Paul Ryan on becoming Nigel Farage
- Credit: Nick Wall
Paul Ryan is Nigel Farage in the much-discussed Brexit: The Uncivil War. The Northchurch actor talks to Sandra Smith about becoming the love-him-or-loathe-him character and being an ‘actorpreneur’
Political leanings aside, you’d be hard pushed to name two more potent catalysts of passionate opinion and animated conversation than Brexit and Nigel Farage. With the final mad approach to the UK’s exit from the European Union on March 29 dominating the news, a major TV drama foccussed on the run up to the fateful EU referendum in the summer of 2016 has just aired.
The House Productions/Channel Four film includes a headline role for Herts actor, Paul Ryan, who, in one leap, has catapulted from children’s TV to starring alongside one of the country’s most respected and well-known actors.
‘I had a phone call from my agent telling me about a wonderful audition opportunity to play Nigel Farage in Brexit which stars Benedict Cumberbatch. I was told they wanted someone who would have a real good go at doing Farage. He has a big personality and you can’t be above that or you’re breaking your contact with the audience. I sat in front of YouTube watching speeches and interviews, and listening to him on the radio. I also read his autobiography, The Purple Revolution. I got him in the end – it was very hard work but a lot of fun.
‘Whether or not you like his politics, he’s a brilliant and fun speaker who’s never had anything to lose.’
The unlikely transition from the Northchurch actor’s role as the grandfather in CBeebies’ Waffle the Wonder Dog to political drama began when the director of Brexit: The Uncivil War was watching an episode of Waffle with his son, spotted Paul, and realised he’d found the actor he wanted to portray the then UKIP leader and Brexit big beast.
Filming for the two-hour drama took place last summer in an old BT building in Watford for interior shots, though Paul makes his entrance via helicopter. The storyline centres around Vote Leave campaign director, Dominic Cummings, played by Cumberbatch, and the inside story of how the battle for the referendum result was fought on both sides, from slogans to big data.
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On his first day on set, Paul admits he didn’t initially recognise the star of Sherlock, Doctor Strange and The Imitation Game.
‘There was this rather unappealing looking fellow with no hair floating around and then I realised who it was. It was great to see him working, doing his thing. He’s a lovely guy but I was better dressed than him!’
An 8am start typified each day’s shooting. Theatrical applications included a gel mould of Paul’s face and neck from which a prosthetic was created. Attaching the fake neck, followed by make up and wardrobe, with outfits suggested by the designer and the director having the final say, typically took two hours.
‘Farage is always smartly turned out and we’re practically the same height and weight. He’s a year older than me. Controversial men hold views that don’t necessarily match your own but you have to love them; argue their case as vehemently as they would.
‘He’s a smoker and speaks loudly a lot of the time so eventually your voice is knackered. The discipline is in doing a scene maybe 20 times.’
A self-confessed people watcher and mindful of listening – one of the most difficult things, he insists, for actors to achieve – Paul mirrors the politician’s tendency to ‘clip his chin down and constantly fiddle with his ring.’
Now 53, Paul’s professional career began in childhood. ‘I always knew I wanted to be an actor. I started doing impressions, won talent competitions, and got into school plays. In 1978 my best friend’s aunt was running auditions for Oliver and they didn’t have enough children on their books. I went to an audition and landed the West End role of the Artful Dodger with Roy Hudd playing Fagin.’
Other credits include three years as Harry in Mamma Mia at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre. A natural ability to capture voices also led to recreating Round the Horn’s Kenneth Williams. Success hasn’t interfered with Paul’s grounding in reality.
‘As an actor the first thing you need is money so you can afford to wait for the next job – to have enough money to support your desire to be an actor. It’s the last advice you want, but the best piece of advice. If you’re lucky you can stay in this business for the money, but I set up my own business and teach presentation skills masterclasses around the country – ‘actorpreneur’ is my word. Teaching public speaking is a great foundation stone for playing one of our best public speakers.’
As he reveals his next project – a documentary about Charlie Chaplin’s arc as a world-wide film star, political opinionist and activist in which Paul will lip sync to the silent movie actor’s voice – he tells how his personal view of Farage has changed over the past few months.
‘Studying him has given me a broader understanding of the man, UKIP and Brexit. I learned more about his politics and attitude during research. It’s interesting that voices won’t be silenced because they are not allowed on television.’
Although discretion prevents Paul from declaring his political views, his role as Farage has given him a respect for the man.
‘Farage is a great raconteur with a great sense of humour. He’s very dogged and I hear he’s good company. I’d be happy to go for a drink with him – as long as we didn’t talk politics.’