Luke Treadaway certainly knows how to command a stage. He took the lead in two of the most successful shows in the National Theatre’s history. Straight out of drama school he played Albert in the original production of War Horse – a show that transferred to the West End, then Broadway and was the inspiration for a Spielberg film. Five years later, he stunned audiences with his astonishing performance as a 15-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – a role that bagged him an Olivier Award for Best Actor.
After a run of film and TV work, Luke is about to set foot on the London stage again in another challenging role. He’s playing Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee’s unflinching examination of marital breakdown, joining Imelda Staunton, Conleth Hill and Imogen Poots in her first West End role. It’s only day four of rehearsals, so Luke is still getting under the skin of his character, an ambitious young biology professor with a fragile marriage. He was familiar with the play and the film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, now he’s really getting to grips with the text. “At the moment we’re sitting around the table reading the play, asking questions about what’s going on at each moment, working out who these people are,” he says. “But I’m thrilled to be working with such an amazing cast on such a brilliant piece of writing.”
With a stellar cast, James Macdonald directing – and a play that half a century after it was written still has the power to shock – this promises to be one of 2017’s hottest tickets. While he admits theatre is probably his first love, 32-year-old Luke has had a pretty eclectic screen career since leaving drama school. He’s played a young scientist in Sky Atlantic’s Arctic thriller Fortitude and snooker star Alex Higgins in the BBC’s Rack Pack. Film roles have included a stoner student in Attack the Block; a malnourished inmate of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Unbroken, and most recently, the lead in A Streetcat Named Bob.
Playing James Bowen, the Big Issue seller turned best-selling author, was a real eye-opener. Preparing for the role, Luke walked the streets of Soho with James, visiting places where he had slept rough. Luke himself spent a night on the streets and a day busking. “It was a really humbling experience,” says Luke. “It was a cold smack of reality. You see terrific acts of generosity, but it was bleak. I felt people had blinkers on, and I was only pretending.” It was a privilege, though, working with James and the real Bob. “James was very open about his experiences, and willing to share his feelings.” And Bob, it appears, was a very generous co-star who was happy to sit on Luke’s shoulders for the scenes that they filmed in Covent Garden. Playing and singing live in the busking scenes also gave Luke the opportunity to flex his musical muscles (he and his brothers formed a band, Lizardsun, in their teens).
The acting bug seems to have bitten both Luke and his twin Harry early in life. Aged three, Luke played a daffodil in the village Christmas pantomime (his dad was the Big Bad Wolf). When it came to plays that the brothers made up and performed to the family, Luke maintains that he was the casting director, giving Harry the odd cameo. Both Luke and Harry studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), where contemporaries included Matt Smith (who’s now a great mate) and Felicity Jones.
The brothers have worked together: their film debut was in an off-the-wall mockumentary, Brothers of Head, where they were cast as conjoined twins in a ’70s punk band and spent the entire film in a sewn-together wetsuit. They also appeared together at the Royal Court in Over There, playing twins who had been separated by the Berlin Wall. In possibly the most awkward moment in his stage career, for the last scene Luke kissed his brother wearing nothing but underpants, blonde wig and red killer heels – while covered in ketchup and a selection of other sticky condiments.
So who or what inspired Luke to pursue acting as a career? Even though he grew up in a tiny Devon village, drama was something that he and his brother were introduced to early on. “Dad was in the local amateur drama group, so we saw some interesting productions like The Threepenny Opera. But it was school that really fired his imagination. “I had a great teacher at school, Phil Gasson – he flipped everything on its head, he made drama so exciting, so different.” He and Harry joined the National Youth Theatre; drama school was a natural next step.
Leaving rural Devon for London to take up his place at drama school was quite a culture shock. “LAMDA is based in Baron’s Court, so my first few flat and house shares were in west London. My very first base was Brentford, just beyond Kew. Then I gradually drifted east and north, to Willesden Green and then Tufnell Park, where some friends lived. After that it was Archway.”
Home is now leafy Highgate, which Luke says reminds him of his rural roots. “I love living there, it reminds me of Sandford, the village I grew up in. It’s great being close to Hampstead Heath, it’s the closest you get to countryside, living in the city.” At weekends, he’s happy to stay local, running on the Heath, hanging out in one of Highgate’s many cute pubs. But he’s glad that there’s the rest of the city on the doorstep.
So what direction does Luke see himself going in? Is there an actor whose career choices he admires? Not really, he says. “Everyone’s on their own journey. There are moments when it’s going well and you’re really feeling it. And there are times when it’s thrillingly uncomfortable. Either way, it’s amazing, I’m so lucky to enjoy what I do.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs for a limited season of 13 weeks from 22 February at the Harold Pinter Theatre