John Heffernan: ‘No one cares, no one owes you a living, no one owes you a job’
Arriving at Jerwood Space to interview John Heffernan, I’m nervous about using the ‘M’ word. The actor is rehearsing to play Macbeth – He Who Must Not Be Named in theatrical circles. But Heffernan, chatty and affable from the moment he sits down, is quick to laugh away any superstitions around the role.
“When you’re working on it everything would take twice as long if you were constantly calling it the ‘Scottish Play’,” he reasons. “We made the decision quite early on: we’ve just got to say it, we’ve got to dive in.”
This production, directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin at the Young Vic, marks a welcome return to Shakespeare for Heffernan. It was the playwright who ignited the actor’s love for theatre: first via the television series The Animated Tales and then during Saturday matinees at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London home, the Barbican. Later, as a teenager, Heffernan ushered during the summer in Stratford-upon-Avon, watching the likes of Samuel West and David Tennant tread the boards. “I’m going to sound like a complete anorak,” he warns, “but I think I’d seen all 37 [Shakespeare] plays by the time I was 19 or 20.”
It took a while, though, for Heffernan to pursue acting. Instead, his early aspiration was to be a theatre critic. “I just thought ‘what job will allow me to sit in the stalls all the time?’” he remembers. “I enjoyed writing and analysing, and I thought it would be a really blissful, happy job.” While at drama school, he even did a bit of reviewing under a pseudonym – “I thought ‘This is great, you get two free tickets, you get a free programme, you get a free drink in the interval’,” – before friends warned him off trying to combine acting and theatre criticism.
Arriving at acting after toying with the idea of directing, Heffernan found his training at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art invaluable. “I’d come off the back of a three-year university degree, which was very cerebral,” he explains. “I needed a year, pretty much, of tutors saying – as they said to everyone in my group, who also had degrees – get out of your head, rely on instinct, don’t show us your homework so much, just be in the moment.”
It was an intimidating transition, though, from the “very safe environment” of drama school to the hostile outside world of auditions and potential unemployment. “No one cares, no one owes you a living, no one owes you a job,” says Heffernan. Fortunately for him, he found an agent while still in his last term at Webber Douglas and quickly landed a couple of “spear carrying” roles, first with English Touring Theatre and then at the RSC, site of his childhood theatre pilgrimages. “I don’t think I’ve had such an excited reaction to a job since,” he says. “It was perfect for me.”
The RSC and the National Theatre – where Heffernan was also an usher in his youth – have become regular homes for him as an actor in recent years. “Maybe I respond really well to institutions,” he suggests with a self-deprecating chuckle. “What’s exceptional about the RSC and the National is the level of support that they give you,” he adds, “which I didn’t really appreciate fully until I worked outside and I realised that you’re pretty much on your own.”
Heffernan’s work at the NT includes the title role in Joe Hill-Gibbins’ striking production of Edward II, as well as parts in She Stoops to Conquer and Emperor and Galilean. His most recent RSC gig, meanwhile, was as the eponymous scientist in the company’s critically acclaimed Oppenheimer, which transferred to the West End earlier this year.
John Heffernan: Q&A
What was your first non-theatre job? I worked on the meat and fish counters at my local Waitrose when I was growing up.
What was your first professional theatre job? A production of Hamlet by English Touring Theatre, spear carrying to Ed Stoppard’s Hamlet, almost exactly 10 years ago.
What is your next job? My partner and I have got a baby and just moved house. So with that and my partner going back to work, I haven’t even thought about it. [Macbeth] is going through until February, so I’m not going to panic just yet.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? There was someone who came to drama school whose speciality was screen technique. He came in and bracketed everyone in the room and said “You’ll be playing this”, “You’ll be playing that”. I just wish someone hadn’t set those restrictions. I wish someone had said “Your range is potentially as big as you want it to be”.
Who is your biggest influence? Alex Jennings.
What’s your best advice for auditions? I think sometimes half the acting battle in auditions is how you present yourself. The only advice I’d give would be about getting yourself into a relaxed state of mind, which is easier said than done.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? For ages I wanted to be a theatre critic.
His latest job brings the challenge of tackling a role that self-confessed Shakespeare geek Heffernan has seen multiple times. “It’s a tricky balance,” he says. “I’ve seen those productions, and some of them I love and I can’t erase them, so they’re there. But you’ve got to find a way of forging your own path with it and your own relationship with it.” In another sense, though, he finds it oddly liberating. “At least some of the pressure can be taken off by thinking, ‘Well, yes, all of these incredible actors have done it before and this is just going to be one interpretation’,” he points out. “Macbeth’s still going to be there even if we do the worst production.”
One of the hurdles for any production of Macbeth to overcome is the question of how to handle its supernatural elements. “It contains so many elements that appear quite foreign to us,” suggests Heffernan, “and they’ve become a little bit cliched and hackneyed, and dare I say, melodramatic.” In Cracknell and Guerin’s version, they hope to get around this with the use of non-naturalistic movement. “There’s the possibility they’re an extension of Macbeth’s mind,” Heffernan explains. “So in rehearsals, we’ve been exploring the boundary between reality and his imagined mental state a lot. And non-naturalistic movement is a great bridge of sorts for that, because one bleeds into the other.”
The character of Macbeth, meanwhile, has had Heffernan really wrestling with the play. “I’ve fought for a long time to try to get hold of a picture of him, because there are all sorts of contradictions in the part. You hear he is this extraordinary warrior, and the feats he does on the battlefield are ultra-violent, and yet when it comes to murdering Duncan, he makes a complete hotchpotch of it.”
The solution that he and directors Cracknell and Guerin have created is a Scottish king who is “the product of a very militarised society” and “can only act under orders”. In this sense, the production makes implicit reference to the world we live in today: “a world of extreme brutality, of beheadings, of people monitoring everyone all the time”. Heffernan also suggests there’s “a terrible circularity” to the violence in the play, a circularity that has modern parallels.
“It’s a shifting power vacuum,” says Heffernan, “and that feels very current with what’s going on in Syria at the moment. But I think Carrie [Cracknell] was aware that if you say ‘This is happening in Syria’, it becomes very limiting, and then that poses a million and one different questions. So we’ve been keen to slightly flare up those modern parallels without completely restricting the play.”
Heffernan believes he’s been lucky in theatre, where – unlike on television, he suggests – there’s the freedom to play a wide range of different parts. “Macbeth is a case in point,” he says, “where I never thought I’d get to play it. But that’s the joy of it, being able to let yourself loose on so many different characters and psychologies.”
CV: John Heffernan
Born: 1981, Essex
Training: Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art
Landmark productions: Oppenheimer, Royal Shakespeare Company/West End (2015), Edward II, National Theatre (2013), Emperor and Galilean, NT (2011), Richard II, Tobacco Factory Theatre (2011), Major Barbara, National Theatre (2008), King Lear, RSC (2007)
Awards: Third prize, Ian Charleson Award 2008
Agent: The Artists Partnership