Interview with John Bell: ‘The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me’, the AIDS epidemic, Doctor Who and being a child-actor

Actor John Bell has been on our TVs since he was a little boy who was transformed into a spherical, bio-hybrid, alien robot (look up ‘toclafane’). He has come a long way from his acting debut on Doctor Who, and has landed roles amongst a star-studded cast in The Hobbit films, as well as the drama series, Outlander. John Bell continues to strive towards the stratosphere by making his stage debut in the one-man show, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, running at the New Wimbledon Theatre.

John Bell in ‘The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me’ (Photo Credit Mark Senior)

You’ll be making exciting stage debut! So tell us about your journey as an actor and how you feel about coming to the theatre and on stage.

I started in a sort of non-conventional way. I kind of fell into acting in a professional way when I was like eight years old. So it was a Blue Peter competition that was running nationally to win a part in Doctor, and it was being cast by Russell T Davies, Andy Pryor. So it was a legit, competition with an incredible prize of an actual part in an episode of Doctor Who. At that time it was David Tennant’s doctor. I mean, it was the coolest it’s ever been, you know? So I entered it with like my parents support and we didn’t expect anything from it. You know, we just sent a tape in because you know what it’s like but I actually got down to the top 10 and then the top three, and then I got the part. From that, suddenly I was on the set of Doctor Who acting, which is something that I’d done as a kid in classes. I knew I had a bit of a knack for it. Um, probably comes from being, you know, quite an empathetic kid, you know? And then, yeah, that sort of gave me that – it’s such a troll – but the bug, you know, the bug bit me and I was like, I want to keep doing this! And then at the time I bumped into somebody who became my agent and yeah, the rest is kind of history. So from that, I got a film and then ended up doing some great stuff with BBC, for Tracy Beaker. And then, um, finally got an amazing opportunity to make the Hobbit films in New Zealand.

There was a period of time where I didn’t really work much because I was kind of making that transition from child actor to adult actor which is difficult at times.
So I didn’t work for about two years and I was ready to give it up. I was like, I’m going to university. I’m going to get my degree in English literature – don’t know what I was thinking. About three, four weeks before I was supposed to start at Glasgow University, I got an audition through for Outlander. That’s given me that vehicle for me being able to see other people see me and even see myself as an actor. Behind all of this, there was this sort of yearning to do a bit of stage. It sort of feels like it’s the craft, isn’t it? You’re a thespian!

And then when I moved down to London after filming season six, this opportunity came to meet Steven Dexter. The director had watched Outlander and loved what I done on the show, thought I had the chops for this role, saw me as this role and then approached me and said, here’s the script. What do you think? Read the scripts immediately, fell in love with it and was like, yeah! So it was a sort of case of right play, right place, right time, you know, but that’s sort of the journey of it all to landing here and my stage debut. And I mean, what a debut! Like throwing me at the deep end, you know, I was expecting it to be like a tree in the background or something, but no, no, no. It’s a one man show!

Your character that you’re playing essentially has his life changed by theatre. In what ways has theatre had an impact on your life?

Oh, that’s such a good point actually. Um, gosh, well, I’ve always loved doing it. I mean, I’ve always been going to acting classes when I was younger. I was a kind of a student of the RSAMD or RCS now I’m up in Glasgow. So I was always kind of reading scripts, doing Chekhov, doing Shakespeare, doing all of that.

My parents were really supportive when I was growing up and on the sets and took me to see so many different shows from whenever, wherever we were in the world filming. So it’s always been something I love to do. It’s always been a thing I’ve [done] to relax, just to escape all that usual stuff, you know? It’s not my forte either. It’s not something I know so much about as like, you know, in comparison to films and television. So I still feel like a bit of a baby actor on stage, but in a good way and a kind of green-and-keen kind of way. Growing up, I’ve been surrounded by incredible actors, which has been just constantly inspiring, but a lot of these great actors come from stage. So to be coming to this at this time, it feels right. So I’m excited!

John bell in ‘The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me’. (Photo Credit: Mark Senior)

Do look at this as an opportunity for you to sharpen your craft and possibly even go farther into theatre alongside your film career?

