An Interview With… Stephen Walters

Hi everyone, this evening I’m honoured to welcome Liverpool acting royalty Stephen Walters. Stephen joined me for a chat to discuss his journey into the industry, his career highlights and his favourite roles to date.

Over to you, Stephen…

1) How did you first become involved in the industry? Was it something that you always wanted to do? Did you have any other career plans?

It’s a cliche but I don’t know if I found acting or it found me. All I know is that your blessed in life, if you find a passion or something you’re good at.

The seeds were sown at high school. Watching ‘children’s drama’ on television I thought I could give it a go. There was one actor from Liverpool called George Christopher. He was on a show called Grange Hill and in the back of my mind I thought “I could do that”. Years later he approached me at Lime street station and I thanked him for being one of my initial inspirations.

There was a local agency “ART” run by the Liverpool actor Ricky Tomlinson. A childhood friend and I kept going into the office asking for an audition!! It just so happened there was one going at Granada studios. There were hundreds of kids there, a few recalls and eventually I got the part. It was called “Ghost Story” part of what was then a popular kids series called “Dramarama”. Gary Oldman appeared in one who I have just worked with Gary on a new Apple + series Slow Horses.

The director Julian Jarrold I also worked with again on Touching Evil with the actor Robson Green. I also ended up playing Ricky Tomlinson in a sky arts drama called Ragged directed by Johnny Vegas. It was about the time he served 2 years in solitary confinement for an offence he was only just recently cleared of. It was known as the Shrewsbury 2.

I couldn’t have known any of this at the time but it’s startling to me when I think about all the subsequent co-incidences. As from then on there was no plan B. My time at Southport collage doing a performing arts course also solidified my thinking – there was nothing else I wanted to do.

2) Did you enjoy drama school? Are there any fond or particular favourite memories that stand out?

Drama school was like an important chapter to my journey. It was more a life experience really. We had a Russian acting teacher named Rudi Shelley, a lovely Jewish man who fled the perils of nazism whilst most of his family sadly perished in the Holocaust. He had wonderful words of wisdom like “find out for yourself”, “Acting is the art of reacting”, “go and watch bad drama’s-learn what not to do”!! A wonderful man.

It was a very middle class establishment. There was a lot of privilege there and prima Donna attitude. I was from a working class estate and I believe it meant more to me than most – I had a hunger and desire to be an actor. There was also no security of a safe job to fall back on. That’s nobody’s fault by the way, but more of an intellectual hindsight.

Thankfully at that time there was a discretionary award by the local council for people who got into a drama school – they don’t exist anymore. One of my earth angels, the Liverpool writer Alan Bleasdale wrote me a glowing reference and I got in. The irony of ironies is because I left early as I had booked a television show.

3) Your career has varied between television, film and theatre. Which of the three would you say is your favourite and why?

I prefer TV and film. I always felt the theatre to be over rated in terms of how hard it is. Michael Caine put it more succinctly. “Theatre is an operation with a scalpel, film is an operation with a laser”.

If anything the process of filming is harder and more complex in many ways. There are lots of breaks, set ups, turn around etc…whereas theatre is done in “one go”. Is as much about conserving energy as it is using it. It’s a discipline of concentration whilst at the same time being relaxed. I think the lense also see’s the eyes, the “truth of a performance” and there’s no place to hide. An actor can be believable on stage but not on camera. I’ve always found that dichotomy interesting. There’s a certain artifice of false projection and “ham/ over the top acting” on stage(not always)that I also don’t appreciate. If I had to choose, I like mistakes, a warts and all approach to performance, as opposed to any form of technical precision.

4) When you read a script, what do you pay attention to in particular? Does the character leap off the page for you? What makes you think ‘Yes, I want to play this role!’?

I think there has to be a reaction, or an instinct to want to play a part. Sometimes you do get a strong feeling for it – it is a sense you can play it or bring something unique to it. It’s mostly a visceral reaction and it’s often a composite of things really. Whether it be your real life experience, your imagination, the writing or the another actors and even the location. It’s a mix of all of these things, to a large or small degree have an impact on any part I play.

But everyone has a different approach and it’s subjective.

5) How much research, typically, would you do for a role? For example, when you played Thomas Malone in Shetland? How did you find the experience of the character?

We filmed in a Scottish prison for Shetland and I picked the brains of any prison in mate I could find. You’re always looking for clues as a actor. These can range from ideas, it could be a physical look or a physical demeanour or an accent etc. I had done a show called “Outlander” were I was well versed in the Scottish brogue via a brilliant voice coach called Carol Anne Crawford.

Making Shetland an actor/director named Ronnie Goodwin assisted me throughout, mostly on the phone and recording lines etc. Just phrasing, syllables, inflections, tone etc. Once you nail the accent, you can forget about it and focus on the rest of the performance. Funnily enough people are always impressed by accents but I’m not. It’s find it a prerequisite to playing any part. What’s the point of a perfect accent alongside an average or uninspired performance? You might as well hire an impersonator otherwise.

6) Are there any projects that you have particularly enjoyed working on? What specific projects have been a career highlight for you?

The next part is always the best one.😂.  It’s lovely if people remind me of a part I’ve played or if it’s effected them in some way but honestly once it’s over it’s done for me when it’s finished.

Of recent times “Anne”. This really resonated with the audience and it’s a part I’m proud of. The challenge of that role was primarily how to play “silent grief” and Maxine Peake was a lovely screen partner to have.

I did a drama called “Blood on the Dole” over 25 years ago. It was when I saw that film that I thought I had half a chance of making a career out of this. Alan Bleasdale opened my eyes to the possibility of this profession and he was one of my greatest early influences. As recent as this year people still mention that job so the work can have a life of its own.

7) Do you have any advice to offer actors wanting to start out in the industry?

To actors starting out I say follow your heart and don’t listen to negativity. I say remember it’s a long road and it’s not a race. If there is something “inside of you” that you need to express, you will find a way of doing it. It’s a difficult path with many set backs but it’s also rewarding beyond words. I think it all comes down to “the need” to do a certain thing.

8) Coming from Liverpool, would you like to see more television programmes set and based here?

Coming from anywhere really I just want to see good drama. There been good and bad dramas made in Liverpool. I’ve been in both versions of that description.😂. It’s all subjective. If the story and characters are “good” I would love to see it in Liverpool.

9) How have you been coping during lockdown? As an actor, how has lockdown affected you?

Lockdown was difficult for a lot of people, especially those who lost loved ones, contracted Corona or were isolated in general. Personally speaking it was a time to reflect. I taught my son at home alot and enjoyed home schooling him. I also write a lot which is cathartic in many ways. I have numerous tv/film scripts and novels on the go.

10) What is a typical weekend for you, and what do you enjoy doing away from work?

Life away from work is way more important than the work. It never used to be but it’s important to have balance. Without it there is nothing to impact or infuse the craft. It’s why I don’t have many actor friends!!😂.  Actors can tend to be very self involved. When I work it’s my total world and focus. When I don’t it’s not and I hardly think about it.

I love to be with my boy, to write, swim, play music, compose, see my dad, go the cinema, go the beach, take long car drives, laugh hard. I’m always in some form consciously creating I like to think.

Thank you for your time this evening Stephen, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

An Interview With… Jamie Cowen

Hi everyone, this afternoon I’m delighted to welcome Jamie Cowen to the blog. Jamie is a literary agent at The Ampersand Agency and very kindly answered my questions on what he looks for in submissions and pitching to publishers.

Over to you, Jamie…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always want to be a literary agent when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

Kind of by accident, really. I’d always loved books and reading, but left university with no clear idea of what I wanted to do. Then my mum (who worked in publishing her whole career) walloped me over the head with a copy of The Bookseller when I was attempting to sleep in on a Tuesday, telling me to apply for some jobs, so I did. This resulted in an interview for a job as a Contracts Assistant at HarperCollins, and I didn’t look back.

2) What authors did you grow up reading? Did any of these authors inspire your current list?

All sorts really, but lots of fantasy, horror and SF as a teenager (Tolkien, Stephen King, Iain M. Banks, Asimov, Ursula Le Guin among many others) has I suppose had an effect on the list I’ve built as an agent.

3) What do you look for from a covering email? How concise should the pitch for the manuscript be?

I look for an expression of personality in an email, as well as an ability to write a good letter. Pitches should always be as concise as possible, and make me want to read the sample text.

