Some people know from an early age exactly what they want to be, so much so that you can’t help but marvel at (and slightly resent) their resolve. And there are others who discover a true talent by trying on a few different hats before finding the one that fits. Oscar Lloyd didn’t always want to be an actor. Aged 16 he was starting to take an interest in filmmaking; he was even flirting with the idea of going into law. As a kid there was football, “but I was useless at it, so I gave up on that,” he admits. Only when 18 did he decide to commit to acting.
Oscar’s been on our screens since he was 11 — appearing in shows like Emmerdale, Hotel Portofino, and alongside Olivia Coleman and Maxine Peak in Hancock & Joan. Being around the same age, I grew up watching him in the CBBC show 4 O’Clock Club, starring Doc Brown. “Oh wow, did you?” he says. “Yeah man, I loved that show.” I can tell he’s not embarrassed by his early roles; acting was always something fun and exciting for him growing up. “My mum wanted us to go to some sort of after school activity and so it kind of just became drama. And I just enjoyed it, really enjoyed it.”
Now 26, Oscar has landed his first role on the West End, playing young James Hopper in Stranger Things: The First Shadow, now playing at the Phoenix Theatre. He saw his first West End show at the Phoenix 15 years ago.
The show has received five-star plaudits since its opening night last December, not least for Lloyd’s performance. Not only has Oscar found new success on the stage but he’s found it inhabiting a beloved character in a universe important to so many fans. This would turn many people into a nervous jittering wreck, overcome with the fear of thousands of disappointed fans.
But the spotlight doesn’t seem to phase Oscar, chatting away to me with poise and ease, even while we conduct our interview in a side room that once used to be a men’s toilet. “I think with nerves there's always peaks and troughs.” He felt especially nervous during the first preview, “but you settle into doing it and you have to try not to overthink it too much. You'll just get in your own way if you think about the kind of vastness or magnitude of the thing itself. You basically have to treat every project the same and every character the same, no matter what it is or the scale of the thing.”
He breathes a sigh of relief remembering the adulation of opening night, “It's amazing, when you're in something it's really hard to separate yourself from it and look at it objectively, because you know it so intricately. So it's great to have the audience come in with fresh eyes and the fact that they like it? Well, that's why you do it.”
His early career has given him a certain wisdom that would otherwise come with age. Growing up, Oscar had a deep admiration of the greats of our generation, and his eyes light up when I ask him about his acting role models. “There's so many, but I guess, Philip Seymour Hoffman's a big one.”
It just so happens the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is my favourite actor… “Yeah he was amazing! I was born in ‘97, so I was very much obsessed with Heath Ledger too. I was 10 or 11 when I saw The Dark Knight in cinema and that kind of just like — blew my fucking mind.” Perhaps the most foundational performer of all was the late Robin Williams.
The actors he mentions, as well as being particularly tragic figures, were all incredibly versatile performers — able to capture the complex light and shade their roles required. This light and shade is part of what makes Stranger Things and the role of Jim Hopper so engaging to so many, “I think this light and shadow is an integral part of the play. A lot of the Henry Creel storyline is very dark and is quite deep and difficult and harrowing. And then I think that it's important for my character and Joyce and Bob to bring levity to it.”
Oscar’s turn as show fan favourite comes 20 years before the world of Hawkins turns upside down in 1959. For Oscar this meant playing someone both familiar to people but at a different stage of their life: absorbing the music of the era, particularly 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis to get a sense of James’ world. But it also meant understanding what that character would have been like at 18. It’s certainly no mean feat, especially when the baton is being passed to you by David Harbour. He admits: “I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't inspired by David in some way.”
Harbour did not, however, help create the character — that was all Oscar and writer Kate Trefry, “Obviously these were pre-existing characters from the TV show but I think in writing the younger versions of them Kate really wanted to kind of write for the actors as well.” During workshops Trefry was keen to get her actors to feel out their roles, through improvisation and finding new beats to develop the script, “It was a really kind of collaborative process,” he says gleefully.
Oscar didn’t meet Harbour until opening night. He reminisces with understandable nerves, “but he was great. He was really supportive and he was lovely and he kind of gave me his blessing. He said, ‘go off and make the thing your own and enjoy it and have fun with it.” It’s exactly what he wanted to hear, he confesses, “I was very relieved when he seemed to like it. He wasn’t like, ‘what the fuck did you do to my character?’ Yeah, that was great.”
The stage show, as with the Netflix original, relies on the wonderful chemistry of its cast and it was important for Oscar to build chemistry and trust between his fellow cast members, who he reveres highly, “it's usually something that either just happens or it doesn't, I think we just understand each other's rhythms”. In fact, it was this chemistry that clinched him the role.
“We've been very fortunate that it's happened to us. I remember there was one day Izzy [Pappas] and I had been cast, because they saw us do scenes together and then they brought Chris [Buckley] in and we did a scene with the three of us. All the producers came in to watch, and they were like, okay, this feels like this is our final audition now.”
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Just as I once watched Oscar on screen, a whole generation has grown up alongside the Netflix show’s young cast. This parallel isn’t lost on him. With it comes a responsibility to the characters and the audience. But what excites Oscar the most about the show is the ability to bring the theatre to a whole new demographic.
“I can't remember the stats exactly, our director told us when we were opening, but it was something like 50 or 60% of people buying tickets during previews were first-time theatre goers. That's an insane proportion. The fact that this is the first play half our audience has ever seen is such a privilege for me.”
I note that some people might view theatre as stuffy and outdated… “Yeah,” says Oscar. “This is probably partly the fault of the theatre that people don’t really think it's for them.”
He indicates the former toilet that’s hosting our interview. “Look at this place, look at where we’re talking. This is such an old medium, you have to make it new and exciting for audiences or people just aren’t going to come.”
Oscar Lloyd is certainly doing his part.
Stranger Things: The First Shadow is playing at the Phoenix Theatre. Get your tickets here