Classic Interview: Reece Shearsmith

a field in england

Is it really eight years since I interviewed Reece Shearsmith? Eight years since the League of Gentlemen's movie came out? This interview originally ran in the Evening Standard to coincide with The League of Gentlemen's big screen debut, and also Shearsmith's appearance as Jaques in As You Like It at Wyndham's Theatre. While the tabloids were probably more interested in Sienna Miller's appearance in the play, the comedy geek world was more hooked on Shearsmith's first post-League stage performance. Since then he has certainly branched out while still working with Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson on various projects and keeping the door open for a LoG reunion. He is reunited with Pemberton in a forthcoming BBC series, Inside No 9, and – be still my beating heart – plays the late Patrick Troughton in the Beeb's 50th anniversary drama about Dr Who. This week, however, Shearsmith is mostly on people's minds because of his brilliantly grubby performance in Ben Wheatley's super-weird A Field In England. 

The Young Vic's rehearsal rooms around the corner from the Oval are a hive of activity. Production people buzz about, technicians talk into headsets. But the busiest area is the smoking room where the cast of As You Like It shuttle in and out for fag breaks.

Which is a little awkward because it is where I'm interviewing The League Of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith, who makes his classical debut as philosophising sidekick Jaques. The glittery cast also includes Helen McCrory, Sean Hughes, and Sienna Miller as Celia.

In fact, just after I've asked Shearsmith what Miller is like, in she bursts on cue, a picture of boho sexiness, scruffy blonde hair up and wrapped in a cream cardie, before politely withdrawing. 'She's absolutely delightful,' says Shearsmith protectively.

This is a busy time for the impish, soft-spoken 35-year-old. The previews of As You Like It start in the same week as the eagerly awaited The League Of Gentlemen's Apocalypse opens in the cinema.

The cult BBC2 sitcom has already gathered a loyal fanbase after three series set in the fictional village of Royston Vasey, full of twisted grotesques such as sinister butcher Hilary Briss and creepy teutonic Wolf Lipp and spawning catchphrases such as, 'This is a local shop for local people.'

Like his fellow award-winning performers, Shearsmith plays a number of characters in the film, from frizzy-haired small businessman Geoff to nightmarish wife-stealer Papa Lazarou. Without prosthetics he looks eerily normal and a little dazed by his success.

It is an ambitious, intricate film that finds Royston Vasey's inhabitants stepping into reality to persuade the comedy's real creators - Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, non-performer Jeremy Dyson and Shearsmith - to pen another series. The postmodern plot draws on everything from Pirandello's Six Characters In Search Of An Author to shoestring horror movies.

The quartet clearly devoted themselves to the project. 'The first thing was just to make a good comedy film,' explains the Hull-born co-star.

'Then the idea for the plot was born from our real struggle of not being able to put our past behind us. Combining fiction and reality was a way of making it work.' A live tour, The League Of Gentlemen Are Behind You, reaches the Carling Apollo Hammersmith in December.

With the production complete, Shearsmith was able to consider other projects. As You Like It appealed because it is not a full-on comedy role. While Hughes's Touchstone provides comic relief, Jaques has a darker take on life. Shearsmith is relieved that he doesn't have to go for guffaws. 'With live comedy you can hear when you are failing.'

'It would be wrong to end up in a comedy thing that is not as good as The League. It's bigheaded, I know, but you have to have a yardstick. I'm not interested in being a butler in a big film just so I can say I was in it.'

It is not the largest part in the play - one of Shakespeare's cross-dressing romcoms - but he does have the meatiest speech, the magnificent 'All the world's a stage' seven-ages-of-man piece. Shakespeare could have had my slouching, Nike rucksack-wearing child in mind when he wrote about "the whining schoolboy... creeping like snail, unwillingly to school".

'I don't want to arrive at it and see the audience going "that's it". Maybe just a little nudge of recognition.' The production is pretty timely, pre-empting Kenneth Branagh's movie version, with Kevin Kline as Jaques.

Shearsmith won't be playing Jaques as if he has dropped into the Forest Of Arden on the way to Royston Vasey. He encountered that problem before in 2002 when The League appeared in Yasmina Reza's Art. 'Some fans thought we might be doing it in character,' he grins in disbelief.

Having studied drama at Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire with Pemberton and Gatiss, he proved at home in straight drama. 'I'm an actor first and a comedian second. I don't mind being onstage as someone else, but I could never do stand-up.' He prefers performing to the creative process, describing writing for The League as 'like pulling teeth'.

Success vindicates his about-turn on leaving school. 'I'd always loved performing but I'd decided to be a graphic designer and had a place at art school. Then at the last minute I panicked and thought if I never try acting I'll always regret it. My art teacher encouraged me to change courses, even though a degree in drama is about as useful as a degree in washing up.'

For the first three years after graduating it looked as if he had made the wrong decision as he struggled to make ends meet. He did Theatre-In-Education in schools where he met his wife Jane and had the idea of angry agitprop drama teacher Ollie Plimsolls. After five years he reunited with Gatiss, Pemberton and Dyson.

Three years later, in 1997, they won the Perrier Award and have never looked back. It's a nice kind of success for this quiet figure. Most of his creations look nothing like him, so he doesn't get too much attention in the street: 'Although it also means that casting directors don't know it's me doing such a good job,' he smiles.

Shearsmith lives near Muswell Hill with his very young family. It'll be some time before Holly and Danny see his League Of Gentlemen DVDs. 'I don't even let them see Shark Tale in case it upsets them. My daughter knows that I dress up for a living though.

She calls it "my silly work".' Long may his silly work continue.


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