Great actors thrive under great teachers. Alan Perrott talks with the “great” of Britain’s theatrical tutors — Kiwi Ken Rea.
"This producer just looked up and told her, 'Everything's wrong with your face. You'll never have a future in film'."
And that, says Ken Rea, could have been it for Dame Judi Dench's career.
"She was only in her early 20s. She was so devastated."
But, instead, Dench dug in and kept working. Until it happened again. This time, she was a veteran in her 60s, with a huge body of work behind her, auditioning for a series with American producers.
"And they'd never heard of her," says Rea. So she set about proving herself all over again, eventually becoming a Dame and, up until Quantum of Solace, James Bond's M.
"That's grit," says Rea. "If you're knocked down seven times, you have to get up eight."
Dench's grit is one of seven qualities to be found within all outstanding actors, says 67-year-old Rea - and he's seen a few.
With almost four decades as senior acting teacher at London's internationally respected Guild Hall, the expat New Zealander has taught well-known actors including Ewan McGregor, Orlando Bloom, Michelle Dockery, David Thewlis, Damian Lewis, Joseph Fiennes and Daniel Craig.
In 2008 he celebrated his 30th anniversary at Guild Hall with several of his ex-students turning up to pay their own tributes. McGregor spoke of Rea's intimidation factor: "When I know he's in the house when I'm on stage, I still get the wobbles." Bloom talked of "the lessons I never stop learning". Lewis remembered his spirit: "It wafted around rehearsal rooms like a soothing balm."
So, you'd think Rea might be able to spot a future star at 20 paces.
"No, unfortunately not, but the question of what those who make it do that others don't is something that really obsesses me."
To the point that Rea's written The Outstanding Actor, in which he mingles his seven qualities with the thoughts of stars such as Dame Judi.
Few would have picked Rea as a world-class teacher during his time at Rotorua Boys' High School in the 60s.
"We had this English teacher, Bill Hendry. He'd suddenly shut his book and say, 'Right, we've finished the curriculum, now let's talk about philosophy'. Then we'd discuss all sorts of ideas and he'd play us some Beethoven or read some Ken Kesey. I thought he was very good."
After seeing the sets the young teen put together for a school production, Hendry took him aside: "Take my advice Ken," he said. "Take your designs and go to London."
Auckland had to do for starters. It was 1965 and the Rotorua Boys' dux was set for university when his parents told him he needed a more "bread and butter" approach to life. "Get a job and a haircut," they said, so he signed on at the country's first advertising agency, Charles Haines, as a visualiser. It wasn't what Rea expected.
"Everyone there wanted to be something else." Whether it was acting, writing or pottery, his colleagues treated work as a time-filler for when they weren't doing what they loved, so he followed suit and joined the Central Theatre.
His interest in acting, especially radical free-form acting, grew and he co-founded the Living Theatre Troupe in New Zealand, which, after becoming a fixture at political protests, bought a truck and took their act to the provinces. At one point there would be an impromptu truck race when they encountered another group, Bruno Lawrence's infamous Blerta, on some lonely road.
But Rea - who was back in Auckland recently to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Living Theatre Troupe - still saw himself as "a weekend hippie" and he wanted to go full-time. So, with the 60s fast closing, he joined the Mercury Theatre where, among many roles, he played Edmund in Sir George Henare's King Lear and the horse under Rawiri Paratene in Equus.
Come 1973 and Rea was in Wellington with Downstage Theatre before getting a steady (paying) part on our first television soap opera, Close To Home.
Serial television was hard work. Not only did they shoot three episodes a week, they filmed on video and the difficulties in splicing meant it was easier to build three sets alongside each other and perform scenes back to back as a single running shot. If someone mucked up the very last line, they had to start all over again.
Then he got another big idea and, in 1975, armed with an arts grant and his savings, he trekked around the Far East, studying every form of theatre he could find, intending to establish a new company when he returned. After studying Balinese topeng mask dancing and Japanese kabuki theatre, a friend with contacts high in the Chinese Communist Party got him behind the Bamboo Curtain.
Chairman Mao was still (barely) alive and the madness of the Cultural Revolution was still in effect. It was a rare opportunity, even if Rea shudders slightly at the memory.
"I had two guides taking me everywhere there was political theatre, but I never knew what was really going on. I was taken to a commune farm and they'd be working away in a field then break into patriotic song the moment I walked by. I didn't find out till later that they were being tortured. I was in the middle of an amazingly well-oiled propaganda machine."
Rea decided against returning home, instead flying to London where he started writing for The Guardian newspaper. When he heard an opera version of a play he'd performed with Grafton Theatre was in production, he dropped by the rehearsals for a look. It turned out the director was a kabuki fan and their conversation finished with an invitation to run some classes. Then the company's voice teacher mentioned another friend who also liked kabuki and taught at a drama school in London. "You should do some classes there, too."
