Jamie Jones-Buchanan: Why I’m swapping the rugby field for stage role in wartime drama

Jamie Jones-Buchanan talks about making his acting debut in the play Leeds Lads, which opens at the Carriageworks on Friday. (Bruce Rollinson).
Jamie Jones-Buchanan talks about making his acting debut in the play Leeds Lads, which opens at the Carriageworks on Friday. (Bruce Rollinson).
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There can’t be many rugby league players, or any sports stars come to think of it, who colour their conversation by casually referencing Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt.

But then Jamie Jones-Buchanan, or JJB as he’s known in the game’s shorthand, likes to challenge people’s expectations of him. The Leeds Rhinos star, an integral member of the club’s golden generation, also likes to push himself, which he’s certainly doing this weekend when he swaps the rugby pitch for the stage and what will be his acting debut.

JJB in action for Leeds Rhinos against Wakefield Wildcats in March.

JJB in action for Leeds Rhinos against Wakefield Wildcats in March.

In Leeds Lads he will be performing alongside 35 local actors and musicians in this new community play, co-written by Leeds-born author Anthony Clavane and Nick Stimson, and inspired by the city’s role in the Battle of the Somme a century ago.

Jones-Buchanan was approached by Leeds-based Red Ladder Theatre Company, led by its indefatigable artistic director Rod Dixon, last autumn to see if he was interested in being involved and – never one to miss a challenge – he agreed.

“I’m a Leeds lad and one of the main characters is a mixed race guy so I fitted the demographic if you like, and I thought I’ve never done owt like that before in the performing arts. Plus, you don’t get these opportunities and experiences every day so I said I’d have a go,” he says.

The 34-year-old Rhinos veteran is used to performing under pressure in front of large, boisterous crowds and doing media interviews but has found this a different kind of challenge. “I’m used to getting up in front of people and speaking. But the majority of the time you’re speaking about something you’re very knowledgeable and passionate about. So getting up on stage is not something that’s new to me, but it’s not something I’m that comfortable with. Public speaking is still probably my number one fear,” he says.

I’ll have a bit of fear and anxiety but also excitement. You don’t want to sit in a corner all your life – if you don’t take the risk you’re never going to grow and I’ve learnt through sport that success is never final.

Jamie Jones-Buchanan

The play, which charts a young woman’s journey into Leeds’s wartime past, opens at the Carriageworks Theatre, in Leeds, tomorrow, though Jones-Buchanan won’t be joining the cast until Saturday.

He admits he hasn’t found rehearsals easy. “I had this idea that because I was going to be told what to say it wouldn’t be that hard. But actually the mechanics of acting is pretty tough because you’ve got to wait for your cues and you’ve got to be in the right place.

“Now that I actually know my lines I’m finding that acting them out is quite tough. It’s not just about me reading my lines in a Leeds monotone voice, you’ve got to make it believable.”

Nevertheless, he is embracing the challenge. “I’m a big boy but the only way you can grow and learn is to get out of your comfort zone and with this I’m very much out of my comfort zone,” he says.

“I am the weak link because I’m not an actor, I’m a rugby player, but all the other actors have all been really welcoming and they’ve also encouraged me and given me a few lessons which I’ll take into my everyday life.”

As well as learning the craft behind acting he’s also discovered more about Leeds’s involvement in the Great War. “I knew a bit but I didn’t know much about the Battle of the Somme so it’s been a big educational process and that’s been great because I’ve not only been able to learn about this great city that I grew up in, but also it’s history.

“The fact that this very multicultural city fought for its country and suffered such big losses and adversity, it’s actually been quite emotional learning about it,” he says.

Jones-Buchanan has been a pivotal figure during the last 12, trophy-laden, years for the Rhinos in what has been one of rugby league’s most successful ever club eras. Not that the veteran prop takes it for granted. “I’ve played nearly 340 games for Leeds and the novelty’s never worn off,” he says.

But given his physique (he has muscles in places most of us don’t even have places) and apparent self-confidence, fans might be surprised to learn that he can suffer from pre-match nerves.

“One of the things I like to do to prepare for an evening game is to go to sleep in the afternoon. But sometimes I’ll wake up with the most immense anxiety. It’s almost like your past experiences have gone and you panic. I’m about to play in the semi-finals against Wigan and it’s as if I don’t know how I’m going to do it. It’s funny, you have nerves and I think the nerves are there because you care and you get the confidence in the preparation and experience.

