Red Dwarf is back on TV! And the first episode of the new series, Cured, stars Ryan Gage as Hitler, well sort of, in what must surely be one of the show’s most memorable guest performances. What better excuse could we have, then, to talk to Ryan about his lifelong love of Red Dwarf and how one goes about playing the so called Great Dictator. He also shares his experiences from working on The Hobbit movies, and tells us a little about the play Gin For Breakfast which is currently on at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London and marks his directorial debut.
What was it like working on such an iconic show like Red Dwarf?
It was a dream come true really. I was a fan of Red Dwarf since the early 90s when I first saw Series Four. I was a bit young for the others. I was sort of vaguely aware of its existence, or maybe I wasn’t. I’m not sure. I was that young! But I remember series four being on television and just thinking it was the best thing ever. And then all my friends at school were obsessed with it when that series [Four] came out and one of my best friends had all the… wait, I was going to say DVDs but no it was VHS tapes…! of all of the series. Apart from Series One actually I think, which took a little bit longer to be released, but he had series two and three, and we just watched them obsessively. And then obviously Series Five came out, and then Series Six, and I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t watching Series Six. It was such a phenomenal series. And by that point, I think Series One had come out on VHS, so I was just completely obsessed with the first six series when I was a kid. You know, we’d quote them in the playground, I have pictures of me at school sort of doing the Boys From the Dwarf shaky hand thing with my mates! So it was everything to me, to be on the show and you know, to meet the guys. I had only ever met Hattie Hayridge before, who was lovely and I was really excited about meeting Hattie because I just met her in a bar one day; so to suddenly be there with all the boys on the set, to meet Doug properly, it was… it was incredible.
On the characters…
I think I’ve gone through different phases. When I was super young I absolutely adored Cat; I just thought he was the best thing ever. As I got a little bit older I thought that Lister was the best, because he was cool and as I was beginning to be a teenager. Something about his sort of spirit was particularly… I think I always thought he was super cool really. That was always a fact. I mean, he’s the one you identify with first and foremost. I don’t think many people identify with Rimmer! (laughs) But that doesn’t mean he’s not your favourite in some other ways. He’s just so brilliant and so brilliantly funny. And yeah, Kryten is you know, such an asset to the show. He regularly steals episodes! I do genuinely love them all equally, they all work so well together. People have come and gone and been brilliant. I’m thinking of the Hollys, and Kochanskis, over the years and stuff like that, but it is just the four of them, really, who are the centre of it. And it’s at it’s best when it is the four of them.
How did you feel coming into that as an actor working with such a tight-knit team?
I just felt privileged! They’ve been doing it for so many years… I was too excited to be intimidated. I just had a great time from start to finish. I suppose the only possible bit of nerves is that whole ‘don’t meet your heroes, they might be an asshole to you or something,’ but they weren’t! They were just lovely. I’d already spoken a lot with Richard [Naylor] and Doug [Naylor]. They knew how much of a fan I was of the show and I think the boys knew that when I was coming on, so at the first table read we did I was at a costume fitting, getting my Hitler costume sorted and was late. And so I was already being jibed and mocked in a very warm way for being late and for being Hitler. Which was great! As soon as the jokes and the insults started flowing I thought, this is fantastic. I’m at home here!
You’ve played a lot of interesting characters, how did you arrive at your characterisation of this particular role?
Of Hitler? Chiefly because I didn’t have to in any way be concerned about what the real Hitler was like, you know. The whole point of this is that this guy has been cured. Or isn’t Hitler, or you know whatever. All the details of it. They Probably don’t want me to spoil things, but I didn’t have to worry about being accurate to Hitler. The only thing that I thought was worth looking at, really, was some of the physicality, because I thought it might be fun to. Adolf had such extraordinary physical and.. what’s the word..? recognisable physical gestures, style, you know, all those bizarre extremely balletic moves that he does. These sort of spasmodic, balletic moves that he does are just so recognisable. So I thought it might be fun to do it so that he still has some of that recognisable physicality. But his internal world is just as a really lovely guy. And obviously I loved this clever thing that Doug had come up with, that both he and Lister are art students. You know, I went to an art school. I went to a drama school that was connected to a bigger arts college, in an umbrella sense, so I’m used to being around artsy people and then I just was playful with that idea.
The voice, actually I based his voice on a Swedish dance teacher. She was not in any way a Nazi! She was an extremely lovely woman, but me and my friends, we just always enjoyed her accent. The way she would say certain things. Like “squeeze your buttocks!” So I just nicked a bad impression of her voice for him, because I didn’t think that it really mattered. At the end of the show they say, you know, he doesn’t look anything like Hitler! So I had total license to not have to be doing the Downfall style impression of the man himself.
