An hour in advance of our interview I checked Royce Pierreson’s Instagram Story. It was April 1st, 2021, and the story said: "Today is my birthday - no April Fool's". Throughout his childhood, I can only imagine how many times he must have had to convince people "this is not a prank". Now, approximately three decades later, he doesn’t have to. Since his breakthrough role as Reece in 2014 BBC drama Murdered by My Boyfriend, Royce has steadily earned himself industry-wide acclaim. One need only Google him for confirmation. The facts are there: birthday and all.
Royce is familiar across the big and small screen, appearing in Netflix's Wanderlust opposite Toni Collette and in the multiple award-winning film Judy opposite Renée Zellweger, and will soon be reprising his role as Istredd in S2 of The Witcher. Yet it's his role as the mysterious Dr. Watson in new crime drama The Irregulars that has secured his name on our lips. Set in the Sherlock Holmes universe, the Netflix series follows the sinister protagonist John Watson, business partner of Holmes, as they solve supernatural crimes across Victorian London. Despite his success, Royce stays grounded as the down-to-earth Cornwall boy that he has always been. He is the type of person who will happily walk his dog while conducting a phone interview - even if it coincides with his birthday.
On a rainy day in London, photographer Sophie Mayanne and stylist Suzie Street incapsulate the pensive mood and deep reflections that bad weather oftentimes seem to motivate. Being a "thinker" rather than a "talker", Royce is the perfect man for this series and its serene atmosphere. Soaking up glances of soft daylight from the outside world, the actor finds himself inside a dimly lit Dalston hotel room with maroon colour tones and hopeful dashes of green and yellow that make you yearn for the sun to breakthrough.
Let the shades of bottle green, blue and rusty brown calm you down - and take you to a state of tranquillity and contemplation. "Give yourself time to be," as Royce would say. The actor seems to be in the midst of deep reflections, allowing dwellings of any kind on this gloomy spring day. With a strong attachment to Cornwall’s untouched landscape, Royce is someone who cherishes nature for having taught him the importance of self-reflection and for providing him with the ideal preconditions for it. A rainy day makes for the perfect train of thought.
Give me the one-minute pitch: Who is Royce Pierreson?
I'm a boy from Cornwall who loves what he does and enjoys life. I also work hard at it and I believe that if you do that it will lead to results. That's it in a nutshell.
What was it like growing up in a small town in Cornwall? I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard that it’s breathtakingly beautiful.
It is. Growing up in Cornwall was great. It is so beautiful there and quiet and, since there are not a lot of people, it's a place where you can just be. It's not been taken over yet. I could never have lived in a big city growing up. When I went to drama school, I chose Cardiff. I definitely couldn't go to London and do three years of drama school at that point in time, since the city was so big and crowded. I would have been a very different person if I had grown up in a city like that.
In what way would you have been a different person?
Well, I like to be quiet. I don't like to talk a lot. When I started living in London after finishing drama school, I had grown, and I was ready to attack the city and work on my career as an actor. However, even by then I needed some quiet time to just think about things and life and of problems that need solving. I like to think. I believe that growing up in Cornwall taught me how to do that. If I had grown up in a city, I'm not sure I would have had that characteristic.
Did you have a favourite place in Cornwall where you used go to clear your mind?
There was a place near a friend of mine. We used to be best friends. He lived on this farm up north from where my family lived. We had to climb a big hill to get there but when we had finally managed to get up there, a beautiful quarry with deep blue water emerged in front of us. I'd always go there to just stand and look, to just be. Those were peaceful moments with no clutter. There are so many places like that in Cornwall, but I think this particular place was my perfect setting to think about stuff.
When I came to London after my studies, it was amazing, brilliant and it formed me in a different way, but I met so many people there who didn't give themselves time to think. That made me realise how lucky I was to grow up where I did.
Tell me about your childhood: what was your upbringing like, what kind of family is your family?
My upbringing was simple. We were a family consisting of me, my mum, my granny and my sister, and we all lived together. It was amazing growing up with these three women. We lived in a very traditional council house, which was cosy and had everything I needed.
