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The History Boys - James Corden and friends interviewed

The History Boys

Interview by Rob Carnevale

THE young cast of The History Boys discuss some of their experiences during the long journey from stage to screen, as well as working with Alan Bennett…

Q. Can you come clean and tell us about the “lack of respect” you showed your writer and director?
James Corden: You mustn’t be under the impression that there’s a lack of respect for Alan [Bennett] or Nicholas [Hytner], it’s huge; but when you meet people who have had such an impact on you growing up and then finally you’re in a room and you’re about to work with them, there’s two things you can do – you can either put them on a pedestal or take them down a peg or two.

Collectively, as a group, we thought the best way to show our love and respect to both of them was by being absolutely vile and horrible to them! The way we figured it, there was eight of us and two of them and I think we’d win if it ever got to a fight.
We didn’t have a constant kind of piss taking. There was a huge amount of love and respect.

Alan Bennett: It has to be said that the boys didn’t realise – they knew their bits were funny, or the French bit was funny – but a lot of the stuff that was buried in the other dialogue, they didn’t realise was funny until the first preview…

James Corden: I thought he’d lost it. I read it and thought, “well, he’s lost it now. It aint Lady in the Van, is it?” [Laughs] But it was very good; he did very, very well.

Q. What’s the one lesson you’d like the audience to take away from The History Boys?
James Corden: I think that one of the best things about the play is that there’s these two great teachers and whatever you think of the characters and who they are, ultimately they’ve both got something quite valid to say in terms of education. The way that Hector teaches is that you should never stop learning and that’s what life’s about. You should read not for any other purpose than to read and garner more knowledge. Whereas, Irwin is saying: “If you say this, if you do this, if you’re controversial, if you say things a different way, then you’ll get the prize and you’ll get into Oxford and Cambridge.”

If it was me, I’d say I’d take a bit of both because we’re all cheats and liars really. It’s just how much you do it. So, education-wise, you’re really asking the wrong boy.

Samuel Bennett: The sad thing about Irwin and the thing that you never quite get to realise is that he’s extremely tricksy with his teaching, but then there’s that scene towards the end where Dakin confronts him and says: “Yeah, you’re very good at teaching but what about being brave in the decisions that you make for you?”

I would say that you can’t ever sacrifice your life for the sake of getting into university and getting the grades. You can put all that work in but at the end of the day, if you’ve not grown as a person, really what is the point? The ideal thing would be to take a bit from Irwin and from Hector – that you teach your soul and your brain as well.

Sacha Dhawan: I’d go more towards Hector personally. University is important but it’s advice for life. I think what Hector teaches us is equally important – to follow your heart and when you get an impulse, go with it and continue searching for your individuality. I think there are so many people now who kind of look back and say: “I wish I’d done that or grabbed that opportunity.” So follow your heart and do what you want to do.

Q. What’s the difference between being a member of The National Theatre and then having two high-profile movie roles coming out back-to-back, with The History Boys and Starter For 10? How do you expect to deal with that?
Dominic Cooper: I hope it won’t change my life. I hope it will bring about more interest and more work. I don’t know how successful the films will be. I thought The History Boys might appeal to a much younger audience, which it hasn’t. So I don’t know how much exposure it will bring me. But it’s good work and I look forward to going onto other things.

James Corden: Well, I think Starter For 10 is a good film but you can’t ever be thinking ‘I’ve got this coming out, I’ve got that coming out, it’s done, it’s all set up’ because it’s not, it never is. Acting’s the reward for all of it. It’s very lovely staying in this hotel and flying back in a flat bed on a plane and stuff, it’s very easy to get taken away with that – we just had four ice-creams for £46 – but it’s hard to lose sight of what it is sometimes.

Dominic: The best thing is to have this. Normally, you do things in the theatre and it’s gone; it’s in people’s memories and in your memory at that time. But we now have something that we’re very proud of and we care so much about on film. That’s a bonus really.

