First time I saw Napoleon Ryan was in the infamous short movie “Black Hole” (2008). The film was under 3 minutes long, creative, funny and memorable.
Due to Ryan’s not-so-common name, I remembered him as well, and did some research before making an interview.
Ryan is a stage and screen actor from England. In addition to stints in London and the West End in family favourite The Gruffalo, his theatre work has included national tours of Britain, Spain, Ireland and Italy in classic and contemporary plays.
He was nominated for “Best Supporting Actor” for his role in “Best Man” at the inaugural British Horror Film Festival in 2010. His performance received an even higher commendation when Bournemouth County Council decided to ban all screenings of the movie. According to IMDB, he also writes and produces his own short films for the Internet and composes classical music on his trombone.
In this exclusive interview with BZFilm, Ryan talks about his name and how he uses it to his advantage, recalls his work on “Black Hole” and talks about his future plans regarding movies.
I’d like to start off with your name, since its not a very common one, yet a widely known one for sure. Is it your real name? How was it like growing up with such name? Did it help you in any way, when you decided to go into arts?
Growing up with the name Napoleon (which is fairly unusual, in Britain at least) made me aware from a very early age that I was somehow different and even unique. Hopefully that doesn’t sound too egotistical! I believe that everyone is unique and has special talents they can share with the world. However, many people don’t get the chance to realise this or they forget their amazing potential and youthful exuberance as they become adults and are forced to conform with society as part of the endless daily quest to earn money.
As a child I feel I identified fairly strongly with my namesake the Emperor Napoleon and his fearless attitude. To indicate the strength of his resolve, he apparently would say “The word impossible is not in my dictionary.” I admit that I have felt a strong sense of destiny as a result of being christened Napoleon and that I have perhaps aspired higher and pushed myself further than I might otherwise have done with another name.
I don’t necessarily perceive myself as being that flinty and determined, but other people around me in my life might disagree! One thing is certain, I definitely learnt to fight my own corner and focus my ambition when I went through school with my uncommon moniker. Rarely have I been afraid to stand out or do something that most people wouldn’t dare to do in front of a crowd as I have always felt that I stood out due to my name. This lack of inhibition in front of an audience or the camera is a useful quality in an actor.
You have to have ambition and emotional endurance too. The paradox is you must be emotionally vulnerable or open at the same time. Keeping those frequently contradictory impulses in balance can be a challenge and requires immense will and self-discipline. You cannot allow yourself to feel rejected or destroyed if you don’t get employed after a good audition or a performance is less than excellent or you receive negative reviews for a film you were in. You have to pick yourself up and move on to the next project and moment in your life. It can be hard though and we all have points where our spirits ebb. If that happens, I just have to remember who I am named after and my resilience returns.
When I came into show business, I inadvertently found that my unusual name was a useful marketing tool. Immediately, before I had done any acting or even walked into an interview, I stood out from many of my peers at auditions. To stand out in a positive way and to be memorable is a key component of all successful advertising that aims to establish a product brand. That same principle applies to being an actor in a competitive industry full of other actors seeking to establish their careers who may be similar, but never exactly identical, to you. As my name makes me pretty memorable, I have to make sure I do a good job.
If I don’t or I annoy my colleagues, the disadvantage to being so memorable is it’s very easy for people to know who I am and avoid working with me in the future. I always want to be good at what I do, but with my distinctive name I have an added inbuilt incentive.
Occasionally, as happens throughout life for anyone who has a noticeable personal quirk, people have had a negative reaction to my name. I find that girls called Josephine think I am being either facetious or predatory when I introduce myself. They fall silent and storm off angrily or run away in fear as soon as they can politely do so. Sometimes you meet people in the entertainment industry who have an odd reaction, but that’s very seldom as show business is full of unique people that generally celebrate the idea of individuality.
What do you prefer more, doing stage work / theater work, or acting in feature films? Which of the two is more important for an actor, in your opinion?
Stage work and screen work are two different but closely related disciplines that I both adore. Personally, if I haven’t done it for a while, I miss the thrill of live performance in front of an audience – especially if the show has interactive comedy elements that rely on playing with the crowd. I have had many joyful moments on stage when there has been a marvellous connection between the actors and the audience.