I guess that I was the man of the family, but I don't really see it like that. I never did. Neither did my family. Like all families, we were there for one another and helped each other when we needed it. It was very equal, and we were respectful towards each other. There's always some teasing here and there with siblings, but my sister and I had a great relationship. We looked after each other then and we look after each other now. Today, she's also in film working in directing and writing. I'm very proud of her.
Why do you think both you and your sister ended up working in a creative field?
I think everyone is creative, I just think my sister and I choose to express it. Like I said before, people don't give themselves time to think. I believe that people just short-change themselves in terms of what they can and can't do. My sister and I are creative, because we had the platform and environment to think creatively growing up, and we believed we could do whatever we dreamt of.
Was there anything specific in your childhood, maybe a passion for film, which put you on the path to acting?
We had a lot of VHS videos. We had walls and walls of them. Later on, I realized how many films we used to watch back then. Disney films and old-school films, my mum recorded them all or bought them at the video store. She has always loved films and I think that's where our passion comes from; throughout my whole life films were there, ready to watch.
When I come to think of it, it was really an amazing thing to own copies of movies like that. Having access to all the movies on streaming platforms now, we take them for granted. There's just too much content and it's becoming watered down. Nowadays films are available to everyone - and that's great! But it has also bred this complacency with people. You can watch something without even watching it. There's no thought behind it, no reflections about the plot and nobody wonders: 'Is this the right movie choice for me?'. There goes so much thought, effort and money into producing this content - and people watch it on their phones on the go. That's great too, however, a lot of detail is lost when watching a production made for tv or the cinema on a small screen.
But during my childhood, I learned to appreciate the art of filmmaking and the pleasure of watching them. For this reason, I think I was lucky. The films formed me in a way that I didn't even know. I remember what an amazing experience it was to watch Jurassic Park for the first time on the big cinema screen, appreciating all the talent that went into making that film. To me, it was mindboggling. Back then you had to choose your film correctly; you didn't want to get it wrong. With Jurassic Park not only did I choose correctly, but it also had a massive impact on me. Going forward, I watched that film a lot. I mean a lot. Pretty much every week.
As a kid, you had "a massive stage fright". How did you end up an actor - and how did you overcome your fear for the spotlight?
I always knew that I wanted to be an actor. I knew that I was going to be an actor. I thought to myself: 'what do I have to do? I have to put myself in that position'. It was uncomfortable for me every time I had to go on stage for a monologue competition or an audition, but I had to go up there because I knew what I wanted - and if I were to ever succeed, there was no way around it. So, I put myself in the position all the time.
The first time I auditioned for a play was in school when two of my friends were putting on a production. I asked them insecurely: 'hey, can I, um, can I have a part in the play?' and they answered: "Yeah, of course, you can audition." I asked them if I could audition with just the two of them instead of the whole crew and they agreed. I prepared a monologue and when I had to perform it for my friends, I was so nervous that I could barely speak. My acting was horrible, obviously, and they didn't give me the part. However, they gave me another part, which had but one line. That made me think: 'cool, this is a step taken.'
Afterward, I kept myself in those situations constantly and it did get easier. When I messed up or my voice broke, people would laugh and it would be hard, but eventually I overcame the nerves. Then, confidence came.
Has the adult version of Royce made peace with being in the spotlight?
It's as comfortable as anything to me. Honestly, it's taken a lot of work, but I always knew what my goal was: to be an actor. You can handle the embarrassment and the knockbacks because your dream will always pull you through. Now, I'm so confident. I always advise young actors to be confident - and to be proud of being confident.
It's not arrogant to be confident. Arrogance sits wrong in a person - confidence doesn't sit wrong; it makes you feel fantastic. But if you get above your station in school, even a little bit, you get shut down immediately. Especially in public schools like the one I went to. It breeds this kind of fear and that's sad. Be confident when you are confident. I champion that for everybody.
Today, you can put me in any room with anyone and I'm going to perform. Actually, it's crazy to look back and think about the fact that I used to be frightened like that. But then again; I could only get here by also being there.
