Words: Tom Stitchbury; picture: Dean Ryan McDaid
Until last year, Ben Aldridge was a romantic lead who’d stolen the hearts of viewers across the UK and beyond with roles in Our Girl and the global phenomenon that is Fleabag. The winner of the TV Award at the 2021 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar, was also playing Batman’s father Thomas Wayne in the hit show Pennyworth.
The future looked bright. But something wasn’t sitting right with him…
On World Pride Day last June, he came out publicly. He tells the Attitude Awards issue, out now to download and to order globally; "I did an Instagram post that I’d spent the morning thinking about. It had been circulating in my brain for a very long time that I wanted to address it. It was a very simple way to just express who I am."
It hadn’t been an easy path to reach this place. His burgeoning success made it a particularly dangerous move for him career-wise, and some even advised against it. “I was told by some people that coming out would ruin things,” admits Aldridge, citing Rupert Everett, who once stated that coming out ruined his career. “I was very fearful. But I just got to a point where I needed to claim that for myself; it wasn’t so much about coming out as it was about claiming who I am and being honest about that.”
Ben wears suit and tank top by DSquared2, necklace Ben's own for the Attitude Awards issue. (Photography by Dean Ryan McDaid; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Grooming: Ross Kwan using Bumble & Bumble; Professional fashion assistant: Sacha Dance)
Fast-forward to 2021, and Aldridge’s career is going from strength to strength. This autumn, he will be seen in the role of Detective Inspector Matthew Venn in the quietly revolutionary ITV primetime crime drama The Long Call. It will feature a gay lead character, played by an actor who is gay (Aldridge), and directed by Lee Haven Jones, who is also gay.
“It feels important,” agrees Aldridge, “like a first. It has such mainstream appeal.” It’s for this reason that he was the obvious choice to receive the Attitude TV Award.
The experience of shooting the series was a revelation for Aldridge. “There was something very freeing for me as an actor to be directed by a gay man and to have other queer people on set. [Declan Bennett], who plays my husband, and Pearl Mackie, who plays the assistant detective, both identify as queer. There was something very refreshing about being in that environment – sets are often actually pretty hetero and macho. It feels really timely to be playing this role so soon after coming out. It’s a real moment of self-discovery for me. I felt I was able to connect emotionally with Matthew in a way that I haven’t as deeply with characters I’ve played before. This was taking the lid off Pandora’s box for me.”
The 35-year-old continues: "We filmed on World Pride Day this year, in June, in this beautiful cottage with the most incredible view out to the sea. Me and Declan, who plays my husband, were filming a kiss. Lee – the director – said, ‘This is so significant. This kiss happens in the first minute of the show.’ It’s ITV, and it’s mainstream, and it’s a married gay couple. And it was a gay director and two gay actors. It was something I never thought I would experience as an actor, so there’s a lot to celebrate.”
Ben wears suit and tank top by DSquared2. (Photography by Dean Ryan McDaid)
The story follows Venn’s return to the small religious community in Devon in which he grew up – accompanied by his husband Jonathan. “There’s this compelling and intricate murder case around a body that’s found on the beach,” details Aldridge, “and he’s there to solve that – but he’s also plunged into a more personal mystery about his own sexual and religious identity.”
Exiled from his hometown for 20 years after growing up in a super hard-line Christian community called the Barum Brethren, Venn was excommunicated when he declared he no longer believed, but also on the grounds of his sexuality. It is one of the crossovers between the character of Venn and Aldridge’s own life experience; his parents were both raised as Brethren Christians, becoming evangelical Christians after they met. Researching this role meant exploring his own family history.
“Both my grandfathers were elders in their churches. That kind of tension between Matthew and his community and whether they can reconcile is at the heart of the story. It’s so close to my experience, I didn’t have to look too far to find it.”
Whatever one’s faith, it’s hard not to believe that this role was somehow meant to be, that by finding the courage to come out publicly, Aldridge was granted this very special opportunity to really connect with and process his past through his art. By the time he came out to his parents, he was 26, and their religious beliefs were transforming into something that was more about faith.
Ben wears tank top by Boss and his own necklace (Photography: Dean Ryan McDaid)
“Over time, my parents were accepting. Perhaps it’s a commonality among queer people that although I wasn’t exiled or rejected, I definitely withdrew. I wasn’t honest with them about who I was. In terms of that, there’s some similarity with Matthew. He completely withdraws from his old life. I think I’ve experienced my own version of that.
“I’m working on it now, being honest about who I am with people from my past. But I still wouldn’t want to put myself in certain situations with people in my church that I grew up with because I don’t want to experience not being accepted. There’s some shared ground there between Matthew and me.”
Winning this year’s Attitude TV Award for The Long Call feels to Aldridge like the cumulation of a long process. “I remember being a teenager in the corner shop and my eyes being drawn to the cover of Attitude and stealing very quick glances at the covers and images, but never allowing myself to really look, not for long,” he says.
“I remember the feelings of intrigue and curiosity that they provoked in me – as well as the feelings of panic and confusion and shame. I couldn’t have envisaged a day where I might be able to reach for this magazine and read it, let alone be on the cover and be recognised for what I do and be proud of it. It feels very significant to me. It’s a real marker.”
Contrary to damaging him as an actor, it seems that Aldridge’s courageous honesty is only rewarding him. And this time, it’s on his terms. “I think that when you can move through the world truthfully, when you begin to shed a lifetime of shame, filtering and self-monitoring, when you can be authentic and at ease, then surely that shift in dynamic means that the universe aligns in new ways. You are living differently. You are living truthfully. I don’t think of it as a reward, I think of it more as a sum. It may be a pretentious quote, but ‘The truth will set you free.’ I really believe that.”
The Long Call is on ITV this autumn.
Read the full interview in the Attitude Awards issue, which is out now.