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The Continuing Education of Fra Fee

With roles in queer dramas, West End shows and Zack Snyder’s ‘Rebel Moon’ sequel, Fra Fee is an actor in his prime who wants to experience it all. Here, he talks to Rolling Stone UK about his childhood in musical theatre, the pressure of working in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and being guided by a zest for learning.

By Will Richards

Fra Fee
Fra Fee (Picture: Dean Ryan McDaid)

Fra Fee is at his happiest when he’s learning. When we meet at an old haunt of his on south London’s Bermondsey Street, he’s preparing for the release of a big-budget Netflix space opera sequel while also rehearsing for a lead role in the Almeida’s production of King Lear. Still, he becomes most animated when the prospect of something new comes up, namely when giving out book recommendations or receiving them from me. He has the air of a man hungrily hoovering up knowledge and art from every direction. “My aim is to get through the whole Man Booker shortlist each year,” he smiles. “I’ve read some bangers this year!”

The voracity with which the Northern Irish actor consumes art in all its forms begins to explain why his career has seen him take on a wide range of roles across multiple disciplines, moods and formats. Across a 20-year career so far, Fee has been cast in shows in the West End, at theatres across Ireland and dipped his toe into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What sets him apart, though, despite these diverging paths, is a refusal to be pigeon-holed into one type of role.

“It’s about having the freedom to explore different things and different challenges, and I’m really, really happy to be able to do it,” the affable 36-year-old says over coffee in between waxing lyrical about the next wave of Irish fiction writers. “When I started, I chose to do musical theatre initially because I really loved singing and it felt like a good merger of the things that I love and the talents that I have.” After falling for “the proper stories that are really complex and require proper acting”, moving onto both the big and small screen felt like a suitable and exciting step. “In this industry, it’s very, very easy for people to be put into convenient boxes,” he says, before adding that “everyone’s multifaceted, and it’s just storytelling at the end of the day.”

Fra Fee
(Picture: Dean Ryan McDaid)

Fee’s story began when he played Kurt von Trapp in a school production of The Sound of Music at the age of 10 and was asked to submit a biography about his passions and aims. “What did they expect me to write?!” he laughs. “‘Hi, I’m Fra, and I love fish and chips?!’” Instead, he shared his truth at the time: “When I grow up, I want to be an actor.”

Fee credits the community theatre scene in Northern Ireland as being vital to his development at a young age. He grew up in Dungannon, a town in Co. Tyrone, where the theatre would pitch up with ample funding. This, the actor says, was an irreplaceable tool for young creatives when the central hub of Belfast “felt like a world away”.

“The local amateur stuff is taken really seriously and done really well,” he says, crediting the scene for both his ambition and the range of roles and moods he could inhabit from such a young age. “I remember the sets being extraordinary. For The Sound of Music, they had this actual waterfall for just the first song, and it was never used again! It was really, really impressive.” Following in his son’s footsteps is his father, Frank Fee, who is currently starring in a local production of The Ferryman with the Bardic Theatre Group. “They don’t shy away from proper stuff,” Fee says of the local scene’s ethos. “That love for literature and drama is really encouraged and built into your DNA. It’s a literary country.”

Despite this, Fee says he “couldn’t wait to get away” from Northern Ireland “for all sorts of obvious reasons.” Speaking to Attitude in 2022, Fee — who is openly gay — recalled having to write an essay about why homosexuality was a sin while he attended an all-boys Catholic school. Those early experiences sparked a desire to relocate which saw him move to Manchester to study music at university, followed by a post-grad in musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. This led him straight to his first full role — in a production of Dirty Dancing. As he recounts with a laugh, his status as a limitless all-rounder was baked in from the start.

From there, he took on roles in Les Misérables, Sam Mendes’ The Ferryman and Romeo & Juliet. He also took over from Eddie Redmayne as The Emcee in the West End adaptation of Cabaret. His big break on screen came with a part in Marvel TV show Hawkeye, in which he portrayed Kazimierz “Kazi” Kazimierczak. Next, he will take a prominent part in the sequel to Zack Snyder’s Netflix space epic Rebel Moon. “Saying no has been really important for me,” he explains of keeping his profile as an actor fluid. “It’s a really important part of the process if you want things to shift in some way.”

