‘The Canterville Ghost’ star James Lance talks Wilde, Wodehouse and learning Ted Lasso’s secret from Jason Sudeikis

James Lance, best known for his role on Apple’s smash hit Ted Lasso, co-headlines a new four-part production of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost alongside Lasso co-star Anthony Head. We spoke to James Lance about Canterville, as well as what’s next for Trent Crimm, Independant.

The Canterville Ghost is a comedic short story by Oscar Wilde, first published as a magazine serial in 1887. It follows the events at Canterville Chase, an English stately home, when it gets bought by an American millionaire, Hiram Otis. Hiram and his family move in, despite warnings that the place is haunted by an old nobleman, Sir Simon de Canterville. The performative ghost becomes frustrated at the American’s unflappable optimism and refusal to be scared of him, and ultimately the family’s eldest daughter, Virginia, is able to help the ghost to eventually cross over and find peace.

Anthony Head stars as Sir Simon and James Lance portrays Hiram Otis in this new four-part adaptation of The Canterville Ghost, set in the present day.Written by Jude Tindall and directed by Paul Gibson and Suri Krishnamma, The Canterville Ghost was commissioned by BYUtv for United States broadcast, and produced by the BBC. It will be available for US viewers to stream for free on BYUtv, after the episodes air.

The new Canterville series is a sprawling tale covering a year in the life of the Otis family – four episodes, one for each season – and it’s got a bit of everything. It holds true to the Wilde story in many ways, including the humor, but it plays things a lot straighter for many of the core characters and creates a lot more earnest stakes and empathy, while remaining charmingly camp and kitsch, particularly when regarding the intentionally melodramatic Sir Simon himself, who seems to, at all times, be channeling the Lead Player from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

There’s a love story, there’s classism, there’s two sets of twins, there’s sordid pasts and skeletons in the closet, there’s pie-snubbing, there’s cricket and vicars and Elvis impersonators and horse snobbery and princes and balls. There’s a talking rat. It’s a really nice time, Head in particular is laugh-out-loud funny, and the story is genuinely viewing engaging for kids and adults alike. It’s a warm and classic family sit-down BBC mini-series.

The Canterville Ghost episode 1, “Spring,” airs Sunday 31 October, and it sees the Otises move into Canterville and try to become acclimated to their new community, as they attempt to forge connections with two local families – the Cantervilles (mildly impoverished gentry, the former owners of their estate) and the Lovells, a Romani family that have pitched camp on Canterville land. Hiram, a rich engineer inventor, was drawn to the area to track down details of a family ancestor Simeon Otis, daughter Ginny buys a horse and competes in a local steeplechase against Cecil Canterville, and troublemaking twins Theo and Frank are keen to invent something to prove the existence of the ghost, but it’s the connection between these three families – Otis, Canterville and Lovell – that will be the key to unravelling a centuries-old mystery.

James Lance, who stars as the adorable Hiram Otis, treated me to a lengthy interview to promote the show, and was kind enough to offer plenty of Ted Lasso tidbits as well. Next week, we’ll have part one of our interview with Anthony Head, but here’s part one of our James Lance interview, which explores Lance’s first connection to co-star Head, what filming The Canterville Ghost on location was like, and whether Hiram Otis is the sweetest character Lance has ever played. In terms of Ted Lasso, a connection is drawn between Ted and Wilde, and Lance shares a special story about connecting with Jason Sudeikis about Ted’s backstory very early on.

Diving into The Canterville Ghost, this is a bit of an oddly phrased question, but honestly it was the way that I put it down: what is your relationship to Oscar Wilde? As a human being, as a British person, as an actor, how do you feel about him as a figure?

What a lovely question. Well, first of all I think of Oscar Wilde as a hero. A genuine heroic man, and I don’t know if I can count that many off the top of my head that I have sort of investigated and learned about but Oscar Wilde is one of them and I think he’s a hero. I adore the man and I think that his reach from his life is still ongoing and still doing amazing things in the world. I actually went years ago to the cemetery in Paris where he’s buried.

There’s a photo of me at 19 weeping at his grave somewhere in my house. Is that why you were drawn to the project? Have you ever done one of his plays before, or anything like that in theater?

