Alfie Boe on Mr Selfridge and the “scary” world of screen acting

The opera singer tells about relating to his character Richard Chapman's struggles on the ITV period drama

What can you tell us about your character, Richard Chapman?


His background is he was this successful opera singer who fell on hard times, the work started to dry up a little bit and he went into doing music hall theatre – still performing, still singing but just on a different stage. He was once in the same operatic society as Lady Mae and I assume they were very fond of each other – it got to a point when the relationship became more friendly than intimate. He was also seen in the operatic society as more of a father figure who people could rely on and talk to and get some solace from and I think that’s what Lady Mae wants to do again when she comes back to meet him, apart from asking him to come and perform at Selfridges in a charity concert.

Can you relate to his struggles to make a living off singing?

You always have to be very aware of what’s happening and try and keep yourself trucking along. Getting to the place is one thing, staying there is another. It’s a fickle business and you’re flavour of the month one time and somebody else is right behind you. You just have to accept it and be strong with your own position and your own performance and how you are as an artist because everybody deserves to have a shot at this job.

Can you draw on personal experience?

There have been times in the past when I’ve been performing in La Boheme as a principal on the Broadway stage. I’d come back to my apartment and the refrigerator light was my bedside light to read a book, a cardboard box was my bedside table and I’d sleep on an air mattress and wake up at four o’clock every morning because it had deflated. Then once that show had finished I was out of work – there were no other musical theatre shows I could have gone into because I was still seen as an opera singer. So work started to dry up a little bit and I had six months of trekking the streets of New York without any work – I think I earned £800 in six months.

This is your first on-screen role – was it nerve-wracking stepping on set for the first time?

I’ve been acting for a while in roles in operas and, of course, Les Mis but it was very scary because I don’t know the world of screen acting. They’ve got a different language, different jargon and I was thinking, “What does that mean?” “What do I do now?” But I enjoyed it – I learned quickly and was welcomed warm-heartedly by the rest of the cast.

Any embarrassing moments?

There was one moment in the music hall – a scene where I was singing away and they had to drop the music. I had to mime to the song so the dialogue could be recorded. I got into the spontaneous mode I always get into when I’m performing live – I react to things I can hear at the drop of a hat so if somebody shouts something at me, I’ll react to it and that’s exactly what I did in the scene. I stopped singing and the actor came out with the line – “I’ve never seen you look so happy” – and I went “Cheers mate, thank you” and they said “CUT” and everybody burst out laughing.

Are you hoping to do more on-screen work from now on?

It’s been a direction I’ve wanted to head in for a long time – I’ve wanted to do straight theatre, straight acting because I’ve worked with a lot of directors in the opera world who demanded that from me. Doing Baz Luhmann’s Boheme – he was a genius when it came to minimalist acting. The expression on a face would grab the attention and focus of the audience more than a big gesture would and he brought that out in all of us.

You’ve spoken out before about wishing you’d bagged the role of Jean Valjean in the Les Misérables movie…

I really would have loved a shot at playing it on the big screen but I’m not a movie star. Obviously I’ve watched the movie and I thought I could have done it – obviously differently because I’m different from Hugh Jackman, we’re different performers. I didn’t fully get it what they were trying to do but I can’t take away from the performances in it. Hugh Jackman did a great job and he’s a credible musical theatre singer as well. They did the best job they could and that’s all you ask for.

Watch Alfie appear in Mr Selfridge on Sunday at 9:00pm on ITV