and interest, your confidence can soar. When, sometimes inexplicably, opportunity and interest dissipate, the doubts appear. It’s very human and is certainly not restricted to my profession. Being prepared gives you confidence. It’s my trump card when nagging my children about revision for exams: I compare it to learning lines.
Be prepared and you’ll actually look forward to the challenge as opposed to being somewhat terrified you don’t know it well enough. Give yourself every chance to perform at your best.
Q What have you found to be the worst and best thing about acting?
A The best? The people you get to play with. The worst? It’s an industry based on rejection. There are no points for second place.
The worst feeling I experienced was not getting a role that I wanted so desperately to play and I wasn’t sure how I was going to shake off the feeling of how much it hurt. I did a lengthy personal post mortem on it and tried to figure out whether it was simply not getting a great part or the losing out on further opportunities that playing the part may well have brought. What was heartening was that it was the former, not the latter. The latter is a road to ruin. I immersed myself in this person and got lost in him for quite a while before meeting the creative team; I was just so desperate to play this extraordinary, complex human being.
Q As you take on a particular role, what’s your aim? How, if at all, does your attitude differ for the different disciplines of theatre, film and TV?
A I don’t differ my approach to the work, but I acknowledge theatre is more an actor’s medium and screen a director’s. Either way, my first responsibility is to serve the story we are trying to tell. I try to understand the story first and then move into the more selfish phase of how who I am playing feeds into that story. You then turn outwards again and examine what your relationships are within the story. That’s the baseline work I do before rehearsing a play or going before the camera. Then you turn up to work on day one and that prep starts to feed in to everyone else’s notion of the story you are telling: you talk, you listen, you figure it out together. Then raise the curtain or press record and we’ll see what we have.
Q Apart from your recent work in Sherlock, The Terror and Deep State, you also starred in what turned out to be a huge international success, The Night Manager. Did you expect this drama to be such a success?
A You hope your story will reach as wide an audience as possible, that’s why I love television. You can put all the elements together that logic demands you should have a ‘success’: script, cast, other creatives, crew, budget to do the story justice, time slot, the list is endless. But how those things combine with the audience, who are the final arbiters, is a magical mystery. If we all knew, it would be bottled and available to sprinkle on every project. Great work can go absolutely unnoticed. But it’s all subjective anyway. Every project starts with the intent to make it the very best it can be; nobody sets out to make average work. Tell the story with as much truth as you can, send it out into the ether and roll the dice.
Q I hear you’re competitive at sport and were able to beat (Night Manager co-star) the competitive Tom Hiddleston at table tennis. If the mooted second series comes to fruition will there be a rematch?
A No question. We’re both trying to figure out what’s the best brand of bat to use should it come to pass and trying to secure a ping pong ball sponsor. I’m definitely in training.
Q Do you pay any attention to social media or a production’s ratings?
A I’m confused about people who sit down with their devices and hit social media as soon as the opening credits roll. Watch something through then feel free to comment as much as you like. This may be apocryphal, but I did hear the first episode of Sherlock aired about the time Twitter really started to fly and by the end of the episode it was globally trending and Benedict Cumberbatch was suddenly a global star. In 90 minutes.
Broadcasters will get a lot from the instant feedback. I just hope all the data and information algorithms don’t replace risk-taking in deciding what stories to tell.
Ratings are an ever-evolving entity. Who watched it live, who downloaded it, who binged all episodes in one day. The Night Manager was ‘traditional’. It aired over six weeks and had enormous ratings which proves ‘appointment TV’ is alive and well and audiences enjoy talking about it together: a shared experience.
Dog or cat? Dogs. Adore them. Got two. We also have two cats. We just ignore each other. It’s a dysfunctional relationship.
Favourite current TV programme? Succession on HBO.
Guilty pleasure? Watches.
Main inspiration? My wife and my boys. And late-night conversations with Alexander Siddig.
Glass half full or half empty? Absolutely half full, hopefully with a cocktail umbrella perched at a jaunty angle.
Q Borne is the premature birth charity you are an ambassador for and appears to be going from strength to strength. Are you happy with what the charity has achieved so far?
A The key for any new charity is to consider what its goals are and have a plan to achieve it. Borne, founded by the rather magical Professor Mark Johnson, is in a really good place with a brilliant, passionate team behind it, all with deeply personal connections to the cause. It’s just wrong we don’t know why premature births occur. We should. Lives will be saved and the money the NHS would save if we could extend early labour by a single week runs into the hundreds of millions a year. Seems like a no brainer.
Q Your twin sons were born prematurely, how are they doing now?
A Fabulously, thank you.
Q On your charity fundraising ‘list of madness’, your wife Lucy Scott and yourself cycled from Paris to London and have the huge distinction of being the first married couple to swim the channel – anything from the list planned in the near future?
