Actor Ben Barnes on Narnia, Wimbledon and Dorian Gray
Since graduating from Kingston University in 2004, where he studied English and drama, Ben Barnes has gone on to become one of Britain's hottest young stars. Best-known as Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Wimbledon-based actor speaks to MATTHEW WILLIAMS about life in Surrey, his memories of uni and his latest role as Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray in this autumn's hit film
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2009 *** Becoming a knight or a king may well be the dream of many a young boy, dashing around the house fighting dragons and saving damsels in distress, but for one young actor from Wimbledon, those childhood dreams have very much become a reality. The unassuming Ben Barnes, 28, shot to fame playing Prince Caspian in the blockbuster Chronicles of Narnia and is now working on the third film in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. At the time of our interview, he is about to head off to Australia for the start of the filming - so how does he feel? Excited? Nervous?! "A bit of both!" says Ben, with a smile. "I know that I have a couple of weeks fight training when I get there. If I were going to start filming in a couple of days, I would feel a lot more anxious! "I'm looking forward to seeing the character a few years later though - as a king - and playing someone who isn't so vulnerable. It's going to be pretty cool." When Prince Caspian came out in 2008, the movie went straight to the top of the box-office charts and its young star suddenly found himself the new idol of the silver screen. Surrey schoolmates Watching his rise to fame with keen interest, no doubt, will have been many of his former schoolmates across Surrey, some of whom will remember his first attempts at acting.
In fact, even when he was a young pupil at Homefield Preparatory School in Sutton, he was already showing early promise on the stage. "I didn't really do too much at junior school," he says. "But I did have a wonderful music teacher, and I remember playing a rock star alien in one production!" However, the pivotal moment came when he was at secondary school at King's College, Wimbledon, and attended a workshop run by the National Youth Music Theatre. "I was asked to go to the national auditions, and it all went from there," says Ben. "My first professional job was with the National Youth Music Theatre in Bugsy Malone - I was 16, it was in the West End and I was also doing my GCSE studies. "As a result, I started having to choose between rugby, cricket and acting, and though I still love watching both sports, I found myself moving towards acting." Bitten by the bug, he went on to study English literature and drama at Kingston University, where his photo now adorns the college's 'hall of fame'. Life in Kingston He says he has very fond memories of his time there, not least because as well as setting the stage alight, he also discovered a passion for directing. "It was at Kingston University where I was able to put on the productions I'd always wanted to do and experiment with less pressure on me," he explains. "I directed a few plays and really enjoyed the freedom." After graduating from Kingston in 2004, he went on to make his big screen debut with an appearance in Matthew Vaughn's epic fairytale Stardust in 2007. He later received acclaim playing Dakin in Alan Bennett's The History Boys in London's West End, before being snapped up for the role of Prince Caspian. Other recent projects have included Stephan Elliott's adaptation of the Nol Coward romantic comedy Easy Virtue, in which he starred alongside Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, and Kristin Scott Thomas, and he has recently completed filming in America for the contemporary tragedy Valediction. "I am just passionate and fascinated by what I do, and I want to have as many opportunities to play as many different parts as possible," says Ben. "I know how lucky I am to be able to work on these big studio productions, and also to do smaller films like the one I've just finished." In his latest major role, which looks sure to cement his place as one of Britain's leading actors, he is starring as Oscar Wilde's timeless narcissist, Dorian Gray, in this autumn's hit film of the same name. For those not familiar with the book, it tells the story of the strikingly handsome but nave Dorian (Barnes), who is introduced to the hedonistic pleasures of Victorian London by the charismatic Henry Wotton (Colin Firth). In the picture Henry's friend, society artist Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), paints a portrait of Dorian to capture the full power of his youthful beauty and when it's unveiled Dorian makes a flippant pledge: he would give anything to stay as he is in the picture - even his soul. His wild adventures continue, but soon he notices that his portrait, which is now locked away in the attic, has taken on an evil and disturbing air, while his own beautiful face remains unchanged with the passing of time. "People have said in the past that Dorian is unplayable - that it's like watching someone jump off a cliff - someone in pure self-destruction mode," says Ben. "Whereas with this film, we wanted to get inside Dorian's head a little bit more. "That was what we were aiming for and, hopefully, achieved. I really hope people like the film; nearly everybody I meet says that it's their favourite book and that I had better not make a complete hash of it!" Ben's matinee idol looks, plus an ability to go from sweet to steel in just a flick of the head, mean it's probably little surprise to his many admirers that he was picked for the role. Ever the reluctant heart-throb, however, he is keen to play down all the attention. Childhood memories "Part of me still feels really young, and just the skinniest boy in the class, as I always was," laughs Ben. "Obviously, Oscar Wilde uses these outrageous superlatives in describing the way Dorian looks in the book but, for me, it was always about the strength of celebrity and youth within London society, which is such a powerful thing." Still living in Wimbledon with his brother, Jack, it was only a short journey to Painshill Park in Cobham, where some of the filming took place last August. In Dorian Gray, the Surrey attraction doubles as Hampstead Heath and scenes with Ben and co-star Rachel Hurd Wood, who is from Godalming, were filmed by the picturesque lake and gothic temple. The actor's Surrey links don't end there either: a keen supporter of the Rose Theatre in Kingston, Ben performed a monologue in Judi Dench & Friends in 2004 to help raise funds for the venue. "My lecturer at university, Frank Whately, has been heavily involved in putting the theatre on its feet," says Ben. "I saw several productions in the shell of the theatre - including watching Rebecca Hall, who is also in Dorian Gray, performing in As You Like It. "I love living so close to London, but still surrounded by greenery," he adds. "Life is still fairly relaxed actually, as to be honest, people on the street just don't recognise me. "Maybe it's because I have my hair back or have a beard or whatever, - or maybe because I am just not that popular!" The price of fame It surely won't be too long, though, before the stroll through Wimbledon Village becomes a little bit trickier, and this shy young actor has to cope with the paparazzi jumping out from behind the bushes. "I want to be successful in what I do and I realise that attention comes with the territory," says Ben. "Most people have still probably only seen me in one or two things and you're bound to be recognised more as your films mount up, which I hope that they will do. "That will mean I have had some success in film and people have watched me. So if I have to deal with it more as it comes, then I will."