Luke Newberry interview: In The Flesh, Home Front
We chatted to actor Luke Newberry about his BBC Radio 4 Home Front role, In The Flesh, getting his start in acting and more…
“I’m still umm-ing, how annoying for you!” he says, but interviewing Luke Newberry isn’t annoying in the least. He’s at pains to give proper answers to questions, literally so judging by some of the noises he makes in our half-hour chat. His frustrated ‘aaghs’ and ‘ooohs’ and ‘umms’ are the sound of someone who doesn’t have a ready-made patter and who doesn’t want to just say any old thing.
When I ask him who would be his dream director, for instance, Newberry pauses, asks if we can come back to it later, pauses again when we do and then texts me his answer after we’ve put down the phone. Yorgos Lanthimos, who made The Lobster and Dogtooth, is his choice. Or Olivier Assayas, who made Personal Shopper and Clouds Of Sils Maria. See what I mean? He wants to get things right.
Newberry, 27, is already getting a lot right. He played the poignant, intense, undead lead in BBC Three’s much-missed zombie series In The Flesh, a show that earned him the adoration of an ardent fandom. “I’m asked every single day, either in the street or online, if it’s coming back.”
So is it coming back? “It was left on a cliff-hanger… I would love for the fans to have an ending, a finale, a bit of closure but who knows? All I know is that there are writers—Dominic Mitchell—willing to write it. That’s it. I don’t think it’s coming back but who knows? I hold a hope that maybe one day we’d get a chance to finish the story.”
Since BBC Three pulled the plug on In The Flesh, Newberry has appeared in multiple stage, TV and radio roles. He has a film coming out soon called Dusty And Me. “It’s a feel-good indie set in 1977” he explains. “I play a young guy called Derek Springfield who is hoping to get into university and is on his summer holiday and he comes across a greyhound dog he befriend it and teaches to race in order to impress the girl of his dreams.” Classic wooing technique, Newberry laughs.
Newberry’s most recent role also finds him attempting courtship. He plays Private Todd Merman, a soldier with the Canadian army, in BBC Radio 4’s Home Front. A WWI centenary drama that’s been running since 2014, each episode of Home Front—currently airing its tenth season—is set one hundred years ago to the day of broadcast. “I find it quite exciting that the events unfold daily, says Newberry. “It’s like re-walking the steps of the time and putting it in a familiar setting. It definitely helps you connect to it.”
Pte Merman is, Newberry explains, “very young and very far from home and has a sort of urgent need for affection and some pretty basic, rudimentary ideas about how to go about getting affection! He’s in uniform and thinks he’s being charming and it’s all wonderful. He’s trying to woo a girl called Jessie and then all is not as it seems!”
Newberry also drops the Canadian accent to play a different role in the serial drama, that of Claude Crombie, a character based on a real person whose existence was traced by Home Front‘s production team through marriage certificates. “Knowing that you’re playing somebody who was real at the time, it was a different experience than playing a character that didn’t exist. Knowing that you were voicing somebody who really went through that and really experienced all those things that seem so far removed from us, all that sacrifice and grief…”
It sounds as though Home Front has been something of an education for Newberry. “Definitely. Especially specific events that aren’t necessarily covered in history class at school, things I didn’t know about like the first air raid in Folkestone had the biggest civilian loss of life at that point outside of London. There were ninety people dead from that one bomb.”
Recording the audio drama has also been a homecoming for Newberry, whose first professional acting job was for BBC Radio 4. “Radio I always find does feel like I’m coming back to something. I remember being there with my mum and sitting with all these actors around us and they were very, very funny, just doing voices all the time and springing into characters. I remember me and my mum being thoroughly amused all day and thinking how great it was.”
That was followed by a role in 2002 period feature The Heart Of Me, in which an 11-year-old Newberry acted alongside Helena Bonham-Carter, Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams. “That was the job that sealed the deal for me in terms of what I wanted to do. There was no going back after that. The three of them became my sort of surrogate parents. Paul Bettany played my dad and they really looked after me. They were the best people to do a film with at that age.”
Was it love at first sight, going on a film set? “There was the magic of escaping about it. I was at a village school in Devon and then suddenly I’d be on this film set with these people and it was so inspiring. Going from a playground where make-believe is what you do as a kid and then going and seeing adults really doing it, proper grown-up acting, grown-up playtime. It was like wow, this is not confined to… I can develop this potentially into a career. That can happen.”
