You may not imagine a star-making role to come out of a dramedy set in a psychiatric hospital in the mountains of New South Wales, Australia, with musical numbers, surrealism, and tap-dancing to boot. But this is where actor Rudi Dharmalingam truly shines in the role of the protagonist in ‘Wakefield’, delivering a beautifully nuanced and finely calibrated performance, both poignant and disturbing at the same time.
Already nominated for numerous awards, the series is a must-binge-watch and tells the stories of both staff and patients, with a gradual unraveling of characters on both sides. Rudi plays Nik, a compassionate nurse and stalwart presence in the ward, but with his own profound demons to face.
Born in Maidstone, Kent, in the UK, Rudi was primarily known as a talented theater actor, playing Guildenstern in Hamlet opposite Benedict Cumberbatch at The Barbican, and opposite James Corden on Broadway in The History Boys. But since filming ‘Wakefield’, he has gotten a taste for the screen and has two more TV series in the works.
We talked to Rudi at his home in London about how his table tennis prowess helped shape his thespian talents, the effect that this demanding role had on him personally, and how TV and movies can help shift the attitude towards opening up about our problems, and talking more openly about mental health.
Let’s talk about ‘Wakefield’ to get started. How did you get the role, considering it’s an Australian production?
I got the role just in the same sort of fashion as getting any role. But what was remarkable, what was really lovely actually, was when I received the audition request for a self-tape — because they’re all on self tape now — I received the series ‘bible’. This was a very substantial document, about maybe 40 or 50 pages long, which explored all of the characters in great detail and went over the themes and the issues that Kristen [Dunphy] and Sam [Meikle], the two showrunners and writers, were trying to explore in the show. It was such a vivid world that they’d painted and you couldn’t help but want to be part of that world. It was instant … and from a personal point of view, there were certain elements within the story that particularly resonated with me, that certainly struck a chord. But also the complexity of the story, the complexity of the character, was something that I just wanted to immerse myself in, really.
So, I did one tape, and then a few weeks later I did another tape — I think it may have been four or five by the end of it, over the course of two months. Then I got the call from my agent, and he said to me, “It’s terrible weather out there at the moment, isn’t it?” It was. It was very miserable, a very grey English day. I said, “Yeah, it is.” He said, “Well, I bet it’s nicer in Australia, isn’t it?” He said, “It’s yours.” I’d never felt that kind of elation getting any role before, actually.
How did you manage with your family? Your wife’s an actress and you have two kids. Did they come with you to Australia to shoot?
I flew out at the end of December 2019, beginning of January 2020. They flew out for a couple of weeks in February 2020 and stayed with me. By that time there was talk of a potentially lethal virus. Then we got shut down at the end of March and flew back to the UK. I flew back again to finish it in July. It was wonderful to finish it. But at one point it was very touch and go.
What was your research for playing Nik? Did you draw on any personal experience?
First of all, I had no experience of psychiatry, or medicine for that matter. My family come from a long line of nurses and medical personnel, if you like, but I personally have had no experience of that industry. I bought myself a psychiatry nursing handbook. I took it around with me and every now and again, I’d dig into that.
I think most of the work that you see on the show as a final product doesn’t come from the ‘bible’. Actually it comes from me as a person. How I like to work is, you can do as much research as you want to do, on anything. But I think instinctively, working from an instinctive perspective and an instinctive standpoint, is always what I go with.
I had some experience of trauma growing up, rather like Nik. All I’ll say is that I had some pretty bad devastating childhood trauma as a child, as a nine-year-old, and that’s hard to process. Like Nik, he had that as well and he buried it. In the same way that Nik applied himself with real aplomb to that world of tap dancing, probably to subconsciously mask what he went through, it gave him an avenue of concentration and focus, something that could occupy his mind and try to somehow heal the wounds that were very much there from that trauma. I applied myself in a very similar way.
Actually, I didn’t realize I did this, but it took me doing this job, looking at Nik’s journey, to actually realize that, oh my God, I see … that’s what I did too. Because when I suffered my trauma, I committed myself and my life to table tennis. To a sport, to an activity. I remember reading in the series ‘bible’ about Kristen saying the rhythm of tap dancing, the repetitive da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, was kind of hypnotic. That kind of rhythm was Nik’s avenue, I suppose, and table tennis was the same thing for me. It’s that da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. I played for 10 years competitively, and it’s only now I realize, ah, right. I know why I played it.
