Jack Lowden is making his West End debut as Olympic runner and missionary Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Oscar winner that has been adapted into a play by Mike Bartlett. That means Liddell has seen this year’s Olympic torch pass directly in front of the Gielgud Theatre and has the distinction of co-starring in an Olympics-themed play during an actual Olympics—albeit 88 years after the ceremony at which Liddell triumphed. Broadway.com caught up with the charming 22-year-old Scotsman to talk about life, art and sports in an interview conducted prior to the start of the 2012 London Games.
You’re playing an Olympic athlete who found fame and glory at the 1924 Paris games. How do you as an actor, not a sportsman, prepare for that?
Training! When I was preparing for the role, I ran every single day, whether it was a lot or a little, just to get myself into that place. Eric [Liddell] ran with his head back and his arms in a sort of windmill up to the sky, and I did think for myself, “I must look a big idiot doing this.” It was a very unorthodox way of running, but it worked.
Eric Liddell had a very particular and unusual view of his sporting prowess.
That’s right. I think he just believed in nature rather than nurture. He trained only two times a week and said he ran because he believed that he had been given the gift by God. He ran with his eyes toward the sky; that’s why he ran at night.
So, this role is keeping you fit?
I reckon I sprint a mile during the play. But when I did [the hit Scottish play] Black Watch, we faced great physical challenges and I had three weeks to pick everything up. On this, by comparison, we did the British Military Fitness physical regimen two or three times a week: We’d hit the park after rehearsals at about 6:00 PM and a guy would come out and shout at us for an hour. It was good fun but my God was it painful!
You’re Scottish, playing a Scotsman, and have a Scottish co-star, James McArdle in Ben Cross’ screen role as the English-Jewish athlete Harold Abrahams. Did you and James know each other?
No, and what’s weird is that we have the same agent and even live on the same street [in north London]. When we were making our way home at the beginning, it looked as if we were following each other [laughs]. When we first did the play at the Hampstead [an Off West End venue], we had an idea about running together to the theater but we sort of gave up. That’s not going to happen now that we’ve transferred into town; the Gielgud Theatre is just a shlep too far.
This production managed to put running at the center of the play, pushing the action into the auditorium.
What’s great is that we’ve moved from a small auditorium into one three times the size, and yet it still feels very inclusive, with us running into the audience and out again. That said, James and I aren’t part of the pre-show warm-up that the audience sees as they are taking their seats. The rest of the cast are out there 15 to 20 minutes before show time, and sometimes they run out of stretches so they start stretching their faces!
It must be amazing doing this play during an actual Olympics.
It is, and we’ve had a lot of athletes who’ve been in to see us already, like Mark Foster, the world swimming champion [and a BBC commentator]. Doing something like this play during an Olympics makes you feel part of it; this will never happen again in our lifetime, and Team GB are phenomenal.
On an entirely separate theatrical note, you did a lot of musicals when you were in school, including Buddy Holly in Buddy.
Yes, I had to learn to sing and play the guitar, and I played Benny Southstreet in Guys and Dolls. I do have a soft spot for all those classic American musicals; they fill me with wonderment. In my professional career, I’ve now done two huge, great plays, Black Watch and Chariots of Fire, but I still have a soft spot for playing Buddy Holly—even if I suspect my musical days are well and truly behind me.
Why is that?
My dancing: It’s horrific, though my singing’s not too bad. The truth is, I dance well with a drink in my hand [laughs].
Are you surprised that you became an actor?
Not really. I never read much when I was at school, and still to this day I want to be a footballer [soccer player]. That was my first love, my absolute dream. I think if I’d not discovered a love for acting, I probably would have pursued football. My dad used to work for the Bank of Scotland and my mom works for a café/art gallery in the Scottish borders, where I grew up, 25 miles south of Edinburgh. What’s interesting is that my brother and I were keen on sports as kids and he’s now a dancer and I’m putting costumes on and saying words. It’s refreshing and lovely for both of us not to be sitting all day on our backsides.
What do you think it will be like carrying on with Chariots of Fire once the actual Olympics have ended?
Some people have said it may feel a bit like putting on a Christmas show after Christmas, but I don’t think of it that way. This is a great story to tell whether the Olympics are on or not. It’s such an uplifting story—an old-fashioned, good story that has a nice ending—and it’s so unique the way the actors run around you. Being on after the Olympics might actually spur people on to come to the theater.
After all this activity, don’t you feel like doing a play where you get to sit down?
It’s about time I get to do a Chekhov and just speak long words [laughs]. But, you know, I’m at the very, very beginning of my career, so I can’t complain at all. I’m playing one of the greatest Scotsmen who ever lived; it’s a great way to start a career.