A chat with Harry Melling and Jemima Rooper from the London production of Hand to God

All images from handtogod.co.uk/gallery

[April Wilson | TV Director]

I was panicking. I’d left it too late. I wasn’t going to make my train. I was not going to be able to do the interview. I had arrived at the train station with minutes to spare but the train had left a minute early. Luckily, I happened to make it on the train just before it left!

I was on my way to interview Harry Melling and Jemima Rooper, stars of the new London production of Hand to God. Hand to God is a play about a mother, Margery (Janie Dee) who decides to start a “puppet club” with the youth of her church after the death of her husband. One of the three members is her son, Jason (Harry Melling), but when Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, gets a mind of its own, things start to get interesting…

It was smooth sailing after the rushing for the train incident, apart from struggling to find the stage door that is. Also, it’s stupid how cool I felt being one of the people to go behind the stage door. Once inside, I found myself overwhelmed just by the place where the cast hung out and had a cup of tea. Harry Melling arrived and somehow I managed to keep my cool enough to shake his hand. After a few minutes delay, Jemima Rooper arrived as an ecstatic ball of energy that I couldn’t help but get sucked into.

And that’s when we began to talk.

The play found fame in Broadway and then moved over to the UK. Were you aware of the play at all before being cast in it?

Jemima: I found myself looking at all the images being used. All the tiny, tiny clips I could find online sort of like obsessively. Just to see if I was anything like the girl in New York and so I got a little flavour of it. And then actually a friend – when I was deciding to do the job or not – a friend had seen it, and basically said it was the best thing that she’d seen in such a long time which kind of really encouraged me. Because I LOVED the script when I first read it. But it was… different. And that sometimes kind of like feels risky when you’re signing up to do something kind of six months on something. Luckily my friend confirmed what I thought about it.

Harry: It’s quite funny really because when you read it – I loved it when I read it – but it’s so wild and so unusual. Your heart is going YES, but a bit of you goes how does it work?

Jemima: And I think when you yourself have very niche tastes in things–

Harry: Yes!

Jemima: And you’re thinking ok, it’s alright that I like it, like great, but it’s sort of quite rare often that you will do jobs that your friends will like. Just because theatre-going audience tends to be kind of a different demographic than you, yourself and your contemporaries fit into. And when you’re actually reading something that feels like it’s for you that can make you quite nervous.

Harry: And also what I love about it as well is the fact – what I did hear about it before auditioning for it – was the fact that is that it started off, off Broadway, then went to Broadway. And even when it was on Broadway, it was the show that shouldn’t be on Broadway. And I thought that attitude to theatregoers, the show that shouldn’t be on Broadway, that kind of energy around it was something that I found really interesting about it. Because I think, I don’t so much for Broadway, but definitely on the West End there’s a certain show, or shows that are produced in the West End, and this was so other to that trend. That’s very exciting.

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When I saw the play I was surprised by the fact that the play went to some places that many would not dare to go, was that your reactions to the play?

Jemima: That’s what everyone felt reading it. Janie, who plays Harry’s mum in the play said that every time she turned the page she was like: “WOW! I didn’t realise that was going to go to that place!” But that’s really exciting to be involved in. And it’s so unusual. Most of the stuff in the West End has been on before, people know about it. To do something new that no-one’s sort of like had a little titbit of yet is really exciting.

Both of your accents in the play are incredible. Have either of you done accent work before? Is this something you find a challenge?

Harry: You’ve done American.

Jemima: Yeah, I’ve never done Texan though. I was really glad we were doing it because it’s something they didn’t do on Broadway. For a lot of reasons, but because actually people from cities and our generation have less of an accent and that’s kind of similar to what goes on in the UK now. There used to be RP (Received Pronunciation), which was well-spoken English and there’s now kind of a London accent. From the youth who grow up in London. And similarly over there. So it was really fun. It’s really fun to do an accent. And we have a guy, Rick Lipton, who’s a dialect coach who comes in to tell us if there’s certain sounds–

Harry: That sound peculiar.

Jemima: For me it’s more fun to do accent work because you feel like you’re doing more of your job.

Harry: And because it’s an accent, it’s another layer of character you have to find. If it’s your own voice you’re kind of half there already but when it’s another voice it’s very interesting in terms of finding out what that voice is.

Jemima: Harry’s got two to do! It’s amazing! Backstage every night it sounds like two people.

Harry: Really?

Jemima: Yeah!

Harry: That’s interesting. That’s nice.

Jemima, your puppet scenes are not as lengthy within the play, did you find it more of a challenge because you do not spend as much time with your puppet?