I very much worked from an instinctive basis, and used everything that I had, all the baggage that I had within me from my own life … there’s lots of parallels with my teenage life as well. I tried to use as much of that as possible.
Was there a particular scene that really resonated from filming?
Without giving too much away, but episode eight, the finale. I knew from day one how the show ended. I was always building up to that moment. However, I had so much on. Learning the [Australian] accent, I was pretty nervous about that. But I was actually more nervous about the tap dancing because I have no experience of professional dancing whatsoever. I had to learn to do a waltz. I had to then go on a pretty epic mental breakdown over the course of eight episodes. So I had a lot to think about. I could only take one day at a time and one scene at a time. People would say to me, “Oh, have you seen episode six or seven, or seen bits of episode eight?” I just tried to leave that to the last moment, and take it as I came. That final scene in episode eight, it was an accumulation, all into that one scene.
I remember going to sleep that night before and I was already getting into that energy. I was already getting into that space that I needed to get to, and I knew I’d have to wake up in the morning and be in that mode. I don’t want to say character because it sounds pretentious, but I had to be in character from the moment I woke up that morning. That scene was first up, and I asked for it to be first up because then I could just attack it with a fresh mind rather than be at the end of the day. Yeah, that scene was a cathartic process. Very much so. There were lots of scenes that were very cathartic and lots of scenes that reminded me of my own childhood. They were really difficult to film, but also hopefully the authenticity of those scenes comes through.
Because it was such an intense journey for you as an actor and as a man, how did you shake off that kind of heaviness, that intensity, when you went home?
When the family were there for the two weeks, they were there for a period during the shooting schedule whereby my character, Nik, was probably at his most stable and balanced. That was a wonderful time. I was actually enjoying my work. I wasn’t at that point where I was beginning to unravel. If they had come back any later than that, then I wouldn’t have been much joy because, in terms of shaking it off, I didn’t really want to. Certainly by when we went back to finish off the four episodes in July, August, September, I didn’t actually want to shake it off.
I had no time for anything other than the work. I didn’t want to switch off because actually the complexity of the character required me to go to places that I’d never been before as an actor.
When did you finish your last shoot for Wakefield as Nik? When did you say goodnight to him?
Beginning of September 2020. Just over a year ago. I remember speaking to my wife on the phone the night before in floods of tears. I didn’t want to let go of this. I didn’t want to let go of this world that we’d all created. I remember the final scene, the very final scene that we wrapped on. I don’t think I’ve ever cried like that. Even when I had my trauma as a child, I don’t think I’ve ever sobbed uncontrollably in that way, because it was such a hell of a journey for me.
We talk a lot about mental health on our site. Do think attitudes are shifting again?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m a big advocate of speaking up not just about men’s mental health, but mental health as a whole topic. It’s only recently that people are actually able to talk about it. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to have fears and it’s okay to have paranoia, and anxiety and depression. We all experience it at some point in our lives.
It’s just some people experience it to different degrees and different levels. I’ve been through it, I’ve had my own instabilities and my own fragilities. I know what helped me get back on that road and what tends to help me get back on that straight path, if you like, until the next juncture where you could fall off that way or this.
What helps me is focusing my mind on something. I’m always happiest when I’m working and when I’m committing my brain to something. I think the worst thing you can do if you struggle with your mental health is do nothing. Nowadays, it’s very easy to just do nothing and just look at your phone and just scroll through your social media.
I’m not on social media, partly due to the fact that it was affecting my mental health. I was using it in an unhealthy way, I suppose. I wanted to get rid of an addiction. And it was an addiction. I think we’re all addicted. You’re on Facebook or Twitter and you’re addicted to that like, or you’re addicted to that friend request. You’re addicted to that video that you posted and someone’s liked it or retweeted it. It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it? It’s very easy to just sort of sit there and just absentmindedly not do anything productive.
I’m a runner. I love to run. I did a marathon a couple of years ago. I’ve done a couple of half marathons. I like to play table tennis when I can. I’m a mad snooker player. Snooker was a big part of my childhood because I remember watching Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor in the 1985 final when I was four years old. 18 million people in the UK were watching it until half past 12 at night, and my mum let me stay up and watch it.
I love to commit my mind to something extraordinary, if you like. Once I’m working, everything is on the work. That’s where my tunnel vision is. That’s where my focus is. That’s where my health is.
