Alex Moreland talks to actor Joseph Quinn about Catherine the Great, working with Helen Mirren, and more…
How did you first get involved with Catherine the Great? What was it that drew you to the part in the first place?
Well, getting it really! There was an audition process, a fairly standard one. I was invited to go in and then Kate Rhodes James, the casting director, brought me back in to meet Philip [Martin, the director] again and they kindly offered me the part. It was a project that I couldn’t really turn down being a part of.
Your character is Catherine’s son. How did you develop that onscreen relationship with Helen Mirren?
We had a few conversations about what it’s like – those family dynamics, and navigating domestic politics, within a very regal environment, a very politically charged environment. Making sure that they seem really familiar, even though the stakes were quite extraordinary and very unlike most people’s experience of a mother and son’s relationship. It was great fun [working with Helen] obviously, because she’s a bit of an icon and she’s also wonderful.
You’ve done a lot of historical drama in general – what is it that about the genre that you connect with?
It hasn’t been an intentional decision. At this stage in your career, to an extent, you take what you’re given. I think if you’re in a position to be more selective then that’s great, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have good representation behind me to curate my career and have my best interests at heart, but I try to make sure that the roles I take, if they’re offered to me, aren’t too similar. So I think the only thing that links the period stuff I’ve done has been the fact that they’ve been set in different time frames. My hope is that the characters I play are different – the only thing that unifies them is that they’re either wearing a waistcoat or a ruff really. I try to find differences between the parts, definitely.
I’ve always thought that historical drama is often a lot more about the present than it is the past necessarily – do you think that’s fair to say of Catherine the Great?
Yeah, I think it’s a very interesting exploration of how history represents or misrepresents power; the way that the history books displayed Catherine was as a kind of sex crazed megalomaniac. Is megalomaniac the right word?
Yeah, I think so.
Yeah – they depicted her as this person who was ruthless, and shagged her horse. Which is ludicrous! She was a person that did what she wanted, in extraordinary circumstances, in a very politically charged Russia, doing the best that she could. I think that it’s interesting with the kind of conversations that we’re having now as a culture, and particularly in the entertainment industry, about what the effects on the status quo are when women speak up and try to defend themselves. And I think that’s what Catherine did! I think that it’s very radical now, and Helen’s portrayal of that is very nuanced. There’s a vulnerability that’s also a very adamant kind of aggression. These are all very relevant things, I think.
Yeah, there’s a very obvious resonance there.
I also think the timelessness of the human condition is quite interesting for the viewer – seeing people in different times and in different environments that are foreign to ours, still going through the same shit that we go through. People get jealous, people get angry, people get depressed, all these things that are attached to what it is to be human. I think maybe there’s some kind of comfort there [in seeing that] or definitely a kind of fascination. We do [historical drama] better than any other country, I’d say, because we’ve got such a rich history. There’s definitely a need for [historical drama] and I think that we keep turning them out, but I think we’re doing it and doing it well.
As an actor, how much of your performance comes down to choices you make in the moment?
Well I think it’s quite dependent on the project really. Some directors could be quite prescriptive and tell you ‘this is how you need to try it’. But in my experience a lot of directors give you quite a lot of liberty to make your own choices and explore certain avenues. It’s a completely collaborative process. If you come in offering something and it’s totally wrong, then you’ll have a conversation and adapt.
There are certain aspects of it which are spontaneous. And that’s the beauty of being able to go again, which you’re not able to do in theatre. We can do five takes on something and offer different kinds of interpretations. So, I’d say quite a lot of it is down to what happens in that precise moment – but then you can revisit that moment in the next take and then interpret it a different way.
Who – or what – would you say are your chief creative influences?
Chief creative influences? Philip Seymour Hoffman is, in my opinion, one of the greatest actors of all time. I go back to watching his stuff quite regularly. His ability to act the human condition is quite remarkable and, I think, possesses this rare quality – which other actors like Olivia Colman also have – where there’s a familiarity when you’re watching them. You feel like you know them, you feel like you’ve met them, because they show an aspect of yourself.
That, I think, is so thrilling and that’s what makes people fall in love with them and want to watch them – you’re watching yourself, you see moments that you’ve experienced on screen. You remember when you felt like that, and that can be quite powerful. So, I’d say Philip Seymour Hoffman, Olivia Colman. Yeah, I’d say that they’re pretty two strong contenders.
