Interview: UK Star Ricky Whittle Tries His Luck in America and Comes Up a Winner
A big star in the UK, Ricky Whittle decided it was time to take a huge gamble with his career.
He had been working steadily back home where he started as a model than transitioned to acting. He nabbed a starring role on the hit soap, Hollyoaks, and was there from 2006-2011. But, as he told me, he soon realized that there was “a plateau.”
“I could have happily have stayed where I was in the U.K. I was doing very well. I was working constantly,” he said. “There’s only so far you can go in the U.K.” So, he packed up and moved to Bever-ly. Or, Santa Monica, to be exact.
When he got stateside, he didn’t know anyone. He had a few meetings and by chance, met a manager and that’s when things started rolling. He was quickly cast in the feature Austenland opposite Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Seymour and soon after, was asked to join the cast of the VH1 series Single Ladies which will premiere this summer.
I talked to Ricky about what it’s like to come to LA after his years of success back home, the differences in shooting a show in the UK and the States and
For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes
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Ricky Whittle: I’ve been here for about, about 10 months on and off. You know, with filming out of town and stuff like that. But yeah, I’ve been here for about 10 months. I’m all settled in. It has taken awhile. The first two months — it’s hard to settle in L.A., and especially America. You guys are very strict. It took awhile to get, you know, the visas through and the green card and things like that. And setting up social security. You can’t get a social unless you have a bank account. You can’t get a bank account unless you have got a social security. All your little circles and cycles and stuff and hoops that you have to jump through, so that you can eventually get settled. But, once I did that, I was able to concentrate on work and the craft and basically starting again, because that’s what I have done, you know, after years of working in the U.K. I had to basically say goodbye to everyone and everything and start again because you guys don’t really care about what we did in the U.K. [laughs]
You did have a really good career going on over there. Why did you decide to try your hand here?
Ricky Whittle: Because, this is the epicenter of the industry. This is the hub. This is where everything happens. I mean, I could have happily have stayed where I was in the U.K. I was doing very well. I was working constantly and had been offered things. I’d never auditioned for anything and never went into castings because I have a profile where people knew my craft and they knew what I was about. They knew I worked hard and never rocked the boat and was always there on time and punctual and there to work. So, stuff always came in. You know, I could have been earning great money. You get lots of free things. It was fantastic. But, there’s a plateau. There’s only so far you can go in the U.K.
So, it’s always been a dream of mine – you can ask anyone in the U.K. what their favorite TV. shows are and they, especially the U.K. moms – they’ll say it’s Glee, it’s Entourage, it’s Grey’s Anatomy. You know, they’re all American shows. You guys really do know how to make TV and film, and so I wanted to be a part of that. I have always been a massive, massive fan of American sitcoms and American film and I’ve always believed in chasing those dreams.
I’d rather fail chasing those dreams than to sit back in the U.K. doing well, but always wondering what if. I don’t think you should ever have to life with regrets. You always regret the things you don’t do. So, if it all ended tomorrow, and I go back to the U.K., it won’t be with my tail between my legs. It will be, “Well, you know what, I spent a good year. I had a feature film. I did a series of Single Ladies. I’ve been living by the pool and by Santa Monica Beach for a year, you know? Don’t look down on me, I had a great time.”
Did you already come here with like an agent or manager, or did you just start out fresh?
Ricky Whittle: I basically just up and left, to be honest, quite honest. I came across and just set-up a few meetings and it was by chance, which is another reason I like being out here. You can make it in this industry by putting yourself on tape. I could have been in England and put myself on tape and auditioned that way. There are those fantastic stories, you know. The American dream does exist, you know, where you just happen by chance, and people do get picked up like that. But, to be in the presence of people and then people’s faces, walking into offices and staying fresh in their minds. It’s a massive difference. You just meet people at parties and occasions and things sort of snowball from there.
So, I was meeting a guy who was cutting my reel for me to send out to agents and he just said, “You’ve got this fantastic look, and I don’t want to be rude, but what are you?” He’s talking about my ethnic appearance and he’s saying, “Because you could play black, you could play obviously British, you could play European, Indian, Arabic, Brazilian, you know, Latino.” He was like, “You’ve got such a versatile look. I tell you what; you need to meet a friend of mine. He’s a manager. He managed James Franco, Michelle Williams and Hillary Swank.” And I was like, “Sold.” So, I went to meet him, and it was Ken Jacobsen, who I am obviously still with, and we just hit it off. And so, I signed up with him. I have seen a lot of other managers and agencies and things, but I’m very loyal, I’m very into gut feelings, and he didn’t give me the whole L.A. spiel. Like, “Oh you’re going to be the next Will Smith, you can be this, and we’re going to get you this.” I don’t need buttering up. I like people to tell me how it is. I like people who are real. And Ken was like that from the beginning. He was like, “Well, we’re going to have to start you here, we’re going to have to work you into this, into that, and basically build you up. Now, if something comes along, fantastic, then we’ll grab it with both hands, but otherwise, this is a long journey that we’re going to take together and I’ll be with you every step of the way.” He said all the right things. I stopped looking and it looks like we’re going to start a great, great journey together.