4) When you open a submission package, what do you turn to first? What captures your attention, the synopsis or the sample writing?

Always the writing. A synopsis is just a tool really, so I always start with the writing, and if that seems exciting, original and of a high standard then I’ll take a look at the synopsis afterwards to see where the story goes.

5) How do you know when you have connected with a manuscript? Is it always love at first read?

You just… know, I think. In the same way as anyone who listens to a new song, or sees a play or a movie and falls for it, so it is with books.

6) How important is a sense of place to you in a submission? Where in the North would you love to see a novel set and why? Where in the South would you love to see a novel set and why?

I think it depends on the story. Some are very much rooted in a place and others aren’t; neither is automatically superior in my view. I’ll admit to not having any deep connection to anywhere in particular in the north of England, but as a Londoner I’d love to see a grimy gangland novel set in Tottenham, or a thriller set around the Brixton Riots, or anything which really digs into a specific part of the city.

7) What do you look for in a character that leaps off the page? When do they start to become real for you?

Voice is the key. Writing a character whose mannerisms, whether internal or spoken, are really characterful and well thought through is obviously not easy, but is always the key to an amazing story.

8) How do you feel when you email an author to request the rest of their manuscript? How do you feel when you offer representation and think ‘I really want to represent this writer!’

Super excited! Those stages, plus the submission process, are some of the most thrilling parts of the job.

9) How do you navigate pitching to publishers? Do you ever get nervous? How do you feel when you let the author know that their book is going to be published?

I’m constantly nervous when pitching books, as I’m always aware of the responsibility on my shoulders. I like to think that the anxiety is a sign that I care about my authors and therefore my pitches of their books, but it doesn’t change the nerves! Nothing in this job really compares to the moment you call an author to tell them that you’ve received an offer for their book. Being able to pass on the news that a client’s writing will be published to the world is just the greatest privilege, and I’ll never get bored of it.

10) What do you enjoy doing away from work? What is a typical weekend for you?

Time with family, playing football, cooking and eating, long walks with the dog, shorter walks with the dog that end in the pub, that sort of thing!

Thank you for your time today Jamie, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Jamie Cowen is the Managing Director of The Ampersand Agency. He has worked in publishing for 19 years, including time at HarperCollins and Hachette, before becoming a literary agent in 2013. He represents a diverse list of authors of commercial fiction and non-fiction, as well as handling day to day running of the agency.

10 Questions With… Sam Copeland

Hi everyone, and this morning on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Sam Copeland. Sam is a children’s fiction author, but in his day job he is a literary agent for Rogers, Coleridge and White Literary Agency. He answers my questions on all things writing, and challenging it was to try and find an agent.

Over to you, Sam…

1) As a literary agent, how was the jump to being a writer alongside your day job? Have you always wanted to write? NOT REALLY. IT WAS TOO MUCH A DISTANT DREAM, TOO WILD. BECOMING A WRITER HAS OPENED UP A TAP WHICH I CAN’T TURN UP NOW. 

2) I know you write children’s fiction. How do you come up with your ideas and why did you choose this genre? THE GENRE CHOSE ME. I COULDN’T IMAGINE WRITING ANYTHING ELSE. I HAVE NO DESIRE TO WRITE ANYTHING ELSE. AND HOW DOES ANYBODY COME UP WITH IDEAS? I PLUCK THEM OUT OF THE ETHER..

3) What comes first for you when you write? Is it plot, character or theme you would like to explore? EACH BOOK HAS A DIFFERENT GENESIS. SOME START WITH AN, SOME START WITH A CHARACTER. SOME START WITH A SENTENCE, SOME WITH A VOICE.

4) Was it daunting finding an agent for your work? How did you find the submission process? YES – INCREDIBLY. IT WAS SO DAUNTING I SENT MY SUBMISSION ANONYMOUSLY. I WAS TOO WORRIED ABOUT BEING A LAUGHING STOCK IN THE INDUSTRY.

5) What is your planning stage like before you start writing? A brief synopsis does it for me, but every writer is different. YES, I’M NOT SO GREAT AT PLANNING. OFTEN I START A DAY OF WRITING WITHOUT A SINGLE CLUE WHAT I AM GOING TO WRITE. SO, YES, THE BAREST BONES OF A PLAN BEFORE I START..