You have to work doubly hard to hold their attention sometimes, but I think that performing on stage for children or family audiences is the most uplifting and rewarding acting you can do. You can create an intimate personal connection that inspires a child with a lifetime love of theatre and all other forms of performance, either as an audience member or as an artist.
My background is in theater and stage work. So, although I am biased, I still think that stage work is vital for an actor as it builds your performance stamina. If you are continually working on stage in a play being the character you are portraying for two hours without a break, you are honing your acting muscles exponentially.
This training will serve you well when you come to work on film or TV projects where you have to act in chunks of normally no more than five minutes at a time. Often the duration of the scene (or even the project itself in the case of commercials) will be much less than that. Consequently, with theater experience you will find it very comfortable to stay in character and remember your lines while the camera is recording the scene.
That said, you need to practice screen acting too as it is a very different performance medium to theatre. When you see yourself on camera, you will quickly recognise any bad or good habits you may have and you can take further action. You can’t really judge or even see your performance with theater as videos of a play are imperfect records of how it was received. So the only way to evaluate your acting afterwards is to analyse the audience’s reaction. With comedy stage shows, your success or failure is overt.
If an audience doesn’t laugh then you weren’t funny. I find that my screen acting work has helped my theater work improve and vice versa. They can both feed each other in a symbiotic relationship in the same way that working on comedic and dramatic projects sharpens up your acting skills in both those genres.
Historically I would say that most people start acting in theaters. On a local level there are generally more opportunities to perform with shows on stage than act in films. Nowadays though, with the emergence of video phones and the wide availability of cheaper camera technology and editing software, almost anyone can practise screen acting in preparation for a potential career in the movies.
Privately practicing your acting on camera is vital. In the world of film there are comparatively few formal screen acting training programs even now. On set or location, there are rarely any proper rehearsals for the actors and that can disorientate an actor used to theater. The rehearsals are mostly for those operating the camera and everything is frequently more technically focused than in a theater show.
However on the upside, lack of rehearsal can also make the actor more spontaneous on screen as everything is happening to them for real for the first time as the camera records the scene and they have to just trust their instincts and be the character in that moment.
I enjoy both styles of acting immensely. In terms of size and intensity and focus, acting on stage is like wielding a broadsword in battle. Acting for TV and film is more akin to fighting or performing surgery with a scalpel. Yet each different type of theater or screen project has its own acting conventions across that vast spectrum. Sometimes a sitcom filmed in front of a studio audience can require acting as big and broad in style as some musical theater shows. At other times a classical theater play needs acting that has laser sharp precision and is as understated as the most subtle cinema performance.
One thing that I enjoy about film is everyone works to create the project as a team until the moment the shoot is finished because there is only one chance to get it right. To me it feels fairly democratic and all the people are consistently energised with this single goal. With theater, there is a race to rehearse and prepare the show for the opening performance. Once the show has been successfully mounted before an audience the hard work really begins of maintaining and hopefully improving the quality of the show over the length of the theatrical run. Unfortunately, successfully repeating the same thing continually every day, dulls both the edge of excitement and the fear of failure.
As a result, complacency and laziness may arise if an actor is not disciplined or sufficiently motivated. Once you know you have been performing a play for two months to an appreciative audience in the same venue, it is difficult to keep the same motivation of an opening night where you aren’t sure if an audience will enjoy your work. The trepidation and stakes are less. Every audience is different though and it is never guaranteed that they will enjoy a performance. So, the best way to keep motivated is to treat the show as if it is the first time that production is ever being performed. For that day’s audience it is the first time that the show is being performed for them.
Staying on the same topic… There is an opinion, that this kind of classical, rigorous training is not widely popular among U.S. born actors, in contrary with the actors of UK. How true is this?
Acting training in Britain and America broadly reflects the focus of the entertainment industries in those two countries. In Britain, most acting work in the industry revolves around theater. Performing in the West End of London is deemed to be one of the pinnacles of a British actor’s career.
Acting in Shakespeare or other classical plays is also highly socially esteemed. Acting as the lead in a Shakespeare play in the West End is a major achievement that many British performers aspire to. Consequently, it makes sense that such an emphasis is placed on a classical theater training in the British system.
