James Backway (War Horse) – Tea With Wilma
How does it feel to be making your West End debut in such a hugely popular show as War Horse?
For this to be my first West End job out of drama school is such a privilege. This show means so much to so many people and it’s amazing to be a part of the team that brings such a special story to audiences.
For those who may not know the story of War Horse, can you tell me what it is all about?
War Horse is about a young boy called Albert and his horse, Joey. One day, Albert’s drunk father brings home a horse he paid far too much money for, and in order to keep the farm going, Albert is entrusted to bring it up. During this time, the pair becomes inseparable – until, one day, war is declared between Britain and Germany and the pair are torn apart as Joey is sold off to fight in the yeomanry. A few months later, Albert runs away from home, lies about his age and signs up as a recruit for the British Army. From then on, we see both Albert and Joey’s different journeys throughout the war and the struggles they undergo to try and find each other.
Were you familiar with the story of War Horse before you were cast? Had you read the book, seen the film or watched the play?
I’m a huge fan-boy of the show. I read most of Michael Morpurgo’s books as a child, so when I found out that they were making War Horse into a play I went and saw the show twice with both Luke (Treadaway) and Kit (Harington) playing Albert. I then saw it again when it transferred to the New London Theatre.
What attracted you to the part you are playing in the show?
It’s a gift of a part. Albert has this inner drive that just doesn’t stop. He goes from being a 14-year-old boy at the start of the play to a young man in his early twenties by the end. I just find myself very lucky to get a chance to play a role with such a detailed character arc at such an early point in my career. And to be acting opposite this beautifully puppeteered horse is just a gift in itself. It’s not like anything else you could ever imagine onstage, working with the horse. Every night is different – they really do keep you on your toes.
Do you have any dream roles that you would like to have a go at playing?
There are loads! William in Punk Rock. Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Katurian in The Pillowman, Puck, Dromio. I’d love to get the chance to do some comedy at some point too – it’s a different beast, but that would be really fun.
If you could be the opposite sex for the day, which female theatre role would you like to play?
I saw Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and thought it was incredible. I wish I was a girl, just so I could have a go at that script.
Have you ever had any funny/disastrous on-stage experiences?
Plenty. Not too many in this show though. When I was doing the tech-run for my final show at drama school, I accidently set myself on fire. I had this Zippo lighter to light my cigarette with and I forgot to flick it off when putting it back in my pocket. Five minutes later, the actress I was in the scene with just stopped half way through her line and said “Are you on fire?”. I was.
What is your favourite animal (if not horses, have they gone up on your list of favourites since joining the show?)
I’m a big Attenborough fan; I’ve got all of his boxsets and am just a big lover of most animals – except ostriches, they’re terrifying. Interestingly Sir David doesn’t do too many studies into horses, maybe because they’re so domesticated. And being from Croydon, there aren’t too many horses knocking about there either. But since doing this show they have definitely risen in the ranks of my favourite animals. They’re loyal, intelligent and playful. You have to share this mutual respect with them, they’re big creatures, so you don’t want to rub one up the wrong way.
Why do you think people should come and see War Horse?
It’s one of those big landmarks in not only British theatre, but also international theatre. You won’t see anything else like it; the puppetry in this show is groundbreaking. We have all sorts of ages and backgrounds come and see the show and they are all blown away. Children often have this deep connection with animals so are always entranced by the horse. We have older audiences come to watch, who may have had parents, grandparents who fought in those wars and have a very deep emotional interest in it. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to – it’s not just a good night out at the theatre, it’s something that stays with you for a long time.
Thanks for having Tea With Wilma
War Horse is currently booking until 13 February 2016. Click here to Book tickets