This article was first published in Attitude issue 301, October 2018.
Words: Thomas Stichbury
We have just been presented with a vivid mental picture: dashing British actor Jonathan Bailey, wearing a thong, leaping around Ian McKellen. A sodden thong at that.
However, before we are able to let our imaginations run even a little bit wild, the leash is suddenly tightened and we’re brought crashing down to Earth, thanks to a single reality-summoning word: context.
It innocently transpires that the pair crossed paths last year, appearing together at Chichester Festival Theatre in Shakespeare’s King Lear. His role required Jonathan, or Jonny, as he prefers, to don skimpy undies (yes, we’re kicking ourselves that we somehow missed this performance).
“Basically, I had to run about in a thong in the rain. [Ian] would get soaked as well, so afterwards we’d warm up, have a cup of tea and a chat,” he smiles.
Best known for his turns in TV hits Broadchurch, where he played Olly Stevens, Crashing and W1A, Jonny made sure he didn’t let the opportunity to pick the brain of the acting legend go to waste.
“He was everything you could wish for and more, so brilliant,” he gushes. “After rehearsals, we’d order Deliveroo, sit on the picnic benches and put the world to right. He used to tell me, ‘Just live your life’, and he is very much someone who has.”
Attitude caught up with a regrettably fully dressed Jonny while he was taking a breather from rehearsals for a new production of Stephen Sondheim’s much-loved musical Company. After a brief interlude about our shared appreciation of the mini-succulents decorating the table we’re sitting at, the 30-year-old star fills us in on why the latest revival is so revolutionary.
Photography: Markus Bidaux
Tony award-winning director Marianne Elliott, who steered the recent Broadway transfer of Angels In America, and producer Chris Harper, have seriously shaken things up by flicking the gender switch.
Debuting in 1970, the original centred on a 35-year-old man, Bobby, with commitment issues, while the present-day re-do shifts the spotlight to Bobbie, played by Rosalie Craig, a woman struggling with the notion of settling down.
Ushering the comedy-drama into the 21st-century, Marianne also gives a neat nod to the LGBT+ rights movement by introducing its first same-sex couple.
Enter stage right Jonny as Jamie (formerly Amy), who is having doubts about tying the knot with Paul (Alex Gaumond) and gets to sing .Not Getting Married Today'.
“I got a call on my 30th birthday, asking: ‘How would you feel about playing Amy?’ and my instinct was 100 per cent,” he recalls.
While the play isn’t necessarily designed to spark debate about equal marriage — “The thing I really like about it is that there is no question of them not being accepted, Bobbie’s best friend just happens to be marrying a man” – Jonny stresses that the milestone certainly informs his performance.
“Gay men should be able to get married, it shouldn’t be seen as a privilege, absolutely we should,” he begins. “But the question of, ‘Just because we can, should we?’ is an interesting one.
“Suddenly you’re allowed to commit to someone and that is acknowledged by society in a way that it never had been before, when you had to fight your counter-culture.
Jonny as Jamie in 'Company', with co-star Alex Gaumond, who played Jamie's fiancé Paul
“The idea of being a part of the bigger thing, being accepted in a legal sense, and how that affects the way you feel about yourself when you’ve always been othered… that’s what I’m bringing to it,” he explains.
When it came to preparing for the part, Jonny, who grew up in Oxfordshire with three older sisters, said he buried himself in queer literature.
“I read books such as [former Attitude editor] Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket and The Velvet Rage [by Alan Downs], and also just thinking about my experiences and those of my friends, how they are and how they see themselves in gay culture, what we aspire to and where we want to be in our relationships.”
Jonny has found himself drawn to LGBT+ roles in the past and, earlier this year, earned rave reviews for his performance in Peter Gill’s The York Realist at London’s Donmar Theatre. The “very God’s Own Country” production saw him turn up the heat as a Londoner in love with a farmhand in Sixties Yorkshire.
Before that, he popped up in pal Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sitcom Crashing, as the womanising Sam who ends up falling for his very male flatmate Fred.
As for why he enjoys exploring the LGBT+ world, Jonny’s answer is simple: “I think it’s the most interesting at the moment, and if it’s done well and performed with understanding, these characters are the best.”
Our conversation then turns to the increasingly knotty subject of whether straight actors should tackle LGBT+ figures on stage or screen, following the controversial casting of comedian Jack Whitehall as Disney’s first-ever gay character in forthcoming theme park ride-turned-film The Jungle Cruise, opposite Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson and Emily Blunt.
“It’s hard. Actors should be able to play everything, that is the main joy of acting, exploring other experiences. However, I think Disney missed an opportunity to make a statement of inclusivity to say, ‘Our first openly gay role is played by an openly gay actor’, especially with their target audience,” says Jonny, who also appeared in an episode of Doctor Who in 2014.
Photography: Markus Bidaux
“Why not make that point, allow people to see gay actors playing gay roles,” he continues, “Am I the right person to talk about it? Maybe, maybe not, but I do chime into the argument, I do understand it, and again I do think that an opportunity has been missed because of how beneficial it would have been for so many people.”
Circling back to Company, also featuring American superstar Patti LuPone and former host of The Great British Bake Off Mel Giedroyc, Jonny isn’t concerned about this forward-thinking version putting off purists. Far from it.
“Well, if they’re not like, ‘What the fuck?’ then we’ve done something wrong. It’s going to be extraordinary because it’s taking something that is known and flipping it on its head. That original production will always exist. We’re not rewriting history, we’re just evolving and trying something new.”
Regardless, creator Sondheim has already given his stamp of approval and according to Marianne, reports Jonny, “loves it.” Not that his nerves aren’t jangling about the curtain rising at the Gielgud Theatre later this month.
Jonny confides that he has a strict set of superstitions and rituals that he has to run through before show time to avoid any Beyoncé-weave-trapped-in-a-wind machine-style disasters.
“They’re fucking nuts and get weirder throughout the run,” he says.
“Really OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] stuff, like having to flick my watch five times, and once when I was doing a play at The National I got to the point where I felt I had to take half a paracetamol before every entrance.
“Then there was the time where I’d say a Hail Mary. I did go to a Roman Catholic school, but that was pure anxiety. If I didn’t say it, I’d think something awful would happen,” he admits.
Poor Jonny, it turns out, is still haunted by a painful mishap that he witnessed as a wee lad starring in West End favourite Les Misérables.
Photography: Markus Bidaux
“I played Gavroche and I was watching one of the other Gavroches on the day of his dress rehearsal before he was due to go on stage that night. His sash got caught somehow, and he fell from the top of the makeshift barricade and broke his arm. Maybe that’s where the panic comes from,” he shudders.
Next to be seen flexing his muscles playing a CIA operative in Amazon Prime action thriller Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, it’s clear that Jonny’s star is on the rise. Heck, he already has a blog devoted to him, titled 'Fuck Yeah, Jonny Bailey'.
“I go on it all the time,” he grins, tongue firmly in cheek.
Not to mention a growing stable of over-zealous fans. “When I was 18 I played Jamie in [LGBT+ play] Beautiful Thing, taking over from Andrew Garfield, and I remember being sent some items of clothing and stuff,” he teases.
Like what, we ask. Turtlenecks?
“Yeah, we’ll say that… worn, soiled turtlenecks,” Jonny giggles.