The drama school turned out to be Guild Hall and a few classes turned into a year, which became five and so on.
"Right from the start I was learning so much I kept thinking I had to write a book. It just took 30 years to find the time."
His work at Guild Hall is demanding, with Rea doing all he can to strip students of emotional "clutter" and take them back to an almost childlike state in which they can do anything without fear.
"It isn't therapy, though. I make that very clear from the start. We have only one goal and that's to give people a good night out."
Despite the three-year course's annual fees of almost $40,000 , its annual intake of 26 students still attracts about 2600 applications.
But, he says, the production line of big names has been a relatively recent phenomenon and it was only when the teachers were looking back on Joseph Fiennes' class that they noticed something interesting - future stars are never alone. Fiennes was in the same year as Homeland's Damian Lewis while Ewan McGregor graduated with Dominic West, and on it goes.
"I talked to Damian about this," says Rea, "he thinks there's something in the competition within the class and the exhilaration that produces. They egg each other on and that carries through into their careers."
Which got Rea thinking: what can they do to produce more vintage years? It was the question that led to him nailing down the seven qualities or values shared by successful students: warmth, generosity, optimism, danger, charisma, grit and presence (he's considering changing this to "mana").
When it comes to generosity, charisma and presence, Rea remembers the day Al Pacino spoke to his class. "Everyone was in total awe until he got up, spread his arms wide and declared [assumes Pacino accent], 'I love being here, talking ... we're a family, a family of actors.' In seconds he'd created this warmth, this incredible rapport. He was fantastic."
Rea also saw a certain charisma in Michelle Dockery from the start. The Downton Abbey star was a second year student when she joined some classmates in performing Shakespearian love sonnets at a genuine country manor.
"She's nothing like the character she plays at all and was amazed by the scale of this house. But it was the children of everyone there; it was her they followed around. She has this wonderful quality to her."
Rea also sees a little Dench in the current James Bond: "Daniel didn't pop up out of the blue as Bond. He'd already been on 20 different television shows, just working, working, working. He wasn't like Ewan McGregor, who arrived at the right time with the right face for Trainspotting. Daniel didn't fit in like that, but he kept going, taking all the work he could, until his big chance came along and he grabbed it despite all the flak over his blond hair. Again, it was the right time. I can guarantee you he would never have been considered for that part 10 or even five years earlier."
But it's with danger that Rea is most associated. His constant demands for students to take risks on stage and in their careers has led to an in-joke in which the appropriate response to any criticism is: "Yeah, but was I dangerous?"
It's for their own good, says Rea. "When Damian [Lewis] was working with Tom Hanks on Band of Brothers, he asked him about the roles he takes. Tom said he had a brand to maintain, the little American who struggles against adversity and comes out on top in the end. If he departs from that, his fans won't follow him. Damian thought that was quite sad, a great star having to protect a brand. That's one of the downsides of success; it can brand you. On the other hand, if you take risks, if you're unpredictable, you can do pretty much anything."
As for who's the next to make it big, Rea has a couple of picks. He has a lot of faith in Orlando Bloom - "he can be dangerous" - and has high hopes that once he shakes the pretty boy image he'll widen his range hugely. He also expects a lot of Freddie Fox.
"He's [actor] Edward Fox's son and while the research says you don't inherit the star gene, I think he'll do well. He's very good at managing his career and he already has the confidence of mixing in those circles.
"But you have to expect there will be others, especially given all the talk - especially since the Oscars - about why British actors seem to be winning everything. What's special about them? If I had to get it in a nutshell I'd say the best ones have a sense of play, a healthy belief in themselves and a generosity of spirit."
Which all boost Rea's stocks at a time when he shows no sign of slowing down. Even when he's not teaching he's offering actorly advice to corporate types looking for a boardroom edge or managing another experimental troupe, Koru Theatre, in London, which is made up of expat Maori actors. In a roundabout way he says they fulfil the aim of the research trip that took him to England in the first place. If a way could be found, he'd love to bring them here.
So, in pretty much every way, Rea's the living embodiment of the 60-year career he tells his students to work toward.
"To start with, we're all the same. We've come from homes, schools, whatever, where everyone tells us how great we are. Then we end up among a group of people who seem even more talented and fall into the 'Oh, I don't think I'm good enough, everyone's better than me'.
"It's the wall we all have to break through to find that delicate balance of ego and selflessness and if you can manage that you've got about 60 years ahead of you; 60 years where you'll move through a whole lot of different casting categories.
"It's about bringing the right kind of energy to each one, being generous, warm, determined, all those things. And if you can manage that and keep your values in place, well, that's success, isn't it?"
The Outstanding Actor (Bloomsbury) by Ken Rea is out now.