Theatre: From sci-fi with Spielberg to Dickens with Broadsides
If there's one thing life has taught actor Paul Barnhill, it is to expect the unexpected.
“This incredible thing happened,” says Paul who is currently part of the acting ensemble in Northern Broadsides’ Hard Times at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this week.
“I was playing Arthur Askey at Theatre Clywd and three days later I was involved with Steven Spielberg. These kinds of things are incredible and show in my business you never know what’s around the corner.”
The Spielberg story is actually more about Paul’s daughter Ruby who at the age of ten decided she fancied a crack at her dad’s profession.
As fate would have it, there was an open casting for fantasy The BFG, which starred Mark Rylance and went on to be a box office hit.
Despite having no formal training, Ruby worked her way through several auditions and beat off more than four hundred other girls of a similar age from around the world to land the lead part of Sophie.
“Bless her. Ruby had done nothing and suddenly she went from one extreme to the other.”
Spielberg knew Paul was an actor and “amazingly he offered me a part in the movie too. And all because of Ruby.
“I was happy enough doing Arthur Askey. I had no idea three days after finishing that gig singing I Want A Banana that I’d be sat there with the big man. It was mad!” says Paul who lives with his wife Sarah , Ruby (who is now 13) and youngest daughter Darcey, six, in Knutsford, Cheshire.
Paul was determined to involve Darcey too so the family spent time on set and at the film’s premier.
“Ruby and Steven just hit it off. And I was incredily proud of Darcey. She insisted on calling Steven, Cheeseburger, which he thought was great. We were really looked after.”
Ruby has since done a voice over for an animation called Mary and the Witch’s Flower, with Kate Winslett and Jim Broadbent, which was recently released in UK cinemas.
“She’s keeping her oar in, but she loves school. She’s got her mates and she’s 13. She might turn round to me one day and say ‘I want to be a midwife’ and that would be just fine.”
Paul can also be seen in a second Spielberg film – the sci-fi heavyweight Ready Player One which is still doing the rounds in cinemas.
“I was only on it for three weeks but I was a big fan of the book and to walk round a sci-fi set of a Spielberg movie was just fantastic.”
Paul had his voice to thank for getting employment immediately after finishing drama school. His natural bass baritone was perfect for Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and he was signed up for a 10-month run of The Pirates of Penzance with the D’Oyly Carte company.
And it was his association with them that earned him his first foray into cinema in 1999 with a part in Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy which was about Gilbert and Sullivan.
But he always looks back on his connections with Northern Broadsides as a real cornerstone to his career.
“Weirdly enough I have been unconsciously involved with them from the very start. It was something I heard about and it excited me,” says Paul. In 1996 he was auditioned by Barrie Rutter and that same year he appeared in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra .
It was the start of a warm and wonderful association.
Paul plays circus owner Sleary in Deborah McAndrew’s new adaptation of the Dickens novel Hard Times.
“I’m playing him as a Cockney dude. He’s a character that offers an alternative to the straight and narrow of some of the main protagonists,” he says.
Time and time again over the years he has been attracted back.
“I can remember my agent once saying, ‘why do you want to go back to Halifax?’ It’s because I’m proud of the work of Northern Broadsides and of the talent involved in the pieces.
“As a theatre actor of 25 years some of my favourite times have been right here.”
Northern Broadsides’ production of Hard Times, adapted by Deborah McAndrew, is currently at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds fand runs until May 26. Tickets from the box office on 0113 213 7700 or wyp.org.uk