So, as soon as you guys joined up, how long before you started auditioning?
Ricky Whittle: Well, to be honest, I came out here at the wrong time. Because I did Dancing with the Stars in the U.K. and I was tied into a contract to go on tour so I actually arrived here toward the end of pilot season in March , I think it was. So, it goes quiet after there unless you’re obviously established or you’re already working, you’re not going to do much there. But then, it was literally, I would have said a month or month and a half, six weeks, and I had picked up my first feature, which is Austenland, which hopefully should be out this year.
And it was a funny story with that one. The directors were actually out of town and so they required me to put myself on tape for the part. My manager just basically said that, “Oh they do want to meet you, they loved your audition, they thought it was fantastic, and they want to Skype you.” So, I brought them up on Skype and the first thing she said was, “Oh that’s what you look like.” I was like, “Pardon?” And she was like, “Well, we got your audition tape, and what had happened is for some reason,” I mean I checked it before I sent it all off, but for some reason, it cut my head off and basically showed from the neck down to the groin. [laughter] So, they said, “You know your abs look fantastic, your crotch was great, and your accent could be Caribbean. Your accent was perfect, but we had no idea what you looked like.” I was like, “Fantastic. So, basically, my body got me this role. Fantastic. That’s good to know.” It worked out well and I had to leave for the U.K. because that shot out on location in U.K. Another little bit of irony there, because I came all the way to L.A. to shoot American TV and film and my first gig is on location back in the U.K.
I would’ve taken it in rainy Seattle, you know, Chicago in the winter, anywhere, but now they send me back home.
Tell me about Austenland.
Ricky Whittle: Well, basically, Austenland is about an American woman who is obsessed with Jane Austen novels, and she’s constantly on the hunt for that perfect Mr. Darcy man, who obviously doesn’t exist. You know, no man can ever match up to the fictional Mr. Darcy. So, she reads up about this Jane Austen themed resort in the U.K. and basically sets off and stays two weeks in the U.K. looking for love. My character, Captain George East, he is more of a flamboyant Jack Sparrow kind of character. He doesn’t quite fit into the type. He is quite funny. He is basically, if you imagine an old school Days of our Lives, like Joey Tribbiani from Friends, Days of our Lives, that sort of school of acting. So, he’s an old soap actor who thinks he’s bigger than he is.
You finished that and then how long after did you book Single Ladies?
Ricky Whittle: Well, I had a bit of a problem. My manager said he’d never encountered this before. Normally he has a problem with his actors not booking gigs, and that wasn’t his problem with me. I was actually booking gigs, but my Visa kept causing problems, so I booked a couple of CSI gigs and Up All Night for NBC. He was like, “You’ve got a 95% ratio for booking your casting. Anything I put you up for, you book.” And so, for the Up All Night one, it was 8 o’clock in the evening, I was set to shoot the next morning, and at 8 o’clock in the evening Ken phones me up and says, “I’m sorry, buddy, we will have to pull you again. ABC won’t accept your Visa.” So, that’s when I made the decision that, you know what, if I’m going to do this properly I need to be on level ground here with everyone else. I can’t have this affecting my work, especially with pilot season coming up. So, I basically just applied for my green card, and as soon as that came through, an audition came up for Single Ladies and I was flying back to the U.K. because it was just coming up to Christmas, so I was flying out to the U.K. and he said, “Your audition is on Friday.” And I was like, “Well I’m flying Thursday, can I just put myself on tape?” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, sure, I guess that’s what we will have to do.” So, I did that with my friends back home and sent it off and they said, “Yeah, it’s fantastic, they love it.” But, it was over Christmas, so you don’t really hear much over that period because everyone’s gone home, so I thought nothing of it. I had left it at if you don’t hear anything then you just assume you’re onto the next project.
