With one in three people experiencing mental illness, Fear the Walking Dead, Homeland and Dexter, British actor Sam Underwood brings his new play Losing Days to the Edinburgh Fringe.
Sam Underwood is a Woking local, but you’d never know it. Having played Jake in The Walking Dead spin-off Fear The Walking Dead, evil twins opposite Kevin Bacon in The Following, and boasting recurring roles in both Dexter and Homeland, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were dealing with an LA-raised American as Apple Pie TV star. You’d be wrong.
Fresh from Comic-Con in San Diego, Underwood is heading north to the Edinburgh Fringe this August to star in Losing Days, which he co-created with fellow actor and partner Valorie Curry. Curry worked alongside Underwood in The Following, as well as short film Ophelia, and in last year’s Fringe outing One Day When We Were Young.
“Honestly, besides feedback on general structure, Valorie has kept me honest throughout this process,” says Underwood. “Steering me away from ‘performance’ and toward ‘talking’. As the creative process went on, she became less of a co-creator, and more of a litmus test. She has exceptional taste and a fantastic bullshit meter. This is also very personal for her too, as she has been – and still is – my partner throughout my difficult journey. So building the story that was honest and raw without bringing all of our relationship into light is of the upmost importance to me.”
The show is all part of the Fundamental Theater Project, set up in New York by Underwood himself, as an immigrant artist community stateside. “I moved to the US when I was 19 years old, and after graduating it became clear to me that the immigration process was a challenging process. I desperately wanted to stay living and working in the US, and have been lucky enough to do so. I wanted to create a company that focussed on supporting international artists, creating work using a myriad of different voices and cultural perspectives, whilst aiding them in their visa processes.”
FTP has done remarkably well in its bid to create work around social engagement, and has garnered the support of industry heavyweights such as Alec Baldwin, Shirley Knight and Anthony Rapp. Their Honorary Patron was no less than the late, great playwright Sir Peter Shaffer.
Losing Days is Underwood’s “complete story,” in his own words. “This isn’t a role. This is myself. And thats been the biggest challenge,” he adds. Exploring his own experiences with mental health and his journey towards self-understanding, the play is set to the tunes of Underwood’s idol, Frank Turner.
“‘Tapedeck Heart’ became a soundtrack of sorts during a very difficult and scary episode in my life,” says Underwod. “Frank’s ability to share his story gave me the courage to want to do the same. His lyrics are such beautiful and gut-wrenching storytelling moments – and for some reason that all resonated so profoundly to me – his vulnerability and vigour… Besides his lyrics, I think Franks passion and intensity spoke so deeply to me – spilling his guts onto the music.”
Turner’s album provides musical backbone to Underwood’s deeply personal story, which he hopes will leave audiences with a newfangled appreciation for the singer-songwriter who has done so much to get him through his darker days.
“The arts saved my life and opened my eyes to my own issues. Frank Turner and performance artist Bryony Kimmings did that for me,” says Underwood. “If had never gone to see Fake It ‘Till You Make It at the EdFringe in 2015, I don’t know what would have happened.
“They weren’t the medicine per se, but they were the inciting incident that started me questioning myself. Thats what art should do – start a dialogue. However, it easy to hide behind what you love to do, and expression and talking are two very different things,” he adds.
A dialogue that, in the case of Losing Days hopes to smash taboos. “That its not okay to really ask how you are doing, and that its not safe to say, ‘I’m not doing great’,” is one such glass ceiling that Underwood hopes to smash through (without making it patronising or lecturing his audience). “I think by normalising the conversation, and finding moments to be self deprecating about myself and my stubbornness in not addressing my issues, that makes it less intimidating. No-one wants to go to a lecture at 9.40pm at night at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I certainly didn’t want to give one – I’m by no means an expert on it,” he says.
Indeed, Losing Days is vehemently ‘not a sob story’, and Underwood promises that there are a lot of laughs to be had in his on-stage exploration of his own mental health. But it’s hard to reconcile the ‘superhero struggle’ of mental illness with the need to make the play something people will want to watch, all the while avoiding stigma.
“There are situations and anecdotes from my life that have a lot of humour,” says Underwood, adding that it’s not a comedy per se. “I think that trying to bring an audience in to see a piece about – not to mention talk about – mental health can be quite a daunting task, for the performer and the audience. There are these stigmas still, and the idea of sitting in an audience to watch a show about that could potentially be off-putting. That it would be a depressing (ha) experience,” he laughs.
“But thats not been my complete journey with this – my condition; Manic Depression also has a literal upswing, and I wanted to reflect that in the piece.” He hopes that those who come to see the play will leave with a greater understanding and awareness of mental illness, and be more aware of the signs that can help those who hide their condition. “I also hope that for those who do have their own experiences, that they recognise that talking about it is okay. I’m still working on that myself,” says Underwood.
“If you love Frank Turners music, or just live music in general, thats a good reason to come,” urges the actor. Plus, he makes sure to add, it’s only an hour and fifteen minutes long and you can bring a drink in with you. “Oh, and it also deals with a really, REALLY important part of society that needs to be talked about more often. So not only are you getting some entertainment for your money, but you may learn something too? Thats good, right?”
Losing Days is at the New Town Theatre, Edinburgh at 9.40pm, Aug 3-14, 16-20 and 22-27. Tickets here.