Shaun Dooley: ‘We live in an age where you can’t just be a theatre actor’

Hari Dhillon, Finty Williams, Shaun Dooley and Sara Stewart in rehearsals for Dinner With Friends.

Hari Dhillon, Finty Williams, Shaun Dooley and Sara Stewart in rehearsals for Dinner With Friends. - Credit: Archant

A star of TV shows like Broadchurch and Ordinary Lies, the actor tells Alex Bellotti about his return to the stage in Dinner With Friends.

As an actor who tends to bring his work home with him, Shaun Dooley is aware that his family has to put up with a lot. In the last year alone on television, he has played a Special Branch MI5 operative in The Game, an abandoning husband in Ordinary Lies and, most dramatically, the murderer Rickie Gillespie in series two of Broadchurch. No wonder his wife is happy he has finally found a part as a happily-married man.

“It’s a bit of a holiday for her,” laughs Dooley, in reference to his role in the Park Theatre’s latest show, Dinner With Friends. A new staging of Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning American drama, the play sees steady couple Gabe (Dooley) and Karen (Sara Stewart) rocked when they find out their friends, Tom (Hari Dhillon) and Beth (Finty Williams), are splitting up. Divided by their opinions on the situation, it causes them to re-evaluate not just their relationship with their friends, but also with each other.

For Dooley, the play has proved revelatory. “Every two to three years I try to find a play that I can do, just so I can really get back in touch with the reason I wanted to become an actor,” he says. “And also with theatre, the longer you leave it the more it becomes scarier and scarier until the point where you think, ‘Right I’ll never go on stage again’. This play came along, and honestly it’s one of the best plays I’ve ever read.”

The reason for this, he continues, is the honest cadence of Margulies’ language. Unlike many playwrights, the dramatist is not afraid to depict the natural rhythms of dialogue.

“A lot of the time you get scripts and, say, if the word ‘together’ is repeated, people will automatically try to find a replacement for that word so it keeps a line fresh. Whereas Donald Margulies realises that in normal everyday speech you do repeat words, you go over things and say things differently, and he allows the characters to do that.”

For Dooley, getting into the mindset of Gabe has required drawing from both his current and past relationships, as well as from his experiences of friendship in recent years. As you get older and friendships become harder to maintain, the 41-year-old says, you begin to have “that feeling of just wanting to make the world stop for a little bit and live in this moment a bit longer” – a key theme throughout the play.

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For someone who clearly retains a deep love of theatre, why has he left it for so long? “Unfortunately and wrongly, because I’ve got a house, mortgage and four kids, there’s no way I could purely be a theatre actor. We live in an age now where, despite theatre entertaining millions of people and being one of our biggest and finest exports, as an actor it’s really difficult to make a yearly wage outside of the West End.

“So it’s more a case of paying the bills really. I’m lucky to be in the situation where every couple of years I can go and do something purely for my soul and passion’s sake.”

Nonetheless, he is appreciative of the television shows he’s recently appeared in. The second season of Broadchurch, for instance, was so hotly anticipated that he couldn’t even tell his wife about his character’s murderous fate. (“As it happened on telly, she moved away from me, saying, ‘I don’t really want to sit next to you right now’ and moved to the other side of the sofa.”)

“The projects I’ve been involved with have been brilliant, with some incredible writing,” he adds of his television work. “Broadchurch and Ordinary Lies were so well done, and The Game was fantastically well written. I’m just really privileged and lucky at the moment, so touch wood it continues – you never know.”

Dinner With Friends runs at the Park Theatre until November 28. Visit