In Netflix’s The Irregulars you play the iconic Dr. Watson. Can you tell us a bit about the world that Dr. Watson inhabits?
It takes place in Victorian London, but it's our version of Victorian London. The show has a supernatural element, which is something nobody has ever done before with Sherlock Holmes. However, if you read the literature - I have because I grew up with them and I love them - you realise that Sir Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a big believer in the spirit world. In his writing, he never actually brings it out the way we have in our version, but it's there. In our version, Sherlock Holmes is there, but the story doesn't revolve around him. He still has a brilliant mind, but he's a broken man. Therefore, we bring out the supernatural elements from the literature and we play to them while modernising it. The show is a winner in my opinion because I love a fantastic story with gothic/horror mysteries.
Dr. Watson is the only character in The Irregulars, who acts and speaks as somebody from that time would do - everybody else has been modernised to a point. I wondered why he was the only person written like that and I came up with my own back story for him: that he is an enchanted soul, who happens to find himself in this time in history. A survivor. He finds that there's a vacancy open in this big old house with Sherlock, who is a drug addict. So, what if Watson just assumes this identity and looks after Sherlock? What if he puts on this accent to try and fit in - only to not fit in, but stand out because he's in a modernised Sherlock Holmes world?
Dr. Watson is a peculiar figure who's kind of rough around the edges. How were you able to find an 'entry point' into the character and make him your own?
When I first auditioned, they sent me 10-12 pages of the script. I did two scenes, one of which I basically had to talk all the time. I'm lucky because I learn lines very quickly, but this script only took me two hours - which is a record even for me. The script was so well-written and lyrical and slightly Shakespearean in its rhythm. It was so fluid. Already then, I had this nearly fully-formed idea of this guy and the way he sounds.
When I got to set, costume designer Edward Gibbon showed me his clothing with all these beautiful details, waistcoat linings and amazing patterns that Watson had acquired. If you look closely, the costumes have little Middle eastern-y or South Asian-like details. You probably don't notice them as an audience member, but I did, and I thought about how cool it was. I started wondering: 'why does Watson have these things? Maybe he bought them from a previous life.' Then it dawned on me that he doesn't have a start, because he has always just been there. I see him as this person who keeps on bouncing from one life to another, getting into trouble, helping people, escaping - surviving. He has always taken these little details with him and fed them into his clothing, where only he sees them. So, when he came to London, he adopted the character that we now know from The Irregulars and he has been living like this for decades. Now, he is so ingrained in it that he doesn't know who he is anymore. He just puts an accent on and it's so convincing that even he believes it himself.
People usually ask me what it was like playing the iconic Dr. Watson, but I keep thinking: 'what if he is only Watson by name?' You can't pinpoint him to any set place, he has no family he knows of, he has no place he was born, he has no passport. He just exists to survive and that has made him an expert in adapting. He is rough around the edges because he has such a vivid past that if he told you about it, you wouldn't believe him. That was my story for him.
Do you identify with him?
I do. A lot, actually. He doesn't fit in, but he survives. I had to be like that in London. I had to do exactly what Watson did when he came to London. I lived hand to mouth, survived wherever I came just to get the auditions. Watson has done the same, just all over the world in a high-stakes way. For me, it was success or failure and to Watson, it was life or death.
The same goes for my past when I had stage fright. As an actor, you have to adapt, and you can't show that you're flustered or that you're caught off-guard because your job is to depict a real person in the most truthful way possible.
How do you ignore being flustered?
If somebody tells me to do something I've never done before in front of a lot of people, I would be anxious - but if you really love the project you're doing, it becomes exciting instead of frightening.
The universe of Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on screen in many much-loved versions. Why, in your opinion, should we watch this one?
I agree, it's been done so many times in so many different ways. I think that Sherlock as a character is so brilliantly rare because he's such a flawed genius, who is probably the best mind in all literature. His relationship with Dr. Watson is like an old married couple. I love him in all versions, the modern ones as well as the older ones. We've created him in a supernatural universe. I've read people online talking about The Irregulars comparing this Sherlock universe to the Marvel universe. You have this character, who is so fantastic, and you can enjoy him and his world in so many versions. We've added ours to the mix and it works brilliantly alongside all the other ones.