My ninety-four year old Gran said the other day “I hear you were on the telly the other day?” I said, yeah I was playing Adolf Hitler, I believe you are familiar with his work? And she nearly spat out her teeth I think! She thought it was very funny, and I’m pleased she took it the right way.
During WWII, there was a feeling that it was important to lampoon Hitler in films to help tackle the fear that people had of him and what was going on in the world. Do you think that this is still important to do this today?
Of course! Of course. I’m not comparing myself to either of these two, but there is a great tradition of this, first Chaplin and then Mel Brooks, mocking Hitler with very good intention. I think, the bravest of those being Chaplin at the time, because at any point, as an Englishman, his country could have been invaded while he was making that movie. It was in direct opposition to the man himself. And then of course, Mel Brooks, that must have been an extremely personal… you know his family history… that must have been an extremely personal comedic assault.
You know this [Red Dwarf] has always been one of the most diverse, forward thinking shows on British television, having two black leads since the 80s, as they say themselves, which has never been mentioned in the show. It’s already a sort of testament to progressivism without ever having to think about it.
The roles that you choose or get offered are really quite diverse. How do you choose roles and how do you disappear into characters the way you do?
That’s a huge compliment, because that it what I like to do. Sometimes people say to me, I wish you would play yourself a bit more, and maybe one day I will, but it doesn’t excite me as much as becoming a different person, or different being, or whatever that is. I am excited by trying to find bits of myself that I can exaggerate and create something new or interesting to me, and sometimes I’m successful at that and sometimes I am less successful at that. I pick people that I really am inspired by as an actor, people like, and I’m not comparing myself to him, Daniel Day-Lewis. They’re the great transformers. I understand what the appeal is to the actors who like to become other people. It makes your job a bit harder. It’s easier to play yourself, or a version of yourself, and in some ways you’re always playing a version of yourself, but I enjoy stepping into other people, and trying to have a bit of fun there or trying to get to the bottom of what the darkness in their soul is or whatever. I’m an old fashioned character actor, I suppose!
Working on The Hobbit must have been quite an amazing experience, what was that like?
It was amazing to work in New Zealand; it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. If it was closer, I would be there now. I think it’s just so gorgeous. It was incredible to go and work on a production of that size. I’m a huge Peter Jackson fan. I was a huge fan of The Hobbit book as a child, so it was an extraordinary experience. To be involved in a production that was so enormous, it was like an old school Hollywood thing, you know. In terms of the character… I mean, I say I don’t like Alfrid, you’re not really supposed to. I enjoyed playing him.
Alfrid is so unpopular, would you have preferred playing another character?
You know, I wouldn’t, because again I think it’s just me. I’m maybe a masochist, but I’m much more interested in playing people who are warped and stupid or something, than playing the hero staring into the middle distance. It doesn’t interest me and I wouldn’t be cast as it for another. I’m not gorgeous enough! Something about the fact that Alfrid wants to kill and then fuck and then eat everybody he comes across, I think is interesting.
Do you find that working somewhere like that, so far from home, is something that is difficult, and effects your acting process, or is it just part of the job and something that you find you can manage quite well?
I think that generally I can manage it quite well, but no, of course, you get lonely, relationships can fall apart and all that sort of thing, that absolutely happens. I think actors, and anyone who has a sort of transient life, who moves around a lot, goes from place to place… it’s difficult to settle when you’re unsettled, but it brings a dynamic quality to your life. You meet lots of interesting people, you do lots of interesting things. I personally am quite good with my own company. I enjoy working, I have things to work on, I try to maintain an internal creativity.
I’m directing a play at the moment called Gin For Breakfast, it’s about clinical depression, it’s about all those sorts of demons that can slip in through the cracks, in anyone’s life really. I have genuinely, touch wood, been pretty robust, with all of that sort of thing that being away from your environment can create, but certainly by directing this play I’m super aware of what the dangers are. The traps you can fall into.
Gin For Breakfast runs until October 21st at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden, tell us more about your work on that?
It’s a play about clinical depression and mental health. We have Stephen Fry from The Hobbit coming to do a post show talk on the 18th. He’s very kindly… he’s obviously a huge supporter of the subject matter and of the production of the play. We also have Matt Horne from Gavin & Stacey and The Catherine Tate Show coming to do a post show talk. They’ve both been quite open with their struggles about mental health and depression and these sorts of things in the past, so I expect those talks to be confessional and interesting. Matt’s one is with Rhik Samadder, the Guardian journalist, who has also written a book about depression. It’s an interesting subject matter and we’re in a tiny corner of the West End trying to stoke up some debate on the subject. We’re not alone, there’s actually been an upsurge of talk about mental health, which is a hugely positive thing.
Gin For Breakfast is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until October 21st 2017.