From van driver to Hollywood star

Rising young actor Reece Ritchie has just starred in Hollywood big Easter movie 10,000 BC and is currently working on a new film for Peter Jackson. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke caught up with him at his home in Lowestoft.

Andrew Clarke

Rising young actor Reece Ritchie has just starred in Hollywood big Easter movie 10,000 BC and is currently working on a new film for Peter Jackson. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke caught up with him at his home in Lowestoft.

Lowestoft actor Reece Ritchie has spent the last year travelling round the world - working alongside such star names as Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon and Mark Wahlberg as well taking a featured part in the new Hollywood prehistoric blockbuster 10,000 BC.

Now he is back down to earth again driving a van and making deliveries for his Mum's healthy eating firm Body Chef and working behind the bar at his dad's bar at Oulton Broad. “It helps pay the mortgage,” he laughs and says that working for his parents in between acting jobs helps to keep him grounded.

The 21 year old is happy though because there is a finite time on his odd-jobbing exploits because he has just received a summons to fly out to New Zealand in June to do some post-production work on his latest film The Lovely Bones which is being directed by Lord of the Rings supreme Peter Jackson.

“It's really quite unreal,” he says: “There are occasions when I do still pinch myself to see if it is really all happening to me.” Before then there is also some telly work in the pipeline. But he won't discuss titles just in case they don't come off but he does let slip that he had recently finished work on the latest Silent Witness drama.

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Shooting for 10,000 BC took the best part of a year to complete and saw him nearly freezing to death in New Zealand or being baked under the harsh desert sun in Africa.

He played the role of Moha, one of a tribe of hunter-gatherers, opposite leading man Steven Strait, as D'Leh and newcomer Camilla Bell as the love-interest Evolet. The film comes across as a cross between Mel Gibson's Apocalyto and Roland Emmerich's own Stargate.

It's a story of a group of hunter-gathers kidnapped by a raiding party of Goths who take them off across the mountains to Egypt to help the fledgling civilisation build the first pyramids - with the aid of mammoths.

The history doesn't maker sense but Reece said that Roland's intent was to make a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie rather than a serious study into the dawn of man.

“I was absolutely petrified when it came to shooting because it was such a huge scale movie but fortunately there were several UK guys who flew out with me who were in the same boat and we sort of befriended one another. I remember my first day's shooting and I was just blown by the scale of it all. We had all this fake snow being blown across the mountain side.

“I hadn't even been on TV, I hadn't ever said anything on camera and here I was in the middle of one of the biggest Hollywood movies ever.

“It was scary at first but very quickly being on camera became part of a strange normality. It became part of a real fun ride.”

He said what challenged him was reacting to things that weren't there. During the mammoth hunt they had white poles stuck in the ground to show them where the mammoths would be when the special effects department had finished their camera trickery.

“I was told to think it was real in my head and the camera would pick it up - my reactions would come across to the audience as real. I was taught in drama school, 'Make sure you are on the thought, if you're not on the thought then it will show on your face.'

“So I made sure that I really believed that the mammoths were there. I gave it my all. I also had some good actors around me so that helped. I learnt a lot from everyone around me.”

He said that the shoot lasted five months and a week - April 2 to September 9 2006 and they travelled from the south island of New Zealand, Cape Town and Namibia for the various scenes. In the film they go from a snow filled mountain valley, to a lush jungle populated by giant carnivorous birds to the desert sands of ancient Egypt.

“Some of the locations were so remote that we had to be flown in by helicopter because we were unable to reach them by road.”

It's all a long way from his days as a pupil at Benjamin Britten High School in Lowestoft. There he discovered a love of drama and was encouraged by an inspirational drama teacher Mrs Carnwell to apply to join The National Youth Theatre at 15. He said that this was a world away from his home life as both his parents had always been very business orientated.

“Since my dad stopped working on the rigs to spend more time with us, he has always been trying his hand to different businesses. Although I admire him, it wasn't something I wanted to get into myself. I was always drawn towards the arts. For me it was the unknown. I think that that crystallised for me in High School when I started doing plays after school and the drama teacher said that she had a leaflet about joining the National Youth Theatre and anyone interested should see her after class.

“Although they normally only let people in at 16, I passed the audition and was allowed to join the course in London at 15. I owe Mrs Carnwell so much because she was the one who encouraged me and said that drama or theatre was something that I should pursue.”

He said that the preliminary auditions were held in Norwich and he was so nervous that he couldn't eat anything for at least a day before hand. He said that the auditions comprised of a two minute Shakespeare speech, a two minute contemporary speech and a song. “This was the first time that I had ever auditioned, so I didn't really know what to do, what the format was or anything but somehow I managed to get through.”

He said that at around this time he was starting to appear in such challenging works as John Godber's Bouncers and Harold Pinter's two handed play The Dumb Waiter.

He said that out of the 4,000 people who applied to be a member of the National Youth Theatre places were only offered to 180 talented youngsters. “The stakes were quite high - particularly for someone like me who was never too sure of themselves. But I remember getting the letter saying I was in and I was just elated - I was beside myself.”