“So once you kick-off and get the first smack in the face everything just falls into place.”

Jones-Buchanan has played alongside Rhinos superstars such as Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Keith Senior but this season, coming after their treble-winning campaign last year, has seen the team struggling at the wrong end of the table.

“I’ve been to grand finals and won lots of medals but it doesn’t count for much when you’re sat at the bottom of the league. Nobody’s bothered about that. Fans stop me and say ‘what’s going on Jonesy?’”

JJB was born in Leeds and has been a Rhinos fan since he was 10 and has now been with the club almost 20 years.

“I was a fan and I watched Garry Schofield and Graham Holroyd and all those guys finish second for a few years and the first time Leeds won a trophy in my lifetime I was there on the pitch playing, and what an absolute privilege it was. And for me the novelty’s never worn off.”

He admits the Rhinos are in a sticky patch right now but is convinced the good times will return.

“We’ve gone through a process where a group of lads have come to the end of their cycle and now it’s about rebuilding and starting that again.

“But it’s very difficult to take away those players and bolt new ones on to the culture of the Rhinos without having experienced it.

“The club’s fantastic, it’s in a great place and everything about the Rhinos is a nine out of ten, but at the minute the team on the pitch is making it look worse than that. But that’s because we’ve got a lot of new players, a lot of young players, and when you talk about like Kevin Sinfield, Leuluai and Jamie Peacock who’ve got big posters on the back of the south stand and have been turned almost into demigods, you’ve got to remember that back then it took five or six years before we won our first trophy and this next generation won’t take that long.

“Unfortunately we’ve had a big slump which has got a lot of variables behind it from our training ground being destroyed to the turnover of players and the amount injuries, and also the fact that everyone wants to beat Leeds.”

But he’s up for the challenge. “You have to face adversity. I think the best example is Theodore Roosevelt’s Man In the Arena (speech) where he talks about having the courage to go into an arena.

“You might find yourself losing and on your back and being defeated, but unless you’ve actually been there you don’t know what it’s like.”

JJB turns 35 later this year and is well aware he can’t keep playing forever. “I’ve been a professional rugby league player since I was 15 and apart from a few other strings I’ve added to my bow I’ve not got any experience to draw on for a secondary job.

“I’ve always said I’ll keep playing for as long as I’m contributing. I’d love to get to the end of this season and hopefully we can stay up and then do one more, but I reckon next season could be my last, possibly.”

Before then he’s got the small matter of making his stage debut in his own backyard.

“I’ve prepared as hard as I can for this but I’ve no experiential background to call upon. So the first time I do this on Saturday night will be the first time I’ve acted on stage,” he says.

“I’ll have a bit of fear and anxiety but also excitement. You don’t want to sit in a corner all your life – if you don’t take the risk you’re never going to grow and I’ve learnt through sport that success is never final.

“There’s a Winston Churchill quote – ‘success is not final, failure is not final; it is the courage to continue that counts,’ and I think that’s true. Whether you perform well and win or perform well and lose the experience is just as important.

“As human beings we tend to run away from the things that cause us stress and run towards the things that bring us pleasure. But I’ve found the things that cause you stress actually help you to grow.”

Even so, he doesn’t want to let himself, or his fellow actors, down. “I’ve always struggled with rehearsals but I’ve found that once I’m actually there I’m ok and I get straight into it. But I am nervous and I know when your mind goes blank and there’s nobody there to say your lines it’s very tough to get that back. The hot sweats kick in and the mouth dries up,” he says.

“I woke up last night shouting my lines and I couldn’t understand why nobody was giving me anything back. I said to my wife, ‘can you hear me?’ And she said, ‘what are you on about?’ That’s how much I’m thinking about it.”

But he’s confident it will be all right on the night. “The parallel experience and what motivates me is being part of a team and playing my part and doing my bit. It’s not about Jamie Jones-Buchanan, it’s about doing my job for the team. That’s what counts.”

Leeds Lads is on at the Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds, until June 25. Tickets are priced £12.50. Call 0113 376 0318 or log on to carriageworkstheatre.org.uk