Nick had a Lucky break
Nick Dunning is the first to admit he was a tearaway teenager. But his life turned around when he won a place at Rada after reading from Waiting for Godot. Now happily married to 'Fair City' star Lise-Anne McLaughlin and settled in Ireland, the actor is looking forward to starring in Harold Pinter's play at the Gate this week, writes Andrea Smith
ASSASSINATION plots whispered in corridors, women screaming their way through childbirth, casual sexual liaisons at every hands' turn -- welcome to the wicked world of the Tudors. The vivid 21st-century re-imagining of Henry VIII's hedonistic court has captured the public's imagination and is sweeping up plenty of prizes.
For actor Nick Dunning it must feel bittersweet. Given that he was playing Anne Boleyn's father, Thomas, there was never really going to be a long-term future for him in the role.
Now that his daughter is about to have her head chopped off, Nick is unlikely to be dallying long at the Tudor court himself.
A modest, self-effacing and charming man, with an easy laugh, Dunning is great company and a talented actor. He received the IFTA Best Supporting Actor award earlier this year for The Tudors and has previously won the Irish Times Best Supporting Actor award for Betrayal, and the Best Actor gong for Don Carlos.
"I know we all give out about awards, but now and again someone will give you one, and you immediately go, 'Thank you, that's great', and then you think that it's really very nice actually," he laughs.
Nick was born in London and attended private school there. Both of his parents were teachers, as was his only sister Cathy, who went on to be co-creator of the hugely successful TV programme The Weakest Link, which has been syndicated all over the world.
Dunning's mid-teens were a difficult time for him, "because I wasn't academic at all", he says. "My mother actually taught at my school, which was pretty rough, as you can imagine. I'd hear kids giving out about her, and even though I'd know that it had nothing to do with Mum really and they were probably annoyed because they had been in trouble for misbehaving, it was really very hard."
Dunning says he didn't feel very centred in himself at that point, and even though his parents, Roy and Jean, didn't put pressure on him to excel academically, the pressure he felt was an internal one.
"I put expectations on myself, and thought I ought to have been cleverer than I was," he admits. "I ended up with two O Levels, and was asked to leave the school because I was a bit of a tearaway back then. So I went off to work in a factory that made loudspeakers for a few months. My job was driving the forklift truck, and I worked with some quite scary people, which was quite off-putting when you're only 16. I still think of one poor man who had a big dent in his forehead, and was a bit slow, and he just did the same task over and over again all day long."
Nick's family then moved to Leicester as his dad got a job teaching French at a university. This proved to be the turning point, as Nick went back to school and found that the radical comprehensive he was now attending turned out to be a much better fit, with its music and drama blocks.
Dunning had been in school plays from an early age and his talent was spotted by a teacher at his comprehensive, who suggested he apply to drama school. Going straight to the top, but only because it was the only school he and his dad had heard of, he applied to Rada, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
Competition for places was tough, with over 2,500 applicants for only 21 places, and every applicant had to read two audition pieces, one modern and one classical. Nick chose to do a Richard II piece and then performed Lucky's speech from Waiting for Godot, a piece that was suggested by his dad as it was unusual and a bit weird in parts. The audition went so well that Nick won one of the coveted places, which he attributes to the fact that the Godot reading made him stand out, as he has never met anyone else since who chose this piece for any audition.
"Years later, Hugh Cruttwell, the principal of Rada, was talking about my audition, and he said, 'Ah yes, I remember you doing the Lucky speech. It was splendid, really unusual, hadn't seen anything like it before, but your Richard II speech was absolutely dire,'" he laughs. "This makes him sound awful, but he was actually a wonderful, humorous man and we all adored him."
At Rada, Nick found his metier, winning the Ronson award for the Most Promising Young Actor, and had a wonderful time with his fellow students, who included Juliet Stevenson and Kenneth Brannagh.
"I thought it was going to be very stuffy, but it was filled with people from all over the world who were kind of misfits, which actors often are," he says. "It opened up my entire world."
Later in life, at the age of 25, Nick would go on to do an Open University degree in Politics and Art Appreciation, mainly he says, because he wanted to prove to himself that he "wasn't a complete idiot".
It was while he was performing in a double bill of Our Country's Good and The Recruiting Officer, at the Royal Court Theatre in London that Nick met his wife, the writer and actress, Lise-Anne McLaughlin. "I fell for her because she was gorgeous in more ways than one," he says of the actress most people will remember for playing the interior designer Pauline, Leo Dowling's former wife, in Fair City. "She's stunning and has a big heart, and is my best mate in the world."
Now together 20 years, and married since 1992, the pair returned to live in Ireland when Lise-Anne developed thyroid cancer. And to make things even more fraught, she was expecting their first child at the time, Kitty, now 13.
"It was very stressful," says Nick, "and very tricky for a time, but thankfully Lise-Anne was fine. It was a horrible thing to happen, but in a way we were fortunate that she didn't have to undergo dreadful chemotherapy. They were able to operate and treat it with pills, and ultimately it was one of those things that affected us in the right way and brought us closer."
Nick and Lise-Anne decided to move here permanently, settling in Dalkey, and they went on to have a second daughter, Phoebe, now aged 10. As an Englishman living in Ireland, Nick says he realised after five minutes of living here that the values, standards and even the way people speak to one another here were totally different.
"We all speak the same language, but I find that Irish people are very much more at peace with themselves," he says. "People say hello to you here when you're walking up the road, and I'm really happy living here."
Highlights of Nick's career include playing a politician in the epic movie Alexander, which was filmed out in the Moroccan desert. The film, which starred Colin Farrell, wasn't a hit, but Nick says working on it was a wonderful experience.
"It just didn't work and I don't know why," he says. "Oliver Stone is a very challenging director, and a brilliant one, and Colin Farrell was great. When the film was having its premiere in LA, he paid for 10 of us who'd worked on it from Ireland to fly there first-class for it. None of us had actually been asked to it, but he knew that it was really important to us to be there, so he took it upon himself to organise it for us. He didn't have to do it, and that's really who Colin Farrell is -- he has such an understanding of and connection to people."
While Nick's work takes him all over the place, Lise-Anne is a writer on Fair City and keeps the home fires burning. She is writing a movie script, and also acts, and has actually appeared in three things with Nick over the years.
"We played a husband and wife in The WhistleBlower, and it's hysterical acting opposite your partner, because you both have to become someone else, but part of you is thinking, 'Why aren't we talking to one another like we normally do?' and 'Why is she wearing that?'"
So no fights about who forgot to do the the washing-up that morning then?
"Oh no, we'd never do that in our house," he laughs. "We're both temperamental at times, but in general we're fairly calm. My family means everything to me, and we're very close, so it's very difficult being away from them, but that's our gig and you just have to deal with it."
In Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, Nick will be acting alongside David Walliams of Little Britain fame, David Bradley, and Michael Gambon, whom he believes is the greatest stage actor in the world. Three weeks ago, Pinter himself was meant to come to a read-through of the play, but as he is battling throat cancer, and is quite frail, it was arranged by director Rupert Goold that the four of them would do the read-through at his house in Notting Hill instead.
"It was very moving, because we were in his tiny writing room, the room he had actually written the play in," says Nick. "At the end, he thanked us and said it was wonderful, and it really meant a lot to him that we brought it to him. It's a really unsual play, very mysterious and a real thriller, but very funny, and we have great fun at rehearsals. That's what's really important to me, actually; it has to be fun or it turns me off."
'No Man's Land' opens on Tuesday at the Gate Theatre, for a limited run. Bookings (01) 874 4045 or online at www.gate-theatre.ie