London Biker - May 2003
UPCLOSE AND PERSONAL
Jeremyís running late, but my attention is elsewhere - Iím waiting for him in his club in Londonís Soho, nursing a drink as I strain to listen to the conversation from the table next to me. I donít ordinary engage in this sort of behaviour, but then itís not everyday that Chris Evans is the man talking, especially given that heís in the midst of a high profile court battle and heís on the next table.
Just as Iím on the verge of picking up on something that would enthral the popbitch community, Jeremy wanders in, smiling. Heís laid back, unshaven but casually dressed, his crash helmet in one hand as he extends the other to me. "Youíll have to excuse me, Iíve got a dreadful cold", he offers. He sits down, and a waitress wanders over to take our orders. "To be honest", he says to me when sheís gone, "itís nice to have a bit of time to relax, filming schedules are so punishing with Holby, itís not unusual to haveten days back to back of non stop work".
By the time you read this, itíll be no secret, but his Holby City character, Dr Alex Adams has been diagnosed with early onset Parkinsonís and heís on his way out. Again. "God, I know, but honestly, I think this time thatís it".
Jeremy has played Alex for almost three years although he hadnít even heard of the show when he auditioned for it. "I don't really watch television," he says, sounding slightly sheepish. "I'd heard it was a spin-off of Casualty, which I had heard of, and I was like, well I don't know. I was just worried I wouldn't like the people or the work, and then I'd be stuck. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected, but I think the time has come to move on now."
It isnít difficult to see why Sheffield was cast as Alex Adams, the show's sexy cardiothoracic senior registrar, although his unusual background means that he was able to bring far more to the role than his looks. After all, there are not too many other television stars amongst the usual soap suspects who can claim to have danced with Rudolf Nureyev, partnered Sylvie Guillem at the Royal Ballet and acted at the RSC alongside Joseph Fiennes. But then Jeremy Sheffield is not your average jobbing actor. He grew up in rural Essex in the village of Coggeshall, just outside Colchester. His dad was a businessman, his mum a teacher and he describes his parents as "artistic, educated and openminded", his upbringing as "very regular, very middle class" and his hometown as "beautiful, if a bit twee".
His first ambition was to be a dancer, led onto that path by his sweetheart at the time. He was five. "My little girlfriend was going to ballet and I wanted to go wherever she was. I enjoyed it for a while, but then, as children do, I lost interest and wanted to watch telly instead. I kept changing my mind as to whether I wanted to do it or not. After changing my mind one too many times, my mother told me she was fed up with cancelling. I had to decide what I wanted. So I went."
He clearly showed more than a little talent because when he was nine, his teacher suggested that he audition for the Royal Ballet School. He did, and the result was that he was one of only 11 boys chosen from the 500 who applied. "I'm not sure if it's the healthiest thing, being asked at nine years old to make a decision that will affect the rest of your life. But, I was never very academic and an awful lot of adults gave you attention when you did because it was unusual and I suppose that appealed to me too."
What followed was almost a decade in the Royal Ballet system which he says was great "but also quite damaging. You're sort of brainwashed; ballet is all that everyone talks about." After dancing with Rudolf Nureyev and Sylvie Guillem but having sustained a series of injuries, Sheffield decided he wanted to act.
"The only real reason to be a classical ballet dancer is that you love it. You hardly get paid any money, your career is short lived, you don't have a life and your body's in pain most of the time. I just fell out of love with it and itís not something that you can do half-heartedly, so I quit"
"I found it very limited creatively. It was supposed to be an art form, but it was more like being in the army. You were told exactly what to do and treated like a child. What was good about Billy Elliot was the incredible, focused passion he had for dance. I had that once, but when I lost it I realised there was no point in being there anymore."
He expands further: "To be honest, I hated ballet by the end and Iíd had a lot of operations on my ankles and was consequently suffering a lot of pain. I think I have made the right decision."
Was it a difficult transition to make? "Not as difficult as Iíd expected to be honest mostly thanks to a lot of work in TV adverts". He owed £15,000 to the taxman at the time and one particularly lucrative TV commercial paid off all his debts. Since then he's done more than 60 commercials although heís still probably best remembered as the love interest in Natalie Imbrugliaís video for ĎTorní in 1998 which is remembered for finishing with one of the most erotic on-screen kisses on TV.
"Iíd never done a music video before and if Iím honest, it was something that immediately appealed to me. My agent told me about her being a former Neighbours actress and I said ĎNo thank you, I donít want to be in a Kylie Minogue II videoí, but I decided at the last minute to go and meet Natalie and Alison McLean, the director and liked them a lot.
"It was enormous fun to make and Alisonís unusual style really appealed to me. Basically, there were lines around the set and we had to move around. On one side of the lines, we had to play a couple deeply in love, on the other side, we had to act like we were at odds with one another. And when the cameras went off, we had to act just like ourselves. Unbeknownst to either of us, weíd both been briefed to play our differing characters at differing times, and when the cameras were off, Alison has a DV camera running that we didnít know about. "When it was over, I thought ĎProbably nothing will come of thisí but it seemed to capture the zeitgeist because it was played constantly on MTV, then it was up for four RCA Billboard awards and suddenly it was this huge success. I liked what I did in it, which is rare for me".