A You should always have a caper planned. It doesn’t have to be some absurd sporting endeavour that requires discipline and mammoth training, but always have half a plan for a caper up your sleeve.
Q Favourite actor – who would you pay to watch?
A Matthew Macfadyen. Sophie Okonedo. Sam Rockwell. Leslie Mann. Anthony Hopkins. Olivia Colman. All in the same project please.
Q Who would you walk across hot coals to work with?
A How long do you have? People I haven’t but I’d love to are Marianne Elliot and Carrie Cracknell. About 10 years ago, I auditioned so badly for Marianne it’ll probably take a lot of convincing. People I have worked with and will continue to remove my shoes for? Marc Munden every day of the week, Susanne Bier, Ron Howard, Matthew Parkhill, Hilary Bevan Jones. I’m lucky, I’ve worked with some absolute marvels. And now I’m showing off.
Profile: Alistair Petrie
Alistair Petrie has enjoyed a stellar career starring in some of the biggest productions in film and TV. His recent roles include General Draven in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the multi-Emmy nominated The Night Manager and Fox’s original spy thriller Deep State, starring opposite Mark Strong and Joe Dempsie. The eight-part series, directed by the award-winning Robert Connolly (Paper Planes), is currently filming its second series.
In 2019, Alistair will be seen in Netflix’s new original series Sex Education opposite Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield, out early in the New Year. He will also be seen in Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen. Based on the graphic novels by Mike Mignola, the film sees Hellboy caught between the worlds of the supernatural and human, battling an ancient sorceress bent on revenge. The film is set for release in April. His further film roles include Ron Howard’s Rush, The Bank Job, Cloud Atlas and The Face of an Angel. For television, his credits include National Geographic’s Genius: Einstein, BBC’s Undercover and the Emmy award-winning Netflix series Utopia.
Q How do you feel about auditioning for people younger than yourself?
A I have no problem at all with it. I am open and willing to learn from anyone. Bright and brilliant people can be twenty or 90.
I’ve never gone in for a meeting and thought: “Oh God, please don’t be younger than me.” They will be more and more as time goes on anyway so just get on with it and embrace them.
Q You’re General Davits Draven in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. What were your thoughts on reading the script for the first time?
A We never received a script, secrecy around the story was very intense. Scenes were sent via an encrypted app before we shot them and as soon as the day was done, they self-destructed. Big budget films can feel like a very impersonal working experience. This was the opposite. It felt curiously like making an independent film, everyone was folded in and listened to. A lot of that was down to the truly wonderful Alli Shearmur, our producer. She sadly died this year in her early fifties. It’s a huge loss.
Q Tell us more about your recently completed projects: Netflix’s Sex Education and Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen.
A Blimey, they couldn’t be more different. In Sex Ed I wear ill-fitting tweed and get to dance. In Hellboy I get to wear armour and ride a horse. I’m hugely excited for the young stars of Sex Ed. They are so damn talented, they will have huge careers. My son in it, Connor Swindells, is astonishingly good.
Q What’s next for Mr Petrie after those?
A I’ve a film coming out called Sulphur and White directed by Julian Jarrold, I’m an executive producer on a new TV drama which starts filming next year and am donning a stiff collar for a period film set somewhere rather fabulous. I’m on the board of Shared Experience Theatre Company and we have just secured the rights to a really wonderful, timely play. We’ll be looking to produce that in 2019.
Borne: Preventing premature birth
Alistair Petrie is an ambassador for Borne, a medical research charity working to identify the causes of premature birth. Borne brings scientists and doctors together to advance our understanding of pregnancy, and to find effective ways to screen women at risk of preterm birth and develop new treatments to prevent it.
Premature birth is a cause that deeply resonates with Alistair and his wife Lucy. Their twin boys, Cal and Brodie, were born at 31 weeks in March 2003. Brodie weighed 4lbs and Cal just 3lbs. Cal suffered from breathing difficulties and the twins spent the first months of their fragile lives in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Alistair and Lucy had many questions about why Cal and Brodie were born premature. “Why did Lucy go into labour when she did, when she did all the things she was supposed to do?”, Alistair said. “No one had the answers. This has to change.”
45% to 50% of premature births are unexplained. Through its pioneering research, Borne aims to find answers to why some babies are born too soon.
Since becoming an independent charity in 2016, Borne has transformed the way we think about pregnancy and labour and is breaking new ground by:
• Trialling the first new treatment for the prevention of preterm labour in over 50 years.
• Embracing Big Science to understand the causes of prematurity through a long-ranging discovery science study of 2,000 women who are pregnant for the first time.
Borne believes that every child should have the chance of a full and healthy life, unaffected by disability. A baby’s first hours should not be its hardest, or its last. Through Borne’s pioneering research, the aim is to make this vision a reality. essence info
Web: www.borne.org.ukTwitter: @BorneCharityInstagram: @BorneCharity