Amy Hoggart, Across the Atlantic
ABOVE: ED GAMBLE AND AMY HOGGART IN ALMOST ROYAL. PHOTO COURTESY OF BBC AMERICA.
For Amy Hoggart, comedic acting and writing wasn’t always part of her life plan. “I was trying to be a clinical psychologist for years,” she says with a laugh. “But I kept getting stuck in comedy.”
But Hoggart, who earned her undergraduate degree in English and later a master’s degree in psychology at Cambridge, slowly started making a name for herself in her native England for her wonderfully subtle yet sharp performances. As a student, Hoggart joined and toured with the world-recognized Cambridge Footlights sketch troupe (alumni include Hugh Laurie, John Oliver, and half of the Monty Python gang), which ended with well-received performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She returned to the Festival a year later; this time performing in original sketch shows as well as sold-out solo shows as the character Pattie Brewster, a naïve, feline-crazy girl, desperate for friends and with a penchant for writing self-help books in her free time. The character became so popular that BBC Radio 4 commissioned Hoggart’s talents to expand on Brewster for their online comedy platform.
Hoggart will now find fame on the other side of the Atlantic in BBC America’s first original-comedy program, Almost Royal. The show, which premiered on Saturday, stylishly satirizes the British Royal Family and America’s fascination with them. Hoggart plays the self-delusional Poppy Carlton—51st in line for the throne—who, along with her equally hapless brother Georgie (Ed Gamble), fulfills their father’s dying wish to visit and tour a country in which he loved—America. What ensues is a classic mix of wit, mockery, and blurred lines between the real and the scripted (a Peep Show-meets-Borat, if you will) with visits to a Beverly Hills-based plastic surgeon, a Texas dude ranch, and a hipster watering-hole in Brooklyn, among many others. “It’s a really lovely tension,” she says of playing Poppy. “I don’t want to say she’s ‘so complex’ because it makes me sound arrogant, like I got this mysteriously complex character. But I like her.”
DEVON IVIE: Where in the world are you right now?
AMY HOGGART: I’m in San Francisco on vacation. I was actually with two friends, but they left last night. So now I’ve got my last day on my own.
IVIE: When did you begin your foray into the comedy world, as both a writer and actor?
HOGGART: I always did drama when I was in school, high school, but I always got cast as the “goofy comic” part. When I was 18, everyone auditioned to be Alice in Wonderland, and I auditioned to be Humpty Dumpty. I got that part! Much to the humiliation of my boyfriend at the time. When I went to college [at Cambridge], I always wanted to join the comic society there, the Footlights, but I never had the confidence to. But right before I graduated I wrote a monologue for the audition for the final show, and weirdly, Ed Gamble, my costar in Almost Royal, was directing that show and he put me in it. And then that’s kind of how it got started. We toured the country [as the Footlights] and did the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and I got scouted there.
IVIE: How did you come up with the character of Pattie Brewster?
HOGGART: It actually started from this audition I did for the Footlights, where we had to write a sketch or monologue, and the character was called Weird Girl. So it was basically an early version of Pattie. It was funny, auditioning for this show as a weird social outcast. I guess I kept writing as her, and then people started saying, “You should put that content online.” So I shot some videos, uploaded them, and people seemed to like it. And then later, with a girl, we were running lots of comedy nights together, MCing it. The girl I was in a sketch group with did really good stand-up. And when we were MCing, she would just talk, and I was so shy on stage that I was just agreeing with whatever she said. She sent me off on this cliché stand-up course, and I still remember everything from it. So that’s how that happened.
IVIE: Now that you’re on television with BBC America and have done stage work as a comedy act, do you prefer performing with a live audience or on a closed set?
HOGGART: I think I prefer being on a set because it’s so much less risk. People should be laughing, so you don’t judge your success on whether you’re hearing laughter. I do love live performing, but I’m not a stand-up naturally, and I don’t like the lifestyle of working just in the evenings at clubs and stuff, not a natural gig-er. But there’s an amazing high of doing well on stage. I’ve had some terrible gigs, and I just stand there thinking, “I don’t know why I’m here, I never wanted this.” It’s horrible, but you learn from it, and then you tell people how badly it went. It’s kind of a camaraderie in the comedy community, people are kind of proud of how badly they go down sometimes, and it’s quite nice to join in with that. So there are perks to both.
IVIE: Your character in Almost Royal, Poppy, is quite the handful. How would you describe her?
HOGGART: Huge fun. Poppy originally was meant to be really mean and just an ice-queen. She’s now much softer than that, and I really like playing someone who’s so stupid and doesn’t realize it. She’s so stupid and silly, and thinks she’s so amazing, and it’s really fun throwing people off like that. Yet she’s still likeable—you can’t really hate her, because she has so many flaws. She can be real lovely.
IVIE: How did you prepare for the role as Poppy?
HOGGART: We did a lot of writing beforehand. We’d be in the writer’s room, and there are about five different contributors, and me and Ed, and we’d sit in a room and try jokes out, and me and Ed would talk in character a lot. We did so many of those sessions between each filming. Then we’d come up with stuff as we’d go along. I think the process of always talking in character and working on it for so long helped a lot.
IVIE: Do you have a favorite memory or story from filming the show?
HOGGART: I really loved performing at this bar in Nashville. My character thinks she’s an amazing singer, and she’s one of the worst singers ever, because I am. So she recorded this song because she wants to become a pop star. We were at this bar at Nashville—it was a “trailer park” scene bar on the main strip. It was a Saturday night, and everyone was out. I was wearing this nice lace dress, and Ed was wearing ridiculous clothes, and we did this gig that went so badly in the best way. Right before we went on stage, the director said, “Ask afterwards if the audience wants to hear the song again.” We performed the song, and everyone was quite nice after, but quite nervous. But then Ed was like, “Do you want to hear it again?” And everyone’s like, “No, thank you, that was fine!” But then we went through it again, and people started throwing stuff at us, and getting quite aggressive. They were all drunk. It was just a fun experience. We also shot a music video for it, which was one of the best experiences ever.
IVIE: I’m curious, was the show mostly scripted, or did you and Ed did a bit of improvisation between scenes?
HOGGART: I don’t know if this has really been done before—we would go to cities, and we had writers that would make jokes for where we currently were and talk about how our characters would feel about this and what we wanted out of it. Then we’d get a print-out on the way to the shooting location and it was a list of jokes of what we could do if we could fit them in. Sometimes we would fit in quite a lot of the jokes, and sometimes none at all. I’d say, like, 80 to 90 percent of it was improvised. We always knew that we could fall back on these jokes. The parts that I think make for the best TV are when you can tell it’s all improvised, because you never know how it’s going to go, or what the reactions are going to be like.
IVIE: Who are your favorite comedians?
HOGGART: Oh my god! I’m more influenced by characters than standups. I love strong, comic women, because it’s so hard and I have so much respect for anyone who can do it. I’m a big fan of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and people like that. I love The Pajama Men, and have been hugely influenced by the UK show Human Remains. I enjoy watching the female sketch show Smack the Pony regularly—’til the day I die.
ALMOST ROYAL AIRS SATURDAYS ON BBC AMERICA.