From Tom Hiddleston to Benedict Cumberbatch, most of the Brits in Hollywood went to one of three small schools in London. But what really goes on there?
There are now so many UK actors in Hollywood that Americans are trying to mobilize to stop them getting all the roles. Tom Hiddleston, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Sheen, and David Oyelowo basically have a standing invitation to award ceremonies while David Harewood, Damian Lewis, and Dominic West have proven that, if you can get the accent right, you don't need to be American to be huge on American TV.
Many of the stars leading this takeover graduated from one of three small prestigious drama schools in London: the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada), London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (Lamda), or the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In the acting world, these institutions are as prestigious as Oxford or Harvard, and have been producing movie stars for generations. Their training is all-encompassing, focusing heavily on method acting and movement.
To outsiders, their methods can seem bizarre, such as spending hours every week just learning how to stand still or going to the zoo to study the movement of the animals. Much of the training gets to the very essence of an actor's presence; it's a way for him to bare his soul.
To find out what really goes on at drama school, we spoke to three people who graduated in the past five years. They asked us to change their names, so they wouldn't be ostracized from all the nice theater bars in Soho.
VICE: When you look back on Rada now, what are your happiest memories?
Karen: There was this one wonderful teacher who was really old and tiny, and she just wore tie-dye. She was the sweetest, kindest woman, and she'd get us to be a baby crawling on the floor, or a tadpole, or an octopus. Those lessons were so delightful—she'd put on Debussy, and we'd be octopuses for hours.
What's it like being with your friends when they're all being tadpoles too? It must be so embarrassing.
I'm really self-conscious, so I found it really difficult to take it seriously, but you kind of have to, otherwise you're just wasting all this money. Rada is great at helping you financially, but then you feel indebted, so you know that you have to take it seriously. A lot of the time I found it unbearable, but you kind of just have to do it. Especially with things like master and slave.
What's master and slave?
It's normally done about six months into your first year, when you still have loads of boundaries up, still mortified about the prospect of doing most things in front of most people, but have started to trust your peers more.
You go in thinking it's just a normal improvisation lesson, and then the teacher brings up this game: master and slave. You go into pairs. One person becomes the master, and the other is the slave. The slave has to do anything the master says.
It starts off incredibly easygoing, like go and sit on that chair or go and play the piano and then slowly but surely the asks get a bit more intense, like "suck my big toe." After a while, the masters start playing with each others' slaves. So they get slaves to make out or whatever, or start fighting each other.
Then at the end of it, they switch over, so the slave becomes the master. So they seek revenge, and it gets really out of hand. I got asked to kiss the teacher on the mouth, which felt like crossing so many boundaries, but I just did it.
A couple of people really go for it; there's no leeway. They take the exercises very seriously. This guy got asked by his master to get his dick out and whack it in my face, which he did very obligingly. So I got a dick slapped in my face. I was absolutely appalled.
At some point, the masters noticed their behavior was getting a bit overboard and stopped going so far—I think they began to realize it was a bit morally wrong, that these are their peers.
It's an interesting psychological experiment.
Absolutely. Same with the animal studies.
What are animal studies?
So animal studies is a huge part of drama school. When you first join, you get free entry to London Zoo for an entire year. You spend hours and hours researching the animal that's been chosen for you. Then in class you have to be that animal for a long time. Then you do a showing, where you all do your animal in front of all the teachers.
He was walking round the room on all fours. Then the teacher asked him to mount me.
During rehearsal of plays, later on in your training, they'll ask you what animal a character is. I remember one lesson I had to be a little deer and my partner was a stallion. He was walking round the room, and the teacher asked him to mount me. Then there he is getting on top of me, mounting me from behind. It's difficult because you don't want to let your team partner down, but you're completely aware of the obvious, and you are in front of all your classmates.
That all sounds quite intense. Was there any support if it all got a bit much?
Yeah so much. The school had CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] and NLP [neurolinguistic programming] on tap. So if it was causing you any damage, you're not going to go mad. But, of course, people drop out of drama school all the time. It is a really intense process, and it's not for everyone. Have you seen the film 20 Days of Sodom? Actors had to make that film. They're preparing us, not necessarily for roles as intense as that, but in the real world of theater and film, you're going to be asked to do some really crazy shit. So it's important to have the chance to do it with people you trust and respect.
So at the end of it all, do you feel like there's method to the madness?