I think whatever you do in life, whether it’s acting, whether you’re a musician, whether you’re a singer or not even in the arts. If you’re a mortgage advisor, whatever. I think if you enjoy your work, the happier you are.
Do you think film and TV can help the attitude shift, as far as mental health goes? Your show for sure is going to make people feel more willing and safe to actually share their problems or to talk to someone.
Absolutely. TV’s a really powerful medium, as is theater. Of course it is. I watched ‘Cowspiracy’ three years ago, the Netflix documentary on eating meat and the disadvantages of eating meat, and I immediately gave up meat. I’ve not touched a piece of meat since. The power of television is not to be underestimated.
Dramas like ‘Wakefield’, I can’t remember the last time that there was a primetime drama set in a psych ward. I don’t think that’s ever happened. I think that the more often that we can actually make it normal, the sooner we can normalize mental fragility, the happier we are all going to be, because actually we can talk about it.
The worst thing we can all do when people are suffering is not talk about it. Talk about it to a friend, talk about it to family members, anyone. Someone on the phone, someone you don’t know, a therapist. Everyone should have a therapist, in an ideal world.
My wife and I are also foster parents. We haven’t done it for a while, but we’ve had a few placements over the course of about four or five years. Part of the vetting process for that went on for about four days, where each of us sat down with an independent fostering assessor. And you just talk. You’re just allowed to just spend four or five days, all day, talking about everything in your life. That was so unbelievably therapeutic, because when do you ever get that opportunity to do that? That was essentially a five day therapy course for me. I had that opportunity to connect the dots in my life. I realized that the decisions I make now as an adult are because of events that happened to me as a child.
The importance of talking, it’s a miracle. If you can talk to someone, it’s a wonderful thing for your health.
How did you deal with lockdown over the past year and a half?
I was working on ‘Wakefield’ for about three months during the lockdown. Then I did a TV show called ‘Extinction’, which is going to be out on Sky One next year, sometime, which is eight-part drama. It was lovely traveling on the motorways at that time. Just clear, there was no traffic on the roads. Service stations were really empty. From a traffic point of view, it was wonderful!
But on a personal level, I coped with it really well, I’ve got to admit. I realized a lot about myself during the lockdowns, because I think a lot of people felt socially deprived, and rightly so. I felt like that at times as well, but I would say on a whole, I was probably at my most stable. I’m actually quiet at heart. I’m actually quite introverted. I actually really enjoy my own company. I like being on my own. I like being in my safe environment in my house, around my family, around my dogs. I didn’t have to go out and be social. Sometimes being sociable and interacting with the world, some people find that quite difficult and I’ve always found that quite difficult. This was like a rare opportunity, like a retreat with myself.
What made you want to be an actor?
A lot of the reasons why I wanted to become an actor came from my childhood. My dad was a disciplinarian. He was fiercely intelligent, fiercely bright. He taught me a really strong work ethic. No matter what you do with my life, commit to it, dedicate your life to it, work really, really hard. I’ve always taken that.
When I started playing table tennis, I wasn’t an academic really. I was very much focused on my table tennis for 10 years of my life, but I was never going to earn a living from that. Then I stumbled across drama when I was about 14, and all of a sudden it was the only subject I was getting A grades in. I thought, okay, this is really interesting. I’m really enjoying it. I got an A star in drama at GCSC, and I went on to do A level theater studies.
Table tennis has been such an influential part of my life for me as an actor, because my table tennis coach also taught me that work ethic. My dad said to me every day, “500 forehands, 500 backhands in front of a mirror at night before you go to bed.” Unfortunately my coach, Alan Woolven, is quite ill now. He’s got dementia and he’s in his mid-nineties. He was such a huge part of my life. He taught me commitment and dedication. If I didn’t play table tennis to the level I played, and if he wasn’t my coach, I don’t think I would be as dedicated with my acting as I am now.
Then I read a book called ‘An Actor Prepares’ by Stanislavski when I was about 16. It’s a famous system that teaches structure and discipline, it’s essentially a manual. I try to incorporate much of that into my work today. I love the intensity of acting. I’m actually genuinely interested in how far you can go as an artist to really blur that line between fiction and nonfiction, and what’s real and what isn’t.