Jemima: It’s just different. It was not nearly as scary as what Harry has to do. I sort of gave myself the excuse that my character does not have to be the most brilliant puppeteer and that it can still work. A thing that really excited me about doing the project was that scene, and then when we were rehearsing it later I was like: “Oh my God!” It was very technical. It took a long time. Very technical. Took a long time, it’s very very technical. It’s one of those things that if you mess up… it’s very panic making. But it is so fun, when it’s going well, it’s really fun.

Harry: It’s really interesting though when you’re learning all the moves and the all the steps and all the little bits that make up one gesture, and getting the mouth moving. I mean it’s sort of tortuous, it’s arduous and tortuous. And it doesn’t always work in rehearsal. But there’s something about knowing when all that work’s done… there’s a real joy to it. When it works. But it didn’t always work (laughs).

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Was it challenging at first getting used to not only acting as Jason but also acting as Tyrone and having to reply to yourself?

Harry: I remember the read through and turning to you (Jemima) after the read through and going: “That was so bad!” I was really scared by this part, as it was so unlike anything I had ever done before. And I didn’t know how you play two people at the same time. I’m used to locking into a character and investing into that arc of what he’s doing but when there are two arcs going on, how do you play a story arc? Do you flip between the two? So it was all a learning thing for me really.

Jemima: You did it so quickly ‘cause in New York, the writer wrote this play for the two actors who played Jason and Margery, and they were with it from the beginning. Before there was even a puppet. That actor grew with the show. His puppetry would have grown with the show. It’s one of those things that gets easier, easier and easier the longer you do it. And for Harry to do it in four weeks it’s kind of incredible.

Harry: Yeah. But I had it a bit before then.

Jemima: It was four weeks.

Now, much has been said about the puppet sex within the play. I just have to ask how do the two of you manage to keep a straight face while everyone around you is in hysterics?

Harry: Fear.

Jemima: We’ve got a long way to go! I’ve already started laughing. Which gets quite bad once the floodgates are open. But I’ve done enough shows where I’ve laughed and I think I’m quite good at disguising it!

How do you disguise a laugh?

Harry and Jemima: Look away!

Jemima: And like really bite things.

Harry: Usually I pinch my fingers but that’s not possible, is it? Because we’ve got puppets on.

Jemima: I’m trying to keep the reigns on laughing but it’s really hard.

Harry: The first few times there was nothing funny about it, just get through the show!

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For me, the comedy of the play is outstanding but the play would fall apart without the emotional core underneath. Do you think the rage that Jason expresses through Tyrone is something that a lot of adolescents can relate to? As, I felt like his rage was not just because of his dad’s death but also was due to things  a lot of adolescents go through.

Jemima: I’m glad you think that.

Harry: I think that’s spot on. Jason is a character who can’t express himself, he doesn’t necessarily own who he is and own his own voice. And then this puppet comes along and says all the stuff that he maybe thinks, but doesn’t express. He is the other extreme of him. It’s perfectly a real kind of metaphor for what it’s like growing up and trying to work out who you are. I think it’s a brilliant device from Rob to use that as a backdrop so you have not only the idea of grief that underlies the play, but also the idea of forming yourself. That is certainly Jason’s journey throughout it.

Would you say Tyrone is just another side of Jason’s personality?

Harry: It’s interesting because that’s something that I kept asking Moritz (director) in the beginning. Is he a psychological creature; is he like a part of Jason? Or is it a supernatural creature? And Moritz said something very clever he said, for Jason, it has to be supernatural. Because the second he goes: “Oh is this me?” you lose the idea that Jason completely believes this is a separate entity from himself. The fact it is psychological is inevitable. When you watch it you go: “Oh my God! Tyrone is an aspect of Jason,” but I think you have to play it as a supernatural creature who is stirring everything up.

Jemima: And getting out of control. It’s interesting because Rob, the writer, has always told us it’s semi-autobiographical because he lost his dad at 16 but his hand was not possessed by a puppet. He sort of went off the rails with alcohol and drugs. All the while he’s a very religious man and he still is a religious man, but then he kind of discovered religion wasn’t enough for him; it didn’t give him the answers that he needed. Only he could do that for himself. His kind of lashing out – his Tyrone – was alcohol and drugs. And I think everyone has the possibility of their thing whatever it is.

Harry: Everyone has a red button, don’t they? Somewhere. That they press maybe once. Or twice.

Jemima: I’m still pressing it!

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What is your favourite scene together in the play?

Harry: I like all our scenes.

(Jemima laughs)

Harry: I really do though!

Jemima: Oh thanks Harry!

Harry: It’s such a pleasure working with you Jemima. It’s so nice because I knew Jemima before this job and it’s so nice to be working with her.

