Doug Rao, Actor Filmmaker and Founder of Peasant Films
British actor, film maker and founder of Peasant Films, Doug Rao graduated from the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1999 and has since starred in film, theatre and television both in the UK and internationally. He is perhaps best known for his acclaimed role as Stuart Turner in BAFTA winning series The Bill – appearing in a staggering 100 episodes. He’s also performed with The Royal Shakespeare Company, has appeared on numerous other TV shows and film work includes roles in such epics as Luc Besson’s Colombiana (with Zoe Saldana and Jordi Molla). But Doug’s skills extend beyond acting – he wrote, produced and directed the short film War Hero, which was in competition at numerous film festivals including the Hollywood Film Festival, LA Shorts Fest and NYC Shorts. He then wrote and directed the short film Jubilee (2009) which was selected for the 53rd BFI London Film Festival and was shortlisted for the Satyajit Ray Short Film Award. Not content with such impressive achievements, Doug studied yoga in India and produced and directed a Yoga DVD with his father: Sam & Doug Rao’s Yoga for Any-Body. Creative Mapping spoke with the intelligent and accomplished Doug Rao to find out more about the life and lifestyle of those glittering creatures whose job it is to entertain us – the actor.
I’m an actor primarily – I’ve worked on stage, in film and TV both here and in Los Angeles, but more recently I’m turning to writing and directing. I have lived in London for most of my career, but find it hard to settle anywhere, so I don’t say I live here anymore, I’m really just passing through.
CM: How did you become a professional actor?
Before I went to drama school, I wrote and wrote; plays, poetry, scripts – anything and everything, mostly not very good. I produced my own plays on the London fringe in my late teens and starred in them and turned a profit! I wrote and spoke poetry and monologues in pubs. But all that stopped as I entered “the business”. I hadn’t lost the need for that kind of all-encompassing storytelling, but the process of becoming an actor in the commercial world of casting directors and TV contracts and PR reps drew my focus away. That might sound odd – but for the most part, being an actor is a limiting part of the storytelling process. The overall vision of a play or film or TV show doesn’t belong to us. I feel as though I’ve been in transition for a while now. Or at least a return to what I once was. I’ve been working as a professional actor for almost twenty years. I had to bring myself back to where I started, as a storyteller, to keep my intellect and my spirit alive.
CM: Doug Rao, hat inspired you to become an actor?
I had nothing else, really. But I come from the kind of place where the arts aren’t really encouraged. I left school at sixteen and was lost for a while before I started meeting a few people with similar aspirations. I met a bloke who lived in a house with no furniture – just vast shelves of plays. We’d drink into the early hours and just read; Chekov, Mamet, Pinter, Brecht, the Jacobeans – and we’d play scenes and talk and read until we’d pass out. It was a really good education actually. Eventually, I made the move into London and started working in fringe theatre. I thought drama school was “silly”, but my mum made me audition for the Central School of Speech and Drama and I was on my way.
CM: For those of us who don’t know the process for an actor, do you have an agent or do you generate work yourself?
It’s a common refrain of actors that they get most of their work themselves! As you continue in the business, casting director’s get to know you and will call your agent if you’re right for a part they’re casting. But your agent is submitting you (you hope!) for parts meanwhile.
CM: How do you know when you’re onto something good re a film? Is it the script, the director, the other actors?
The script is always the most important thing. It’s very difficult to screw up a brilliant script – it sort of takes care of itself. Working with bad scripts however is like trying to “make shit shine” – it’s just very tiring. In fact, I’ve seen poor directors carried by a great script and Script Supervisor (me, on my first film!). I’ve worked with actors who were barely able to do more than get out their lines – but the lines were so good! Of course, it always helps if you’ve got a great script and you’re surrounded by talent – but alas, that isn’t always the case. In fact, it’s rarely the case ha ha!
CM: You’re also making as well as starring in films and TV – can you tell us more about that?
I wasn’t happy being an actor in television. I was a regular in a long-running series and it wasn’t challenging me in any way and I felt my intellect rotting by the day. I had to write again. The great thing was, even though I wasn’t fulfilled by the television that I was doing, I was surrounded by other people who also wanted to stretch their talents – so I cobbled together a crew of like-minds and made War Hero – which I wrote just after the Iraq War broke out. I’d been on the massive marches leading up to the declaration of war and when our protests went totally unheeded; it was a sharp wake-up call. War Hero was born out of the ensuing frustration. I intended it to be a filmic protest. Everything that I write now has an anger that manifests itself into a story. The story is king but it must be supported by a theme. I’m not preaching to my audience; my duty is to entertain them, but I want them to go away with at least a subconscious impression of that anger.
CM: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
As an actor: I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company playing an American lawyer in a vital play by David Edgar called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma.” It dealt with conflict resolution and Islamic fundamentalism – phrases that weren’t on our lips then as they are today. By chance, we were scheduled to give a question and answers session after the show with the audience on September 12th 2001. Most of our audience were made up of shell-shocked American tourists but I remember that we were all able to make some sense of the tragedy using the play as context for our discussion. That’s the kind of work an actor dreams of being involved with. As a director: making Jubilee was an intense experience. Hardly enough money, fast-paced in the blistering heat on an estate whose residents didn’t want a film crew there. But when were accepted as the only British short to play before a feature at the BFI London Film Festival and the UK Film Council listed it as one of their best films of the year, I felt validated as a storyteller. I don’t seek validation in terms of awards or fame as a rule, but I think there was still a part of the teenage kid who couldn’t believe somebody had actually given him money to make a film! And that there might be people who wanted to see it.
CM: What are some of the challenges you face as an actor – both personally and professionally?
