Ben Lloyd-Hughes: 'There's a danger of becoming obsessed with making big public proclamations of your own success'
PUBLISHED: 08:00 18 May 2017
ZOE PASKETT talks to Hackney local Ben Lloyd-Hughes about his starring role in Kiss Me, making big life choices and retaining an air of mystery in the era of social media
There are endless tales of actors who never got the main part at school (Maggie Smith and Carey Mulligan to name a couple), who overcame their teachers’ lack of faith in them to become stars.
Ben Lloyd-Hughes first came into contact with the brutality of the acting industry at a young age.
“In primary school, I was the only one in my year who didn’t get cast in the school play and I was devastated, completely devastated, and that could have set the ball in motion of ‘I will have my revenge’ – my gladiator moment.
“It’s one of the many pieces of rejection that has stung, that I have tattooed on my soul,” he laughs.
Thankfully, though, it didn’t last long and by secondary school, the Hackney actor was “definitely the lead, not the dark horse”.
When a breakthrough role in the first series of Skins as a teenager prompted him to change his mind about university in favour of Guildhall, Lloyd-Hughes started asking himself why he needed to make these decisions at such a young age.
This is a feeling that returned during preparation for his role as the erudite Will in the Divergent series alongside Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley and Theo James.
The premise of the series lies in a futuristic society divided into factions, where young people must choose a faction to commit to for life or risk being outcast.
“I really responded to that,” he says. “I felt it really touched on that idea of being forced as a young person to decide on your future. I remember feeling quite stressed about it as a young teenager, just even in choosing which GCSEs I was going to do and which A Levels and it felt like narrowing down when, really, how did we even know who we were?”
While a risk at the time, now it seems to have paid off as he has taken on a large variety of roles, some weighty – Bentley Drummle in the starstudded 2012 Great Expections; Tsar Alexander in the BBCs recent big budget War and Peace – and some…other – Ed Miliband in satirical docudrama Miliband of Brothers, with his own brother Henry playing David.
He has a few films in post-production and has just wrapped up filming a crowdfunded film called Self Help: A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life, with Katie Brayben and Poppy Roe.
What’s up next though is a return to the stage to reprise his role in Richard Bean’s Kiss Me. Debuting at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs at the end of 2016, it transfers to the Trafalgar Studios in June. As a new play, Lloyd-Hughes was the first actor to get his hands on the role.
“It’s really exciting and thrilling, because in the theatre world it feels particularly rare to get that opportunity. So often you’ll be treading in someone else’s shoes.
“Every day in rehearsals you really feel like you’re building a story and a character that no one will have seen before – it’s quite a rush.”
The multi-award winning playwright Bean, best known in recent years for success with One Man, Two Guvnors, was the hook that first snared Lloyd-Hughes, but it was when he got to read the script that he was truly reeled in.
“It was one of those scripts you get where you really want to walk into the room straight away and audition for it. I was so caught by the concept, by this story and by my character.”
This is a love story set against the backdrop of post-World War I England, where many women have lost their husbands. Claire Lams plays Stephanie, a recent widow who still longs for a baby.
“I am someone who goes around war widows’ houses who want to have babies,” says Lloyd-Hughes.
”I go around…providing a service, a very interesting and peculiar service and the play deals with the question of what would one of those scenarios be like? How would that play out? What happens if maybe they have a connection? It asks a lot of questions about intimacy and relationships and sex and love.”
Exploring these themes in the early 20th century “asks big questions about what feminism meant then” he says, at a time when women were picking up the pieces and taking on roles that they might not have been able to without the absence of men, becoming “more liberated by default”.
Our views of what makes a so-called “modern woman” often centre on openness about sexuality and a desire not to appear repressed, which makes the era in which this play is set an interesting context.
“There was a time when everything happened behind closed doors, we really didn’t share anything,” he says.
“There was no sense of talking about love and our feelings in the open and it’s definitely destructive to these people but also there’s something liberating to the fact that they can do certain things behind closed doors and there is a secret world that they can go to. I think secret worlds exist less and less nowadays as things seem to be so public and documented.”
Being in the public eye, Lloyd-Hughes is perhaps more aware of the lack of privacy and “secret worlds” but we are all just as at risk of losing their confidentiality through what we share online.
“I’m not on social media in any shape or form,” he says. “Sometimes I wonder whether it’s naïve of me to not be. I used to be on Facebook and Twitter and stuff but I felt everything was so fraudulent. It was impossible to be true to oneself and not to be fake and artificial in the search to look cool or impressive.
“I think as an actor there’s certainly the danger of losing any true mystery to oneself, but then at the same time that sounds pretentious, but then there’s the danger of becoming so obsessed with making big public proclamations of your own success that it becomes a bit nauseating.”
Despite his roles in film and tv, he can still enjoy his life in Hackney without being bothered – playing football in Haggerston Park, using Hackney library for his book club, his favourite café, Healthy Stuff on Dalston Lane, where he has a good chat with owner Benedict: “We mainly just talk about both of us being called Benedict.”
Kiss Me opens June 6 at Trafalgar Studios and runs until July 8.