Russell Tovey: What’s also nice for us as a group of young actors kicking off is that we’ve been together for three years. This is a big momentous thing for all of us in our careers. We finish today but for the rest of our careers, wherever we go, I know that in the business I’ve got seven other actors who are my true friends, who I absolutely respect and love so much. We’ve had this specific adventure together and what’s so lovely is that I have them for life, with me wherever I go. We’ll come across each other and we’ll do other things but that’s really beautiful.

Alan Bennett: I know that’s true in the sense that I worked with Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore for three and a half years. Although we were all temperamentally very different, we didn’t see each other very much. Because we’d worked together for such a long time, you shared something you didn’t share with anybody else, so whenever you saw each other it wasn’t that you were particularly pleased to see each other, but you just went back into the relationship you had back then. In some ways, I didn’t even like sometimes because I was always the one that was kind of sat on slightly. But nevertheless, it was a relationship you shared with nobody else and that’s certainly the case with these boys.

Q. Did making the film make any of you regret what you didn’t listen to at school perhaps?
James Corden: I don’t regret anything from school. I wasn’t a particularly good pupil – I’m sure of that. I was probably a nightmare for a teacher. But I don’t regret the stuff I didn’t learn because I’m almost certain that if I’d been different at school, I probably wouldn’t be sat here in this play, or in this film.

Q. Even in the best regulated families, there is someone with an appalling habit or someone who does something to piss another off. Would any of you care to snitch on each other?
Russell Tovey: We’re all actors, we’re all at a sensitive age and we’ve all got egoes going all over the place but if you start going off on one, you had seven other people there calling you Diana Ross!

That’s what it’s been like the whole time. We’ve been in each other’s pockets, especially the last nine months being round the world. I would have imagined at the beginning of that that I might not be talking to people at the end of it, but it’s just made us even more close.

James Corden: It’s such a unique bond between everyone. I’m sure you’ve been at many, many press conferences where you’ve seen people saying how well they’ve got on and how amazing it was, when it just isn’t true. Whereas, you know that this is true because we’d have got out. At no point did we have to stay with this play.

There was a point in London where we all could have left, and nobody did; there was a point doing the film where no one had to do it, and we all did. With the tour, no one had to go on that tour, no one was contractually obliged to do anything past five months in London, yet two and a half years on we’re still here and I think that speaks more than us telling you anything about our relationship.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge been with this – Broadway or doing the film version?
James Corden: I found it quite tricky jumping from the play to the film. This was my first play; I’d only ever done TV and film before. I’d never even done an amateur play before doing The History Boys and so there were real moments when I found it really hard.

Scenes like the French scene, where I play the prostitute, I remember thinking: “I don’t know how to do this; I don’t know how big this should be.” When you’re doing a play, there it is, there’s someone 300 feet away and you need to connect with them and they need to hear you and see you and that’s it. When you get to film, there’s a camera sometimes less than three feet away and yet it’s the same words, it’s the same thing and within that scene, particularly the French scenes, it’s an incredibly theatrical moment. I remember finding that really hard and even now, when I watch the film, I never really know if I did it right, or if I should have done it more like the play, or more the other way, or just different somehow.

Sacha Dhawan: I found New York mentally challenging. Only because we were away from home and I was trying to find what was real, because everything seemed so heightened. People came up to me and said: “Good job!” Or: “You guys are going to be huge!” Everyone was just raving on about it constantly.

Samuel Barnett: I think on film, you can kind of limit damage. On Broadway, if you flop or if you’re a hit, it’s instant. At least with the film, we did it a year ago and had to leave it in the hands of Nicholas and the editors. You can edit around a performance. But I was much more nervous about Broadway because if it was over, it was instantly over.

Alan Bennett: There was a party afterwards, on the first night. I think the reviews came out during some point of that but the reason why we knew it was a success was that people were staying at the party. Normally, half an hour and they’re off. But they stayed because they knew it was alright.

Read our review of The History Boys

Read our interview with Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner