Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Alex Ferns - The Hard Man

Alex Ferns doesn't look like much of a tough guy anymore. One minute
the actor best known for his stint in East Enders playing psychopathic
wife beater Trevor is sitting backstage in Edinburgh's Festival
Theatre, chatting amiably about his role in The Hard Man, Tom McGrath
and convicted murderer Jimmy Boyle's 1977 play fictionalising Boyle's
violent life, which receives a major revival this week at Edinburgh's
King's Theatre prior to a national tour. The next, Ferns lapses into a
long silence and looks off into the middle distance, his eyes glazed
over with tears as he confronts his own past in a way he's never spoken
about before.

Ferns had just been talking about his stage debut in Colchester
playing yet another tough guy, blue-collared bruiser Stanley Kowalsky
in Tennessee Williams' classic, A Streetcar Named Desire. Why, exactly,
he's just been asked, does he think he's continually cast as
short-tempered brutes who were handy with their fists? Which is when
the tears start.

“It's pretty obvious why,” Ferns says eventually. “I grew up in a
culture of violence. My father was violent. Everybody around me was
violent, so its no wonder I play characters like that. Violence was
just a way of being, so when people ask me how I access these
characters so easily, it's simple. It's a remembrance. It's a
reflection. It's a portrayal of people who've been in my life.”

Ferns expands on this as he talks about his time on East Enders when,
at the height of the plot focusing on Trevor's abuse of Mo Slater as
played by Kacey Ainsworth he became the most hated man in Britain. How,
he's asked, does one deal with that sort of attention?

“I didn't deal with it very well at all,” he admits. “I was playing a
character who, first of all, was extremely well written, but it was
also going back into the past. We had a lot of domestic violence in our
house with my mum and dad, so it was very easy for me to access that
level of violence. Not necessarily physical violence, but psychological
violence, because I remember as a child there was always this
underlying fear, even if things were going quite well and my mum and
dad were talking to each other and it was all nice and cordial, there
was just this feeling that you knew it wasn't going to last long, and
that violence would inevitably come out.

“So playing this part in East Enders, I didn't know what it was going
to entail, and then realising the public's reaction to it, I wasn't
prepared for it psychologically, mentally or emotionally. I'd try to
shut it out, and would arrive on set and talk to people normally, but
inside I was getting very very cold. Kacey became a really good friend,
and really supported me. Thank god for Kacey, and thank god for my
wife, because I was able to talk to them about what was going on. I
couldn't speak to any of the other cast members or the producers. I
didn't want anyone else to know that I'd been through this, because I
didn't want to detract from the storyline, but I was basically playing
my life up there. It was a great character, but I couldn't have played
him for much longer. I still have this recurring dream that there's a
knock on the door and one of the Slaters opens it and there's Trevor
with a half-burnt face.”

Ferns is laughing when he says this, but all of this experience is
clearly being fed into The Hard Man. First produced at the Traverse
Theatre, this revival by the Scottish Theatre Consortium will be the
play's first major one for thirty years. Rather than leaning towards a
gritty realist telling of its story of one man's travails through
Glasgow gangland, McGrath and Boyle leaned towards a more playful
approach patented in McGrath's first play for the Traverse, Laurel and

It's very physically draining,” Ferns explains, “and I'm feeling every
one of my forty-two years. But going through it today, it might as well
have been written a week ago because of the relevance it has in terms
of political and social-economic lines. It's a play about the haves and
the have-nots. What's nice for me is that, of course, Jimmy Boyle looks
large over it, but the play is good enough to stand on it's own two

The play caused something of a sensation when the play originally
opened, largely because of Boyle's status as a graduate of HMP
Barlinnie's experimental and controversial Special Unit, where the
prison's most unruly prisoners were housed. It was here that Boyle
developed a burgeoning talent as a sculptor, becoming a cause celebre
even before his release.

Ferns hadn't heard of The Hard Man prior to being cast by director
Phillip Breen, largely due to a childhood spent in South Africa
following his family's move from their native Lennoxtown, bow best
known today as the home of Celtic's training ground, but then living in
the shadow of mental hospital, Lennox Castle. Ferns' electrician father
travelled the world a lot. Even in his absence, however, Ferns saw the
effects of a culture steeped in drink and violence first hand. His
response was to become the funny guy.

Ferns first stage experience was aged eight in a school production of A
Pilgrim's Progress. He was originally meant to play the triangle, but
when the lead infant actor fell ill, Ferns got the part. If he'd stayed
in Lennoxtown, he admits, he too could have gone down a violent road.
As it was, apartheid era South Africa exposed him to a more
institutional kind of violence. Ferns was conscripted into the army for
two years, after which he went off the rails, “trying to drink myself
into oblivion. Nothing made sense anymore, but acting became my outlet.
I got involved in drama groups, and then got into university to study

Ferns returned to Scotland in 1997 to try and work professionally. Only
when East Enders happened in 2001 did doors start to open. Whatever his
own background, Ferns isn't adopting a Method approach to his current

“I've done my research,” he says, “but I'm not immersing myself in the
life of Jimmy Boyle. I'm approaching it purely from a theatrical point
of view, and trying to get a grip of the comedy aspects of the play,
because it is very funny. But as a character, Joe is as hard as nails.
There's never any money and there's nothing to eat, and that brings
about certain things. But then when he gets into prison he has the
space to think about these things in a way he never had before. He
refers to himself as the animal, because if he was being treated like
an animal then he was going to act like one. He doesn't care what
happens to him. But my responsibility is to the play. I have my own
feelings about crime and justice, but I've had to put them to one side
while I do it.”

If this suggests Ferns is lightening up, recent roles in Little Shop of
Horrors and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None seem to confirm

“I'd like to play someone who doesn't resort to a knife or a chib to
sort things out,” Ferns says, “just to get off this route I've been on.
I'd just like to play someone nice.”

The Hard Man, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, March 31st-April 9th, then
Kings Theatre, Glasgow, April 12th-16th.


The Herald, March 29th 2011


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