It definitely changed me a lot. I used to have a lot of difficulties with people getting too close, and it's helped me in such a profound way. I think it has made me a better actor and a better person.
VICE: Was drama school something you'd wanted to do for a long time?
Steven: No, not really. I went to university first before I went to Lamda. So I was a bit older than the other 18-year-olds who went, and potentially equipped with a tiny bit more maturity and the ability to say "fuck off" to things.
Were there things that you wanted to say "fuck off" to?
You're really eased into it. The first six months is basically just standing still. There was one class we had where would literally just stand with our arms by our side and swing them back and forth, and we'd do that twice a week for 45 minutes. The idea behind that is it sorted of grounded you. When I describe it to people who aren't actors they're like, "What the fuck is that?"
Is that to make you feel confident on stage?
Yes. But also the whole course, while equipping you with technical abilities, is designed to make you fail every day, and embarrass you into losing your inhibitions. So you'll be an animal for two hours, or be either earth, wind, or fire for 90 minutes, with all your peers in the room.
Every day you have to get up in front of your peers and do something new: either an improvisation or a clowning thing or a Shakespeare speech. But the teachers would constantly push you and not give you enough prep time so that you fail or embarrass yourself or do shit work in front of everyone. Eventually, you're able to say, "Fuck it, I can move on from that," as opposed to the crippling pain of feeling like a failure in front of your peers and teachers. They probably wouldn't explicitly say that's what they're teaching you, but that's certainly what a lot of people took it to be.
One girl smashed her nose, another girl broke her rib. They don't do that lesson any more.
Did being constantly embarrassed ever get too much?
We had certain teachers who would push you in ways some people would consider too far. Like we had this weird exercise that we did every single week, where half the class would be watching and the other half would be standing. They'd play some loud club music, and we had to stare at someone sitting down, as if we're seeing him across the room at a club and start flirting and try to pick him up, just with our eyes and our dancing.
After a bit the teacher would be, like, "OK, that's only one out of ten, I need you to bring up to two... OK, now three." By the time it got to a "seven," people were like, fucking the floor and ripping off their clothes, just because it's not enough for the teacher. So the girls would just take off their tops, and the boys would just start humping things. It was totally bizarre.
Some people were like, "Fuck this, I don't need to get naked to prove that I'm a good actor." Other people got into it and would just take it further and further each time. The positive of that is, people really did lose their inhibitions. You've got this group of 30 people that you see every day, and they've seen every bit of you, so you don't have any nerves in front of them. But at the same time, you have these existential moments where you're like, "What the fuck am I doing this for and why am I paying for this?"
Has that training come into use since you've become a professional actor?
Definitely. I've had jobs where I have to show up at 6 AM to start filming, and I only get the script that morning, and in the first scene, I have to kiss a 50-year-old man. The loss of any embarrassment or inhibitions really has helped me to do that. You could be be sort of embarrassed, but the drama school attitude is just: Who gives a fuck? Just do it.
Was there support if you ever found it too much?
Yeah, it was very, very supportive. We had pastoral care, we had financial care, we had everything in place. A couple of teachers and classes were complained about, and the school reacted immediately.
What sort of things would get to a complaint level?
Well, once there was an exercise where everyone had to be blindfolded, and you had to trust the room and learn the energy of the room, and it built to like a running frenzy where no one could see anything. So inevitably one girl ran into a wall and smashed her nose, and another girl fell over and broke a rib. So that was a mental idea, and people felt their trust had been abused. They don't do that anymore.
Here was another one: They riled you up by getting someone to hold you down, and you had to sort of struggle against him or her. And often the big boys would get quite angry and aggressive because the teacher was trying to bring that out of them. Then, suddenly, they would get uncontrollable and start punching things and other people in the room would really get quite scared. So it was a bit like, "OK, you've literally just unlocked that guy's madness, and I don't know if that's a good thing, because really you do need some degree of control in acting."
Do you think you have to push it too far to know what too far is?
Yeah, but my bottom line is, I had a great time, and I wouldn't change it for the world. I couldn't have got where I am now without it.
VICE: Had you always wanted to go to Rada?
Pratik: No. I'm actually from India, and I'd already studied abroad. Then I went back to India and joined a theater group and was touring with them, but I wanted to train more in theater. Rada was the one that was known to me most. It was the biggest name.
At that point, did you know what drama school was going to be like?