Poverty mainly! Intermittent bouts of poverty laced with serial rejection. Ha! Doesn’t sound very glamourous, does it? It’s a difficult and strange career choice. Actually to call it a “career” is considered sacrilege by most actors. A career is something that has a ladder that your hard work and talent allow you to climb. Being an actor is generally to be at the whim of others and arbitrary decisions like; “Do I like his hair or the other guy’s?”
CM: Which directors or other actors do you admire right now?
I’ve always been inspired by the daring and bold choices of Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis – in fact I started out just copying them. I admire Gael Garcia Bernal for the type of work he associates himself with – he’s one of those rare actors whose films are entertaining activism. But all actors inspire me to some extent, some you’ll never have heard of; older stage actors who haven’t had the opportunity to work in telly or film but will blow you away in supporting roles in provincial theatres. Most of those actors would be swimming in Oscars if someone threw a decent film script at them! The company of actors always delights me. They’re a rare breed and we have our own language and humour (at least British actors do) that is often impenetrable to other members of a crew. And a brutal sarcasm that’s bred out of years of rejection! Ken Loach is my hero. In many ways, my own work is a clumsy attempt at homage to his films; which are always intensely political, social documents. I don’t see the point of making a film just to make a film. If I write something, it’s never going to be a gangster-comedy or teen-horror or whatever else is fashionable; it has to have resonance for me. Perhaps that limits my chances of commercial success, riches and red carpets; so be it. Of directors working now, I greatly admire and love the films of: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessan, City of Lost Children), Jacques Audiard (Une Prophet, Rust and Bone), Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master with Joaquin Phoenix) and Walter Salles (On The Road – with an all star cast including Kirsten Stewart and Viggo Mortensen, and produced by Charles Gillbert (MK2) amongst many others.
CM: When you’ve finished a film or TV show, are you ever truly satisfied with your performance? What makes a film successful to you?
I’ve worked with actors who’d come off stage or set and beat themselves up (sometimes literally!) about a bad a scene that they felt they’d played better the night before, or they’d read it brilliantly in their trailer, etc. I never understood this. Our art is purely human – only robots can deliver “perfection” on demand. So I am always satisfied. Any art form demands compromise; in fact it’s an intrinsic part of any artistic process, but in film and telly this is especially true. The constraints of time and money force compromise at every turn. The trick is not to get frustrated by these compromises but to see them as vital components of the finished product. This is the same for actors and directors – yes, perhaps I saw myself doing it this way, but then I was forced to compromise and do it that way. Who am I to say that my premeditated choice was better or that the audience won’t prefer this “compromised” version? After all, we’re doing this for the audience, not for ourselves. Embrace compromise and the surprises it brings. That’s not to say we should lack the ability to be self-critical or strive for excellence but what’s the point in being disappointed – you did the best work you could under the given circumstances. So be satisfied and move on.
CM: What advice would give to younger or new actors starting out?
This is a very different business than the one I entered. I left drama school early to play a lead role in a big TV series with a big budget – they rarely make that kind of show anymore. And if they do, now you can guarantee it will be full of established stars. When I left drama school, there was no reality-TV, the internet was a fad and we weren’t in a crippling recession. And we had a government who weren’t hell-bent on destroying the arts and education as they have done in recent years. The simple fact is there is less work around to sustain actors. My advice would be: take advantage of digital culture; write and shoot your own work and get it out there. Actors have to make their own work to survive. And we’ve been doing that since our profession began. Imagine what Shakespeare or Brecht would have done with a DSLR and Final Cut Pro!
CM: What inspires you about living and working in London?
The fact that we are surrounded by great art and great theatre and literate, informed people. The dirty beauty of its secrets and histories. The simmering threat of violence on a Saturday night! The wit, the banter, the insults! I lived in Los Angeles for a while and found I couldn’t write. I hardly wrote a word in almost two years. Life’s too homogenised and sanitised there. I’ll go back for the weather and my lovely pals, but I’ll always travel to write!
CM: What would a dream collaboration in film be for you? What kind of script, director, actors?
Any collaboration of artists with some vision beyond themselves and the furthering of their career. Too many artists make choices that don’t serve the story because of selfish motives. They force parts for themselves in stories that can’t accommodate them and remain true. They choose overtly “clever” camera moves to draw attention to the brilliance of their direction. They don’t support the other actor when it’s not their shot. The story is king but often egos want to dethrone it. I’ve been guilty of it in my time though, so “people in glass houses…”!
CM: 5 favorite music tracks that help you work?
Music is rife with storytellers that inspire me! Bruce Springsteen is the absolute master – often his songs are 3 minute films scripts with a perfect three act structure. “The River”, “Highway Patrolman” (which Sean Penn turned into The Indian Runner) and “Thunder Road” are immense examples. Tom Waits’ “Invitation to the Blues” is about a bum who falls in love with a waitress behind the counter at a bus station. He doesn’t speak a word to her but his life-story plays out in the three minutes it takes him to decide to give away his ticket and stick around to make a life with her. An immaculate minimalist lesson for the screenwriter! Leonard Cohen’s songs are largely autobiographical love stories, but his dark melodies and incantational voice are perfect for writing to.
CM: If you had to live another life entirely, what would you be doing – and why?
It might not be too far off! I’ve got plans to head back to India. I studied to be a yoga teacher there many years ago and I’m going back to make a documentary about an orphanage that I’ve worked with in Mumbai. I could see myself living in India for a while. I could teach yoga, I could write for sure – I could do a million things! I love India, there’s such a feeling of untamed possibility there. These last twenty years have been an adventure, but perhaps it’s time to open a new and infinitely more compelling chapter. Life isn’t a dress-rehearsal, I’d hate to look back and say that I hadn’t lived it to the full.