EXCLUSIVE: Jonny Labey on life after EastEnders

Jonny Labey first burst onto our screens just over a year ago as the lovable Paul Coker in BBC One soap EastEnders.

The curly-haired star was an instant hit with viewers, leaving most shocked when it was announced earlier this year that Paul was set to leave Albert Square over the summer.

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Wah.

However, when I caught up with Jonny last week to discuss his brand new play ‘Verge Of Strife’ I was seriously excited to hear about his new role, with the actor taking on the part of English poet Rupert Brooke, who became notorious in the early 1900s for his idealistic war sonnets and promiscuous behaviour.

Speaking exclusively about the role, Jonny explained: “The play is an introduction to someone that kind of fell of the radar a little bit. It looks at the pre-war attitude that the whole country had at the time, and that’s what Rupert Brooke encompasses.

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“It’s the glorification of war and it’s the reasons for going to war to fight. He also has poems about lust and love sonnets, he was really ahead of his time and there’s a lot of different themes to the play.

“He died very young, aged 27, and I don’t know whether he had peaked, there’s a lot to discuss from the play and it’s a huge importance.”

And doing research on a historical figure who was around before the Internet documented every detail of our lives wasn’t too much of a struggle for Jonny and the play’s crew, as he added: “There were no Twitter profiles to go on but he wrote countless letters.

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“He had 92 volumes at the Cambridge archives from just 27 years of living – you’d pretty much have to be writing 24/7 to achieve that. His character really comes out in the letters so the play’s writer was able to inject that into the play.

“He’s a bit of a difficult person really, he’s very complicated – a self-proclaimed genius but what the other characters bring out of him is that he had no realistic view on anything.

“He played around with sodomy and he liked male attention, so there is that side to him… But there are points in the play where he rejects homosexuals and says that he hates them. He thinks of himself as a bit of a celebrity, and he was.”

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After playing Paul Coker, who is gay, in EastEnders, Jonny acknowledged that as a straight actor he was again playing a character who was interested in men, but was quick to criticise anybody who thought that he would have a problem taking on the roles.

Speaking about his unique position within the gay community, Jonny told me that he hopes to challenge ignorant mindsets, sharing: “Rupert Brook had gay tendencies and it’s just a characteristic, it’s something that I’m playing. Most of my friends are gay, I don’t shy from it, I know what happens in that community.

“I’m very much included in it and I love the community, love is love, and I’m a massive supporter of that. If I can use my jobs to prove a point and get people to stop being so cold-minded about it then I will because it’s something that I find ridiculous that happens today.

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“Rupert Brooke has those relationships with men in a different way, in an old-fashioned way, people knew people were gay but it was like an underworld, it was a crime.

“There’s this one scene where he is describing the first time that he had sex with a man and he describes in in detail, in a really horrible way; he is having a mental breakdown because of this woman who rejected him and this gay guy comes to see him so he takes it out on him because he knows his power over him.

“So that’s a really interesting side of the play.”

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And with playing such a sexually promiscuous character there is always a risk of having to do a Daniel Radcliffe and getting totally nude on stage, something that Jonny says probably won’t happen in Verge Of Strife but he wouldn’t be opposed to in the future.

He explained: “Rupert Brooke was quite happily a naturist, we are discussing putting that in the play but I don’t think it will add anything. There’s definitely clothes being taken off but probably not full nudity, which is a sigh of relief for me!

“I wouldn’t care [about getting naked on stage], your body is your tool – and I’m sure my parents are going to see me do a lot worse in my career so I could get it out of the way, but it probably won’t happen.”

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Maybe next time, eh?

I also had to ask Jonny about his time on EastEnders – especially the holiday that he went on with his onscreen grandparents, Lin Blakley and Roger Sloman, who play Pam and Les Coker on the soap.

Speaking about their trip away, Jonny told me: “I honestly love those two with all my heart. Paul floated around other characters but Harry [Reid, who plays Ben Mitchell], Lin and Roger were the three.

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“Roger was turning 70 and I found out I had that week off work and that I had a load of Avios points left and I thought: ‘I’m just going to book a flight with them.’

“I had the most amazing holiday, it was beautiful, and to so nice to spend time with Roger and his family outside of work. It was perfect – exactly what I needed to finish the job, put a cap on it and move on to the next thing.

“I spent the whole holiday with all of Roger’s friends so I was the youngest by 30-40 years but that’s my type of people! I’m very old-fashioned so I was in my absolute element; drinking wine and going for meze.”

I have to admit, that sounds like my kind of holiday!

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