Fra Fee
(Picture: Dean Ryan McDaid)

In person, Fee is an affable conversationalist and keen storyteller. As we chat, he wistfully recalls living in Bermondsey’s convenient but uniquely secluded pocket of central London during the pandemic, and how he’d bring whichever book he was devouring at the time into the cafe we’re now sat in. After craving a quieter and more balanced lifestyle when away from the West End stage or Hollywood film sets, he now lives in rural Oxfordshire with his partner Declan Bennett.

With theatre work drying up during the pandemic, Fee — ever the learner — decided to use the downtime by undertaking Julia Cameron’s famous 12-week programme The Artist’s Way, to further hone his craft. One of the cornerstones of the programme is Morning Pages, an activity that asks you to write three pages of notes in a stream of consciousness as soon as you wake up each morning. The idea is to unclog the brain of conscious thought and leave more room for creativity. “I didn’t manage it this morning!” he laughs, but it’s become a routine that serves as “a form of prayer, meditation and gratitude” each day. “Whether it’s spiritual or magical, it’s like you’re picking up your armoury in order to set out to do something.”

In hindsight, Fee agrees he must have been “inadvertently manifesting” something for himself when he was unable to complete all 12 weeks of The Artist’s Way after getting the call to star in Hawkeye alongside Jeremy Renner, Hailee Steinfeld and Florence Pugh. The Marvel debut opened a new chapter in the actor’s career. “I was really keen to keep knocking on those big film and TV doors, and I was an MCU fan at that point,” he says. “I know there’s a lot of content there, but at that stage Hawkeye was one of the first of this next phase of TV shows in that universe. I never imagined myself being in them, I just imagined going to the cinema to see them.”

A comic book fan in his youth, Fee is aware of audience expectations of how a character they are intimately familiar with should be portrayed on screen, something he has also had to contend with in his roles in Les Mis, Romeo & Juliet and now King Lear. Like everything with his outlook on his creative life though, he intends to transcend these expectations and bend the characters into new shapes. “There’s not a pressure as such, because fundamentally you have to do what’s on the script,” he muses. “The fandom surrounding it is extraordinary, and you have to enjoy that side of it rather than feel pressure to meet some sort of expectation. You have to do what serves the story.”

Fra Fee
(Picture: Dean Ryan McDaid)

Back in big-budget blockbuster territory for Rebel Moon, Fee regales the film’s “old school, big storytelling on such a wonderfully epic scale with this extraordinary cast of misfits and outsiders that are all trying to find a purpose”. Fee plays the tyrant Balisarius, spending most of it in a big grey beard playing an older version of the character. “There’s a whole wealth of mystery and background as to where he’s come from, how he has found himself in this unbelievable position of power, and why he felt he deserves that escalation to higher influence.

“It was so cool, and something I felt everyone could get on board with,” he adds. “In Part One, you’re seeing your archetypal evil guy, but there’s a person behind that mask… or in this case behind that fake beard. He’s the elusive ‘man behind the curtain’ figure. People quiver when they hear his name, but he was a young person who grew up in a somewhat dispossessed society and fully believes he is entitled to and worthy of this position of power.”

Cast in the role as a younger man, Fee largely plays the older version of himself, while the story explores his “rise to power” through flashbacks. This origin story is set to be expanded upon in the film’s sequel — shot at the same time as the first film — which lands on Netflix in April. “There’s a really, really wonderful story to be told,” says Fee.

After existing within these parallel worlds of musical theatre and big-budget, glossy Hollywood productions, Fee is now set to stretch himself once again with a starring role in Lost Boys and Fairies, an upcoming queer BBC drama about a Cardiff-based gay couple’s journey to adoption. It will be the first time that he will lead a production as a gay character. The semi-autobiographical story of writer Daf James sees Andy (Fee) and his partner Gabriel (Sion Daniel Young) adopt three children, with Gabriel aiming to repair his relationship with his father while also moving towards becoming one himself. “Whenever [James] got the chance to submit something for the BBC writers’ room, he wanted to write about gay adoption, because it’s what he knows, and thankfully it got greenlit,” smiles Fee. “It’s just unbelievably beautiful.”