Definitely. Yeah. I see this as an opportunity to learn and hone a whole new set of skills because it is so different to working on camera. I mean, there are similarities, your goal is to tell the truth, is to tell the story, is to get the audience to feel. But, there’s this idea that there’s this immediate connection with you and the audience, that you can tell exactly if they’re getting it or not. Do I need to build that more here in order for them to understand? That’s so exciting to me. It’s like these whole new skills that I’m getting to explore, but have been there, I’ve trained in them, but I’ve never really put to full use and never really put myself out there and in way that I’m doing now. So yeah, it’s, nerve-wracking, I won’t lie to you. It is, but nerves are good! It means you care about something. I’m so invested in this and if this leads to more opportunities in theatre, I will be one happy boy. That’s for sure.

You mentioned Ian McKellen, who obviously is very well-respected; what would you say about his performances on the stage that you would be inspired by? When you watch him on stage, what do you take from it that you would want to be able to emulate yourself on stage as an actor?

I’ve seen it’s his ability to tell the story to the back of the room, but still do it in a way that’s subtle, and breathes truth into it. I think there’s a tendency when you go from screen to stage that you think everything has to be ten times bigger. Everything has to be over the top, over dramatise, all of that. Well actually, yes, you need to make sure that the person at the back of the room is understanding, but that doesn’t mean that you lose the intensity or the truth of it. I’ve always seen that in McKellen. I’ve always seen that in lots of other actors that I’ve seen on stage.

It seem like you’ve been in good company. You’ve even worked with David Tennant, who also has done so well on stage.

Yeah. That whole experience does feel like a fever dream. You know, I was like a kid. I was like, what is going on!

This was in the Doctor Who episode, I think, called Utopia?

Correct! Yeah, absolutely. 10 points to go Gryffindor!

I’m a massive Whovian of the tenant era, um, but your character turned into a – what was it? Toclafane?

Yes. One of those, yeah. The paradox came back in time to kill all humans (laughs). Yeah. It was such a moment! But, the thing is in that whole experience, I had no idea that that was going to happen. Then we got a call after I’d finished filming saying, what colour are their eyes? John’s eyes for CGI. And we were like, oh, blue, blue-green. And we’re like, that was a bit weird, I wonder what that was about? And then we watched the finale live. I turned up again as this horrible monster and I was blown away.
I was like, cool. I get to be a goodie and a baddy! That’s awesome. And then I remember listening to like a podcast of Russell’s, like a few months or maybe a year later, saying ‘did we ever tell John that that was going to happen?’

Would you ever return to Doctor Who?

In a heartbeat, in a heartbeat, in a heartbeat, especially now that Russell’s back. I’m like, do you remember me? Do you remember that young boy that you gave his first opportunity to, wouldn’t it be great Russell T Davies? It’s a full circle moment, but no, I mean, I’m not fussy. I’ll do anything. But for Doctor Who, when I saw that Russell was coming back, I immediately said it to my agent, like manifest it, light a candle to Guadalupe, please.

Coming back to the play, in what ways is your character’s journey of self-discovery sort
of relate to you, or how do you relate to it?

