From his unforgettable turn as Louis, a small time crook turned murderer in George Clooney’s Suburbicon, to his imminent role as Johannes Brandt in the BBC’s adaptation of Jesse Burton’s best selling novel The Miniaturist, 2017 has been a rather busy year for Alex Hassell. Known primarily for his theatrical roles, first as part of the RSC and later within his own theatre company The Factory, the actor has until now remained largely unknown to the general public, but things are about to change, much to the delight of those who have championed his theatrical output for the last few years.
A few days ago, we were lucky enough to speak to Alex about his upcoming role in The Miniaturist, and about his experiences of working in Hollywood on a production such as Suburbicon, and how that differs from his life as a theatre actor.
First of all, congratulations on such a fantastic performance in the Miniaturist. How much did you know about the story and the book before you got involved in this project?
Thank you! I’d heard about the book, but I hadn’t read it. I was sent the scripts for the episodes by my agent, and the second I started reading them and reading about the character I thought “oh this looks really good”. And by the time I’d read the three scripts in one sitting, I immediately phoned my agent saying I absolutely have to play this part. It’s rare that you feel that certainty about a role, that not only did I really want them to go into battle for me for the part, but I also felt emotionally connected to it and I really wanted to give voice to this person’s story. And luckily, when I went into the audition I was a bit nervous, so the director said “oh, I saw you in the Henrys at the RSC and thought you were brilliant and I’m so pleased you’re here”. And I said “thank God you said that, because I really want to play this part”
You play Johannes Brandt who is a very complex character, was it important for you to have a such a meaty part to get your teeth into?
Absolutely! The arc of the story is huge over the course of the whole thing, and what I liked about all the characters, and particularly Johannes, is that they’re all really complex and layered and contradictory and multifaceted. They all act in the most selfish and unhelpful ways for other people, and are drawn around by internal tensions and difficulties and blind spots, whilst trying to navigate their way through very difficult and turbulent emotional and political waters.
Can we talk about the shoot, I believe this was done between London and Amsterdam. How did you find that?
I unfortunately didn’t get to go to Amsterdam, I think it was actually in a place just outside of Amsterdam. I didn’t get to go because all of my stuff was indoors, so we filmed it in London in this massive house that was actually the location for The Crown shoot, at the same time, so we were sort of swapping rooms…..but sadly didn’t get to meet in costume. [laughs]
What people might also find really interesting, is to see how the whole golden-age era of Dutch painting was so expertly translated onto the screen in such meticulous way.
Yes, and apparently this period is rarely on film, it looks quite exotic I think. And also the production and lighting design was so amazing…and a great deal of the lighting was done with natural candle-light which to me was extraordinary.
How did you feel to be suddenly transported into that world? Did you know much about that era?
Yes, a little…it was very much like being in a Vermeer or Rembrandt painting…… It was wonderful to be part of the attention to detail too, really on every level. In terms of the script and obviously Jesse’s writing and the world that she’s created, it was such a wonderful thing to be part of.
Most people would probably know you more from your stage work, how different was it for you to be involved in this a big TV production?
I think it’s entirely fair to say that I’ve done a great deal more theatre, or had a lot more responsibility in theatre than I had in TV or film. I was not long out of the RSC where I had just finished a 2 and half year stint, then did Suburbicon obviously…so I was interested in doing more TV and film. I mean…I absolutely love theatre, it’s in my bones, and I have a theatre company in which I act and direct…it’s a big part of my life, but I feel I know a great deal less about the process of acting for camera essentially. I like a challenge, and I’m not saying I’ve nothing left to learn about theatre, because of course I have, but I really like the idea of going “ well, I’ve got no idea what I’m doing”.
Can you tell us more about your theatre company?
It’s called The Factory, and we’ve been going for about 10 years now and we’re working on a version of Macbeth at the moment which I’m directing. Essentially the reason that the company was formed was to try and create a place primarily for actors, although writers and directors are also involved, where you could constantly hone your craft on very difficult complex projects. We have lots more people involved in these projects than you would normally have in a performance and we all play multiple roles and swap parts. So essentially, we would play every Sunday, and you can go and work on a TV or film project and then the production can still happen because you’re not the only person depended upon to play your part.
How did it feel to go from working on a very small scale in theatre and TV to working on such a huge production like Suburbicon? Was that daunting for you?
It was totally mental and terrifying. My first day on on set for that, was my first day on any set in three years. I hadn’t done anything for film or TV in three years, and obviously I always wanted to move on to films, and being in a film written by the Coen Brothers, and staring Matt Damon and Juliane Moore was like a dream come true for me.
How long were you on set, was it a fairly quick turn around?
About two or so months together, in LA on the Warner Brothers lot. And it was really interesting…I wanted to enjoy the experience and therefore be very honest with myself and everyone one else about how exited I was to be there. I was like a competition winner to a degree [laughs], but also to be able to do your job especially with a part like I had, you have to give yourself permission to not be nervous at the same time. So it was an interesting task and I really enjoyed it.
Are you hoping to do more stuff in Hollywood after this?
Well, it really depends on the material to be honest. I have no desire to chase fame and fortune above my day to day experience as an actor really, but I’m really more interested in the script and the people working on it and the experience I would have doing it in the moment. So I’m trying to the best I can to follow those opportunities really.
The Miniaturist will air on 26th and 27th December at 9pm on BBC One.