He said that the first course was a three week course during the summer holidays where they learnt basic theatrical skills. “It was a pretty intense time. We stayed in London at Tufnell Park halls of residence which were so archaic that they are now knocking them down. When I sat down, when I first got there, the chair collapsed, I went straight through and the carpet was wafer thin and worn through - but I didn't care, I loved every single second of it. It felt completely at home there because everyone was like me. I never been the football playing, sports man - acting and the theatre was always my escape and now I was surrounded with kindred spirits.”

He said that he continued to go back every year for the following four years and he rates those 12 weeks intensive theatrical education as some of the happiest experiences of his life. “It was the time when I found out who I was and what I wanted to do.”

After the courses were over he successfully auditioned for roles in National Youth Theatre productions of TS Elliot's Murder In The Cathedral, The Master of Marguerite, a UK tour of Dorothy.com (a Theatre In Education tour about internet awareness) and wrote and performed a monologue for a devised piece called Sell, Sell which was staged at the prestigious Soho Theatre.

It was while he was performing in Sell, Sell that Reece was spotted by a casting agent and approached for his role of Moha in the summer of 2005.

He said that dancing in public to a Michael Jackson record at a Lowestoft carnival when he was six really sowed the seeds of his performing career. “My Dad put my name forward, and I have never forgiven him it, but the DJ called me up to the stage and I had to dance in front of 300 people. I did the dance to Black or White, the Michael Jackson track, and when I finished I had this amazing buzz and I thought I need more of this.”

He said that for him acting is a never ending quest - a journey of self-discovery. “When I went to drama school I didn't find any answers to my over-riding question of: 'How do you act?' All I got was more questions. In that way I think I will always be a beginner because there is no one set way of doing anything.”

He said when it came to playing scenes there was no substitute for experience - the ability to draw on emotions and experiences that he could tap into and relive.

He said that although he admits he has had a blessed career so far, he says that he has also seized every opportunity that came his way. “When things come to fruition you are grateful, of course you are, but you have got to have had the foresight to have worked towards it in the first place.”

He said that he was back in Lowestoft attending to some drama school homework when he was contacted by the casting agent for 10,000 BC. “I picked the phone up and she said 'Hello, I am Leo Davis, I am casting for Roland Emmerich's new film I saw your monologue I would like to put you forward and I went saw her in Notting Hill about a week later. I auditioned on tape and that was the start of about four or five meetings.

“Then were a lot of emails going back and forth and I remember one saying that if we did cast you in the film, can you get away from drama school in order to start shooting at the required time. I told the odd white lie in order to audition because I knew I couldn't let this opportunity pass.”

He said that a couple of his teachers at East 15 drama school in Essex had been actors so they knew what it meant to have been offered such an important part, so early on in his career.

He said that his work on 10,000 BC which he described as a fun adventure contrasted sharply with work on his latest film The Lovely Bones which he shot with Peter Jackson. “That was a much more serious shoot, based on a much-loved book, so it meant that we had a responsibility to live up to the readers expectations. I read the book from cover to cover and back again. I really did feel that weight of responsibility.

“It also had a really heavyweight cast which meant that I had to give my best performance every time the camera rolled. I think we all felt that we had top do the book justice and it was more of a heads down - we're to do a job atmosphere than it was on 10,000 BC.” His co-stars include Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg and character actor Stanley Tucci - which for Reece was a real joy.

“He's a fabulous actor and it was great to see him work and then find yourself sitting next to him at lunch, dressed as you would have been in the 1970s, on set in a 1970s style shopping mall, eating a modern day burger for lunch. It was quite surreal.”

The Lovely Bones focuses on the afterlife observations of Susie Salmon, a teenager - played by Atonement's Saoirse Ronan - who watches life carry on for her grieving family, as well as for her serial killer murderer and her boyfriend Ray Singh.

“I played Ray. It's a great part because not only am I trying to come to terms with her death but at first I am suspected of her murder.”

He said bizarrely the process of casting for this film was a lot smoother than the drawn out negotiations for 10,000 BC. “My agent called me and said: 'I've got you a meeting for this movie.' I said: 'What is it?' and was told: 'It's the new Peter Jackson movie,' so I knew it wasn't going to be you average meeting. I was emailed one page of script and told to report to Twickenham Studios. I did a test on camera on the Tuesday and went home, was relatively pleased with it and by Friday I had a call saying: 'We would like to offer you the part.

“At first I thought it was someone having me on because it all seemed too quick. There was no call back, no discussion, it didn't seem real. On 10,000 BC the casting took four or five months. This was done and dusted in a week. I think Peter knew what he was looking for and luckily for me I fitted the bill.”

He said that he shot the movie for six week in Pennsylvania in the United States, finishing just before Christmas. He will fly to New Zealand in June to add a couple of visual effects scenes before the film is released later in the year.

He said that it is sometimes difficult to reconcile the two parts of his life. “In many ways Lowestoft is my real life. It's the place I always come back to - my family is here, my home is here and when an acting job comes in, it's rather like going off into a dream world for a couple of months. It's fun, I really enjoy it and it's important to me but at the end of the day. Lowestoft is where I come back to.”

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