I think I can relate to him a lot, like any, I think young gay kid can relate to this feeling of feeling different, of feeling alone in these moments, the embarrassment and the shame of this, which was never taught to me by my parents. It was just something you kind of pick up from society as it is. So the word is heteronormative, but you just see straight people everywhere. You don’t really see gay people. And I mean, when I was born, I was born in 1997. So, you know, from like when I was maybe starting to watch TV at like, I don’t know, 8, 9, 10, it’s been like a huge leap forward since then. I think back then really gay characters were really still the butt of the joke or the villain, you know?
So, you didn’t really see yourself there. This beautiful part in the script where he talks about these thoughts seeping into his childhood sleep at seven, eight and nine and ten and eleven, and almost like trying to pray the gay away. I remember doing that when I was a kid. It was really only when I started working more on sets and being surrounded by successful, happy, intelligent, charming, older gay men that I kind of started going, oh wait, actually it’s kinda cool to the gay isn’t it? So I relate to that. I relate to that story of his. Um, but he kind of goes past my age as well. He sort of finds his calling and then it goes to my him a bit older, which is great for me. I get to play a whole range of ages. So I relate to that sort of feeling of, I don’t know where I’m going yet, I don’t know what is my calling. I know that I want to continue to act, but whether it will always be just acting, I don’t know whether it will be storytelling in the future. I don’t know what it will be, but I relate to that sort of journey too, of finding out who you are and not necessarily having to know who you are right now, believing that if you keep putting your energy out there, you keep meeting the right people, you keep chatting and keep doing cool plays things will come to you. I believe that it’s a – it’s a very Scottish thing to say, but it’s like, ‘what’s in front of you won’t go by you’, you know? And it’s like, these opportunities do come, you just gotta reach out and grab them. So that’s kind of all the things that I relate to in the story. But I think it’s also important to sort of mention that the period that he grew up in was even more different back then. We’re in a renaissance right now with these stories, you know. It’s A Sin, Pose doing so successfully well, highlighting the wonderful array of characters at that time. But also the devastating nature of the AIDS crisis and what people were living through, the fear, of this invisible killer that nobody knew about it. So it’s important to me, I think, to tell these stories, because without these people fighting for recognition of the disease in the first place – people just didn’t want to know about it – we wouldn’t be in a place now where living with HIV is absolutely completely, completely not an issue anymore, you know, um, which is incredible. So, it’s important for me – as I say I’m a gay man – to show my respect and learn about my community’s history.

I think you’ve already partly answered this, but, what makes this play relevant today? You’ve mentioned things like the AIDS epidemic; why should we continue to talk about it? Why is it still relevant today?

Yeah. I mean, gosh, look at today, we are literally going through a pandemic that affects everybody equally. So, people can understand right now the fear, [how] that feels. It’s invisible. But, I imagine that also adds onto that the fact that it was unprinted, the fact that people were not even willing to talk about it, to share it. That [there] was this idea of us and them, and this whole thing, we felt like it’s been the times we’ve had to really come together, you know, and make the sacrifice for each other back then. People weren’t even willing to make that sacrifice, you know, or talk about this or tell these stories. So I think it’s really important right now, and people hopefully will get it more because they’ve gone through it themselves. That is exactly what was happening back then to a group that was already being killed by homophobia. And in a way, who was the bigger killer at that time? Was it AIDS, or was it homophobia? Because I would argue that it was the homophobia that probably killed more people because otherwise they would have got their act together quicker, you know?

What did you like about this play to want to perform it? Not only as its protagonist, but also as your stage debut as well?

I mean, oh God, I don’t want to a like a bit of a dick, but I’m a bit of a show boater there, right? Say the party, see when the Brittany Spears comes on, I’m like everybody sit down, you’re going to show. So, the fact that it was a one-man show, it was like, this kind of appeals. I like the power of it. I like that fact that it’s all up to me. So that was a huge part of doing it. I was like, this seems like such a challenge. It’s exciting. It’s like, it’s the responsibility. When you’re a kids, you know, you’re kind of, even if you’re a big part in something, you know, it’s up to the adult actors to take the show on their shoulders more than you.
So now doing this, I love it. Um, and then this play in particular, it connected with me. It made me cry. It made me laugh. I thought it was a great story. I thought there was so many opportunities to change it, update it, work it out in my way. And then speaking to Steven Decks, the director, [the] very first thing he said was, ‘I’m a very collaborative director. I want this to be as much my story as your story’. So that really spoke to me. I was like, wow, this is an opportunity to kind of come on, and not just come in and say your lines and get out kind of way. We’re really going to shape this and, and tell it the way we want to do it. So all of those factors kind of pulled me in and said, this is cool. This is right place. Right place, right time, right people, right city. All of that.

Considering the struggle that theatre is going through at the moment, what would want the audience to do to ensure the survival of creatives within the industry?

Yeah. Um, gosh, people, it’s so important to tell stories, isn’t it, especially right now. We need to escape at times into worlds that are completely different for more from our own. I always kind of think, you know, what I’m doing isn’t really important. Um, I’m not saving lives, you know. But, we are doing something important. Without the stories of the stage, and the screen, and the TV, what world be an even bleaker place. So I just implore people to continue to watch what they like [and] support artists. That’s really it, it’s just kind of quite simple, isn’t it?

The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me will be running at the Nw Wimbledon Theatre until the 26th February.

Find out more about The Night Kramer Kissed Me and book your tickets here.