How it feels to be Frank

Tristan Gemmill (Frank Farmer) in The Bodyguard. Photo: Paul Coltas

He may be the new face of The Bodyguard, but musical theatre is not an area of the industry Tristan Gemmill has previously connected with. The reason, it turns out, stems from the fact his own childhood was starved of the genre after a traumatic event left his father with a deep mistrust of all-singing, all-dancing productions. And revealing the cause of his parent’s scarred psyche is clearly both entertaining and a little embarrassing for Gemmill, who laughs awkwardly as he explains what went wrong.

“My dad got lost in a theatre as a child, seeing Annie Get Your Gun,” he says, chuckling. “So he’s always had a slight psychological phobia against musicals. It may have fuelled a life-long resentment or something, I’m not sure. But we never went to many.”

That was then, however. Now, with Gemmill playing the title role in Thea Sharrock’s hit West End production of The Bodyguard, musical theatre – whether he likes it not – is clearly a genre he’s going to be seeing a lot more of. Even if it as a performer rather than a member of the audience.

[pullquote]There is a time when it’s right to go back to the theatre, and that time is now for me[/pullquote]

Gemmill plays Frank Farmer, the part made famous by Kevin Costner in the film and previously played in the musical by Lloyd Owen (Gemmill and Owen, it has to be said, look very alike).

Best known for his television career – including appearing in Casualty for four years – Gemmill admits he hadn’t even seen the musical when he initially went up for the role. In fact, it wasn’t until he was offered it that he booked himself a ticket to discover what he was “letting myself in for”. And that experience alone was something of an eye-opener.

“It was weird,” he admits. “I had not done that before – seen something that is up and running that I was going to be in. But it was a Monday night, and it was full, with people on their feet, in the aisles, dancing and whooping and hollering.”

He adds: “I don’t remember that happening too much on a Monday night in the theatre before, and I thought, ‘There has to be something to this’. The songs were brilliant, the cast was brilliant and it blew me away. It was not a difficult decision in the end.”

Not that appearing in the musical at the Adelphi requires Gemmill to become an all-singing, all dancing performer following his years of appearances in straight theatre and television. Anyone who knows The Bodyguard musical will know that Frank Farmer does not have to sing – apart from in one scene in which the character takes to the floor in a karaoke bar. This, as you’d expect, means Gemmill (who only admits to being able to hold a tune) can get away with singing less well than his co-stars.

“He’s not supposed to be brilliant, and that is the effect I will be desiring to achieve,” he says, laughing.

The role of Frank Farmer was, he says, “exactly the kind of thing” he was after following his four-year stint in Casualty, playing doctor Adam Trueman. He left the series in order to keep things “fresh”.

“Once people know you for one character, I think it’s good to try and surprise people, and not necessarily turn up as a doctor or a lawyer in something else soon after,” he adds. “You try to do something as different as you can, and The Bodyguard is very different from Casualty.”

Gemmill’s stint in The Bodyguard marks his first job on stage in seven years. His last appearance was in 2006, in a production of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, alongside Tom Conti. Prior to that, he had appeared in productions such as Dangerous Corner at the Whitehall Theatre, now the Trafalgar Studios, and Rope at Wyndham’s Theatre.

That was all before television came along, which was right for Gemmill at that time.

“My wife and I bought a house, started having children and parenthood kicked in,” he says. “TV work is easier to take in that situation, as you are away for shorter amounts of time, and then you’re back – you’re not away as long as you can be if you are touring the countryside in a play. But there is a time when it’s right to go back to the theatre, and that time is now for me.”

He’s particularly looking forward to using the different skill set required by theatre when doing the same show night after night.

“And that is another reason I wanted to do The Bodyguard,” he says. “It exercises all the acting muscles. You have to keep yourself sharp in order to function well in the theatre.”

Gemmill says he always wanted to act, and had his first taste of professional work when he was 12 years old, as a schoolboy living in Kent. A TV production about Churchill starring Robert Hardy needed young school students to appear in it, and Gemmill was selected. “I spent a couple of days on set with Robert and Nigel Havers and it made me even more keen to act,” he says.

Then, at the age of 15, Gemmill and his family emigrated to Australia. He was still keen to act, but his parents encouraged him to gain a degree before seriously pursuing a career in the performing arts. So he went to Melbourne University and studied history and languages, keeping acting and rugby (another of his passions) as activities on the side.

“My parents said, ‘Make sure you get your qualification in case in 10 years’ time it doesn’t work out’,” he reveals. “It’s advice I would pass on to aspiring actors now. It’s a lot harder today than when I started out. Competition is so high. For every part you go up for, there are 200, 300 or 400 people who want it too. It’s great if you have talent, but it’s no guarantee for success. I would always be wary of encouraging people of going into the profession.”

Here, Gemmill says he worries “all the time” about when or what his next job will be. That, he says, is all part of the actor’s life. And anyone who says they don’t worry about that, he suggests, is fibbing.

“I remember reading an interview with Anthony Hopkins after he won an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs and he was not taking any of it for granted,” Gemmill says.

“Most actors enjoying a bit of success do so on the back of years of struggling on one level or another. You’ve no idea how long success will last, so you’d be foolish to take any of it for granted.”

He adds: “At the same time, you can’t get too down during unemployment. Take the good times, enjoy them, and work your way through the bad times, trusting that things will perk up. That has always been the case in my past.”

He concedes that giving up his role in Casualty was a risk, but says too that, while he had a “fantastic time” on the drama, an actor in a series like that has to “step away” at some point. If they don’t, they risk “going over ground they’ve covered before”.

“I don’t regret leaving Casualty,” he says, adding that The Bodyguard, in which he appears for at least six months, possibly a year, gives him a certain amount of security.

It also gives his parents, who still live in Australia, plenty of time to come to the UK and see it. Provided his dad can get over his phobia of musicals, that is.

“He’d probably be nervous about being lost again,” Gemmill laughs. “Although the Adelphi is a hard theatre to get lost in, so he might well come. I’d like to think he will.”

The Bodyguard is currently booking at the Adelphi Theatre in London until March 8, 2014. 

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