He continues, “[Having children is] something that particularly gay people have to really consider, because it’s not going to happen accidentally. You’re going to have to choose for it to happen, and it’s a really big choice.” Fee has thought about adoption himself, but “right now it’s certainly not on the table.” The role allowed him to “imaginatively” explore that outcome, and “go through all of the feelings that come with even thinking about inviting someone into your life that you have to be responsible for and nurture and love and guide through life. It was a really, really beautiful experience.”

To prepare for the role, Fee sought the advice of a handful of his gay friends who have adopted children. “It’s an incredible purpose to have in life, and such a selfless thing,” he says of parenthood. “I’m definitely open to it, but it’ll have to be a big surge inside of me to do it.” The show’s importance also stems from its celebratory nature. There’s one small scene of the lead characters experiencing homophobia, otherwise it’s “such a celebration” says Fee. “Their social worker loves them and puts them closer to the top of the list because they’re two really decent fellows, and they’re going to create a gorgeous home for whoever it is that’s invited into their life. It’s a very positive, happy representation because that’s what happened! That’s Daf’s experience. He and his partner are very, very happy dads to these kids. It’s wonderful.”

Fra Fee
(Picture: Dean Ryan McDaid)

Fee’s latest role is also representative of a larger shift in his self-confidence and what he wants to bring to his acting. “When I was younger, I used to always want to play parts as far away from myself as possible,” he reflects. “I hated acting in my own accent for a long, long time. Even when I was a kid and did youth opera, I adamantly refused to perform in my own accent. I couldn’t hear my own accent without cringing. I’m not really sure what that was about as a 15- or 16-year-old!” he laughs. “It’s actually really lovely to do something in your own voice and find these similar strands of character and actor.”

The same principle can apply to Fee’s queerness. While he doesn’t want this to lead to him being typecast in exclusively gay roles, he does wants to explore this more on screen. “There is a preference for playing oneself when it comes to sexuality,” he begins, “which of course I’m very happy to do, and there are certain instances when I feel you need an actor who has had the lived experience of that character, especially if that lived experience is a big part of the story.

“I wouldn’t want to only play that side of myself, aside from the fact that it’s only one significant but small-ish side to who I am,” he adds. “It goes back to my 15-year-old self that refused to do my own accent. There’s a reason why I’m doing this on an intuitive level, to have the joy and freedom of trying on different costumes and armour. It’s playing outside of my lived experience, because by doing that you get to discover other realities that create empathy with your fellow man.”

Bringing everything full circle, he smiles, before saying of the personal growth that comes with his craft: “It also helps you learn more. I’m curious about the different strands of potential that this job can provide,” he says. “There’s potential in reaching out and touching people in different ways. Hawkeye was the very first time that I’d done proper stunt fighting, and I realised I fucking loved it! I wasn’t bad at it either. I began to believe that in another life I would’ve been a boxer. It’s a real gift when a job can afford you the luxury of trying new things and finding new skills.”

As his rich and varied career continues to take him in many new directions — next up is Apple TV+’s conspiracy thriller Prime Target, where he’ll appear alongside One Day star Leo Woodall — the only prerequisite is that each role pushes him further towards understanding himself, others and the human condition. It’s all about chasing a feeling he first had as a child. “One of my first seminal moments that sparked and ignited something in me was when I was very, very young,” he says, leaning forwards in his chair for emphasis. His sister Claire was playing Mickey in a performance of Blood Brothers at her all-girls school, St Patrick’s in Dungannon, and Fee and his mother were going to collect her after rehearsals.

“My ma sent me in to stand at the back to let her know we were outside, and they were finishing the rehearsal with ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’. I’d never seen anything on stage before, ever, and I was completely transfixed,” he remembers, giving the same wide-eyed grin you can imagine the seven-year-old Fee had at the back of the school hall that day.

“I was hooked,” he says of the lightning bolt moment, which still powers him forwards to this day and informs the core of what he wants to be as an actor and a performer. “It gave me the aspiration of looking for a job that would give me that exact same feeling that I had that day. I was transfixed by the magic of a story, of an imagination, and everything I do — even now — is me trying to continually pursue that.”

Styling by Sacha Dance
Grooming by Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes Management

Taken from the April/May issue of Rolling Stone UK – you can buy it here now.