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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Conversation with... Ricky Whittle, on Austenland (& much more)

Film Flam Flummox

While his face, let alone name, is one of the least recognizable to general American audiences in the large ensemble cast of Jerusha Hess's screen adaptation of Shannon Hale's novel Austenland, Ricky Whittle is far from unfamiliar in his native United Kingdom, becoming a popular television staple there as both an actor on long-running drama series such as the soccer team serial Dream Team and the perennially popular soap Hollyoaks; and as himself, most notably after placing as first runner up on series 7 of Strictly Come Dancing, the original UK iteration of Dancing with the Stars . Despite being more than established and ever on the rise in his home market, two years ago Whittle made the bold move to the States, and in short order booked a major recurring role on the second season of VH1's Single Ladies and his first feature film role anywhere as the dashing, Jane Austen-inspired, seafaring romantic hero Captain George East in Austenland. The ever-affable Whittle sat down on Thursday, August 8 in Beverly Hills for a freewheeling conversation about the film, his career, acting in general, celebrity, injuries, making the across-the-pond transition, and many points in between and all around that was as lively and quirky as the above photo.

Michael Dequina: Where shall we begin?

Ricky Whittle: I'm an open book; I'm an open person. I just hope I'm not going to say something I'm not supposed to. [laughs] I always believe in just being honest and direct with everyone, especially in this industry, which is full of that inability to say "No." They'd rather not offend than be direct with you. I'd rather someone came up to me and say, "You're not right for this because..." rather than go, "Yeah, yeah, fantastic!"--and then you never hear from them again. It's like you go on a first date with a girl, and you think it's going well, but you'd rather her say, "It's not going to work out," than you keep phoning up and saying, "Oh, when are we going out again?" You know? So I like to say, if I offend you, call me on it because I'm going to do exactly the same if you offend me; I'm going to call you on it. That way, we both learn, and we don't go around in circles if you keep everything above board. There are certain things that you keep private. You've got to, especially in this industry, to have a private life. I'm not necessarily "famous," but it's very hard with press, paps, things like that, people who think they know you.

MD: Also in this day and age, where people willingly put everything out there for taking by the public.

RW: Yeah, this form of reality TV where it's like an insight to these people's lives--it's taken over. It's cheap production for TV shows but with a massive return, so it's business for them, and it makes a lot of sense. But it kind of gave birth to a younger generation that just wants to be famous. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a pilot, I wanted to be a sportsman, or I wanted to be a lawyer. There's all these professions that kids wanted to be I was growing up. Nowadays kids go, "Oh, I just want to be famous." And it's like, well, maybe you could be famous for being a surgeon, or you could be a famous pilot. There are ways of being famous by actually having a talent. Don't just be famous for being famous just because you're on TV, and you act crazy sometimes, and it's entertaining. The new generation is kind of used to that, and it's a shame because you want to inspire your children to reach higher. My dad was very much about that age-old proverb: "Shoot for the moon, and you'll land in the stars." You need to aim high, aim really high, and don't be afraid to chase those dreams. That's why I'm here. I'd rather chase my dreams and fail than wonder the rest of my life, "what if?" You only regret the things you don't do. Life is short--live it. Chase those dreams, and don't let anyone tell you any different. Don't let people say, "Oh, you can't do that because of this, or because of that." Go and prove them wrong because everything's impossible until someone does it. My dad instilled that in me, and that's what I'd like to instill in my kids when I have them. My friends and family around me are all of the same mind that dreams are accessible; they're just an extension of yourself, and you've got to keep chasing that. Appreciate what you have, but not necessarily be satisfied because satisfaction is the death of desire. You still need to have that urge to better yourself in various ways personally and professionally, and you need to keep challenging yourself. Never rest on your laurels, but at the same time be very grateful. I know I am very blessed. I'm happy; I'm healthy--

MD: ...despite all the injuries you seem to suffer.

RW: I do pick up a lot of injuries. [laughs] But it's from stupid things though! I skydive; I cliff jump...

MD: You run Dobermans up Runyon Canyon.

RW: Yeah! I do all this stuff, and I'm absolutely fine. Now, I go jogging, the same route for two years every day in L.A., and that's when I trip over and tear my kneecap off.