I’ve never done one of his plays. This is the first piece of material that I’ve been involved in as an actor and so when it arrived I was thrilled. I was just absolutely thrilled and I didn’t know The Canterville Ghost, I hadn’t read it, but when the script arrived in my inbox I thought “before I read the script, I’m going to read the story,” which I think is about 38 pages or something. So I read it and I just loved it and then I read the script and I thought the script was fantastic.

Related: James Lance on Oscar Wilde’s heroism and the culture clash that ‘Ted Lasso’ and ‘The Canterville Ghost’ have in common

I just thought it was a really really imaginative smart adaptation and I can’t speak for Oscar Wilde obviously, but when it gets to the fourth episode of this adaptation of The Canterville Ghost, I was super impressed with where the story went and how it had expanded and also kind of got down into the essence of the story at the same time. I thought that was really incredible and hats off to Jude Tindall, the writer, for that because I wouldn’t know how you take the great writer’s piece of work and expand it in such a sort of playful and smart way.

You and your fellow Ted Lasso cast member Anthony Head are the male leads in this. What was the experience like working with him? Had you worked with him before this or Ted Lasso?

My first experience of Anthony Head was when I was in the audience, when I was about 15 years old, and I went to see the musical Chess and he was on stage playing the American — the two main roles are the Russian and the American — and he was the American and I don’t know if you’ve heard Anthony Head sing, but he can really sing. I was thrilled by his performance then, and so cut to kind of 30 years later and I’m on set with him and it really was just a treat to work with someone who I revere like that.

Related: ‘The Canterville Ghost’ star Anthony Head sometimes doesn’t recognize himself on ‘Ted Lasso,’ and he likes it that way

So that was my introduction to Anthony, and then also of course we’re both in Ted Lasso, although our characters don’t cross paths in those seasons, but I’m super aware of his work and I’m a fan of what he does, so I was thrilled to be working with him.

When did you shoot this, was this shot in 2019 or 2020?

This was shot this year, where are we now? 2021.

Oh, so quite recently and so you never met him during Ted Lasso like at a wrap party or anything like that?

No, I saw him across the car park one day and I was like “That’s Anthony Head!” but he got picked up in a car and whisked away so yeah, I didn’t get to meet him. The first time I met him was on location for The Canterville Ghost.

Where did you film this – was it in Ireland or the UK? What was the shooting experience like? I feel like with a lot of actors, whether the product is good or not – and I think this is good! – their memory of a project tends to be more about what their experience of making it was like. So how was the shoot for you?

It was in the UK and it was in a really gorgeous part of the world called Malvern, the Malvern Hills, so it was a lovely spot. It was a lot of fun, it was fast — it was probably one or two takes the whole way through so it was pretty quick, but ultimately, one’s experience of a shoot is often dictated really by the character you play, because you kind of get into that groove and because actually you spend more time as them than yourself almost, or at least an equal amount. So I really enjoyed slipping into Hiram’s comfortable shoes. I was pretty cozy, generally speaking, as him, surrounded by these gorgeous actors that were playing the families, so I had a really cool time.

Hiram is lovely and soft, and I’m reliably informed that you mainly play dickheads. Basically, do you think Hiram is the nicest character that you’ve ever played, like the sweetest person?

On screen, yes. But on stage, I had the pleasure of playing Bertie Wooster, you know, from Jeeves and Wooster?

No! I was going to ask you about P.G. Wodehouse! There was a lot of this [The Canterville Ghost] that reminded me a bit of Wodehouse when it wasn’t reminding me of Wilde, so that’s great. I love that. I was thinking about Bertie Wooster literally all day.

It was in the West End and I played him for six months and I was doing eight shows a week. I read loads of Wodehouse before taking on the role, because I thought “How on earth can I possibly add to or be Bertie Wooster? He’s defined by Hugh Laurie, how do you even do that?”

And then when I read the novels I kind of thought, “Oh actually there’s there’s a Bertie that I can inhabit,” and there was a certain element that I felt I could kind of bring to it, or bring out in me within him, but anyway the upshot was playing him eight shows a week with an audience was possibly the most enjoyable character I’ve ever played because he’s just a delight and actually changed my life a bit.

Who was your Jeeves?

I fell in love with the man who played Jeeves, because we became great mates. He’s a guy called John Gordon Sinclair and he’s a phenomenal actor and he’s particularly famous for doing a movie over here called Gregory’s Girl.

