London stage sensation embraces dark side

LONDON — Most actors thrive on praise, and British stage actor William Houston is currently receiving the kind of effusive acclaim that his peers would kill for. Last month, Blighty newspaper The Independent gushed, “It’s hard to imagine a more thrillingly dangerous performer,” referring to the actor’s memorable “chain of chillingly ferocious psychopaths and tyrants.”

“It’s lovely to hear that people think highly of me,” says the 38-yeard old Irishman, whose decade-plus career includes stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theater. His dual role as Prince Hal and King Henry at the RSC garnered Houston a nomination for the 2001 Evening Standard Theater Award for best actor, while his turn as puritanical despot Pentheus in Peter Hall’s “The Bacchai” garnered raves.

Houston credits his Irish background with his affinity for dark characters. “I was brought up during ‘the Troubles’ and I learned to deal with that kind of ‘normal’ life,” he says, “so I was very used to the horrors of that time. It’s great to play those roles because it’s basically free therapy.”

While Houston has dabbled in TV, he is now making a concerted move toward film, opening with Nicolas Roeg’s “Puffball,” the director’s first theatrical feature in more than a decade. “It’s very naturalistic,” Houston says. “I am playing a farmer, and it was shot only 20 miles from where I grew up. If there was going to be any film that I could use to relax into this, having done so much theater, this is it, so I was very lucky.”

“Puffball” will be followed by more familiar territory, Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” sequel, “The Golden Age,” in which Houston stars opposite Cate Blanchett as a Spanish ambassador. “It’s a classical piece,” he explains, “and it’s easy for me to cross over: I’m used to the costumes, the swords, the boots, the beard…!”

But it was still a challenge: “The Spanish accent was very difficult indeed.”

While Houston is not leaving theater behind, film work will ensure that he’ll “certainly go AWOL for a while” adding, “film can be quite theatrical. You can get away with a lot more.”

For his future screen endeavors, he’ll abide by one rule: “The important thing is to be prepared and not be too specific with my choices because one could be disappointed. If the story grabs me, then I’ll go hell for leather.”

Claim to fame: “Playing Prince Hal and King Henry for the RSC. That was a year and a half being in character 24 hours a day. It took me about a year to come out of character.”

Career mantra: “Go like blazes — because life is short.”

Role model: “My real hero is Christopher Walken.”

What’s next: “I’ve got some plays planned — there’s the possibility of playing Hamlet and Shakespeare himself.”

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