MD: Did you trip over something, or did you trip over your own foot or what?

RW: No, it was slightly uneven ground; it wasn't even that bad. It was nothing! I run this route every day for two years, and I've been up there since, and I've seen the rock that did the damage to my actual knee. I didn't see where I tripped because there's nothing there! It was just my time to go, you know? [laughs] But it's frustrating because I do all of these crazy things; I'm very spontaneous and out there, and I like doing wild things. I think I was a stuntman in a former life. [laughs] But I just went over.

MD: This wasn't that long ago, right?

RW: It was just under two months ago.

MD: And were you in a brace or cast or something?

RW: No, I had a couple of layers of stitches. What happened was I hit the rock, and the full force went on my knee, and it tore the kneecap off right down to the bone. I actually took photos, and you could see the tendons, and you could see the bone--it was crazy! I went to the hospital, and they injected some blue fluid into my knee to see if I compromised the joint. They said that if this gushes out of the wound, I'd need surgery. So they injected three huge syringes into my knee, and my quad was expanding to the point where it was so uncomfortable I thought it was going to explode. And they said, "I know you're uncomfortable, but the good news is you've not compromised the joint; there's no leak." So they then withdrew all that fluid from my knee, and then got a little scalpel and started scraping the bone to make sure it was all smooth and clean and everything. Because it was very jagged all over the place where it was torn and there was loose bits of skin everywhere, they cut the skin so it was straight, so they could then sew it straight. It was a real mess. [laughs] Then they gave me a couple of layers of stitches and put me on my way on some crutches.

MD: Looking at you walking today, you would never guess...

RW: It's minor, to be honest. I broke my leg before--again, in a "normal" situation, just playing a charity football game, nothing competitive. I've been two-footed, tackled really hard plenty of times. This was an innocuous challenge, nothing. There was a small guy, and literally I just went to jump over him, his shoulder went through my shin, and the tibia and fibula burst out the side of my shin. It was a compound fracture. I literally had seven operations and there was lots of complications. But I got over that.

MD: That was the injury that they had to write into Dream Team, right?

RW: Yeah. It was three days before the end of shooting and finishing the series, so they basically had to write that my character had a break.

MD: But that then gave you some meaty material to work with though.

RW: Right! It was great because they could've just written me out. It was a charity [event] I was playing in representing the show Dream Team, so they were very understanding. They wrote into the show that my character writes this letter and doesn't play in the final game of the season. So the producer phoned me up, and I'm doped up on morphine just to ease the pain, and he says, "So, Rick, we're writing this letter, but we'd like to do a voiceover from you. Do you mind if we come in, and you record it?" I'm morphined up, and I'm like, [in groggy voice] "Yeah, come in; it's fine, don't worry about it!" [laughs] Finally my doctor was like, "No. It's not going to happen. You need to rest; you need to relax. You do not need to be performing now." So someone else just read the letter out in the show. There was a two-month break, then we came back.

MD: And you were still in rehab at that point.

RW: I was still in rehab, still on crutches. But [the producers] basically said that as I got better, my character got better, and they wrote into the script that my character had broken his leg in the offseason. As I started to walk, my character started to walk, and they just gave me lots of stuff away from the football field. They made me have an affair with the captain's wife, which was always fun. [laughs]

MD: Yeah, like I was saying, the injury then sort of opened a lot of new possibilities that the producers and writers didn't necessarily have in mind before.

RW: Yeah, they had a lot of things going on before, but luckily my character was a bit of a ladies' man, and [the new story direction] worked for him. The show was then able to invest in a meaningful relationship and make it not always revolve around football. It was a football show, so they always tended to have the drama go along with soccer. But this was a second plot, a B-plot, a different strand they could always revert to, and it actually turned out to be bigger than the actual football plot. It was some fantastic drama; it was really written very well. The writers on that show were never given enough credit. They used to sit with soccer players and basically record how they spoke to each other. I think a lot of times people don't realize how people interact; they just make assumptions. But these people were surrounded by soccer players and the real life relationships they had with each other and were able to translate that into script. So it became very real for us. As an actual sportsman as I am--I play soccer a good level--it was easy for me to say the lines because they were lines I would actually use, banter I would actually use, relationships that were actually real for us. So it really was a pleasure to breathe that into life from the script.

MD: Back to the earlier point about continually challenging yourself--you're a pretty well-known star in the UK, not just from Dream Team and Hollyoaks, but also as yourself, in Strictly Come Dancing and other television shows. Was moving to the States that "next challenge"? Did you feel like you kind of hit a certain ceiling in the UK?

RW: Yeah, there's a plateau you can reach in the UK. I could've stayed in the UK and been very, very happy. My friends and family are there; I had job offers coming in all the time, money--all sorts of things, and they were fantastic. But I think you just have to channel that ambition; you have to keep chasing.

[Austenland producer Stephenie Meyer walks by our table and waves]

RW: That's the beautiful Stephenie Meyer who's just walking past. [whispers into my recorder] She's amazing! But you have to have ambition in life, and my dream was always American TV and film. I was going to chase my dream, and I'd rather come out here and fail than a producer come across me in the UK in years to come and say, "Oh, if you had been in America, you would have been perfect for this project! Why didn't you go?"--that would've killed me. That would've hurt, and I would've taken that to my grave. So I thought if I'm going to pursue this, I'm going to go now. So I cut my losses, and I just walked away from the UK, walked away from everything. It was a big risk, and my friends said I was crazy to do it. They'd say, "Why would you go? You've got everything you need here." And I said, "It's not where I want to be. I want to chase that dream." So I came out here, the first thing I booked was Austenland... and they sent me straight back to the UK to shoot it! [laughs] I was like, "Come on! Send me anywhere! Send me to Seattle where it rains! Send me to Utah in the snow! Send me anywhere!"

MD: A nice soundstage here in L.A.!

RW: Thank you! [laughs] But no--forty minutes from my best friend's house, in West Wycombe. I was like, "Really?" [laughs] But it was a fantastic project, and it was great to pick something up so soon--it showed me that I made the right decision. This is where I wanted to be; this is the hub of the industry. If you want to really challenge yourself, this is where incredible actors, incredible writers, incredible producers work. If you can work out here, then you really have achieved something because it's a whole new audience I now have to start again with. I literally have to go back to the drawing board and reinvent myself out here. It's tough, and it's a slow process, but it's a process I'm willing to spend a lot of time on.

MD: With the wave of actors of color coming in from the UK to America, one thing that is sometimes mentioned as a motivator are limited opportunities for actors of color in the UK industry. Did or have you ever felt that way yourself?

RW: Not at all. Not at all. I find it's more limited out here. I think the UK is very multicultural. I say if you look up in the dictionary or Google a "British person," you're going to find an amalgamation of all sorts. You could be very stereotypical about various countries or continents, but I think the UK now is so progressive that we don't have a certain look. We have several generations of various cultures all mixed into one now, and it's something that's reflected more and more. It's not one-hundred percent, but it's reflected more and more in the industry. In roles in TV and film, we're seen as doctors, we're seen as successful people, businessmen. Unfortunately in the States, I believe that when they do cast actors of African-American heritage, it's very much the dealers, the womanizers, the players; you're only successful in America if you're a sportsman or rapper or singer. Unfortunately I think there is that stigma. As far as the Black British, I've had various conversations with producers, casting directors, and people in the industry, and they said that as soon as you hear the British accent, the mind goes to "educated," "cultured," and they can't see you as the ordinary man on the street because of your accent. It comes across as very "classy," so you'll only be seen as the doctor, as the lawyer--the whole spectrum is kind of missed. Because of my color, I'll be the bum on the street or the dealer, the aggressor. Because of my accent, I'll be the educated, posh one. But everything in between, you kind of get passed over for. So the roles I tend to go in for, I do actually end up playing American. I go in with the American accent, from wherever that may be; I have one today where I have to go in with an Eastern accent. Unfortunately, you kind of get pigeonholed, and you have to kind of do what you have to, so you can do what you want to. Idris Elba had to do it, and he blew up in The Wire. He surprised even me; I didn't know he was British until I saw him on another show, and I'm like, "Oh my goodness, really? He's British? How?" [laughs] He's one of my idols; he's fantastic. I've played some charity football with him, so I've met him a few times, and he's an incredible actor, an incredible person. He's someone I aspire to be like. But he's had to do it the hard way. He was in The Wire, American Gangster, and he played those stereotypical, hardcore street roles, and he was fantastic in them. But now that he's established that fan base and that he can do the work and that he has the craft to morph into various roles, he can now be "himself." So now you're seeing him as himself in his British accent in various roles, which is more freeing as an actor. As an artist, you don't mind putting on accents because it's all a mask. Heath Ledger as the Joker [in The Dark Knight]--everyone says how incredible he was. Now, I'm not being funny--he was incredible, and I'll never ever take that away from him. But you put that sort of thick makeup on, you're going to feel like that character. What he did with that was incredible, and he took it beyond. But when you put on that mask, and as an actor you put on the voice, it helps you become that character; you become something else. It really is an artistic choice. But at the same time, sometimes it is nice to be "yourself," and you can bring "yourself" out a lot more in your natural dialect. Right now, I'm probably going to be playing Americans until I get to the point where like Idris has, where you can play "yourself," and you can be seen. It's unfortunate, but America kind of doesn't "buy" the Black British at the moment. You're either British or you're black; the mixture is kind of confusing. [laughs] So I'm willing to work hard and try to get to a place where I can be both. But it's fun for me. I don't mind playing an American. I'm Caribbean in Austenland. In NCIS I was British.

MD: That NCIS episode was your first American job where you had a British accent.

RW: Yeah, and I went into that casting as American. I went in as American, and they said, "Your CV says you're British," and I was like, "Yeah"--still in character. [laughs] And they were going, "Um, can you do it in British?" And I was like, "Well, do you want me to?" And they were like, "Well, it adds a little something. The accent's perfect because you're a bad guy." So, obviously, there's that stereotype again, where the British accent signals "villain." You're going to fall into various stereotypes, but this industry's fluid, and you kind of just got to go with it and ride wherever the wave takes you; you swim with the tide rather than against it. You can get a lot further if you swim with it, and you can push towards various directions that you want to go. But don't swim against the tide; you're not going to get anywhere. I'm never going to change the world in my lifetime, but I'm going to see and feel a lot of change and a lot of movement. It's a great industry, and in the end I'm in a happy place, and this is definitely where I want to stay.

MD: Considering your stature in the UK, it's funny that this is your first feature film--that you had to move here to get one.

RW: I know. I've got an audition today, and I went and saw my acting coach to run through the scene, and she said, "I understand why you didn't do a film in the UK. You're an American actor because you're very internal, everything's in your eyes, and you feel a character. You don't act out." And then she said, " You're not a typical British actor. When the British actors come over here, and I coach them, they're very trained. They've got all this great training, and they've got technique and all this. You are just 'cowboy,' relaxed, you become a character, you morph, I see a physical change with you." She says that British actors normally invest in research and all that, and then they put on a mask. She says that British actors are more outside-in whereas American actors are more inside-out; everything's internal, and it kind of breathes out through your pores. And she says, "That was probably a problem for you in the UK. Over here, they love that. That's going to get you work. That's going to get you roles ." But it is strange that I've not done any film in the UK, but to be honest I was too busy. With the series that I was doing, I never had any time. Never. I was literally working six-seven days a week. When I wasn't filming, I was doing appearances or charity things.

MD: Or training for dancing that one year.

RW: When I was doing Strictly Come Dancing, I was probably sleeping four-five hours a day. That was it. I'd be up at 6, film 7 'til 7, and then straight to the dance studio at 8 'til midnight-one o'clock, and then in later rounds we'd be dancing 'til two or three o'clock in the morning. All the other dancers were OK because they weren't working; they're in between jobs or retired and things like that, so they had the whole day. They'd get up at 10, relax, dance for a few hours, have some lunch, dance for a few more hours, have dinner, and then go to bed early, whereas I had a little window at the end of the day, where from twelve hours filming I'd have to dance on top of that, so we'd have to dance into the morning to try and get the hours in.

