Oliver Dench chatted about Hotel Portofino Season 2, Shakespearean acting and coming from an acting legacy including Dame Judi Dench.
There’s obviously a strong acting lineage in your family, great-aunt Judi Dench and grandfather Jeffrey Dench. Were you influenced by them to start your own journey in the industry?
Oliver Dench: I was. Thinking of being [in Honduras], when I was really young, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I had an idea that I was really interested in fish. I am mildly interested in fish, but I don’t think it developed into anything serious.
When I was in my teens, I started paying a lot more attention to my granddad and his career. He was doing his last few plays at the RSC. I remember going to see him in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the musical version that Greg Doran directed. It was amazing, very funny and very exciting.
I got much more interested in that. I started speaking with him a lot more about Shakespeare and acting. That was my segway away from marine biology, which is not a career I think I would have excelled at, into acting.
Did their classical theatre careers inspire you – did you want to pursue Shakespeare or that kind of route?
Oliver Dench: Yeah, completely. That was sort of all I wanted to do. I still am obsessed with Shakespeare. The first time as an adult, got myself a Kindle, downloading the complete works and read my way through it. It was amazing, one of the best things I’ve ever done.
I still adore Shakespeare and I would love to do more Shakespeare. I’m sure I will one day, but I’ve been spending a bit more time doing TV stuff lately, which has been fun too. The whole thing’s been explorative and a learning experience for me, in terms of career and what kind of jobs there are out there to do. I’ve been loving it, so far.
At the moment, you’re playing “Lucian” on period drama series Hotel Portofino, now in its second series – available on BritBox and ITV 1. How would you describe the show’s premise, for anyone who’s unfamiliar?
Oliver Dench: It’s set in the 1920s and is about an English family who moves to Portofino in Italy to start a hotel. A matriarchal figure at the helm, Bella, who’s played by Natascha (McElhone), who’s a wonderful, wonderful actor.
It’s about her dealing with the intricacies of local Italian politics and everything she needs to do to set up a hotel while trying to wrangle her family. Her son – me – and her daughter, and her husband, who is particularly in need of wrangling. Trying to make sure they don’t get themselves into any trouble.
It’s fun – a very, very beautiful, very nice watch for the Winter.
How much did you know about the 1920s? Did you have to immerse yourself in that time period?
Oliver Dench: Yeah, I had to do quite a lot of research. I remembered what I learned in school – post-War and things, but the post-War period seemed to be quite specific to the country that you were talking about.
I remember studying the Weimar Republic and learning about Germany and post-war Britain, did not know that much about Italy. Knew the name Mussolini and that something vaguely terrible had happened there. Beyond that, not a whole lot.
We spent a lot of time learning about the political and social sphere in Italy at the time.
Also, for me, my character is a painter. I was really interested in the art that was happening at the time. What the directors, writers and producers wanted my character’s art to be like, nt that they let me paint for myself, which I was really upset about – I was desperate to do so.
I was interested in what kind of art movements would have been happening in Italy at the time. Doing same crazy modern stuff, really remarkable, socially invigorating stuff.
Then, what that would have been like for my character – an Englishman who would have not been part of those movements. What he was interested in, the kind of paintings that he wanted to do. Coming over to Italy and being more exposed to a different world of art.
I found that exciting, I found the idea that in the ’20s, without the advent of Google and the Internet, he wouldn’t have been exposed to different art styles and different paintings. Unless he went to go and see them. The stuff he would have been exposed to in England and the UK, pre-War, would have been radically different from the stuff he saw in Italy.
Then, him going to Italy and it being the birthplace of the Renaissance. Being able to see the old masters, go to Florence and everywhere else would’ve been a great experience for him.
Can you relate to Lucian at all, or are you very different from the character?
Oliver Dench: Yeah, I can relate to him. I feel as though it’s important for an actor to be able to relate to their character in some way. I know lots of people talk about never passing judgment on a character. Personally, I think it’s important to pass judgment, in a way. You have to know what you’re trying to express.
If your character has negative qualities, it’s important to understand and know you’re trying to express them. At the same time, it’s important to try and relate as best you can – understand where those negative qualities come from, so you can play them as realistically as possible.
There’s lots of things about Lucian that I relate to – lots of things I’ve really enjoyed languishing in. He’s obsessed with beauty and life. He finds those things distracting from his mental health issues and I think that’s a great thing to be talking about.
Another thing that interested me in the show is how those issues would have been dealt with in the 1920s vs now in the 2020s. There’s lots of things about the way he relates to the world in his own mind that I can really relate to.
What did you find different between Series 1 and returning for Series 2?
Oliver Dench: For me, it’s amazing. It’s a different experience. At the beginning of Season 1, there’s a different type of collaboration where we’re all getting together to look at the scripts that our wonderful writer has written. Work with our wonderful director, work with the rest of the cast – all really try and work out who these characters are, together.
Then that goes through the editor and post-production… producers give notes. It’s a wonderful collaboration to make a character. An actor is only one part of that.
I think once the actor – this is something I find useful, I’m sure this would not be the same for everyone – once I’m able to see it, it’s a process of how the script really comes together.
That’s how the editor’s really seen it, the director… we’re focusing on these aspects of the character that I may have not understood that well while we were shooting.
You don’t always have the full picture of a collaboration of dozens of artists who are doing wonderful work. Once you see it, you understand your place in the story and how this character’s being told. Then, you can go into Season 2 understanding what we’re all going for.
What do you most enjoy about Matt Baker’s writing on Hotel Portofino?
Oliver Dench: For me, I enjoy… there’s a lot of nuance in the writing. Especially in Season 1 and the storylines, even in Season 2 as well, when the storylines become more varied and dramatic. I guess there’s something about the 20s – there’s always this mask of politeness in the way people are speaking and dancing around what they really mean, possibly.
It means you can come to a scene and it’s not always immediate what the subtext is. There’s nuance in that writing and that’s a real gift to an actor to play with. I think that’s the case with any script, really.
Are there any other upcoming projects that people can expect?
Oliver Dench: I’ve been writing a lot, with a friend of mine. Specifically, we’ve been working on a kids’ TV show. It’s in the early stages of production, which I’m thrilled about. I love kids’ TV, I think you can tell amazing stories when you’re not patronising or talking down to children.
We all remember the shows we watched as children so vividly. We watched them over and over again. They’re important. I’m excited about that, but it’s in the very early stages of development. So, I’ll tell you when something exciting happens…
Apart from that, I just finished this play in France and now I’m relaxing.