Heís had no end of roles since, including Barbara Taylor Bradford's Her Own Rules, in which he had sex with Laura from Little House on the Prairie, and Merlin, the American mini-series in which he played Sir Lancelot alongside Sam Neill and Isabella Rossellini. He spent a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company doing Troilus and Cressida with Joseph Fiennes and as an extra on Eastenders, heís delivered crisps to the Queen Vic. Heís been in Anna Karenina alongside Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean, Linda La Planteís The Governor and most recently, he made a guest appearance as Stan, the lust object to Lisa Tarbuckís sex-obsessed Lisa Green in the BBC series of the same name. Low brow to High Brow and everything in between, then.
His smouldering good looks and high profile mean that Jeremy has had more than his fair share of fan mail and Holby City has generated a fair few -"I get lots of letters from ladies who like the show. Women send me photos, their phone numbers and e-mail addresses".
Surf the web and there are more than a handful of fan sites dedicated to the man, including no end of forums punctuated by outpourings of desire for him. There seems more than a little irony in the fact that as an openly gay man, he always ends up playing heterosexual characters that fall into bed with their leading ladies at the first opportunity.
"It was the usual story. I knew for a long time I was gay but was too scared. The persona that loads of people knew me to be I knew wasn't really me. I found it difficult to express myself freely. I lived with a girl for three years and it was a great experience but it wasn't right. It wasn't fair on her or me so it became inevitable that we'd split."
"I made a decision from the start to be out. I had to have these bizarre conversations with producers which began 'I don't know if you know this.....' but they were very supportive. I felt a bit silly but it was the right way to do it. We watch George Clooney in ER and we know he's not a doctor and we know that he's not with Julianna Marguiles but we suspend our disbelief for the sake of the story. I don't see how different it is to take that extra step and believe that a gay actor can play a straight character. I don't see where the difference is. What will be interesting is what happens after Holby."
London for Jeremy is a home in a Georgian Square in Clerkenwell which he loves, aside from the fact that itís a security nightmare for him as a biker. "I used to have a Gilera Runner which I adored. It had unbelievable acceleration, better even than a Porsche and I got a real buzz arriving at a set of traffic lights along with all the hard bikes, and shooting them off when the lights changed to green!"
Sadly, the bike is long since gone, having been stolen and recovered and then stolen again a few months
later, despite a disc lock and chain. Transport now is his Vespa, not quite as inspiring as the Runner but less of a magnet for thieves.
"The real reason I own a scooter is for its practicality. I used to be into old cars, but got fed up with them breaking down and the lack of parking. Scooters make sense in town. They're cheap to run, parking is free, you don't have to worry about congestion and when I ride I have to concentrate, which forces me to relax. I feel good after an outing on it. The only downside to riding a scooter is the wet. I hate the rain, because even with the right equipment it's not practical if I have to go to a meeting in a suit. However, the plusses outweigh the minuses by miles"
He has a really striking tattoo on his back which was inspired by William Blakeís Ancient of Days, and depicts the architect of the world reaching down with a pair of compasses to measure the earth.
"I love Blakeís imagery but this one stood out for me and in my twenties, I got a print of it which I carried with me for the next eight years. I wanted an image that no one else would have and I looked at it every few months wondering whether I still liked it because knowing it was going to be with me all my life meant I had to love it. I got it done a few years ago in London by a very well-respected tattooist.
"I had to clear it with the producers on Holby before I had my first shagging scene. We decided we'd make it the character's tattoo, that it was something Alex Adams would have. But for other characters, it's easy enough to cover up with make-up".
He sums himself up as being "Enthusiastic, aware and insecure", but I suspect that the insecurity isnít as deep seated as heíd have us believe. He comes across as warm and genuine and he has a certain magnetism about him which lends him a likeable persona.
"Someone once told me always to be myself and I think thatís essential - in life as much as in acting. I think it was Polonius who said "to thine own self be true". I must admit, I was in the Royal Shakespeare Company for a year, and I still haven't read Hamlet!"
His sense of humour runs like an underground river through his conversation, lurking beneath the surface and welling up when the opportunity presents Ė such as when I ask him about the most embarrassing thing to have occurred in his career. Heís pensive for a moment.
"Whilst filming Merlin, I had to wear a full suit of armour for my role as Sir Lancelot. It was hot work and Iíd overdone it with the fluid intake and my body was seeking to get rid of what it didnít need. During a break between takes, I seized the opportunity, but the thought of clunking off to the lavatory was too much and a nearby tree seemed ideal. What I didn't realise was that about 1,000 extras who had been brought in to act as the crowd were watching me from the jousting stadium. They applauded me when I finished".