I encountered Johnny Neal one rainy October afternoon in London’s West End. Like me, the young actor-writer had just finished watching the highly acclaimed Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins in a fascinating play called The Height of the Storm. Our respective parties waited patiently to meet them at the stage door, while huge raindrops struck the canopy threateningly above our ticket stubs and playbills. We inevitably fell into conversation about theatre, and this articulate fellow held my interest on the hard work that he and other young people are doing to achieve their dreams of becoming accomplished actors. Treasured autographs in hand some minutes later, we agreed to revisit the subject in greater detail and under much drier weather conditions by the new year.
How did you get into acting?
I used to watch a lot of Disney movies like any kid. When I was seven, I’d dance along the backs of the sofas to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or whatever was on. My mum thought, “Well, I need to get rid of this energy without destroying my furniture.”
She enrolled me in after-school classes [and then with an] agency for child actors. I started doing professional work and played in this musical called Always, which was absolutely destroyed by critics. It was a huge thing for me because it was a massive event. It was about Edward, the king who abdicated to marry a divorced woman, Mrs. Simpson. It was coming off more on their side, which a lot of people in England didn’t really like. After that, I played Ian McKellen’s son in An Enemy of the People.
An Enemy of the People was a production at the prestigious National Theatre in London. What was it like to work on that play?
I loved working with Ian McKellen. The man is an absolute gem. I remember one night, press night in fact, I fluffed my lines and corpses in front of the whole audience (bearing in mind I was seven). Anyway, after the show, I had to go and apologize to him. I knocked on his door, and there he was celebrating with friends. With utmost contrition in my voice, I apologized, to which he replied, “Not to worry dear boy, it happens to the best of us.”
I saw Sir Ian in 2015 when he came to see F*cking Men at the Kings Head Theatre. We had a drink after the show and I had the opportunity to recount the story to him. After that conversation, I can safely say, however, he has many, many better stories.
Would you define the term “corpsing”?
It’s basically when an actor breaks character and interrupts the moment, like when someone laughs in a scene and you have to cut.
What came next for you after An Enemy of the People?
Later on, I did a Children’s BBC [CBBC] show. It really gave me this good grounding in theatre and professionalism. When I was a teenager, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I did my exams in school and everything kept coming back to acting. I enjoyed science and things like that, but there was nothing I wanted to do for a career or that I had a natural acumen for as much as acting.
What are some of the challenges that working class actors face these days?
I don’t know how it was in America, but in England back in the day, there were kind of two routes into acting. The rich kids would go to drama school and study there. From there, they would be able to get their representation or be seen. But if you were from a poorer background, people like Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen, they would go and join the rep companies. It’s on-the-job training essentially, like doing an apprenticeship in acting. But that has disappeared now and there’s no real support for it in the modern industry.
I think there is a change brewing. The repertory companies, rather than being supported by big theatres, they are private. It still makes it difficult for them to produce work and be seen on a grander scale. I think it’s definitely changing back to that way. Unfortunately, it’s not at the level it once was, to give opportunity to the working class actors who exist in the industry today.
Highlight one or two roles you loved doing in the theatre.
A couple of years ago, I did a play called The Weir, where I got to play the Irish bartender in the middle of nowhere in Leitrim in south Ireland. That was quite a challenge because he’s a very taciturn person, whereas everyone else gets a big monologue. Some characters get two, while he doesn’t have one. His lines are very here, there, and everywhere.
The real challenge was to stay and keep that emotional connection within the play, even though you’re spending the vast majority of your time listening. It really taught me how important it is to maintain that mindset of the character while you’re onstage. In theatre, it’s quite a bit easy to fall into patterns. In film, you’re doing only three to five takes, so you’re constantly going, “What can I do? What can I do?” With theatre, you are doing the same thing over and over again before you even put it in the front of an audience. It’s important to stay engaged. It was a fun role to play because there’s an emotional build-up for that character for the entire thing. But you only see hints of it. I learned a lot about subtlety.
MacBeth was a big one for me as well, back in college. But college is where I really fell in love with Shakespeare. Playing a role as big as MacBeth at that young an age was quite an honor. It taught me a lot about the stagecraft and about myself as a performer. We had a fairly out there director, and he wanted the last few scenes to be like Scarface or Reservoir Dogs. He turned to me before a rehearsal and said, “You remember Al Pacino at the end of Scarface? Yeah, do that.”
It’s gotta be a fun thing for a director to say, but it’s even more fun to play! Those are the big roles that stick out in my mind.
When did you start operating the theatre company, “A Friend Called TJ”?
I started it with a friend of mine last year. She wrote a phenomenal play about what it’s like to get famous on YouTube and the pressures people who do this face. On a much deeper level, it’s talking about mental illness and pressures our generation faces over the ones our parents faced. What are the pitfalls of what we deem to be success? We put it on at the Camden Fringe. We got a five-star review, which was fantastic. We’re looking into putting it on for a longer run at another theatre.
What was it like working on the short film, I am Sherlock Holmes?
I had done a lot of research on how I should potentially play the character Shawn, who is schizophrenic. The one thing that really took me about it was how true they were being on what schizophrenia is, rather than doing the Hollywood thing with playing mental illness and, “He’s crazy and lives in a fantasy world!”
It was more about the relationship he has in his real life and the effect that his mental illness has on that. Even though there’s a spectrum to schizophrenia with many different symptoms, it struck me how honest they were being, and I wanted to represent that true feeling. Sharice [Griffiths] the director was really supportive, more so than a lot of directors I’ve come in contact with. Many directors will either let you get on with it or they’ll be too involved in their own process. I find that it’s a collaborative effort, that you need to be in touch with what your director so you can get to the grand scheme of things.
Acting is part of a grander canvas – the piece, not the actor, is the star of the show. You’re there to add clarity to that. When I was developing the character, Sharice got me in contact with a psychologist friend of hers who has worked with schizophrenic people. She was supportive in getting what she wanted to achieve and what I wanted out of it.
What’s the current status on the project?
A lot of submissions have been happening to lots of film festivals. It managed to get a runner-up at the Miami Short Film Festival, which was awesome to have that recognition. Fingers crossed as we wait to hear back from others.
Take us through another film you’ve worked on, Dilemma.
I got the script for that in November 2017. The minute I read the script, I fell in love with it. No one is writing scripts like that at the moment. It was a brilliant, Hitchcockian thriller. You could tell that Brian [Finucane] the writer-director is a massive fan of film and especially of Hitchcock. The character I auditioned for is a dick, but I fell in love with him. (laughs) He’s a Machiavellian character that no one wants to be his friend, but you want to play him. He’s recently separated from his wife which has kicked things to this crisis. He’s hooked up with a friend from uni and trying to relive old times, leading to some dramatic turns of events.
He’s been very privileged but he’s also damaged. It’s one of those situations where he’s had too much. You’ve got everything in your life to be comfortable, but there’s this part of your brain saying you need more and you want to be self-destructive. That’s sort of how he is, as he keeps pushing and pushing.
I think everyone’s passion really came through and helped us when we went to film it. It’s hopefully coming out in 2019. I cannot wait to see the first trailer.
Thanks for sharing your story today.