Interview: Hugh Ross (Counter-Measures)

Scottish actor Hugh Ross has played a wide variety of parts over the years, achieving acclaim for many of his stage roles. On screen, he appeared in Nightbreed as Narcisse (a role that has come to prominence again with the preparation of the Cabal Cut), as well as the big-screen version of Dorian Gray. He first brought his distinctive cadences to Big Finish for the Companion Chronicle Night’s Black Agents alongside Frazer Hines’ Jamie McCrimmon, and went on to star as the mysterious Sir Toby Kinsella in the well-received recent series Counter-Measures, a role he is returning to for the second box set, out next summer. He recently chatted with Paul Simpson about his work with Big Finish and Clive Barker…

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How did you become involved with Counter-Measures?

Everyone I know who has worked for Big Finish loves doing it. There’s always a good atmosphere. I got in touch with them and they asked me to do one of the Companion Chronicles. That went well and then I did something else [Industrial Evolution with Colin Baker and Maggie Stables]. [Producer] David [Richardson] said he had this idea for Counter-Measures and that was that.

According to the producers, a lot of the character they created came from the fact they’d cast you in the role…

It’s funny, I often tend to be cast in these kinds of parts, these controlling people, that I don’t recognise in myself at all. I find it quite hard listening to myself but I have listened to some of these, and they’ve created a lovely character which I really enjoy.

Were there surprises for you when you listened to it in terms of the way the material has been treated in post-production?

I think one of the miracles of Big Finish is the way it’s so different from radio where you’re all in the studio together. It’s extraordinary the way it’s edited together from all of us in the boxes, the way technology allows all these things to happen. It staggers and impresses me hugely.

What did you think of the character when you read the scripts?

It’s lovely playing somebody who’s not on the front foot all the time, if you know what I mean. There’s something going on underneath the whole time, and you’re never quite sure what he’s doing or planning. I think the character’s very nicely drawn: charming, yet quite lethal when he has to be.

The end of the second story, where Toby is just reciting numbers, is very scary… Were you surprised by any of what he did?

I’m a huge believer in instinct; in how when you read a script, your actor’s instinct suggests you do something. I remember doing a rehearsed reading of Murder in the Cathedral at the Donmar Warehouse with Douglas Hodge directing it: rehearse for two or three weeks, and break it down, but what you come back to in the end is probably what your instinct suggested in the first place.

Good writing is always easy to play: something in you suggests the way to play it, and if you’re a good actor then you probably play it the way it’s meant to be written.

The second one is particularly good: I think that’s particularly well-written.

There’s a Quatermass and ITC serials feel to Counter-Measures; did you watch those shows when they were on?

Yes, I watched Quatermass and was scared and excited by it. I thought they were great tales. When I was a boy, my big passion was Journey into Space: I can remember vividly retiring to my bedroom with the radio. I was completely into their world: it was fantastic stuff. I’ll have to listen to them again and see if they hold up. I can still hear Andrew Faulds, and David Jacobs, who’s still going strong.

You’ve done quite a bit of horror over the years…

I have. It’s very interesting at the moment: there’s a huge interest in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, which has suddenly become enormously culty, literally in the last year. A man called Russell Cherrington, who is head of media studies at Derby, has got together with Clive Barker and he’s found all this cut footage. The Cabal Cut is two hours and 40 minutes long and much more the kind of intention that Clive had.

It was an extraordinary thing: on the back of Hellraiser 20th Century Fox gave all this money to make this super-duper big film, but then they did the screenings in Hollywood, and on the back of those they changed it all. Clive’s actual vision was completely distorted by the final film. In fact they did what is called an enhancement shoot and changed the ending. In the original script I was decapitated, but they liked the character, and wanted him back in Nightbreed 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, so I lived to fight another day. But then of course it flopped.

They screened the new cut at a huge convention in New Jersey, and at FrightFest in Leicester Square. Look on Facebook at occupymidian. They’re absolutely amazingly enthusiastic, and because I couldn’t go one of the conventions, they got me to sign 100 photos which they took to market for me there. There are screenings of it all over the country during the autumn: Derby, Manchester, etc. I’ve been asked to go to a convention in Germany; it’s extraordinary.

Do you actually like sci-fi / horror stuff?

It’s not a passion of mine. I’m not a fanatic, or a big, big fan. But I enjoy it, yes.

It wouldn’t necessarily be something you would choose to go and see?

It depends on whether I read something that caught my imagination.

The project rather than the genre?

I think so, yes.

What do you look for when a script comes through to you, whether it’s something like Counter-Measures or a theatre play?

It’s always the writing, and whether you think it leaps off the page or not. And if you think you can bring something different to it.

I get offered an awful lot of parts like the head of MI6. I’ve recently been trying to do different things. We always like to try and not repeat the same sort of thing. Casting directors like to do that. “Oh it’s him, he can do that.” So I’m offered a lot of the same kind of things. I not long ago turned down a play because I thought, “I’ve played this part in other places I don’t think I want to do it again for quite some time.”  I thought I’d rather wait and see if something else interesting came along.

What’s been the most challenging role you’ve played?

Oh my god! I have to think about that. I love the classics. Shakespeare, obvious things like Malvolio.

Challenging and actually enjoyable are two very different things. The thing I’m most interested in doing at the moment are things that have more of me, where I don’t have anything to hide behind. Things that use what I have. I did a wonderful play called Pyrenees, by a Scottish writer, David Greig, about five years ago. I loved that, because I identified very much with the character. I found it very challenging because it was very like me. That’s very difficult to do.

The part in Nightbreed was “P L A Y” writ large. When you are playing, you should let your imagination let rip.

I have done a series for the Discovery Channel called Dark Matters, which is about various scientific discoveries. I played Benjamin Franklin. I found that very challenging a) because it was American and b) because I didn’t know very much about Benjamin Franklin. I had to transform myself physically quite a lot for it so that was challenging and nice.

You keep busy working on audio and radio, which you seem to enjoy…

I love it. Unfortunately my generation keep saying the people who used to employ us are retired. Big Finish is a great source of broadcast work nowadays. I enjoy it very much. Again that’s very much to do with instinct. You don’t have time to rehearse or anything. Actors are free then to be allowed to see where their imagination takes them in the radio studio. It often works really, really well instinctively, without too much analysis.

What are you hoping for from the second series of Counter-Measures?

I’m looking forward to more adventures, more of the same. It’s a very nice little group we’ve got.

Thanks to David Richardson for his help in setting up this interview.

Hugh Ross’s website can be found here

Hugh is currently appearing in A Life at the Finborough Theatre, London until 27 October.

Read our reviews of Counter-Measures starting here

Our other Counter-Measures interviews: script editor John Dorney;  and star Karen Gledhill.

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