Ben Barnes on the Role That Shaped Him Most as an Actor

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British actor Ben Barnes first appeared on the West End as a teenager in the National Youth Music Theatre’s 1997 production of “Bugsy Malone.” He has since become known for his roles in epic fantasy adaptations like “Stardust,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” and Netflix’s “Shadow and Bone.” Here, he discusses how his early education informed his career and what he misses most about the U.K.

What do the best directors you’ve worked with have in common?

I think the first thing they have in common is a definitive vision of how the film or the show should come across. The best directors have an ability to close their eyes and watch each scene before they’ve filmed it. But they also have an openness to whatever the best ideas in the room might be in terms of shaping that vision. The second quality is much more intangible, which is that they make you want to do your best work. My favorite directors have a way of making me want to please them. 

Of all the roles you’ve played, which one shaped you most as an actor?

A role that gave me greater perspective in my own life and made me focus less on how I came across and more on what I wanted to put into the work was in a film called “Jackie & Ryan.” I played a street busker. It felt quite personal; there was a lot of me in that performance. 

RELATED: How Jessie Mei Li Went From Unknown to the West End to Netflix’s ‘Shadow and Bone’

What’s one mistake you’ve made in your career that you’ll never make again?

When I started out, I felt my job as an actor was to serve the scene in the story, and all I had to do was commit to the moment and that would be enough. Being entirely candid, I got some criticism for being quite safe and playing characters who felt dull or bland. I found it helpful to start making more definitive choices about the characters I was playing. I know a lot of actors find watching their own work difficult, but I’ve found it very helpful when it comes to thinking about the choices I’ve made about a character. 

Shadow and Bone

Dávid Lukács/Netflix

You went to university for English and drama. Is that a route you’d recommend for other actors?

Everyone charts their own course. I did apply to drama schools and got scholarships to study musical theater; but I felt some real-world experience and getting a degree would be a good thing for me. Wanting to be there is the most important thing. If at 17, you feel you must go to drama school and nothing else will do, you should go for it. But there are other ways of training. In my case, I found doing NYMT as a teenager [to be] a really formative experience—working through different roles during the summer holidays. That was where I discovered that, if it was possible, I wanted to do this as a way of life.

You’re based in Los Angeles now. What do you miss most about the U.K.?

I miss walking! I love driving and I love cars; but I do miss walking about London, my hometown, and making my way around little parks and down backstreets I know. I also miss the theater and the cultural life of the city—the feeling of surprises around every corner. But most of all, I miss my family and friends.

How would you describe General Kirigan, your character on “Shadow and Bone”?

He’s over 400 years old, so he’s world-weary but still very present in terms of his agenda of safeguarding his people. He will wear whatever mask he needs to in order to effect that. He is charming, authoritative, and powerful, but as cracks begin to show, we see his vulnerability and loneliness and angst. In the second season, we start to see more of his rage and how his demons can literally burst out of him and destroy things around him and himself. I find him really interesting on a lot of levels. 

What performance should every actor see and why?

There are several that come to mind, such as Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future,” because I have no idea how he can be that charming. More recently, I’ve really admired Brendan Fraser’s performance in “The Whale” and all the performances in “The Banshees of Inisherin” for the sheer amount they pack into each moment. But the one that really stands out, from a brilliant actor I was lucky enough to do a few scenes with [in “The Big Wedding”], is Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting.” [His performance is] just so soulful, and the way he conjures that is absolutely magical.

This story originally appeared in the Apr. 6 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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