Jemima: Yeah! I only really wanted to do the job when I knew they’d offered this part to Harry! Because it makes a difference when you do a six-month run with someone who is talented and a good person. Harry’s both.

Harry: Oh thanks. That’s really kind.

Jemima: I mean now it has to be the puppet scene–

Harry: But even that first scene, I just really enjoy it. But of course I like the puppet sex scene, I sort of don’t want to say the puppet sex scene, because it’s the scene that everyone talks about.

Jemima: And we don’t want give it away too much!

Harry: Yeah. We don’t want people to be like oh, when’s the puppet sex scene? But no, I enjoy all our scenes.

I think the scene works though because you have the emotional core in the background, as she is trying to help him. It wouldn’t work if it were just straight comedy. It would be just too much on the verge of ridiculous.

Jemima: Absolutely, which is our director being amazing. Because if it was left to me I would have just played it all for cheap laughs. And he was really sort of rigorous with us and made sure we played the scene properly and that our puppetry is going on alongside it.

Harry: Anything is only ever really funny if it’s kind of real.

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Now both of you have done work outside of theatre, in film and TV, but is theatre where your main passion is? What are the main differences for you both as actors?

Jemima: Oh it’s hard. The thing that’s great about theatre is having rehearsals and having that time to really kind of play around and figure out what you’re doing. Whereas for TV and film you are very lucky if you get that rehearsal time, you’re just kind of thrown into it. So whatever you’ve got, you kind of bring straight away.

And that can be quite liberating in itself, as there is no time to think about it or worry about it, you just kind of get on with it. But on the other hand it’s fun if you’ve got a good script and you’re working with great people. It’s fun to just have the play time. To get it as good as it can possibly be. But then, doing a run is a new kind of discipline as each night you’re trying to recreate the perfect show and inevitability it’s always going to be different. It can be frustrating; it can get boring. All those kind of things. Sometimes it gets really fun because you do start giggling (they both laugh).

It’s weird because I think both Harry and I both started as kids on film sets so I always kind of have that kind of nostalgic thing about being on set. It is really fun and so collaborative. Mind you theatre is really collaborative as well. It always depends on who you work with. But I got lucky cause we work with really great people.

Harry: They’re so different, aren’t they? They are just different ways of thinking. I like it when the work is good really. When you’re working with good people that’s when it is at its best. And whatever medium it is. I’ve never done radio but I’m sure radio’s fun as well.

Jemima: Radio’s really fun! Because it doesn’t matter what you look like.

Harry: Any medium that is telling a story that is important I love doing. But they’re so different. I still feel like I haven’t quite cracked TV and film.

Jemima: I feel like that. My face moves too much. In my mind I’m like being “Oscar winning” but then I see it. I also feel like in my old age the parts have been better in theatre than TV. And maybe that is just being a girl, being a woman a certain age, and suddenly quite a lot of things get less interesting. Unless you look like Keira Knightley, you don’t get to play the good bits.

Do you not like watching yourself back then?

Jemima: I used to watch everything back and try to learn from it. But now I physically can’t.

Harry: Really? You see I’m quite happy watching the first Harry Potter film now because I’m like who’s that kid?

Jemima: Yeah, cause you’re far removed.

So finally, why should people come and see the play?

Jemima: You should come see the play if you never go to the theatre, you should come see the play if you always go to the theatre. Because it’s completely different. But don’t come if swearing offends you.

Harry: It’s a challenging show not in terms of Shakespeare but in terms of questioning what an experience in the theatre should be and I think that’s what’s so exciting about it. If you’re young I think it will appeal to you more because I think there is a politeness that comes with theatre especially, West End theatre, and I think one of the greatest things about this show is that it is so impolite. And it doesn’t care for that.

Jemima: It’s not just frivolous and silly; there are people who come and are a bit bulldozed with the language and that’s all they really initially see or feel, and they don’t get the other side of it. But I think actually the religious community get it. Rob the writer is a religious man he is not dissing religion in any way; it’s just the frame in which the story happens.

Harry: I hope you use the word “dissing”.

And as promised to Harry, I did indeed use the word “dissing”. So with that, my slice of time with Jemima and Harry was over. After a failed attempt to take a picture (which I’d rather not talk about) Jemima very kindly escorted me out. She also answered all my questions regarding what it was like just being near Michael Fassbender (anyone who knows me well knows I have a serious problem.) As I got on the tube I realised my little glimpse of theatre magic was over, but if you want to experience a bit for yourself go see Hand to God at Vaudeville Theatre as soon as possible!

 

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A chat with Harry Melling and Jemima Rooper from the London production of Hand to God