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“Go to a drama school audition knowing that you really want it” ALRA interviews Denise Gough

Denise Gough is one of ALRA's 2002 BA in acting degree graduates and a professional actress of critical acclaim. After winning the Olivier Award for Best Actress due to her stellar performance in People, Places and Things, Denise has indeed become a force to be reckoned with in the industry.

We recently had the opportunity to personally interview Denise and discuss her upcoming projects as well as her experiences in the acting industry.

Here's what she told us.

ALRA: Hello Denise, thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us! We are thrilled that you will be in the National Theatre's upcoming revival of Angels in America.

What is the most challenging aspect of this production for you and how will you prepare for it?

Denise Gough: Thank you! The show is going to be seven hours long, as it is divided into two parts, so rehearsing it will be quite full on. After doing a play last year that was more intense than anything that I’ve ever done before, I think Angels in America is not going to be as much of a challenge and I’m planning on just enjoying it!

In terms of what I will prepare for, I’m going to do some research into the Mormon church and valium addiction, I’ll read the play a couple more times and then I'll just show up as clean as I can on the first day.

ALRA: There were excellent reviews and, of course, your award for People, Places and Things over the course of last year.

Does recognition motivate you? And, can you tell us what else feeds your motivations to act?

DG: I like to be known as someone who does good work but I don’t know if you mean recognition or fame, and if it is fame then I have no interest in it and never have in terms of my career. I’m only motivated by good work and working with good people!

And as a result of the recognition I received for People, Places and Things I now have more options to do that than I did before so I am very grateful for that.

I would never suggest making your career about recognition in terms of fame, but instead becoming known as someone who does good work and doesn't compromise – that’s what I do, I strive for that.

denise gouch people

ALRA: We’re also so proud to see you support the 50:50 campaign for women equal opportunity. Could you share your feelings about the campaign and your role in it?

DG: I got involved very early on because I just wanted to sit in a room full of women and have a talk about our experiences. I find that identification is sort of the key to solution-based conversation and when you sit in a room full of women and talk about what it’s like as a woman in the industry, that’s a very powerful thing.

For example, at the very first meeting at the Soho Theatre a couple of years ago, I sat in a row of women who were all around my own age. We realised that in our industry only one of us is allowed to “exist in a job”, so we would probably never get to work with each other, because you very rarely see women of the same age and the same “type” together in a show or kind of allowed to be one in her 60s, one in her 50s, one in her 40s, etc, and then hundreds in her early 20s.

Denise Gough calls for wome

I think this campaign was about solidarity, it’s about saying that we can see what’s going on and we don’t agree with it. That’s a really powerful thing. My role in it is just to bring as much attention to the cause as I can, and I think that’s everybody’s role in it.

I think I am doing that and will try to bring it public because I have a public forum now, and there isn’t any point in having a public forum unless you use it to promote good stuff, otherwise you just promote yourself and that’s incredibly tedious. Just let your work promote you and then use your standing to promote things that might make a difference.

ALRA: Very inspiring, Denise! Regarding your part in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, as Natasha, at ALRA - we understand you had your hair cut for this. By doing that you showed determination and the ability to deliver beyond expectations.

What do you think a graduate drama student can do to stand out in an audition? And are there ways to show determination, a firm character and passion?

DG: Well, do the work! Show up prepared and don’t trample on anybody else to get the job. I hear a lot in young actors about 'across the competition' and I think that’s a horrible attitude. I think you need to go to the audition prepared – however that doesn’t necessarily mean knowing all the lines all the time, I just think you need to know what you are talking about and be direct-able, especially if you’re auditioning for a really good director.

If you go in rigid, you’re not going to get the job, so you have to be a collaborator. And also remember, you’re auditioning them as well – we sometimes forget to think and decide, 'do I want to work with that person too?’.

denise oliver award

For example, I became quite successful last year as a result of People Places and Things but I still auditioned for Angels in America, because it was important for both myself and Marianne [Angels in America’s director Marianna Elliot] to sit in a room together and find out whether I was up to the job and whether she was up to the job for me!

Sometimes the chemistry between you and a director is not going to be right and I have been in rehearsal rooms with people that the chemistry isn’t right with and it is hell and so I would rather not do the job. 

ALRA: There have been some interviews where you’ve mentioned that you've been rejected in so many horrible, awful ways and you’ve listed some of the feedback, for example, “not conventionally pretty enough” or “a bit scary”, which were all related to your appearance and not your skills.

What advice would you offer to graduates who might be getting this kind of feedback for the first time?

DG: Being quite scary is related to my skills. I think sometimes directors or producers don’t want an outspoken female or male who knows best of. In terms of advice, I feel you don’t want to work with people who are rejecting you for those reasons, in the first place.

I remember being rejected by Marianne years ago for a part that I knew I wasn’t right for and she went for Michele Terry who is a fantastic actress and exactly the right choice for that particular job. For this reason I didn’t harbour any hard feelings, though it can hurt a bit because I would have loved that job but when you lose out to somebody who is really fantastic, then that’s amazing.

But when you get rejected for not being pretty enough, I don’t want to work for somebody who judges me on that so actually it is a lucky escape. I would say pick yourself up and count yourself lucky for not having to work with some idiot that calls you that.

