Ben Barnes has performed in The History Boys in the West End, the recent fantasy film Stardust and won the role of Prince Caspian in the big screen versions of the Narnia novels. He tells Emma Barnett how it feels to play the lead from a much-loved childhood book and acting tips he has learned.
You could forgive Ben Barnes for starting to think life was a bit of a fairy tale. First he was cast in Stardust, Matthew Vaughan’s enchanted tale about the pursuit of true love and everlasting life. And now he’s playing the title role of Prince Caspian in the new Narnia film, due out later this month. Life just seems to be one big adventure filled with castles, duels and horses.
“Yes, I am always hanging out in castles these days,” jokes the recently anointed Prince. “Ever since the filming of Stardust last year and during the last seven months of filming Narnia in New Zealand and Eastern Europe – where they actually built my castle for me from scratch – that’s all I seem to do.”
He may joke flippantly now about the perks of being a leading man in what’s set to be a blockbuster Disney film, but he wasn’t so cool when he first found out he’d clinched the part, back in February last year.
“When I got the phone call in the middle of the night (American timing) I just started screaming,” he says. “I was at my parents’ house and hadn’t been able to sleep at all. Straight away I went and found my old Narnia book which I read and loved when I was eight. It was a massive deal for me.”
Frustrated with one person’s response on hearing he’d got the job, he explains: “Someone actually said to me after I got it, ‘Oh, that must be like winning the Lottery!’. When actually, the truth is, I’ve been working towards a part like this since I was 15. It’s been my goal, so it’s not like winning the Lottery because it didn’t just land in my lap – I sought it.”
As passionate and successful as the 26-year-old Barnes is, he still remains humble and nervous about the pending fame lying just around the corner. “I am very apprehensive about it all because it’s the story telling and disappearing inside characters that drives me – not everyone knowing everything about my private life. I am sure it’s not interesting to anyone other than my friends and family.”
And yet he’s a realist about the need to promote his work, adding, “I do want people to see the films that I make, or the plays that I am in, so I think it’s very important to publicise your work and your industry.”
One aspect he does seem to be in denial over is his heart-throb status, despite having played a string of dishy roles over the last couple of years. How could the theatre world forget his portrayal of Dakin, the naughty, gorgeous one in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys? He was part of the No 1 tour and original cast at the Wyndham’s Theatre, before having to drop out earlier than expected to assume his Narnian throne in Hollywood. There’s already a Ben Barnes/Prince Caspian appreciation group on social networking site, Facebook. He bats this attention away, saying, “When I was 18 I was always getting cast as the vulnerable geek, but now I’ve reached 26, I am finally allowed to play more confident 18-year-olds. I definitely don’t have heart-throb status – but I do have a sword and a horse.”
So how has Barnes achieved all that he has and in the relatively short time he’s done it in?
He began acting at 14 when the director of the National Youth Music Theatre turned up at his London school and he auditioned. He attributes a large part of his success to the lessons learned from this company – which counts Jude Law and Jamie Bell among its alumni – over the six consecutive summers he toured with it. “I think the best training is experience but it’s very hard to come by. My six years with NYMT served me very well from a performance aspect mostly, but it also taught me how to get along with a company of people, and a lot about professionalism.”
He took inspiration from those around him at an early age – one of the times he felt most enthused was when watching a play put on by students his own age at school. “I hadn’t read the play at the time [Someone Who'll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness] but I just thought, these guys are the same age as me and have achieved so much. It took me until I got to university to reach that stage.”
He read English and drama at Kingston University London – after spending a couple of mysterious sounding years exploring “music and bits of TV presenting” – and was part of the first year to ever take drama at Kingston. “We created the student theatre from scratch and that’s when I first directed a couple of plays.”
After graduating at 23, he appeared in a fringe play at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington and was spotted by an agent, who snapped him up there and then. A musical at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester followed and soon after that, so did roles in Stardust, low-budget film Bigga than Ben, The History Boys and most recently, Prince Caspian.
When asked what tips he has for other aspiring actors, his humility returns. “I think it’s a very personal process and something you figure out for yourself. I am not sure who I would think I am to give advice to anybody really because I believe no matter what jobs you get, you still think it’s because you are you.”
Although he does admit that the lessons of time have improved his auditioning technique. “You learn more what your particular strengths are because when you start out, you think you’re so versatile and can do anything. I still don’t know necessarily what mine are. Stardust is the only thing I’ve done in my own accent.”
He also advises working out “the specific shape of a scene you are reading” in order to tell a story to its full potential. But mainly Barnes thinks when opportunities present themselves, actors must capitalise on them.
It’s clear he loves his job, especially when describing the double-edged nature of an actor’s life. “It’s a very unstructured yet appealing lifestyle – so much so, actors often take jobs that aren’t necessarily right for them because they lust after the structure of going to set every day and finding that little place you like to get your coffee from before each performance.”
But he has also experienced the low points too. “I think it’s quite easy to get down when you don’t have the structure of work or anything to aim for. There isn’t one job that I’ve been in where afterwards I haven’t got down or ill literally the next day because all your defences have gone into what you were doing. You put all of yourself into a project and once it finishes, you are put back in the real world and feel like you dreamed it. And that’s the perk and curse about this job.”
Another bind of the trade is the misery caused by rejection. Barnes won’t disclose the two projects he got knocked back from in the last couple of years which really hurt him, but the experiences taught him a lot.
“You learn there’s not much you can do and often it’s for the best. I saw both projects afterwards and actually thought they made the right choices, which made me feel slightly better about it all.”
Nonetheless, Barnes feels the pain every time he gets passionate about a part and gets knocked back. “The only thing that can pick me up is another inspiring script because I need that project that’s glistening in the future to stay proactive and upbeat. That’s why all actors should feel blessed when in work.”
But a role he was most certainly made for was Bennett’s Dakin in The History Boys, as proved by the intimate way in which he was cast. “I was shooting Bigga Than Ben and couldn’t make my third audition, so I had to go to Alan Bennett’s house and do it there – which was an amazing experience. I sort of just knocked on his door, got offered a cup of tea and then he asked me if I wanted to read anything. I tentatively suggested something from The History Boys and he retorted, ‘Yes Ben, I thought that’s what we’d do, I meant, any scene in particular!’”
From his time as Dakin, Barnes learned another technique. “We got told during rehearsals to come up with our character’s favourite song. I thought Dakin’s would have been The Spencer Davis Group – Gimme Some Lovin’, and I always put it on before each performance. It really helped get me into character and I still do that now, for every audition.”
His immediate future is shrouded in secrecy, with a few projects in the pipeline he can’t yet disclose, but from July he will be working on the next Narnia film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He doesn’t reveal if he wants to go back into theatre when Narnia is over, saying only: “I love variety and theatre and film for different reasons.”
When asked whether he thinks he’s made it now he’s fronting a blockbuster, he pauses for thought.
“I still feel like I am starting out and have a lot more to give. In my mind, if you can turn round when you’re 60 and you’ve made a career out of being an actor, then – and only then – have you made it.”
* This interview originally appeared in the November 29, 2007 issue of The Stage. For access to this and other articles from our archives from 1880 to 2007, go to http://archive.thestage.co.uk