In America (and Los Angeles in particular), there are more work opportunities attached to the film and TV industries. Greater money and prestige accrue to those actors in successful screen projects and you don’t necessarily need classical theater training to be cast on screen. As a result, it is not surprising that there is less focus on a classical conservatoire training, especially as that kind of education seldom engages with any form of camera or film acting training.
The actors who know most about screen acting are in the movies and aren’t normally available to teach. In New York and around the rest of America, I believe there is more stress on actors receiving adequate theater training so that they can withstand the pressures of live performance. Hollywood has less theater and operates on its own rules, although I don’t think your career would ever be handicapped by too much good theater training! If Britain was the world hub for film and Los Angeles was the epicenter for theater, I am sure that the acting training would soon change to mirror that situation.
Tell us how you got involved with the production of the infamous “Black Hole” movie?
I was asked to audition for ‘The Black Hole’ in 2008 by its directors, Phil Sansom & Olly Williams, who go by the name of Diamond Dogs in the industry. I had met them a year before that point in 2007 when I had played Ray in the stop-motion monster animation music video ‘Worried About Ray’. This video was made to accompany the hugely popular release of the ‘Worried About Ray’ track by The Hoosiers.
I heard subsequently that they were allegedly looking for an actor to play Ray that looked like a younger version of pioneering film special effects master Ray Harryhausen crossed with pop musician Art Garfunkel. They cast me, so evidently I was that actor!
About twelve months later, Phil and Olly were preparing to shoot ‘The Black Hole’ as an entry for the inaugural Virgin Media Shorts Competition where the potential prize on offer was ?30,000 to make another film. I had just shot or was about to shoot a music video for The Shortwave Set and one with James Blunt for HSI London, the same production company that Phil and Olly work for. One of my film friends was working there. He heard that they were having difficulty casting the role in ‘The Black Hole’ and he dropped my name into conversation reminding them I was Ray in their video for The Hoosiers. Apparently they had a eureka moment and they got me in to audition.
I did a screen test of the whole script (the video of which I still have). They were given a little bit of money by their production company to make the film, so I had to get the approval of their bosses before I was cast. The actual shoot took just one day in West London. We were very pleased to get nominated as one of the top 12 entries out of over 1400 films. When we won, we were flabbergasted! Since then ‘The Black Hole’ has done phenomenally well. It has received multiple international prizes and screenings at film festivals and it seems popular on the internet. It occurs in several locations on YouTube. On one webpage it has over 11 million hits!
You had your own comedy chat show series called “The Napoleon Complex”, and as far as I know, there were only a couple of episodes… How did the idea for the show came to you?
Roy Petersen, a longstanding friend and collaborator of mine, came to me with the idea of a surreal kind of chat show with an ongoing narrative that he wanted me to host. Originally it was going to be called ‘Midnight Cornflakes’ as it was supposed to be a late night chat show like you see on American TV. While I was away rehearsing a play, one of the other team members suggested the name be changed to ‘The Napoleon Complex’.
It seemed to make sense as I would be the lynchpin of the program. Roy is very keen on improvisation and wanted to have a spontaneous quality to the host’s interaction with the increasingly odd guests. It was fun to shoot. Sadly, it was a pilot project and we only did a couple of episodes. Maybe it will be revived one day….
What would your “ultimate story to tell” look like on screen? Any plans for writing and directing your own full-feature film?
At some point in the future I would love to produce more of my own work. I have lots of ideas for feature films. Some of them are comedies, some are horror and comedy-horror films, a couple are thrillers and conspiracy films and I also have a few historical drama detective stories. I just need an oasis of time to sit down and finish writing them. I have a short script called ‘Kebab’ which, in terms of its tone, could almost be described as a companion piece to ‘The Black Hole’.
Also ready for filming is ‘Crowded House’. It’s a comedy about a broke children’s entertainer who gets tricked into living in a house full of sex offenders. Once he moves in he realises that there’s a serial killer gradually bumping off the residents and, unless the sadistic local police arrest him as the main suspect first, he’s next. Ultimately, I have ambitions to make a time travelling murder mystery ghost story musical with smuggling and pirates, but one step at a time.
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