Now that it has happened, does that sense of magic fade? Once acting has become a job? “Sometimes you go in and the little boy in me goes ‘oh my gosh! This is so cool. I get excited about scenery, things like that. But I have to get beyond the magic of it and try and treat it like going to work and think of it as being very ordinary. If you get too swept up in it and too excited by the whole process sometimes that can take you out of doing your job properly.”
How about co-stars? Does he ever get star-struck working with veteran actors? (Dustin Hoffman directed him in Quartet, which featured Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay…) “You always try not to be I think, you try and be cool but not too cool.”
It must have felt pretty cool to land a part in Sherlock (2012 episode A Scandal In Belgravia) straight out of drama school? Newberry laughs when I bring it up. “I feel a bit awkward talking about Sherlock because I don’t feel like I was… they’re all brilliant and I was a very, very small part.”
Come on, I tell him, you played Young Policeman, don’t sell yourself short! He laughs again. “I spent two days or something in the Brecon Beacons, which is a beautiful location, talking to Martin Freeman. I was sort of a bit bewildered and didn’t know what I was doing, but it was fun. It was really fun.”
Moffat and Gatiss aren’t the only UK screenwriting stars on Newberry’s CV. He’s also appeared in Russell T Davies’ Cucumber and Banana (“He really cares about everyone involved”) and recently, in Sally Wainwright’s Brontë sisters drama To Walk Invisible as Charlotte’s publisher, George Smith. Is he a Brontë fan?
“Well, I’m a big Sally Wainwright fan! Sally’s vision for it felt very fresh. The way it was put together and told – it was such a beautifully written piece of drama and though I was only in two scenes, there was a lot to dive into. I went to a little museum with an exhibition about Charlotte and George and how George and his overbearing mother inspired her novel Villette, and where he took them to the opera – there was a map that plotted where he would take her… there was so much research I could do.”
Beautifully written is also how Newberry describes In The Flesh when asked how he felt about it with a few years’ distance from filming. “It was a very special job. It really spoke to people in quite a strong way. I get letters from people, especially young people, people who felt like Kieren gave them some kind of… there was a recognition there with the character and that really connected with people.”
The fans are, understandably, so dedicated that Newberry must have had some quite intense experiences at conventions and so on? People aren’t likely to just want to high-five you walking down the street, I suggest, they’re more likely to read you a poem or show you a tattoo of Kieren they’ve had done? “Poems,” he agrees. “Books of poems. Sometimes I get single poems they’ve written and sometimes I’ve had books of poetry by other authors, which is so lovely. Someone gave me some plays they thought I might like.”
What sort of poetry would Newberry’s In The Flesh character Kieren, like? Philip Larkin, perhaps? “Yes, yes,” he agrees. “Melancholy. Northern. Keats maybe?” He’s clearly moved by the devotion of fans, and deservedly proud of having been a part of the show. He’s still in touch with the cast, including co-lead “the very talented Emily Bevan”, as he calls her.
“We’re not saving the world, but at the same time it really affected people. I mean, it’s [creator, Mitchell] Dominic’s work, but people have written to thank me for that character and saying that really helped them in some ways. It really chimed with people with mental health issues as well, so I’m really proud of the whole thing. It’s always just so lovely to know that it’s reached people, especially young people.”
Not only young people though, I cough. “True! It seemed to resonate on quite a wide scale. I think because it was rooted in such reality, that sort of suburban daily life. It was bringing something that was fantasy in genre into our living rooms. We spend so much time in Kieren’s living room, in situations that we all relate to. I think that was part of its ability to connect.”
Conversation drifts, as it invariably does when I’m a participant, towards David Bowie. Newberry loves his music and would love to play a young Bowie though “he’s sort of untouchable in a way, isn’t he?”
I rattle through some quick-fire questions to finish. Dream stage role? Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts. Dream co-star? Kirsten Dunst. Given the chance, whose career would he steal? Daniel Day-Lewis. Asking him which role he’d choose if he could have any he’d gone up for but missed out on elicits so many ‘aghs’ and tongue-ticking pauses that it feels like putting him under psychological torture, so I apologise. Mine’s Mary, I say. I played Angel Gabriel. I played a Wise Man, but never Mary.
“I was Gabriel as well!” he laughs. “I was quite pleased with that. It did kill your arms though. I had to stand for a long period of time with them outstretched.”
You can sort of see it, can’t you? Luke Newberry as an archangel, in pain.
Listen to episodes of BBC Radio 4’s Home Front, on BBC iPlayer, here.
Main picture credit: BBC