I did not know that and that is great. I just love that. I like Laurie’s Wooster but he’s not my mental picture when I read the books, so I’m sure that you owned it. I think that’s so, so cute. Hiram is a really great guy, a really great father, a really calm person. What were the elements of the show, like we said, given this is sort of a farcical comedy in some ways — what were the scenes or the moments that you took the most seriously when filming, and which ones were the most playful?

I’d say the most playful ones are probably in Hiram’s workshop when the kids come in.

Yeah and he’s just like “Yeah, whatever, blow something up, it’s fine.”

Yeah, a man just focused on his work, but he was playful just because it was just so much fun acting with those guys, just those young people. I just loved them and they were really so happy to be there and just loving every second of it. I was also a child actor so I felt kind of naturally quite paternalistic with them and was just delighted to be in their company, so that was probably the most playful.

Related: Anthony Head on punching up ‘The Canterville Ghost’ with special effects and Shakespeare

And then in terms of taking it the most seriously, I mean, I do always take it really seriously you know in terms of the stakes for the character and I guess when he realizes that he’s really lost everything and has to kind of fess up to Lucy, that was probably the most serious moment for me as him.

It’s funny actually, because the more I watched it, the more I was thinking about the relationship in my mind between this and Ted Lasso. Obviously, you playing the American outsider who’s coming in and being judged by the very traditional insular British culture but… This might be getting a bit into the weeds in terms of analysis of of Ted Lasso that maybe you haven’t given thought to, but I’ve been telling people for a year that I actually think Ted – the character – reminds me of Oscar Wilde.

There is an anecdote about Oscar Wilde which is that he was incredibly social and incredibly gracious and incredibly “on” all the time, and there for other people, always hosting things, being social and the story goes that someone left a party and they left their hat or their walking stick or something at his place and they came back after the event was over and they found him in his front room just like, washed out, totally drawn out and just exhausted with the performance of ‘Being Oscar Wilde’ I guess.

And that’s how I’ve always seen Ted, Jason’s character – that he is performing this radically positive version of Coach Lasso, on purpose, because of all the inner angst that’s now somewhat been revealed. Sorry, that was very intense, it’s just a very niche intersection. When you started on Ted Lasso, how much were you told about where it was going? Obviously the leads, the eight series regulars – they’ve been told pretty much their entire arc, but when you went in, how much were you aware of what that show was going to do with the characters and their inner life?

I love hearing that about Oscar Wilde and that is kind of no surprise, and I can see the correlation between Oscar and Ted. I was aware that there was a choice that was being made in Ted’s outlook in life that he was going to be a glass — not just not a glass half-full, actually — someone is just happy to have a glass kind of a guy and yeah, that was a conscious decision that he had made.

I was aware of that because I had a conversation with Jason — I was talking to him about Trent Crimm’s background and I said that I felt that he had a really hard, really tough father and I just kept hearing this phrase that is that in my mind that Trent’s father used to say to him, which was “Are you a man or a mouse?” And he couldn’t live up to the sort of physical prowess and everything that his father wanted him to be, on a physical, masculine level, so Trent went to the library and kind of put on his intellectual armor and that was his vehicle, and that’s how he gets through.

Related: James Lance of ‘Ted Lasso’ has seen the backlash from journalists, and says Trent Crimm was ‘happy to pull the pin’ on his career

I was telling Jason that, and he sort of looked at me with this kind of [acts out a funny, knowing look] and he said “Well you know this is… People don’t know this, but this series is really about, you know, bad fathers, or fathers that have got a legacy and the damage that they can cause,” and then he told me about Ted’s background, and it was a secret at the time and he was like “Don’t say anything, because…” That was in the first season, really early on, like maybe two episodes in, when we were chatting, so I was aware of what Ted had come from, the trauma that Ted had come from.

That’s very interesting to me, both that you had that much thought immediately about your character and that he told you — obviously we know that everything has been tracked pretty closely for for those arcs and it’s become a very rewarding show for people to re-watch and understand, that this was always the plo, basically from day one, whether it’s with the Nate plot or anything else. Now, I know that you’re not going to tell me what, but what do you know? Do you know your end game for the third season?

Might do, yeah. No, I don’t, I actually don’t know the “endgame” if I were to answer your question literally. I have an idea of the thrust though, yeah.

‘The Canterville Ghost’ airs Sundays until 21 November and is available to stream for free on BYUtv.

The audio of this interview will be released on Subjectify’s Not About The Weather podcast.