Honestly, I was told that there would be amazingly attractive people from all over the world, and we would all have these massive orgies all the time and create art and then everyone would go on to win BAFTAs and Oscars. That's really what I thought initially. That was not the case.
What do you remember about your first couple of months?
I realized I was one of the oldest people in the year. I was 24 when I started, and most of them were 18 from small towns in England. These kids were very talented, but they were very conservative as well, in their outlook about life and their thought process. They would make fun of alternative theater: wank this, wank that. Wank was their favorite word. It was like high school again, and I was too old for it.
They must have really felt like children to you.
Yeah they did. And a lot of them had relationships from back where they were from. I was like come on, you are all going to break up and have sex with one another and take lots of drugs. And they were all really flabbergasted: "How can you even say this? I love my boyfriend." At the end of three years, I was the one left behind. I didn't sleep with anyone in my year. I was a martyr, but I was fine with standing alone on the burning ship.
I'm sorry to hear that. What did you enjoy most about the lessons?
I loved being an animal. I was a dragon for an hour. I loved anything physical, because for me, theater is very physical, and even now, when I do TV and film stuff, I always approach a character through the body rather than through the mind.
There were some very weird things like 17th century dance, which I rebelled against at first, but I realize that they were all very good for me. They somehow connect up into proper acting. I loved singing. I can't sing at all, but I loved the singing part of it, and I loved voice class. There was also sword-fighting and stage combat. That was great fun.
Did you find you were more willing or enthusiastic than some of the British students?
So, I come from this Indian school of thought, where, in theater, you basically get there and become naked. It's a theory very influenced from the Polish and Germans, where your body is your thing, and you have to strip yourself down and all that. In Kolkata, I started a theater group, and we were quite experimental. We did devised plays. It was quite controversial. So I came from that and thought we were going to step it up a notch at Rada. But we didn't. I mean, we did in some ways, in terms of acting, but not in terms of being controversial at all.
So when we were in an acting class, obviously we are going to act and cry and break down. I found it annoying when people were like, "Oh I can't do it!" I was like come on, then why are you here? I'm being mean, but it was annoying. Stop crying and act. Although Rada actually pushed people through that process, which was great. They are all really amazing actors now.
I guess if people think about Rada, they imagine a lot of posh English actors like Tom Hiddleston. Is that the case?
I think people always assume that drama school, and especially Rada, are places where only privileged kids go, but everyone was diverse. There were lots of kids from really small towns, who had barely enough money to scrape through and weren't exposed to the world that much.
I was also only used to the posh English accent, so when I came here, I could not believe what I was hearing. These accents are very hard for me. I'm good at English, I got into Rada, but these people, I just could not understand. I'd never even heard the word banter before I came. I had no clue what was going on. Eventually, I became closer with people who are still my friends today.
Was there a lot of outrage about exercises like master and slave?
The craziest thing that happened with the master and slave thing was when one guy had to strip and stand on the piano and masturbate. But he was masturbating with his pants still on, through the material. I said, "Come on! Don't do half measures here." There was a lot of making out and stuff like that, but it was mostly tongue in cheek. If I'm honest, I really did think it wasn't that big a deal, but then I saw people crying in the corridor saying, "Oh God, I can't believe I've gone that far!" I thought, What do you mean? That doesn't make sense. You haven't done anything. Maybe this is a harsh judgment, but in Europe, it's harder to be an actor, because we have a reserved way of social interaction, whereas in India, people are already letting their emotions out.
Are you glad you went?
I think the most important thing it gave me was discipline. In India, when you become an actor, you do loads of drugs and get drunk and explode on stage.
More like a rock star?
Yeah, but what I liked about England was that acting was a job. You go to work, that was really good for me. Now, I am actually doing more TV and film than before. I have an English agent here now. So even though Rada never trains you for the TV specifically, without the training, I think you would feel a bit lost in front of the camera. I really do think it changed my life.
When presented with passages from these accounts, Rada told us the school uses "a variety of exercises within its classes, all of which are widely used within the industry and have a long heritage in acting training." The administrators said they take "a zero-tolerance policy towards, and would never sanction training or exercises that compromise the safety or wellbeing of our students, both physically and psychologically," adding that "the organization takes every measure to ensure the safeguarding of its students and has strict guidelines over the behavior of its teaching staff."
Lamda chose not to comment.
Follow Sam on Twitter.