I’m coyly leant on a lamppost outside The Ivy Market Grill waiting for Gwilym Lee. In the background I hear the incessant chirping of one of the many London street performers trying to make a living during his curtain call; asking for £5, £10 or whatever change the crowd have tucked away in their pocket. It’s a tough trade – the entertainment business. Next to me a man sporting shades, a baggy t-shirt and rolled up jeans, lays up his push-bike. He spends some time flicking through various emails on his phone… then cocks up his head, points to me and mouths ‘Oliver?’ He approaches, we casually shake hands and then enter into the restaurant.
We appreciate that if you’re not into the laid-back Sunday evening detective series, Midsomer Murders, then you may not be familiar with the Bristol-born Welshman, but with the launch of A Song for Jenny on July 5, Gwil may be the main figurine for your Sunday night television screen. He’s our pick for being one of the most talked about British Television stars this summer…
What made you want to become an actor?
I got into acting first off as a bit of a hobby. I was always sporty at school and I enjoyed the camaraderie and team aspect of playing rugby. As I started doing plays at school I found that there was an element of that on stage. It was initially a hobby, going to a boys’ school it gave me a chance to meet girls. I was in this group called the Birmingham Central Television workshop, and through that I got a job at the RSC doing Richard III. I was about 15 and it gave me a chance to feel what it was like being surrounded by proper actors. It excited me, seeing these grown up actors making a living out of it, and it made me realise that this was actually a feasible career. At 17 I knew that I wanted to make this hobby a living.
Is featuring in British TV programmes something you imagined to be doing at this stage?
I left drama school in 2008, and when you’re leaving drama school you’re met with all these stories of doom – there’s a lot of hope and a lot of optimism and excitement about it, but at the same time they temper that with the reality of the situation. They make you realise that this is a competitive industry. To be doing this 8 years down the line, and in a regular TV programme – a popular and highly successful show – as a regular character is a bit of a dream really.
Where do you want to be in 5 years time?
To be able to continue what I’m doing. But doing different things alongside, and challenging myself, and never taking a backward step. I’ve been lucky in the sense that every job I have ever done has offered me something different. It’s always been a matter of progress rather than taking backward steps. I’d like to take on some classical theatre roles, also to still be on the screen and maybe some collaborations.
Anybody in particular you’d like to collaborate with?
Rufus Norris has taken over at the National Theatre and it would be great to collaborate with him.
What do you reckon is going to be the reception to A Song for Jenny, considering the focus being such a sensitive issue?
I’m not sure. The important thing for us when we were doing it was not thinking about how it would go down or what the response would be. It was more about being as faithful as we could to this story that was so important to the family on this very personal, painful and tragic story. When I read the script it was a sense of duty to do justice for it, and be honest to that experience.
And do you believe that you have?
I hope so, I really hope so. The family have seen it and I think they’re supportive of it. It doesn’t concern itself with the politics of it all, it’s about the individual, personal story of these people. If we capture it honestly, then people can take away what they want from it. Hopefully this individual story about grief can say something about grief in a wider sense.
What is the highlight of your career?
There are number of landmark moments in my career so far. Certainly earlier on in my career it was those moments that you get validation, you have someone who says ‘y’know what you’re good, and I believe in you’. One of those moments was getting accepted into drama school.
…and the lowpoint?
There’s always setbacks. One thing to becoming a better actor is to learn how to deal with the setbacks, and not let it get to you personally. Being a good actor is having the resilience to have faith in your own ability. So setbacks, yes, constantly. I can’t think of anything specific, it’s an inevitable, a given in the job.
What is one unique factor about your style?
Today’s not the best example, I cycled in so wore a t-shirt and jeans and trainers. But I do like to dress up, and like well-made well-tailored clothes that have a kind of simplicity to them and have a beauty in their function. I respect practicality in clothing, as in art and architecture and all things. Real beauty comes from pure function, and without function, beauty is just aesthetic and flimsy and meaningless. But a really beautifully made item of clothing is just beautiful in its simplicity. At the same time I like to be a student still, I like to wear just jeans and a baggy t-shirt, pair of trainers and a cap.
What defines a gentleman to you?
I think it’s a very complicated time to be a gentleman, it’s not straightforward and I like the principles of decency and of manners and kind of honour I suppose, in a very old-fashioned kind of chivalric way. But I think the idea of chivalry is problematic these days because I think it kind of perpetuates an idea that men are better than women and I don’t think that is something that we should be doing now. I think it’s important to act according to your principles. Holding doors open only for women or giving your seat up on the tube only for women allows us to continue in a patriarchal society. I really believe in gentlemanliness, in terms of manners and decency, but I feel that should be extended to all without any kind of prejudice. If I was to hold a door open for someone, I’d do it for whether they were young or old, male or female. A great quality to uphold is tradition, but it’s where traditions just keep people pinned down that I disagree with.
How do you relax from work?
I love watching films, and I like reading and listening to podcasts, hanging out with friends and cooking for friends. My girlfriend jokes that most ‘lads’ talk about football, beer and women, and instead we talk about cooking.
Which actor would you most like to work with and why?
I think Gary Oldman would be pretty amazing, he’s just got integrity and never seems to sell out. All of his characters are so well formed. And as a celebrity or personality? He doesn’t really concern himself with that. There’s a difference between a movie star and an actor, and yes he’s a movie star, but he’s a proper actor. I’d also love to work with Christopher Walken, on set it would be absolutely mad.
How does it feel to be deemed a ‘hunk’ by the audience of Midsomer Murders?
Um, I had no idea of the fact, I think it’s hysterical, I think it’s great. It’s flattering to be considered the hunk, but it’s all about context, really… I don’t think I’d be considered a hunk if you put me up against the cast of the Avengers.
How was/is the experience of working with Emily Watson?
She’s a phenomenal actress. She operates on another plain I think, and really kind of puts herself through the mill. Some actors feign real emotional experience, and pretend to go there, but she really puts herself through there, with dignity, with power, y’know… she’s a strong woman. But she’s not showy, or egotistical about it, she just does things with integrity. I learnt a lot from her.
If your 10-year-old self was to look at what you had become now, would he be happy? Did 10 year old Gwil picture himself like this?
I’d be happy, yeah, I can’t believe it! Really and truly I can’t believe it. I live in London, this is an amazing city and I often have to pinch myself to realise that this is true. People travel from all over the world to see this city, and I’m just cycling in it, doing something that I absolutely adore. I’ve got family and friends and a great life, and I’m an actor!