On a similar note, what would you say is your single favourite performance – something you’ve seen in a play or a film or so on, that’s stuck with you ever since?
Oh, God, that’s so hard. Okay. Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master really stuck with me, as did Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in that film. Watching two titans share the screen together was pretty extraordinary, and what they were able to do under Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is the epitome of what good acting is – the standard by which all other performances are held to.
Also, weirdly I think back to Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring. That was a massive film to me, I saw that when I was just at the right age, which set me up for a lifetime of obsession with Tolkien and that world. I just remember that moment where Ian Holm tries to grab the ring off Frodo when they’re in Rivendale. I remember that like electricity through me, and I remember just loving that character forever. So, I guess, it’s Joaquin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and then a bit of Bilbo. That’s my kind of three performances.
You went to LAMDA. How necessary do you think going to drama school is for an actor?
Well, it’s sort of subjective and I don’t think… I mean, I’m learning more and more. There is no formula to what makes a good actor or what makes a successful career – I found it immensely useful. That said, I went when I was 18; in retrospect, I would have gone a little bit later. I didn’t feel like I was too young to be there, but I would have liked, maybe, a couple of years to travel the world and not have to… In this business, if you go away – it’s taken me four years to realise – you feel like you’re taking yourself out of the world, because your world becomes so much smaller. There’s so much life outside of acting and this industry and I would’ve liked to have, maybe, a couple of years to discover and do that without the guilt if you like.
But it was instrumental to my life and my outlook on things. You meet incredible people who are… Well, none of my mates growing up were into acting – then I was in a room with 27 other people, similar ages to me and a bit older than me, and we all have one thing in common. You’ll have more in common with some people, but a lot of the time it’s the only thing that you’ve got in common and you’ve got people from all different walks of life, races, and genders in one room doing something that they love. I think that is the main opportunity to have – I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. But, also, I don’t think it’s for everyone, and you learn so much on the job through working with other people, but I don’t think… It was necessary for me. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary for everyone.
So, when I was doing my research ahead of our conversation, I read another interview with you where you said you write comedy scripts when you’re not acting. How do you think your acting and your writing influence each other?
Well, yeah, that’s interesting. Yeah. So that was the Screen Daily, right?
Yeah, that’s the one.
Yeah. So basically, they asked me what I did when I wasn’t working. I do other stuff as well, but I think they ran with the fact that I write comedies, which is something that I still like to do with mates. I wouldn’t say that I’m proficient enough as a writer to compare them all to say that one influences the other. Writing is that a completely different discipline. You need to wake up – I mean, you have to wake up with acting too!
I imagine it’d help, yeah.
I think that the self-discipline that is required of you to wake up and just f***ing write something – sorry I swore – is pretty monumental. Maybe with time, I’ll get better at the waking up and sitting down and writing bit – I do the best I can, but at the moment acting is keeping me ticking along really.
Is there anything else you’re working on at the moment that you could tell us a little bit about?
I’m shooting a JK Rowling series, Strike, at the moment.
Oh, that’s cool!
Have you watched it?
Yeah, with Holliday Grainger?
Holliday Grainger, yeah! So, it’s an adaptation of [JK Rowling’s] most recent book under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. It’s called Lethal White. Sue Tully’s directing it, who did Line of Duty and she’s wonderful. I’m filming that at the moment and that’s taking me up to Christmas and then… back into the abyss really. Who knows what’s next?
Finally, then, just to wrap everything up: what’s the main thing you’d want someone to take away from your work as an actor?
Oh wow, that’s a great question. I don’t know. I think there’s an empowerment that comes from relatability. Like I said about Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Olivia Colman, the ability to relate and to realise that we’re all doing this life thing together – it’s weird and intense and there’s moments of euphoria and dark periods… the ability to represent that is my aim.
I’m not necessarily saying that I fulfil those requirements, but it would be the ultimate privilege to make people feel. I think it’s making people laugh and cry, those extremes of what it’s like to be human. Making people feel stuff is a very thrilling thing to do if you’re ever able to.
Joseph Quinn, thank you very much!
Catherine the Great is available now on Sky Atlantic & Now TV in the UK and on HBO in the US.