English actor Charles Edwards has starred in roles from theatre to television’s Downton Abbey to the films Philomena and Batman Begins. He is in Australia playing Professor Higgins in the return season of My Fair Lady, which opens in Sydney on August 24. Edwards, 47, chats to Kate Waterhouse about working under Julie Andrews’ direction, funny moments with Downton fans, having dinner with Michael Palin, and his dream role.
Is this the first time you have visited Australia? I’ve visited once before, when I left school, did the backpacking and stayed in Melbourne. I think the longest time we stopped anywhere was Melbourne… [There] were about six of us crammed into a studio flat… We didn’t really see the country, we just went from place to place working. My partner’s parents have a flat in Balmain… so we have that connection with it.
What drew you to work here and do this play? They rang up and said that Julie Andrews was directing My Fair Lady and they needed a Professor Higgins. So I said, “Great”. I mean, the opportunity to work with her and be part of it because it’s very iconic … and the fact that she is directing it, it’s a big deal.
What has it been like to work with Julie Andrews? A lot of work has gone into it and she is the surviving DNA of the  production and … my God, she knows her stuff.
Has Julie given you any special advice? [She] remembered how Rex [Harrison] did things – not that she told us to do everything as was done then, but gave us a quite rigid structure of the recreation. We had the freedom to do our thing and that is very important to me because no one wants to go and see someone impersonate Rex Harrison or impersonate Julie Andrews, you want to see … a different performance, so that’s what we’ve achieved.
What is it like to play Professor Higgins? It’s really fun. It’s particularly fun because he causes so much outrage in the audience and you hear them gasping. He is very, very rude and very self-centred and very selfish – precocious child, effectively … I find it tempting to play parts like that … Then [he] changes… as does Eliza, and that’s the joy of the story: that the two opposites meet and then they change each other.
What drew you to a musical? They used to cast me in musicals at drama school, and then I did something where someone said, “Oh you can’t sing” … and it has always stuck with me… But to be part of something like this is mammoth.
How did you prepare for the role? Well, I had some singing lessons and that was sort of it, really … It was deciding how to mould the singing and the speaking together.
You have played so many roles. What would be your most recognisable role with fans? Without a doubt Downton Abbey, just because it’s so universally watched. And even though it’s finished, it’s still it’s the thing people still love.
Have you had any funny moments with Downton Abbey fans? I really noticed it in the States – I was in LA for a few months doing a play. In England, people are less effusive. You can see them looking at you, but they won’t say anything. But in the States, it’s very different. They’re just so effusive and they adore it, they’re obsessed with it. So all you get is a sort of fanaticism about it because they just think it’s the best thing ever.
Out of all the characters you’ve ever played, which has been your favourite? It’s so hard, that. I think at the moment I would say Higgins but that’s because I’m doing it at the moment. In two years’ time, I might say something else. But the things I’m most fond of: I played Michael Palin in a TV comedy film [Holy Flying Circus] about Monty Python and I loved that because he was a real person and I met him and he thought it was great, too. That was a high point, just having dinner with him. He came to see me in the play The King’s Speech purely by chance. He wanted to see the play because his father was a stammerer and he set up The Michael Palin Stammering Centre in London and it was something that was close to his heart … I was so excited.
Is there a character you would still love to play? The one I always say is in the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which is George, the husband. I’ve got probably another 10 years probably to do that effectively, but I do always say that part because it’s a wonderful play and it’s vicious and it’s funny and it’s tragic and all those things that I like to do. Comedy laced with darkness – I like that.
What is it like working on a stage play compared to a big Hollywood set? Movie sets can be very intimidating because it’s so big. [With theatre] you spend six weeks – or however long it is – rehearsing; you’re gently sort of eased into it. On the films, you’ve got to turn up, do your thing and go. So if you turn up and you don’t know anybody and you’re standing on a huge set, it’s nerve-wracking … In theatre you have the opportunity, obviously, to change things over the course of the long run. Both mediums are very satisfying, but you just need to shift your priorities in each.
What was it like working with Judi Dench and Naomi Watts? It’s really exciting … I just want to drink in what they have to offer in terms of their wisdom, experience and stories … I think in film and television, if you’re a big deal, you can often get treated slightly reverentially, and they often don’t like that because it makes them feel different from everybody else. And particularly these women are all stage-trained, and what they love is the company of other actors, and then they’ll just chat away, just as anyone does, and be indiscreet and rude and naughty because they love it, that’s what they love to do, they always love going back to the stage. And I think I probably have that in me as well.
Do you have any plans while you’re in Sydney? It will depend on the schedule. I’m realising, having done the show now for a few months, that it takes it out of you.
Is there any time for fun? Well, there is on a Sunday, and we do our Sunday matinee at 3 o’clock. Come 6.15, that’s the weekend, because we have Mondays off. So Sunday night there is always something planned and Monday is usually spent recovering.
What do you do in your time off? Right now, back in England, we’re doing renos [on our] very pretty little cottage very near Goodwood, down near [the] south coast … It’s my total passion. And my dog.
What’s next after My Fair Lady? When I get back in mid-October, I don’t know what’s next … I would be very happy to have the rest of the year free, but knowing that something is happening in January, that’s what I would be very happy with.
My Fair Lady opens at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, on August 24; tickets from $79.90, myfairladymusical.com.au.
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