6) After your manuscript is finished and sent to your agent and editor, how do you feel? Can you describe it? SHEER TERROR WAITING FOR THEM TO GET BACK TO ME!

7) What is the post publication process like? How soon would you start writing the next book? THE PUBLICATION PROCESS IS HUGELY ANXIETY-PROVOKING, SO I TRY STARTING TO WRITE A BOOK AS SOON AS I HAVE DELIVERED A BOOK.

8) What was the last children’s book you read? What did you enjoy about it? I REPRESENT A NUMBER OF CHILDREN’S WRITERS, AND I AM LUCKY TO READ EARLY DRAFTS OF THEIR BOOKS. THE MOST RECENT IS THE LATEST BOOK BY JENNY PEARSON, WHO IS AN ACTUAL GENUIS.

9) As a writer, how has the pandemic affected you? I WROTE A LOT! I WROTE A BOOK COMING IN JANUARY WHICH WAS DEEPLY AFFECTED BY THE PANDEMIC AND IS ABOUT A GIRL EMBRACING FREEDOM AFTER BEING TOO TERRIFIED TO LEAVE HER HOUSE.

10) What is your music taste like? I prefer the classics and some standout seventies bands like Slade, Queen and AC/DC when I write. Do you listen to music when you write? I HAVE VERY DIVERSE MUSIC TASTE. HOWEVER WHEN I WRITE, I NEED TO HAVE SILENCE – OCCASSIONALLY CLASSICAL MUSIC, BUT MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, SILENCE!

Thank you for your time today Sam, it has been a pleasure to have you on the blog. All the best with your writing!

Bio: Sam Copeland is an author. He is from Manchester and now lives in London with two smelly cats, three smelly children and one relatively clean-smelling wife. He works as a chicken whisperer, travelling the world using his unique gift to tame wild chickens. Charlie Changes Into a Chicken is his first book. It was followed by the sequel Charlie Turns Into a T-Rex, and the third in the series – Charlie Morphs into a Mammoth – which was published in February 2020. His latest book Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything was released in January 2021. He has more books to come in 2022, including Greta and the Ghost Hunters in January 2022 and a joint novel with top author Jenny Pearson. Despite numerous legal threats, he is refusing to stop writing.

SERIOUS BIT: he is also a literary agent and director at Rogers, Coleridge and White and you can find out about that part of him by clicking here. You can follow him on Twitter here and on Instagram here. You can go to his Facebook page here. You can even go to his Goodreads page here.

An Interview With… Kevin Doyle

Hi everyone, and this evening on the blog I’m delighted to welcome actor Kevin Doyle. Kevin is known for the role of Mr Molesley in the smash hit ITV period drama Downton Abbey. He was kind enough to have a chat about some of my favourite roles of his and how his career began.

Over to you, Kevin…

1) How did you first become involved in the industry? Did you always want to be an actor growing up or did you have any other career plans for after you left school?

I come from a family with no connection to the industry and growing up in the north of England in the 1970’s it didn’t occur to me that it was an option in life. Up until I was 18 I had no real interest in acting. What changed was the fact that over a period of a couple of years I became surrounded by friends who were interested in acting and talked of drama school. I think the influence of friends at that age can’t be overstated. At 18 years old, I had no idea what I was going to do.

University wasn’t going to happen for me and so I guess I latched on to my friends dreams and worked really hard to make them a reality for me. I applied to the Guildhall School of Drama and they accepted me – that one afternoon in December 1978 literally changed my life. I was on a path that was completely unexpected and alien.

2) Your career has varied between film, television and theatre. Which of the three would you say is your favourite and why?

It’s a question I’m asked quite frequently and my answer has always been that I’m very lucky to be able to switch between them all and as a result I look forward to the changes and the challenges that each offers. In theatre you have to be responsible for so much more of your performance. It depends on whether or not you can be seen and heard, the timing of your entrances etc. But on a film set others take those responsibilities: the sound department, make up, costume etc. You just have to concentrate on your acting.

3) I first saw you as serial killer Geoff Hastings in Scott and Bailey, back in 2011. When you were offered the role, how did you go about your research on murderers? What was it about the character that jumped out at you?

