An interview with…Shaun Williamson

While he is better known to the British public as Barry from EastEnders, actor Shaun Williamson has had an exciting and varied career outside of Albert Square.

Shaun played Barry Evans in EastEnders for 9 years. Over the years Barry managed a car business, got arrested, got married, got cheated on, lost his wife and son, dealt with his dads death, had a nervous breakdown, got conned, got married again and met an untimely end at the hands of his second wife, Janine. It was this role that thrust him into the limelight and endeared him to the British public.

Shaun then teamed up with comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and stared alongside them in the hit sitcom Extras. Shaun played himself in the show as an assistant to Stephen Merchant’s character Darren Lamb. Although Shaun played himself, he couldn’t step out of the shadow of his previous role, and was constantly referred to throughout the two series’ as ‘Barry from EastEnders’.

While he is best known as an actor, Shaun is a passionate and enthusiastic singer, appearing in ITV’s Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes and regularly performing cabaret with a 10-piece band. Because of his love for music he has made the transition into theatre work, performing in the West End and on nationwide tours of various shows.

To add to all of his aforementioned talents, Shaun is also an accomplished stand-up comedian, television presenter and after dinner speaker. All these things go to show that there is more to Shaun than just ‘Barry from EastEnders’.

I spoke to Shaun and he was happy to answer my questions:

How did you get into acting?

I never acted when I was younger, and I never acted when I was in school. What happened was I went to a local amateur dramatic group when I was 26, and I went down because I’d heard there were always loads of single women down there. I met my wife there! Then I carried on in amateur dramatics and I think I was quite good. So I applied for drama school in 1990. I applied for Webber Douglas, Central and Rada and they all said no. So a year later I was working at a supermarket as a trainee manager, and I thought I’d have one more go at drama school, and if they say no, I’ll settle down and be a supermarket manager. And finally in 1991 Webber Douglas academy took me on.

How did you end up working in EastEnders?

I trained for three years until I was 30. I left there in 1994 and got an agent who thought I had potential, and I got into EastEnders in November 1994 only six months after I left drama school.

 What was it like working in one of Britain’s best loved soaps?

Well it wasn’t like I joined and Barry was a big character. I joined and I was in one episode, then I was in another two, and then I was in about four, and I just sort of dripped in very slowly. You know how some people get signed up and you just know the producers have got big plans for them and there’s a big fuss about them; “oh look, it’s a new member of the Mitchell family” and their pictures are in all the papers, well it wasn’t like that for me. I just dripped in so slowly that by the time I got my first decent contract in 1997 I’d already been in it a few years.

What made you decide to leave EastEnders after being in it for close to a decade?

Well, I like doing other things like singing, and I like freedom. I’m a bit of a rebel really, I don’t like people telling me what to do, and of course when you work somewhere like EastEnders they have total control over you. It’s fair enough, but then they stopped me singing and in the end I wasn’t enjoying it, so I just decided to leave and have a look for some other work. So they said “well we’re just going to have to kill you off, but we’ve got some great stuff for you”, and sure enough, the last nine months there was the best work I ever did really.

It was a good ending, wasn’t it!

Yeah, there was all that stuff were Roy died, Barry had a nervous breakdown and kicked Pat out of the house, then Janine weaselled her way into his life. And that was all great fun to play, so by the time I left, I didn’t want to really!

Moving on in your career, how did you meet up with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and start working on Extras?

Well that was just total luck because I’d seen The Office and I love The Office. One day I got a phone call out of the blue from Ricky Gervais. I thought it was a wind up, one of these prank phone calls! But he said “do you want to be in my show” and I said I’d love to, so he said “come meet me and Stephen in London”. Well I was in Saturday Night Fever at the time in the West End, so I went to meet them, and they just told me all about it and their vision. They said they had Kate Winslet lined up and Patrick Stewart, and it was all very exciting so I said I’d love to be in it!

Was it as funny filming it as it was to watch it?

Yeah! Well, Ricky and Stephen are more serious at work then they are when you see them in interviews or on telly. There’s still loads of work but a lot of laughter. And Ricky just laughs. If he thinks something’s funny half way through a take he’ll just laugh and you’d have to do they take again. I think his record was doing a scene with Patrick Stuart and they had to do it about 20 times just because Ricky wouldn’t stop laughing.
I was in two scenes in the first series, that’s all it was, and I thought that was fun. But when the scripts for the second series got put out I was in every one, like the one with David Bowie. It was fantastic.

In the show they kept referring to you as ‘Barry from EastEnders’, do you think you’ll ever lose that title?

Well I won’t as long as I keep working with them! Actually I’m doing something with them this summer. They’ve got a new series about Warwick Davis called Life’s Too Short. I’m going to be appearing in that. But yeah it’s such great fun. I mean, all the time I’m doing work like that with people like that I don’t mind the ‘Barry’ tag It’s one of the reasons I get other work, so I don’t mind. I sing at holiday camps all through the summer, and I sang twice last week, so there’s no point getting too miserable about being typecast because it makes you a living.

So Barry has done you proud?

Yeah, yeah. Sometimes it gets annoying, but I’ve just got to think the reason why I’m still working and earning is because of EastEnders, it’s just the way it is.

Do you have any advice for people wanting to get into acting?

Two things, one of them is a cliché but it’s true: get yourself in a profession, train as a plumber, train as an electrician, then as soon as you’re qualified go and be an actor. Because if all the employers turn you down then you’ve got something to fall back on. The second thing is to try and get ahead. Save up or try and get a grant, because if you go to one of these London drama schools you will be better equipped. You need an agent, and you’re not going to get an agent unless they can come and see you in a show. They’re not going to come to, say, Peterborough or Exeter because they don’t have to. They’re very lazy; they don’t have to leave London! So really you need to be in a show in London to be able to get an agent. It’s a bit of a catch twenty-two really. Another thing you could do is get with a group of friends, save hard, and rent one of these really good pub-theatres in London, there’s quite a few of them. Rent one of those places, put a show on and invite all he London agents to that.

Thanks very much.

Thanks Josh.

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One thought on “An interview with…Shaun Williamson

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