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The A Word - Lee Ingleby interview (exclusive)

Lee Ingleby

Interview by Rob Carnevale

LEE Ingleby talks about playing the father of a five-year-old boy who is diagnosed with autism in new BBC drama The A Word and how he prepared for the role and bonded with his young co-star, Max Vento.

He also talks about getting the chance to work with Christopher Eccleston and what he hopes audiences will take away from the show. And he discusses his role in forthcoming Sky 1 drama, The Five, as well as past roles in films such as Master & Commander, alongside Russell Crowe, and Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban. The A Word begins on BBC1 on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, at 9pm.

Q. What was the appeal of The A Word for you?
Lee Ingleby: I was always a fan of Peter Bowker’s work. I love his writing and he knows how to tell a story beautifully. I loved watching Marvellous [his TV movie about the life of Neil Baldwin]. So, when the script came along and I read it, I found it had everything and more. It’s a beautiful story, well told, that’s funny, heart-breaking and a really good solid drama. At the heart of the story is this five-year-old boy that has something different about him.

Q. Do you think it will help raise more awareness of autism?
Lee Ingleby: i think it will. I mean, speaking from my own point of view, I knew what it was but I couldn’t really understand it. A lot of people keep saying it’s not just something you see in a film like Rainman because the spectrum is so wide. And I would say that this particular tale is one from the hidden side of the spectrum… where, on the surface, everything seems fine but then things begin to unravel, the autism gets uncovered and we – as his parents – begin to realise that something’s not quite right. And then we get the diagnosis. So, I think it will raise a bit of awareness. I hope it does.

Q. And it couldn’t be more timely, arriving on the BBC just a week after George Osborne announced cuts to disability benefit in The Budget…
Lee Ingleby: Yeah, absolutely. But then cuts like that never seem to go away. Hopefully, the series will highlight the situation to those guys in office, in power. Because it’s not just the person suffering from the disability that is affected. It’s also the people that surround the people with disabilities because it’s hard work, especially in this story where it’s a five-year-old child. It’s not a black and white issue. We as a cast put in a lot of time and effort into telling this story, so you can only begin to imagine what it must be like for parents who are dealing with conditions like this on a day-to-day basis.

Q. How did you prepare for your role as Joe’s father?
Lee Ingleby: Well, in terms of learning and researching autism, I think it’s fair to say that most of the cast started out by reading books and we had talks. But it was sort of halfway through the rehearsals that we realised that perhaps we knew too much. At the end of the day, we were playing parents who discover it as they go along, so we decided we didn’t want to know too much and made the decision to pull back and explore it that way. We shot it chronologically, so we went through it [the journey] as the script developed. As they learn more about how to deal with it, or how not to deal with it, so did we. But there was no right or wrong way of dealing with it.

Q. How was working with Max Vento, who plays your son?
Lee Ingleby: Max was great. He’s fantastic. He’s only six but he got the concept of what we were doing pretty much straight away. So, he really started to understand Joe straight away. We had to work around him, of course, because with any sort of filming schedule it’s quite tough. And with a young kid, he’s got to do his schooling and he’s only allowed to work for so long, so we fit everything around him.

Q. Did you do anything to bond with him beforehand?
Lee Ingleby: We did a few nights out where we went bowling and went for some meals. But we really got to know each other as a team. You’ll also notice that the character of Joe really loves his music, so we introduced Max to the music as we went along. And during the days of filming, we’d play a lot of games to help keep spirits high.

Q. The music plays a big part in the series. Were some of the songs fun to revisit?
Lee Ingleby: Yeah, I knew most of the music anyway, so it was nice to be able to share it with Max.

Q. And how was having Christopher Eccleston as your grandfather?
Lee Ingleby: I’d always been a bit of a fan of Chris’, since seeing him in Let Him Have It. I’ve always remembered how fantastic he was in that, as well as shows like Cracker and Our Friends In The North. So, to meet him work with him was a real treat. And he’s a really great spirit to have around. He brings so much energy. So, it was great. But that’s true of all of the cast. I already knew most of them in some way, so I couldn’t have asked for a better cast.

Q. What do you hope audiences take away from The A Word?
Lee Ingleby: Well, going back to what we said earlier, I hope they enjoy it. It’s not a dark piece by any stretch. It’s funny and light-hearted but it does have moments of heart-ache and heart-break and some tough moments. So, I hope they learn something as well. At the heart of the story is this child who is diagnosed with autism… but surrounding that are the struggles experienced by his family and watching how they deal with it – and they all deal with it differently. So, it’s also about learning, and realising how a family works and how the people surrounding that family work.