Obviously we know it’s not real because we’re on a job and we’re surrounded by film cameras, but I’m interested in how you can imagine a story and conjure images in your brain. Those images stay with you and create a genuine emotional response. I still get emotional now when I think about Nik’s journey. I have all these images that are in my head from that, and because they’re so cemented within me, they’re so vivid. I find that genuinely really interesting, the psychology of acting.
Who are your acting heroes? Who comes to mind when you think of someone that you’d like to emulate as far as their dedication and immersion within a character?
It’s not very original, but Daniel Day-Lewis. I think everyone’s got their own way of working and that should always be respected. Some people regard him as a sort of a figment of mockery for someone that takes his work so seriously. But I think that’s part of the problem, certainly in the UK, not so much in America, that sometimes if you dedicate yourself to that extent, it can be seen as too much. That’s fine if that’s your opinion, but actually if that works for him, if that’s the way that he becomes the character, then let him do what he needs to do.
I’ve worked with lots of people who just turn it on. They can just do it at the flick of a switch, which is incredible and remarkable. But I can’t do that. I’ve never been able to do that. I have to be in that realm or that energy from the get-go and build it throughout the day. That’s just how I work.
In terms of my peers, Ben Whishaw. I would love to have his career because he’s quite understated and has a wonderful repertoire of characters at his disposal. He’s wonderfully versatile and does theater as well.
You’ve done a great deal of theater work. Do you have a preference between theater or TV or film? Or does it depend on where you are in your life?
Well, I think if you had asked me that maybe six years ago, I’d have certainly said unequivocally theater, definitely. That’s what I’ve been brought up with. That’s what I’ve been doing for 20 odd years. That’s been my bread and butter and I’ve had many, many enjoyable years on the London stage and the stages across the country.
However, now, I would firmly say that I enjoy the craft of screen acting much more than theater. You don’t get the adrenaline of 2000 people watching you create a story on stage. However, you do get to work on a much more intimate level. My best performances in the theater have been in small spaces. I love to work intimately and on a much more micro level.
Where would you like to be in five or 10 years time?
I don’t have any aspirations for being James Bond or Doctor Who or anything like that. I don’t think I’ve ever had those aspirations. What inspires me as an actor is just continuing to play characters who are complicated. If I read a script and it’s difficult, I immediately want to do it. If it’s out of my comfort zone, I immediately want to do it. If I read a script and go, “Oh yeah, okay. That’s fine. Yep. I can do that.” Or if it doesn’t have that immediate ignition of enthusiasm, then it’s hard for me to dedicate myself to it. To continue playing interesting, complex and difficult characters.
Are you very competitive, with table tennis and with yourself?
It’s a tricky one because with table tennis, or if you play any sport from a young age, you spend the rest of your life being quite a competitive person. As a teen, when I discovered drama, I was, “Yeah, I want to be the best actor ever,” because I wanted to be the best table tennis player ever. But with acting, I’ve been able to counteract that slightly because working in the theater, it’s very much an ensemble process. It’s very much about a teamwork ethic, which was is good for me.
Is there a question you’ve never been asked before but you’d like to answer?
I think that music has always been a big part of my life. I don’t think anyone’s ever spoken to me or asked me about musical influences, but I think my love for music predated my love for performing. I wasn’t brought up with theater. I didn’t have that epiphany moment where I went to the theater with my parents and I said, “Oh yes. I want to be an actor.” I didn’t have that at all. All of my heroes as a child were sporting heroes like Steve Davis, Stefan Edberg, Ian Wright, Linford Christie. And in terms of musical influences, there’ve been so many. I grew up in the nineties, during that whole Britpop and indie music era, so Kurt Cobain was a massive influence on me. Damon Albarn from Blur, Oasis. That whole movement was really inspiring. I think it was the last big coming together of people.
I’m trying to teach my kids about music to teach them that actually, this is what music used to be like. 250,000 people in a field went to see one band in the mid-nineties, and that’s not happened since. I try to educate them musically, as much as I possibly can.
I play a bit of guitar. I’ve got two guitars sitting in my lounge at the moment. I’m a bit of a purist as well. I bought a high-fi system a little while ago, so I have an old vinyl player and a CD player and an amp. My children very much enjoy putting on a record on a turntable. Most of their friends come over and they say, “What’s that?” I’m like, “It’s a record player.” “What’s a record player?”
Grooming by Rachel Singer Clark at The Only Agency
‘Wakefield’ is available to stream on Hulu.