Interview: James Percy on ‘Potted Potter – The Unauthorized Harry Experience’ and Why He Got His Law Degree Before Drama School

James on the show: "It gives me the freedom to ad-lb and improvise"

james-percy-potted-potterI’m a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, including all of the books and films so when I first heard of the show, Potted Potter – The Unauthorized Harry Experience, I was immediately interested in checking it out. The show takes all seven of the Harry Potter books and condenses them into a seventy minute and from everyone I’ve talked with, the show is absolutely hilarious.

It’s played all over the world and had a summer-long run off-Broadway and now, it’s touring America. Created by two-time Olivier Award-nominated actors Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, the two have since gone onto other projects but have left the show in very capable hands with actors James Percy and Delme Thomas. 

I talked with James recently and he’s got quite an interesting story. First of all, he’s got a law degree from the University of Liverpool. How many actors have a law degree? Not many but it’s good to know because if (when?) I get into some trouble, he’s going to be the first guy I call. He’s also a stand-up comic and is youngest actor to ever play the role of Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray.

James, who plays the role of Harry in the show, talked to me about the improv in the show, auditions, why he got a law degree and touring America.

Check out James’ website and follow him on Twitter!

Potted Potter is currently in San Diego. For tickets and information, click here. Upcoming shows include Irvine, San Luis Obispo, Pittsburgh and Houston. For more info and tickets, click here.

Tell me about the show. I haven’t seen it yet but everything I read about it and all of the people I’ve talked to about it say it’s just hilarious.

James Percy: Well, yeah. It’s a lot of fun, it is. It’s a lot of fun. It started about 6 or 7 years ago when the two creators Dan [Clarkson] and Jeff [Turner] were asked to put something together for the launch of the sixth book that we’re asked to do something to entertain the crowds that were waiting in line for the book launch. So they put together the recap of the first 5 books to bring everyone up to speed for the launch of the 6th book.

And it went down really well, it was very, very successful, very popular, and they sort of thought, “Oh, wow. We’re on to something here.” So they made it into a full show. They added the 6th and 7th book as they came out, sent it up to the Edinburgh Films Festival in Scotland where it was really popular. It got picked up by a producer and that was back in 2007 maybe. And since then the show, as we know it now, has been all over the world. It’s done 2 seasons in London’s West End, 2 seasons off Broadway in New York City, it’s been to Australia, it’s been to Asia, the Philippines, two tours of America, all over the UK.

And I came on board in May of this year. Dan and Jeff handed it over now, they’re working on another project. So my self and Del were sort of hand picked by Dan and Jeff to take over the roles and run with the show. And since then, me and Del have now been on the road. We were there in New York for the off Broadway season and have been on tour of America for the last few months. So it’s all going really well, it’s a lot of fun.

How’s life on the road for you?

James Percy: It’s a lot of fun. We’re getting to see a lot of places and, I mean, the traveling can be a bit of a drag because we’re constantly on planes, trains, and automobiles here, there, and everywhere. But for the most part it’s a lot of fun. It’s always very exciting, we’re seeing a lot of the country. I’ve always wanted to see a lot of America and it’s great to see the differences between the different states.

What was your audition like for the show? Had you heard of the show prior to the audition?

James Percy: Yes, I’d heard of the show, I knew of Dan and Jeff because of their television work in the UK. Both of them worked for the BBC and worked as children’s TV presenters for that. So I knew them through that. At the time of my audition, the show was playing in the West End. So I live in London now, so the show was, you know, there were posters plastered all over London and all over the tube stations. Yeah. So I definitely knew about the show by that point.

So I got called into an audition, got sent book 1 of the script. So I only had book 1 to look at. So the first audition, I believe I had two auditions, the first audition I went in and met with the directors and the producers and had the audition with them. And then that was fine, that was good, that was fun.

And then a couple of weeks later I got a call to come in for another audition and that one was slightly more daunting because that had Dan and Jeff sat there right in my direct eye line and I was like, “Right, ok. Great. So I’ve got to do this in front of the writers and creators, Dan and Jeff. Ok.” But, yeah, it was fun. It went well. We had a good chat after the audition and that was it. Then the next day I got a call to say that I was on board.

Did you walk away from the audition feeling good about it?