[Stephenie Meyer walks by again and rubs his head goodbye]

RW: Stephenie Meyer just rubbed my head! [whispers into my recorder] You're a witness, did you see that? [laughs] So I was very busy, and I had very little time, but I didn't mind that. I don't understand these actors who go, "I need a break. I need a holiday." I was working for seven to eight years, constantly.

MD: You came out here in 2011, correct?

RW: I came out here in late 2011.

MD: And you were working solid since about 2002.

RW: Yeah, I was working solid, and I loved it. I'd like to go from job to job to job to job to job working twelve-hour days filming. I respect soldiers, troops, people who put their lives on the line; doctors, teachers, nurses, people who are doing crazy, real jobs working crazy hours. I mean, yeah, we work crazy hours, but at the end of the day? I'm playing make believe. I've never grown up; I have Peter Pan Syndrome. I'm playing Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers every day. I enjoy playing other people, and for me that's a gift. I'm doing something that I love. I wake up in the morning, and I look forward to going to work. When you wake up, and you don't want to go to work, you're in the wrong job. You need to be excited about what you do; you need to love what you do, and I love what I do. So for me, the idea of a holiday, I find it mind blowing, and I'm like, "WHY?!" Rest when you're dead or something. [laughs] You get down time when you're filming, so rest then, you know? You don't film seven days a week sometimes; you get days off, weekends off. Enjoy that! You're not going to film for three months and then walk straight onto another set. It does happen, but normally you get a week here, a week there. You can take that week to go somewhere hot and sit on the beach or go to a snow cabin or do what you need to do. I don't understand this whole "taking time off." I love the career I'm in, and I love the job I do, and for me it's a blessing, and it's something I don't take for granted.

MD: And you still also have the energy to run Runyon Canyon with Dobermans.

RW: Yeah. [laughs] I love dogs, I love animals, and I love fitness--it's saved my life on more than one occasion.

MD: Though you are still a bit injury-prone.

RW: Yeah, but when I broke my leg and such, it was down to my fitness, and that's why I survived. When I broke my leg, I suffered a fat embolism. Fat from the bone traveled up through my arteries, got lodged in my lungs, and collapsed my lungs. If it wasn't for my overall fitness, my body wouldn't have been able to fight it; I would have died. Unfortunately a woman who was in the hospital at the same time passed from the exact same thing. I was in a private room, and they shut my door. When the nurse opened the door, I said, "Do you mind me asking what happened to her?" And she said, "I'm not sure if I should tell you this, but it was exactly what you had. She just wasn't strong enough to fight it." And this was a woman in her early thirties, but she just wasn't fit or healthy enough to fight it, so I had a really serious thing; I could have died. And fortunately because I stay healthy, it saved my life, and it's something I really don't take for granted. You only realize how "small" things are incredibly huge when they're taken away, like just walking around. When first I broke my leg, the doctor said, "You're never going to play sports again. You're going to be lucky to walk without a limp." If I had taken that on board, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere. I refused to allow that; I said, "No, that's not going to happen." And I proved him wrong. I was playing soccer. I did Strictly Come Dancing. I skydive. I do all these crazy things now, but if I had listened to the doctor, I wasn't going to go anywhere. I decided to get back in the gym, get my health back, get my fitness back, and I recommend it to everyone. It's not just about looking good; it's about feeling good. That's the most important thing--if you feel good, whatever it is you do or however it is you look, you're going to exude confidence, you're going to exude happiness--that's one of the most important things in the world, to have that inner confidence in yourself. For me, being healthy makes me feel confident. I'm not talking about physically as in how I look. I just know that because I run every day, I know my body is healthy; because I eat well every day, I know my body is healthy. So I know I'm happy in myself, and I'm loving Cali life, running up mountains with Dobermans. [laughs]

MD: Was it a difficult adjustment to living here? Had you visited the U.S. before the big move, or did you just pick up and leave?

