A chat with Harry Melling and Jemima Rooper from the London production of Hand to God

All images from handtogod.co.uk/gallery

[April Wilson | TV Director]

I was panicking. I’d left it too late. I wasn’t going to make my train. I was not going to be able to do the interview. I had arrived at the train station with minutes to spare but the train had left a minute early. Luckily, I happened to make it on the train just before it left!

I was on my way to interview Harry Melling and Jemima Rooper, stars of the new London production of Hand to God. Hand to God is a play about a mother, Margery (Janie Dee) who decides to start a “puppet club” with the youth of her church after the death of her husband. One of the three members is her son, Jason (Harry Melling), but when Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, gets a mind of its own, things start to get interesting…

It was smooth sailing after the rushing for the train incident, apart from struggling to find the stage door that is. Also, it’s stupid how cool I felt being one of the people to go behind the stage door. Once inside, I found myself overwhelmed just by the place where the cast hung out and had a cup of tea. Harry Melling arrived and somehow I managed to keep my cool enough to shake his hand. After a few minutes delay, Jemima Rooper arrived as an ecstatic ball of energy that I couldn’t help but get sucked into.

And that’s when we began to talk.

The play found fame in Broadway and then moved over to the UK. Were you aware of the play at all before being cast in it?

Jemima: I found myself looking at all the images being used. All the tiny, tiny clips I could find online sort of like obsessively. Just to see if I was anything like the girl in New York and so I got a little flavour of it. And then actually a friend – when I was deciding to do the job or not – a friend had seen it, and basically said it was the best thing that she’d seen in such a long time which kind of really encouraged me. Because I LOVED the script when I first read it. But it was… different. And that sometimes kind of like feels risky when you’re signing up to do something kind of six months on something. Luckily my friend confirmed what I thought about it.

Harry: It’s quite funny really because when you read it – I loved it when I read it – but it’s so wild and so unusual. Your heart is going YES, but a bit of you goes how does it work?

Jemima: And I think when you yourself have very niche tastes in things–

Harry: Yes!

Jemima: And you’re thinking ok, it’s alright that I like it, like great, but it’s sort of quite rare often that you will do jobs that your friends will like. Just because theatre-going audience tends to be kind of a different demographic than you, yourself and your contemporaries fit into. And when you’re actually reading something that feels like it’s for you that can make you quite nervous.

Harry: And also what I love about it as well is the fact – what I did hear about it before auditioning for it – was the fact that is that it started off, off Broadway, then went to Broadway. And even when it was on Broadway, it was the show that shouldn’t be on Broadway. And I thought that attitude to theatregoers, the show that shouldn’t be on Broadway, that kind of energy around it was something that I found really interesting about it. Because I think, I don’t so much for Broadway, but definitely on the West End there’s a certain show, or shows that are produced in the West End, and this was so other to that trend. That’s very exciting.

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When I saw the play I was surprised by the fact that the play went to some places that many would not dare to go, was that your reactions to the play?

Jemima: That’s what everyone felt reading it. Janie, who plays Harry’s mum in the play said that every time she turned the page she was like: “WOW! I didn’t realise that was going to go to that place!” But that’s really exciting to be involved in. And it’s so unusual. Most of the stuff in the West End has been on before, people know about it. To do something new that no-one’s sort of like had a little titbit of yet is really exciting.

Both of your accents in the play are incredible. Have either of you done accent work before? Is this something you find a challenge?

Harry: You’ve done American.

Jemima: Yeah, I’ve never done Texan though. I was really glad we were doing it because it’s something they didn’t do on Broadway. For a lot of reasons, but because actually people from cities and our generation have less of an accent and that’s kind of similar to what goes on in the UK now. There used to be RP (Received Pronunciation), which was well-spoken English and there’s now kind of a London accent. From the youth who grow up in London. And similarly over there. So it was really fun. It’s really fun to do an accent. And we have a guy, Rick Lipton, who’s a dialect coach who comes in to tell us if there’s certain sounds–

Harry: That sound peculiar.

Jemima: For me it’s more fun to do accent work because you feel like you’re doing more of your job.

Harry: And because it’s an accent, it’s another layer of character you have to find. If it’s your own voice you’re kind of half there already but when it’s another voice it’s very interesting in terms of finding out what that voice is.

Jemima: Harry’s got two to do! It’s amazing! Backstage every night it sounds like two people.

Harry: Really?

Jemima: Yeah!

Harry: That’s interesting. That’s nice.

Jemima, your puppet scenes are not as lengthy within the play, did you find it more of a challenge because you do not spend as much time with your puppet?

Jemima: It’s just different. It was not nearly as scary as what Harry has to do. I sort of gave myself the excuse that my character does not have to be the most brilliant puppeteer and that it can still work. A thing that really excited me about doing the project was that scene, and then when we were rehearsing it later I was like: “Oh my God!” It was very technical. It took a long time. Very technical. Took a long time, it’s very very technical. It’s one of those things that if you mess up… it’s very panic making. But it is so fun, when it’s going well, it’s really fun.

Harry: It’s really interesting though when you’re learning all the moves and the all the steps and all the little bits that make up one gesture, and getting the mouth moving. I mean it’s sort of tortuous, it’s arduous and tortuous. And it doesn’t always work in rehearsal. But there’s something about knowing when all that work’s done… there’s a real joy to it. When it works. But it didn’t always work (laughs).

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Was it challenging at first getting used to not only acting as Jason but also acting as Tyrone and having to reply to yourself?

Harry: I remember the read through and turning to you (Jemima) after the read through and going: “That was so bad!” I was really scared by this part, as it was so unlike anything I had ever done before. And I didn’t know how you play two people at the same time. I’m used to locking into a character and investing into that arc of what he’s doing but when there are two arcs going on, how do you play a story arc? Do you flip between the two? So it was all a learning thing for me really.

Jemima: You did it so quickly ‘cause in New York, the writer wrote this play for the two actors who played Jason and Margery, and they were with it from the beginning. Before there was even a puppet. That actor grew with the show. His puppetry would have grown with the show. It’s one of those things that gets easier, easier and easier the longer you do it. And for Harry to do it in four weeks it’s kind of incredible.

Harry: Yeah. But I had it a bit before then.

Jemima: It was four weeks.