James Percy: You never know. You never can tell with auditions. It’s often been the case that auditions that I’ve walked away from in the past that I felt, “Yeah, that one’s in the bag,” you never hear a word from them again. And it’s the ones that you seem to walk away from going, “No chance. No chance I’m getting that,” that suddenly you end up there.

Saying that, yeah, I had a good feeling about this one, I suppose, because it’s very much… it’s very much my sort of casting. I felt very at home with this because I work as an actor and a standup comedian as well and I’ve done a lot of improv, improv shows and very featured a lot in my career. So this is really sort of perfect in the sense that it combines the acting side and also the comedy and it gives me the freedom to ad lb and improvise and completely respond naturally as a comedian as well.

There’s improv in the show?

James Percy: Oh, so much improv. Yes, yes, yes. There is. It’s definitely the case that, you know, if you come on Monday night the show that you see on Tuesday night is a completely different show. We would say it’s probably about 60, 70% scripted and 30, 40% improv.

Oh, wow.

James Percy: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. We get to really kind of play with what happens and play with the audience and it keeps the whole thing fresh.

Have you had any horrible audience experiences like cell phones, people talking, or anything like that?

James Percy: Let’s see. I suppose it… I haven’t really. They’ve all been sort of very nice and very respectful. But then having said that, the ushers in America, the theatre ushers, are a lot more hardcore than the ushers in England.

Are they?

James Percy: In England you get the cell phones going off and you get the people taking photos and flashes going off. In America I’ve seen ushers parade down the aisles like an army ready to stop anybody who even dares to bring out a phone or a camera or anything. It’s quite entertaining to watch. So I think that because of the American usher army that seems to exist, we’ve been fine.

Good. I love those ushers.

James Percy: They’re great. They’re great. I love them so much.

I want talk a bit about your background because you have a law degree.

James Percy: I do, yes.

There are maybe only a handful of actors who probably have a law degree. Did you know prior to going into law school that you wanted to be an actor?

James Percy: Yeah. I’d always wanted to be an actor from a very, very, very early age. And I went to acting classes as a kid of about 7 or 8 and was always very much heavily involved in the amateur dramatics and in the schools plays and all of that. I always knew that that’s what I wanted to do.

And both of my parents were performers. My mom was a dancer and my dad was a musician, he was a drummer. So I grew up with the stories of kind of life on the road and them being on tour and all that sort of thing. So that’s… that was very kind of normal in my house growing up. I knew very much about all of that. And all the people that would come round to visit, they were all performers and entertainers and all of the family photos that we’ve got of my parents working were all in costume and all this in different theatres all over the world and all that.

So I sort of grew up around that circle and it just… it was always very normal and… but my parents definitely encouraged me to get something behind me, as they put it. To have something to fall back on because it’s such a sort of notoriously unstable career and industry that they always very much… they were very, very, very supportive. I couldn’t have asked for more supportive parents. But they were also stressed to me the importance of, “Well, if you’ve got something that you’re able to fall back on if the career doesn’t go the way you want it to, then that’s gonna get you in better stead in the long run.”

And, yeah, when I was sort of probably around 15, 16, I think I was probably always attracted to the areas of the law that had me stood up in a courtroom performing to a jury. That’s pretty much what took me there. And then I went to university, I did three years law degree, and it was then I realized, right, well, as soon as that was done, I wasted no time and went straight to drama school after that. So I was like, well, there we go. I’ve got that, I’ll have it in my back pocket, but luckily I went straight to drama school and, hey, I haven’t had to look back, which is great.

Have you ever actually played a lawyer?

James Percy: No, I haven’t actually. No. I mean, I’d like to, that’d be interesting seeing as how I’ve got quite a bit of background knowledge on it, but no, I haven’t.

And you also do standup. When did you start doing that? Is that something you always wanted to do as well?

James Percy: Yeah, I mean, I’d always been interested in comedy and very much grown up with comedy. My dad has definitely introduced me to sort of the… I was very sort of brought up on the Monty Python and all the sort of British comedy that was around sort of in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, I was shown all of that and loved it.

And then probably after drama school I started sort of doing open mics and doing a lot of improv comedy and things like that and it just kind of went from there. So from that point, I’ve kind of been doing both sides of it. When I’m not acting I’m doing standup comedy and vice versa. So it’s fun. It’s great to have sort of both things that I can kind of dip in and out of.

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