RW: I only first came to source agents and management. But, yeah, I literally just picked up my bags and left, and just came over. You wake up in England, and you don't want to get out and do very much because it's cold. You open the curtains, and it's raining. You just sat there eating your cereal, miserable, and you'd not even met anyone yet; you've not left your house, and you sat there upset with the world, angry with the world. Out here, I've not got dark-out curtains, so the sun kind of streams through my blinds, wakes me up in the morning, and I just relax in the morning, and then I open the blinds, and bang! It's another sunny day in California as it always is, and I sit there eating my cereal on top of the world! [laughs] I've not met anyone, but I walk downstairs, I'm like, "Hey, how you doing? Good morning! Have a nice day!" I love it here, and I really think it's down to the weather. The UK is an incredible place during the summer. It's different country because everyone's happy because it's sunny. Now imagine that feeling out here all the time. Everyone is happy; everyone's buzzing, and the sun allows you to do whatever you want. "Let's have a barbecue on Tuesday." We can because it's going to be sunny; you know that. In the UK, you can go, "Let's have a barbecue tonight," and it will rain; you have no idea what the weather's going to be because it changes so much. But out here, it's fantastic. And for me it's more about what you do when you're not working because when you work, you're in studio or on locations or things like that, so it's here nor there. But when you've got down time, in California, I can go to the beach. I can go hiking up in the mountains. I can chill in the waterfalls. Universal [Studios Hollywood] is around the corner. Disneyland's around the corner. It's ridiculous! I can do whatever I want in my down time. So I'm loving the Cali life out here, working on my tan. [laughs]

MD: What's coming up next?

RW: There is a sequel [novel] to Austenland called Midnight in Austenland that Shannon Hale wrote. I've spoken to Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer, and Captain George East doesn't actually appear in the sequel, but they've assured me that if there's a sequel to the film, he will make an entrance.

MD: After all, Stephenie Meyer did just caress your head.

RW: Well, if Stephenie Meyer is going to just rub my head like that, then, you know, if she doesn't put me in the film, I'm going to have her for sexual harrassment. [pause] No, I'm joking. [laughs]

MD: That'll be the scandal that you'll use to be famous!

RW: See! That's the stuff I'm not supposed to say! [laughs] That's why I cannot be left alone! But yeah, so that was my first foray into film, and I believe film is where I'd like to stay. I enjoy TV; I come from a TV background, and it's fantastic because you get a fantastic fan base that really knows your character, and they really pull for your character.

MD: And they become loyal to you as an actor.

RW: They become seriously loyal, and they follow you all over to different shows and things like that. And as an actor, it's very secure; you've got steady money, and it's great. But for me, you never know the arc of your character because it can at change anytime. You play something one way, then the writers decide they're going to go with this, and all of a sudden you're dating... your sister. [laughs] Whereas in film, you see the beginning, the middle, and the end. You see the whole arc, and you can go, "OK, this is how I'm going to play this"--you just throw everything into that, and you really get invested, and then boom--you're on to the next character. So you're a psycho killer one minute, then you're a sweet, lovable role in the next one, then you're a raving party boy--you can play whatever you want, and it's great fun that you can see the whole story. Nothing's going to surprise you, and it's nice. Film keeps it fresh for me. Of course I'd like to do action films; I'm very physical, and I'm very athletic. Black Bond, maybe--you never know. It's between me and Idris. We'll fight for it. He'll probably kick my ass; he's huge. [laughs] But I love these romantic comedies like Austenland. I'd love being the lead guy. But I also do want to be that sick, twisted, woman-slapping, baby-throwing villain. You want to be challenged as an actor, and you want to do the whole spectrum. But I'm going to have to work hard to make that happen.

MD: But you are British, so you definitely don't have to work hard to make that villain happen.

RW: [laughs] I've got the accent!

Austenland is now playing in limited release in the United States from Sony Pictures Classics with further expansion in the coming weeks, and it will hit cinemas in the United Kingdom on Friday, September 27.

Visit Ricky Whittle's official site and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Buy the Austenland DVD here.
Buy the Austenland Blu-ray here.
Buy the Austenland movie poster here.
Buy the Austenland soundtrack here.
Buy Shannon Hale's Austenland novel here.
Buy Shannon Hale's Austenland novel on CD here.

(Special thanks to Ricky Whittle, Block-Korenbrot Public Relations, and Sony Pictures Classics; top photo courtesy Ricky Whittle)

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