Denise Gough

ALRA: With regards to the upcoming show Guerrilla, set to air this year - is it easy to transition from stage to camera acting?

DG: I did Guerrilla with Daniel Mays, who is in my opinion one of the best actors this country, or any country, has ever seen. Daniel does a lot of theatre, as do I, which means he’s a listener.

Sometimes you work on camera alongside somebody who you realise is only acting with the camera and not with you. So I would say that the thing I’ve noticed most is how to retain all the best bits of theatre and take them to the camera, because a lot of people, and especially young actors, have never done theatre so they don’t listen in scenes on camera and they’re only interested in how they’re coming across.

If you apply the same principles to film and TV acting, it’s far better; you can talk and listen to the other person in the scene, which in turn makes the scene better. I just found that it was about sticking to what I believe acting is, and trying to ignore when you come up against people who don’t do that on camera.

ALRA: Do you have a preference?

DG: I would say to young actors coming out, do theatre! I think every actor coming out of drama school should have to do theatre for very little money before they’re ever allowed to have any sort of success in this industry because I think success at too young an age and in filming specifically can ruin an actor or an actress.

For me, theatre is all I ever wanted to do, but filming is a nice bonus. If the filming went away I would just work on stage for the rest of my life as that’s all I ever wanted, so I will always love theatre, that’s where my heart is.

ALRA: Now talking about drama schools and auditions, what are your top tips and advice?

DG: The main things are to be prepared, know what you’re talking about, don't suck up to people, be brave and don’t go for the typical or average kind of audition. I mean, I have heard that loads of people are doing People, Places and Things at their audition and I think that’s a dangerous move.

It was on so recently and so many people saw it that I think it’s going to become something where people get really sick of hearing it, so at the moment I think it should be left alone for a little bit.

Or, if you are going to do it, and if you’re a woman, choose to do one of Mark’s speeches, and if you’re a man choose to do one of the female speeches – just try to do something different with it, don’t do what everybody else is going out to do.

Denise addiction

But above everything, you have to talk from your heart, you have to really want it and believe me, if you don’t really, really want to be an actor or an actress don’t bother, because it’s really hard! For most of us it’s really hard, it takes a long time to learn the craft.

A drama school is one thing, but the industry is another, if you’re not prepared for years of rejection and being broke, don’t bother.

Go to a drama school audition knowing that you really want it. Also, I would say don’t do too many drama school auditions. I only auditioned for ALRA, I couldn’t afford any of the others because it’s really expensive. I would suggest focusing on three and doing them really, really well.

ALRA: And to anyone who is about to graduate from drama school, we all know it’s a challenging time as they are likely to face as many rejections as successes and many changes.

This is a universal experience of graduates of all courses. What do you think differentiates an acting career from other jobs?

DG: It’s not linear, so you could come out of drama school and get a job straight away, and that’d be brilliant and you would think “this is it, I’m set!” - but you’re not. It doesn’t go up incrementally, it goes up and then down, and then up and then really down and then really up and then even further down, and that’s the hardest thing. I found myself at 34, 'on the floor'.

Nobody would hire me, there was nothing for me and I had (what people consider and what I considered) a pretty healthy career before that – I worked pretty much straight away after coming out of drama school.


I didn’t do any money work but I was working in theatre which is all I ever wanted, but it can still all go away at your 30s. I think you have just got to focus on the whole craft of it, so that you will be around when you’re 70. After all, there’s no guarantee.

In drama school, for example, you’ll look at some of the students and think “they won’t work” or “they will work” – but you actually have no idea. You have no idea what people want and who’s going to be successful, so be nice to everybody, learn your stuff and don't wing it.

ALRA: When you were training at ALRA, were there classes you enjoyed more than others?

DG: A drama school is a place where you take what you need and leave the rest. It was a brilliant place for me to have three years of only having to focus on acting and I’ll be forever grateful that I got in there.

I received a scholarship, and I couldn’t have afforded to go anywhere else, so I am very grateful but I also don’t believe that teachers are gods – a lot of teachers gave me great things whereas a lot of teachers gave me not so great things. Which goes the same way in the industry, a lot of directors give you great things and a lot of directors give you things which aren't as good – but it’s your ability to deal with all of that, that’s what will get you through.

ALRA: And, if some classes were difficult are you now glad you learned it, looking back?

DG: Yes, I am glad that I was trained I do get letters now from people asking me to sponsor them through drama schools and it's suggested that they don’t work at the same time as they go to drama school.

Well, I worked at a bar, three or four nights a week because I had no choice, and I found it very unhelpful to be told that working will get in the way of my studies because working in bars and restaurants was the thing that kept me alive in my early days as an actress.

I am glad I went to a drama school but I am also glad I worked at a bar at the same time because I learnt how to pay for my own things.

ALRA: Just to finish off the interview, if you hadn’t been an actress – what other career do you think you might have tried?

DG: I would teach, but I don’t know what else I would have done because I left school at 15 and I don’t have any qualifications in anything other than being an actress. I don't think the saying that those who can't, teach, is true - on the contrary I think it's those who can that teach. So I would teach, or alternatively, something to do with psychology.

Thanks once again for taking the time to chat to us Denise and all the best for your upcoming projects. If you're an ALRA alumni and would like to share your story or current projects with us, please get in touch with us at alumni@alra.co.uk and a member of the team will be able to assist you.