Ben Aldridge is reporting for duty

The actor tells us about his latest challenging role; and tap dancing in the supermarket...

Ben Aldridge has a superpower. It’s nothing that warrants a cape or a costume — and it’s unlikely to see him swinging into the multiplexes for Marvel anytime soon — but it’s a superpower nonetheless.

So what is it? The uncanny, arresting and warmly welcome ability to make those around him smile. Simple enough, but Aldridge’s effortless ease and cheerful personality conjures up a feeling of honest, wholesome happiness. Today, even across Zoom, his smile refuses to stand alone. Instead, it insists on company; beaming out waves of well-being that, should you be in their path, will put you in the highest of spirits. It’s almost medicinal, such is his boyish buoyancy and uplifting company. A superpower, indeed.

His presence on our call is heralded by the usual clattering static — and my empty screen is filled in a flash with Aldridge’s effusive energy. He apologises for running late, explains that he’s having to use his phone for the call and tells me to call him out should his video quality dip. “Thank you so much for doing this interview,” I say, as a preliminary matter of course.

To which he replies: “No, thank you. Thank you so much.”

Credit: David-Simon Dayan

Aldridge’s natural cheer has lent itself to a multitude of vastly expressive roles in his 13-year long career. The 35-year old actor has appeared on our screens with increasing regularity, his roles spanning from Captain James in hit BBC drama Our Girl to ‘Arsehole Guy’ in BBC tragicomedy Fleabag. But this buoyancy is something he had to suppress altogether in his latest job: that of lead DI Matthew Venn in ITV’s detective drama, The Long Call (coming to our screens at the end of October).

“I had to work on his control, his quietness, his restraint,” Aldridge explains; and watching his careful, methodical character on screen, it’s not hard to imagine the detailed work that must have gone on behind the scenes. The actor prepared for the role almost inadvertently — he explains how he became “obsessed” with true crime documentaries during the third UK lockdown, and that he and his friends have an “amateur sleuths WhatsApp group”. The role was well within his field of interest, to say the least — Aldridge and his friends are currently trying to solve an unsolvable mystery from South America — but the character certainly required some digging, which is a challenge that Aldridge seems to relish.

"I had to work on his control..."

“There are two scores of ‘detectives’, apparently,” Aldridge explains. “You have your charismatic, analytical [detectives]: they lead with the charge, and thrust through the piece. Then there are the much quieter, more methodical [interpretations] that are all about drawing the audience in. Matthew is definitely of the latter breed; so that was interesting for me, because my energy probably lends itself more naturally to the other version.”

This was a professional challenge — and one which Aldridge rose to, admirably. But a more personal challenge presented itself, too.

Credit: Joss Barratt/ITV

“I’m gay; and I was seeking out a role where I can play queer or gay, and involve my own experience in that. In an ideal world, I might have wanted to play something that was free and liberating, and celebratory of that experience: [something] that celebrated queerness, and that saw it thriving, unbridled and unquashed by society.

“Matthew is…not that,” Aldridge adds, thoughtfully. “He is — perhaps — more trapped by shame and by his difficult experience of growing up gay. So some of the challenges involved stepping back into a place that I’ve done a lot of work to free myself from.”

Aldridge first alluded to this work in an Instagram post he shared last year, in which he wrote: ‘The journey to pride was a long one for me. I love the LGBTQ+ community and am incredibly proud and thankful to be a part of it. So much won. So much more to fight for.’

"Entering back into that world is difficult..."

The actor speaks openly with me, now, about this long journey; about how he used to “reject” queer friendships in a “fear-based” way (friendships he’s now very drawn to), and about podcasts (like Homo Sapiens with Alan Cumming and Chris Sweeney) and therapy, all of which has helped him get to where he is today. But reverting back to an earlier stage of his life, through his portrayal of DI Matthew Venn, wasn’t easy.

“Even in the way he dresses, and the way he expresses himself — I think he’s very conscious of being straight acting so that he can go unnoticed. And particularly in watching [the show] back, I’ve found that challenging; because I’ve done so much work on being freer. It’s a difficult place to be, as a person, I think — and so entering back into that world is also slightly difficult.”

Credit: David-Simon Dayan

It’s a rare serious moment for Aldridge; but the laughs are never far beneath the surface. When I ask if he, like Venn, is a natural leader, he bursts out laughing. “No,” he replies instantly, in between chuckles. But once he’s composed himself, he does consider the question.

“I think it’s nice to play high-stakes characters sometimes,” he ponders. “There’s something about playing high stakes which is interesting. I’m [just] trying to think: with all the high-stakes parts I’ve played, they’ve actually been quite fragile men who actually aren’t 100% comfortable with that level of status. I think Matthew is one of those people. He’s a leader, but I’m not sure he takes up that moniker. I’m not sure he owns it, really.”

Credit: Joss Barratt/ITV

Leadership may not come naturally to Aldridge: but if one thing does come naturally, it’s performing. “I first got into acting as a bargain with my parents: I could give up my piano lessons if I went and auditioned for a local stage school,” he recalls. “I really regret this, because it’s actually one of my top wishes that I could play the piano now, and I can’t! But I think my parents were trying to harness — I mean, they’d call it ‘showing off’, which I think is quite a negative way of putting it [with another chuckle]. My mum would catch me entertaining old ladies in Marks & Spencers or Sainsbury’s: having a chat, or tap dancing. I think they were trying to harness that.”

"It's absolutely the kind of thing I'd sit down and watch on TV..."

If Aldridge’s ebullient charisma was anything like as magnetic in those Marks & Spencers talent shows as it is now, it’s not surprising his parents felt they needed to foster it. Fast forward years of training at the National Youth Theatre (NYT) and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), and Aldridge can’t stop enthusing about his industry. “I love performing, but I can’t separate that from a sense of community; NYT really sparked that for me,” he explains; and he waxes lyrical about his time on Fleabag, describing it as “a really wonderful experience”.

“I’d always wanted to do that kind of arsehole comedy,” he enthuses. “I just couldn’t wait to be part of it. I love the script. That doesn’t happen very often for actors. You long to be in things that you would watch yourself, but those things don’t align very often. Fleabag was a show that I was so proud to be part of. It’s absolutely the kind of thing that I would sit down and watch on TV.”

Credit: David-Simon Dayan

Performing is in his blood, and in his very lifeforce — but if there’s one thing Aldridge wants to be remembered for, it’s for being a kind person and a good friend. “There’s no way of saying it without sounding cheesy — I wish it was something sexier!”, he laughs. “But I think that’s it. That’s what I would want to be remembered as.”

The quiet, thoughtful DI Matthew Venn will be on duty at the end of this month, with the aid of a star-studded cast that includes Pearl Mackie (Doctor Who) and Martin Shaw (Inspector George Gently). The character’s superpowers remain to be seen; the actor’s superpower, meanwhile, is thriving. With that smile, the world is surely a better place for Aldridge’s presence — and the aforementioned legacy he hopes to leave is the biggest surety of all.

The Long Call will be released on 25th October, and will be played over four consecutive nights.

Looking to hear from more talented British actors? Josh O’Connor reveals his favourite things about Great Britain

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