As soon as I came back to L.A., the day I landed, Ken phoned me up and said that they want to see you in the office today. I’m like, “Wow, okay.” Went in, we read through the script and read through a scene. They sent that off again to the producers and they came back, I think it was the day after or that evening, and said, “We think you’re too young for the role, but we love what you’re doing and there are a lot of parts coming up that we think will suit you, so we’ll keep you in mind.” And, in our industry, you just go, okay, fair enough. That’s a blow off. Okay, no worries, I understand. And literally, I think it was about four days later, they phoned up and said, “Alright, we’ve got a part for you, you don’t have to audition, it’s yours if you want it.” And Ken gave me the breakdown and I was like, “Yeah, sounds like fun, let’s do it.” So you know, it came through and that’s been me since January through till June, I’m shooting that now.
Ricky Whittle: Yeah, I mean, it started off as two episodes, which became six and as I got there I spoke to the producer, Stacy Littlejohn, and she wrote me into the rest of the series right to the end, so, you know, it was a little part that just became larger.
In Single Ladies, you play an American?
Ricky Whittle: Yes, I play an American traveler. Very cultured, very relaxed and very spiritual.
I was talking to Matt Lucas recently, and I asked him about his American accent. I asked him about his American accent he had to do for this movie he was in and he said he had to stay in dialect the whole shoot because the American accent was so unfamiliar to him. How about for you?
Ricky Whittle: Everyone is different, everyone is different, but for me, I like to, I stay in my native tongue for as long as possible. I’ll go back to my room just after make-up and costume, so once I’m ready, I will stick on YouTube and get into it. I will go through my breathing exercises. I will go through my vocal exercises I got from my coach and once I’ve got into that and I leave my trailer, I’m American. Whether I’m talking to the drivers, talking to catering, my fellow colleague, you know, and that’s how I go. I mean, my very first scene, the first scene, the first time I met Denise, was actually in the car on the way to set, and she was like, “Do you want to run the scene?” Obviously, since I’ve gone through this process, I’m an American now, so I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” So, we ran through the scene a couple of times, and so later on, she called me and she went, “Whoa, what’s with the accent?” I was like, “Well, I’m English.” She went, “Wow! You fooled me. I completely forgot that you were English.” I was like, “Brilliant, that’s exactly what you want to hear.”
You have been on a bunch of series over in the U.K., and now you’re doing this one, are there any differences in filming a U.K. series and an American series?
Ricky Whittle: [laughs] Yes there are. Yes there are. One of the things I noticed first, it was coming up to my 7 o’clock in the morning wraps. It was early, early, early, early hours in the morning, about 1 o’clock, and I was like, “Okay, so when do we finish? What time are we looking to finish?” And they’re like, “You finish when the scene is done.” And I was like, “Really? Is that legal?” Because in the U.K., we will film for 12 hours a day. We will film 7 till 7, but that’s it. Once 7 comes up, the tools go down and the crew are ready to go home, they’ve got families to get home to, and things like that. So, if you don’t complete the scene, you come back another day and you film it then.
Whereas over here, it’s literally, you go — you film until you finish that scene. Which, I like because it draws a line under the scene and you can just focus on that and you don’t have to come back to it another day or get into the same rhythm you know. But yeah, it does lead to some long days. So, the hours are definitely different.
What’s your advice to actors?
Ricky Whittle: I should be getting advice myself. Well, in an industry full of no’s, just stay positive. From my experience and in the U.K., I only ever had really I think about two or three auditions. The rest was on reputation. You could be the greatest actor, but if you’ve got a bad reputation of being hard to work worth, being troublesome, being late, you know, you’ve got bad punctuality or you’re, you know, you need to be professional. You need to stay positive. And if you’ve got that reputation for being the hard worker, the person who’s always happy, smiley, knows their lines, then I believe that goes far. You know, you’re memorable. You don’t want to be memorable for the wrong reasons because it can get you fired from jobs.
I’ve not myself experienced it recently, but I’ve heard of someone who’s recently just been fired off a TV show and a film for her attitude, and I just don’t understand it. I’m like, you’re in a position where people would give their right arm to be in, and I don’t understand the logic in abusing that privilege and that honor, you know? I just think you should be happy and feel blessed that you’re doing something that you love, because not many people who have the opportunity to do what they love. I’m Peter Pan. I’m staying young. I’m playing make believe for a living. I’m playing cops and robbers every day. And someone pays me, it’s unbelievable. I’d do this for free, don’t tell anyone. [laughter] But, you know, I mean, I will always stay positive, and that’s the one thing I think you need in this industry. Because like I said, there are a lot of nos. You’ll get hundreds of ‘no’s and maybe one yes, but when you do that that one ‘yes’, just grab it with both hands, stay positive and enjoy it, you know. You never will know when it’s going to end, but you never when it’s going to start, so just keep that positive attitude and it brushes off on everyone and people remember that. They want to work with that again.