Steve Huison on living an artistic life
- Credit: Archant
Steve Huison — star of The Full Monty and Coronation Street — tells Tony Greenway why acting, drawing and painting are all fuel to his creative fire.
Acting, says Leeds-born stage, TV and film star Steve Huison, is a ruthless business. In fact, at one point, he became so disillusioned with the profession that he was on the verge of giving it up, despite having made a name for himself in 1997 in The Full Monty, one of the most successful British movies of all time.
Huison’s lowest ebb was around 16 years ago when he went to meet the director (who shall remain nameless) of a big feature film (ditto) at a hotel in Piccadilly. ‘He didn’t even look at me when I walked through the door,’ he remembers, incredulously. ‘He was lying on a red leather chaise longue and didn’t make eye contact. I was in the waiting room beforehand and Billy Connolly came out and he was shouting at this bloke and I thought: “Wow – he’s even managed to p*** off Billy Connolly!”’
Huison might have given up acting then and there but, luckily, his hero, award-winning British director Ken Loach, cast him in a film called The Navigators. Loach — famous for Kes, Raining Stones, and his latest Cannes award-winner I, Daniel Blake — didn’t disappoint when he asked to meet Huison to discuss the role. There was no red leather chaise longue, no airs and graces and full eye contact at all times. ‘He shook my hand and said: “Nice to meet you, Steve. Tea or coffee?” Ken Loach made me a coffee! We sat for an hour chatting. He’s such a decent person. I’d work with him any day. He doesn’t get tangled up in the star system. I’d make the tea for him if he asked.’
Huison, who now lives in Robin Hood’s Bay, doesn’t restrict himself to acting anymore. These days he’s an artist too and has an exhibition at the Pyramid Gallery in York, which runs until early September. Called A Year In Bay, it features various portraits of Robin Hood’s Bay residents in ink, graphite and oils.
Huison looks for character in the faces of his subjects and invites them to sit for him in the shed at the bottom of his garden (or ‘sheddio’ as he calls it). The bonus is that he gets to chat to them. ‘I moved here knowing absolutely nobody, and I’ve been fascinated at how easy it is to create new networks of friends in such a short space of time,’ he says. He’s loathe to label himself as either an actor or painter, however. ‘My day is structured around art, whether its performance or creating pictures,’ he says. ‘It all ends up in front of an audience, so drawing and painting aren’t very different from what I do on stage.’
Huison was inspired by art, music and drama at school, although, ironically, the deputy head told him: ‘You can’t do all three. You’ll never make a living.’ (Apart from acting and painting, Huison plays guitar as a performing musician). He duly went to art school in Leeds and studied a foundation course which was, he says, a waste of time. ‘It was destructive, actually, and stopped me doing anything (in art) for years.’
Why? He thinks how to answer this for a few seconds. ‘It made me feel foolish that I wanted to learn how to paint and draw,’ he says. ‘I wanted to be a figurative artist. I was only 18 or 19 and went there naively thinking that somebody would teach me the techniques.’
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But figurative art wasn’t in vogue back then. Controversial British artists Damien Hirst (of shark in formaldehyde fame) and Marcus Harvey (known for his portrait of Myra Hindley) were both in Huison’s year. ‘Look at their work,’ he says. ‘That was what was being nurtured in art schools at the time. It seemed that (art schools) were putting all their efforts into encouraging shock.’
Failing his foundation course (‘they failed me because I argued with them’) was a massive blow to Huison’s artistic confidence and he put down his pencils seemingly for good. ‘It’s like someone saying to you: “Your drawings are rubbish. Stop doing them”, which is the worst thing you can say to anybody. Everybody can make a mark on paper or canvas — and that should always be encouraged.’ Instead, he changed tack and went to the Rose Bruford Drama School in Kent where he learnt more about art than he ever did at art school. After graduation, he found work on stage and in TV shows such as Emmerdale, Where the Heart Is, Dinnerladies, Peak Practice, Wire in the Blood, The Royle Family, Heartbeat and Casualty.
But it’s The Full Monty that really got him noticed by a wider audience (he played Lomper, one of the stripping Sheffield steelworkers), as did Coronation Street, where he starred for three years as Eddie Windass. The experience was a bit like being on a treadmill, however. ‘It’s a bubble factory, a soap factory that never ends,’ he says. ‘Unlike doing a play where there’s a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, you’re working on something that never ends and where you’ll be gone, but it carries on. I always equated it to working in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory as an oompa lumpa; a factory where people’s dreams are made, but forgotten about very quickly.’
Corrie remains the longest continuous acting gig he’s ever had — and the only one where he put weight on while working. ‘There was nothing required of me physically. They give you a nice big leather sofa to sit on and free food. In a 13-hour day they might use you for two hours. For the rest, you’re sitting around reading, chatting and eating.’
For the last two years, Huison made a conscious decision to step away from acting, but returns to the stage this month in a Northern Broadsides production of the JB Priestley comedy When We Are Married, which tours Yorkshire (and other parts of the UK) until December. ‘I was in the original Broadsides’ cast when Barrie Rutter (Broadsides’ founder and artistic director) first started the company with the likes of Mark Addy and Brian Glover,’ says Huison. Rutter has gruff northern humour and a soft heart, he says. He does keep you on your toes though. ‘I did a play with Barrie a few years ago. He was acting in this show as well as directing it, so he was with me waiting in the wings. I was focused with about 15 seconds before I went on stage, and he’s standing behind me saying: “Huison – when you say that line, do it like this”. I was thinking: “Barrie, not now! Shut up!”’ He’s looking forward to getting back on stage with Rutter and the cast after his time away. ‘It’s a privilege to know that you’re getting paid a living wage to play,’ he says. ‘Acting is dress-up to make people laugh or cry. To entertain them while pretending to be someone else.’
Huison recovered his drawing and painting mojo some years back when he was studying Lucian Freud’s work for a play. ‘Then I saw a life drawing class advertised locally in Shipley. I went along and after two hours I thought: “I forgot I could do this!”’ He picked up his sketch book and hasn’t looked back since. And, for an artist, Robin Hood’s Bay, where he’s lived for the last couple of years with his wife, Terrie, a theatre director, is an inspirational place. ‘We used to go there virtually every year,’ says Steve. ‘In fact we honeymooned in Boggle Hole Youth Hostel. We were staying at Robin Hood’s Bay a few years ago in a rented cottage. Terrie went out for a walk, came back and said: “I’ve just seen a house for sale.” I’d always wanted to live out of the city and never had.’
When he first went to check out the house it was night and the sky was clear – but it began to cloud over. ‘Then I looked up and realised it wasn’t cloud at all,’ says Huison. ‘It was the Milky Way! I thought: “Living in a place where you can sit in the garden and look at the Milky Way!? Right. That’ll do me.”’
When We Are Married is at the York Theatre Royal, September 9th-24th.
For full tour dates, visit northern-broadsides.co.uk
A Year at Bay is at the Pyramid Gallery, York, until September 2nd.
For details, visit pyramidgallery.com