What has been your most challenging role to date?
I would say Reece in Murdered by My Boyfriend because of the source material. It was a BBC drama about domestic abuse based on a real-life murder case. I worked on this production was well aware of the scale of domestic abuse. So many women die from it every year and it's shocking. After the show was released, the British government even changed the law. I was playing this real-life murderer who is in prison right now. When we were filming it, we were in constant contact with the mourning family and they would have to sign off on certain things and names would have to be changed here and there. Being so close to something, yet still have to disconnect it all as an act was a challenge. It was all very weird and blurred and delicate.
Many people have asked me how I could play such a horrible character and I always say: 'well, he wasn't evil.' He was a man who was conditioned, and he did a terribly evil thing. If I, as the actor portraying him, regarded him as pure evil, the on-screen result would have been this Bond villain and people watching wouldn't understand why the victim was with him. It just wouldn’t have made any sense. He was charming and they loved each other. He did terrible, terrible things, but I had to differentiate and play the person, not the source material. That is a very difficult thing to do, but until this day, people still recognise me for the film. They even show it in schools. My art is helping people and that’s just unbelievable to me.
How do you authentically portray a character like him, when you have all these sensitive exterior factors to consider as well?
I had to play the person. I mean, before Reece started beating his girlfriend when he's still charming and their relation hasn't gone off-track, I can identify with him. I've met girls at parties, whom I have fallen in love with and all that stuff. But then he starts to beat her and that's where he and I go on very different journeys. I had to use things I'd seen other actors do believably on-screen and details of situations when I'd seen other people fight. I drew on these things and I pieced all of them together. Then I asked myself: 'why does he beat her when he doesn't want to beat her?'. I did my research on Reece and found that his dad used to beat his mum - and nobody in his family ever addressed it. I figured that he grew up learning to use violence whenever he couldn’t articulate his feelings. In the end, he used violence up to a point from where there was no turning back - when he killed her. I played these little bits. You always have to try to find the truth in it.
I'm sure it's also rewarding to play a character like him, right? It shows that you're versatile as an actor.
That's what I love about acting. I got to play that character early on in my career and, from an acting point of view, it was an amazing challenge and one that I loved to take on. As you get older your ideas about life change, and you become a different person. Then you start to develop new interpretations of your characters.
Nowadays, it seems like so many actors just want to be actors for fame or for Instagram recognition, but I think that's wrong. Acting should be your life - it shouldn't just be this thing you do to show people that you're on tv. To me, it's my whole life. It's my passion, it's my drive, it's my everything. I want to travel the world with it. There are so many possibilities. To me, this is the most incredible job.
Do you think you’ll last in the long run if you're in it for the fame?
No, you get caught out quick. I truly believe that people should give themselves more time to think. This tendency of not thinking but just talking, and talking to fill up the void, also breeds the kind of actor who brags about all the interesting people they've met. But when it comes down to it, I'm in the room auditioning against you - and then talk means nothing. It’s all about the work you put into your craft.
How do you practice acting?
Acting is always hard to practice because it's not physical like tennis or a musical instrument. I get my practice from films, tv and theatre and even radio - but also from life. Those are the best teachers. It's all around you all the time. Even looking out the window teaches me something if I see it with an actor's eye. Maybe somebody does a little move and brushes something out of their hair. That exact move could work for some character that I'll be playing in 20 years. Then I log it, add it to the repertoire. When I first realised that I could use all the impressions that I collect during the day, it was mind-blowing to me. The possibilities are endless.
Where in the world are you most at home?
I'd say right here in Stockholm, where I live. It's very peaceful, it's very calm and there's a lot of green outdoor spaces. It's a lot like Cornwall really. The way of life just seems to be geared towards happiness. My fiancée is Swedish and when I fell in love with her, I fell in love with Stockholm. I've been living here for a year and a half and I think it's an incredible city. I just bought a flat out in Södermalm, which is an island located centrally in the city and I'm moving there in a few weeks with my fiancée. We just got the keys yesterday. Here and now, I’m happy.