Q. You also have The Five coming up for Sky 1…
Lee Ingleby: Yeah, it’s a mystery series that’s been penned by Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst. They’ve created this vast 10-part series about a group of friends. There are two brothers and one of them disappeared, never to be seen again, presumed dead. But then 20 years later, his DNA turns up at a crime scene. And we know it’s the young boy who went missing – we just don’t know how. So, it brings everyone back together to face what happened in the intervening years. It’s slick and fast paced. If it was a book, it would be a real page turner; you can’t seem to get to the end of an episode without wanting to find out what’s going to happen next.

The Five

Q. Are you one of the brothers?
Lee Ingleby: No, I’m one of the school friends, one of the five, named Slade. He’s a bit of a mystery. He doesn’t give anything away, but there’s something behind the eyes. It’s actually a hard one to talk about because you end up giving something away – and there are so many twists and turns…

Q. Did you know what happened yourself before it came to filming?
Lee Ingleby: Actually, no. They kind of kept the denouement away from us for as long as they could. Again, we were filming pretty much sequentially, so when it came to the last two episodes where everything starts to spill out, they kept those from us for as long as possible. So, we were all gessing and I don’t think any of us guessed right!

Q. Looking back on your career to date, there have been many highlights. I’d imagine that working with Peter Weir and Russell Crowe on Master & Commander must have been one?
Lee Ingleby: Master & Commander was fantastic. I think it’s any boy’s dream to be able to dress up as a sailor and have a big boat to play on, overlooking The Atlantic. I was also always a massive fan of Peter Weir and he’d actually seen me in one of my earlier roles too. So, I was lucky enough for him to think of me for that role.

Q. So, how much did you learn and take away from an experience like that?
*Lee Ingleby: Well, working with somebody like Peter Weir… his work is very much about creating the right environment. So, when the ships were built, they were built to the standards, height and specifications as they could be, allowing for room to get a camera inside and operate it. But he made sure the conditions were as they would have been, which is a massive thing to have for an actor trying to create a moment in history.

Q. And how was working alongside Russell Crowe? You share some pretty intense scenes….
Lee Ingleby: Russell was great. He played the role brilliantly because he was the captain of the ship and he sort of steered us through it. This was an all-male cast, so there a lot of men in this tight environment. It was a long time to spend together but we had a great time. It was a bit of a giggle really. We sometimes forgot we were making a movie!

Q. You were also in Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban. How was that? Is that one of the roles you get recognised more for?
Lee Ingleby: It’s funny, I don’t tend to get recognised that much but it’s usually for cult things like Spaced or Early Doors, or bigger things like Harry Potter – the ones with the massive fan-base. And I’m always surprised when people quote lines at me from something I did six or seven or eight years ago. But Harry Potter was another amazing experience because those films were so popular and so immense and so magical. I think the thing that impressed me the most about doing that one was the level of detail that goes into it – from the sets and the costumes to the special effects they’d use on the day. It was like being in a sweet shop.

Lee Ingleby

Q. And how was working with Alfonso Cuaron?
Lee Ingleby: Curaron was amazing. He’s one of those directors who has such an amazing vision. When you’re filming, it’s so technical because you’re doing these special effects sequences, which means working on a blue or green screen. So, you only have a vague idea of what it’s going to look like. But then when it all gets put together and you see it later, the vision is incredible.

Q. Conversely, you’ve also worked with Mike Leigh on Mr Turner, which is the other end of the scale in terms of size…
Lee Ingleby: Yes, Mike Leigh is very much about character. You have this singular person and they expand out from that, which means you are allowed to breathe and live and create this background and history for them. It’s pivotal for him. That’s how he creates his worlds. It’s pain-staking, like a fine tooth comb, but it’s all about the scene and the person in that scene. You research and rehearse so much that you’re really getting to know the anatomy of who you are playing. You know what you got for your fifth birthday, the names of your grandparents and the streets you lived in. So, I’ve been very lucky to have been able to go from one extreme to the other; to shoot something large-scale, action-packed and effects-laden, and then something else which, at its heart, is a two-hander.

Q. So, looking back on your own career, what have been your own personal highlights? Which jobs have you enjoyed the most and got the most from?
Lee Ingleby: I think, for me, it’s the people you work with that you learn the most from. For instance, I was able to work with Joe Wright on one of my first jobs [Nature Boy], which was also one of his first jobs. And now he’s one of the biggest directors in the world. And then, in the next breath, you’re working with someone like Mike Leigh. You learn different things from everyone you work with. So, I almost don’t have a favourite job, just favourite moments.

The A Word is on BBC1 on Tuesday nights (from March 22, 2016) at 9pm. The Five is coming to Sky1 next month (April).

Photos by Leigh Keily.