I didn’t do research specifically for that role but I suppose I have over the years read a number of books on people who have done some pretty dark things or endured some trauma in their life (Killing for Company about the life of Dennis Nielsen was I think an extraordinary journalistic achievement).

I’ve played several parts where extreme violence has occurred and I think the thing I always try to do is to recognise the human being and not the acts they’ve committed. I don’t believe in evil, I think that’s a lazy way for society to pigeonhole people. I have to believe that anybody, under certain circumstances is capable of doing self- serving or abhorrent acts. I think by accepting that, I can then begin to try and understand their journey. An audience has to be able to recognise the humanity of someone no matter how terrible their crimes.

4) I have since seen you as Mr Molesley in Downton Abbey, written by Julian Fellowes. What attracted you to this particular role? Did you enjoy revisiting the character in the film version?

That part has evolved over the years. To start with he was a very withdrawn person whose pride in his job was being undermined by his new employer and he had to just take it on the chin. Over the years as Julian and I have lived with the character we’ve seen him grow and slowly become more confident. We’ve just finished filming the second movie which I’m hoping will see him flourish in new ways.

5) In the second series of Happy Valley by Sally Wainwright, you played DS John Wadsworth. What did you find about the character that drew you to the role?

I just loved the slowly increasing desperation of the man. Trying to remain calm to family and professional to work mates while becoming more and more ragged and out of control.

6) How did you find your current agent?

I was told when I was younger that changing agents was akin to leaving a romantic relationship and in a way it is. I’ve done it twice in 40 years and it’s a horrible process. Like leaving a partner it’s a slowly evolving awareness that things aren’t really where you want them to be and so eventually someone says something. The good thing however is that on the whole the agents recognise that it’s not personal, simply business. My agents who I’ve been with for 30 years now approached me while I was working at the Royal Shakespeare Company. They’d heard my previous agents was retiring and met me for a chat.

7) As an actor, how has the pandemic affected you? Is there anything that you miss about the day to day routines of being on a set?

Apart from about 3 months in 2020 when everything shut down, my work hasn’t really been affected. Obviously day to day working life is very different (and a hell of a lot more expensive for the producers -something I was on fairly recently required 14,500 PCR tests over a period of a few months – you can imagine how much that cost).

Because everyone is currently masked up on set, it’s difficult to have the same kind of working relationship with people – for a start if it’s early on in the production I’m never quite sure who I’m talking to and so friendships can’t evolve in quite the same way, and as half the enjoyment of going to work is the relationships you build with people, then that is a considerable loss.

8) What are you currently watching on television? Do you have a favourite programme that you watch religiously?

The same as everyone else – Succession, Curb your Enthusiasm. I always go back to Seinfeld.

9) What are you currently reading? Can you choose between fiction and non fiction? Do you have a favourite genre?

I flit between crime novels and History books. I’ve been reading a few books about the early Christian church – I’m fascinated by the extraordinary difference between what we know of the life of Jesus and what the established Church becomes. I’ve also just read a terrific book by Sarah Win an called Still Life. I heartily recommend.

10) In preparation for a role, do you sometimes listen to music to get you in your character’s mindset? As a writer, I feel that it sometimes helps.

No I don’t feel the need to do any of that. I just try and respond to what’s on the page.

Thank you for your time today Kevin, it has been a pleasure to interview you. I can’t wait to see the new Downton Abbey film!

Bio: Kevin is known to many as Joseph Molesley in DOWNTON ABBEY, the ensemble cast of which have received international critical acclaim – most recently to the tune of winning the SAG Award 2016 for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series. The hit series was recently adapted for the big screen and instantly became a box office hit. DOWNTON ABBEY 2 is due for release in spring 2022. Kevin has recently finished filming the second series of Netflix’ record breaking series THE WITCHER, where he plays the role of Ba’Lian. Kevin will soon feature in the much anticipated series SHERWOOD for BBC. Kevin played John Wadsworth in BAFTA winning British series HAPPY VALLEY, and starred in ITV mini-series PARANOID. He most recently tread the boards in the leading role of Orgon in Blanche McIntyre’s production of TARTUFFE at the National Theatre, FANNY & ALEXANDER at the prestigious Old Vic, and followed Headlong Theatre’s production of THIS HOUSE from its Chichester run to the West End’s Garrick Theatre.

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