Jim High is a British actor who lives and works out of Prague in the Czech Republic. He can be seen in productions such as Carnival Row, Shadow and Bone, A Letter for the King, Knightfall and Snowpiercer the movie. Jim and I had a great conversation about his life and career, archeology, comedy, motion capture, Prague and more.
Read on to find out lots more about Jim High, actor.
DB: I wanted to ask you about your name, Jim. Is it James and do you have the middle name?
JH: Yes, it’s James and my middle name is Jeremy, which is my father’s name. I was nearly Jeremy Jnr.
DB: Do you recall your first clear memory or memories from your early childhood?
JH: I think there’s an image of the sweet shop and getting those candy cigarettes.
DB: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
JH: I was born in Braintree in Essex. I was only there I suppose until I was six. We moved to the Isle of Wight. My dad’s a teacher so we moved down to the Island and that’s where I grew up. It was very idyllic on the island. Then my family moved to Kenya when I was about 16, so I stayed in the Wight for a bit after that and then went to Kenya for a year and lived with them, and then I came back to University. I went to the University of Exeter and studied archaeology and then I moved up to the big city of London. I was still, even in my 20s, quite green so it took me about a year before I could do anything. Then I just did various jobs, I worked in TV for a bit, I was in the BBC in the History Department as a runner and researcher.
DB: What was it like growing up on the Isle of Wight?
JH: I went to the school in town when we arrived there, which I think was smart because I made lots of friends that I’m still friends with now. Then I went to the school where my dad taught, it was an idyllic little school. We were by the coast and there were playing fields. It had a very liberal education, pacifist ethos.
DB: What sorts of things did you do outside of your school? Bearing in mind you were living on the school premises.
JH: Just mucking around with the others around, and we would go down the village and play lots. Going down on the coast to see lots, like people busy surfing.
DB: Did you have any particular favourite subjects at school and teachers?
JH: I like science and maths. There were some great teachers! Mr Wakefield the headmaster of the primary schools was South African, a kind of “Come on everybody! Pull your socks up!” We always had Christian physics teachers, which I think is a nice way to learn physics. We had a matron, she was pretty strict.
DB: What subjects did you carry on with and did you did your A levels there as well?
JH: In my Sixth Form I did English, History and Maths. I was trying to keep a foot in science with the maths but…
DB: With hindsight, do you wish you had done science?
JH: I wish I’d done biology and then chemistry and maths or something like that. I was all right at English and in history, but unless you excel at those everybody’s better.
DB: Tell me a bit about Kenya, what that was like?
JH: It was great! Dad was headmaster of a different school there, a school called Hillcrest in Nairobi. And I taught in part of the school for younger kids there, and then just travelled around, scuba dived. It’s an amazing country.
DB: Have you got any siblings?
JH: I’ve got two older sisters.
DB: Did they go out to Kenya as well?
JH: They visited. My parents were there for about 5-6 years.
DB: So you were the baby of the family. Did you get a bit spoiled?
JH: Yeah, probably. I think, maybe if they had been older brothers they might have been a bit tougher and I wouldn’t be doing this, I’d be doing something else!
DB: You chose archaeology for your degree.
JH: It was a little bit of an attempt to get back to Science and it was interesting. I was lucky to be accepted, to be honest, but I got it into my head that I wanted to do prehistoric stuff but that was my fault for not researching the course. That’s where my interests have been but it was quite the kind of level up in terms of having to deal with sources like the guys who are studying history. Just understanding how to interpret things that’s a useful skill and there is a healthy scepticism to a lot of history.
DB: Which eras are you particularly interested in?
JH: The Bronze Age collapse and just the prehistorical period, where you’ve got so little on that and it fades out. I still like the Roman era and am always reading about Roman battles. I have got Tom Holland’s Dominion.
DB: Did you go on some archaeological digs when you were doing your degree?
JH: Yes, we went scouting out and finding places, a lot of going and trying to get the right angle so that you can see the bumps on the ground that relates to barrows and stuff. The main dig I did was in the summer in Somerset, and we were looking at Roman land reclamation. It was looking at whether they did it in phases or one massive reclamation. We would be digging up quite a lot of mud, bagging, labelling it and sending it off to Bristol for analysis. That was fun but it’s not Indiana Jones’ skills! There was no way I was going to stay in it, to be honest. I knew that I wasn’t academic, and you can be the kind of grizzled enthusiast, which the UK does so well… but it was fun.
DB: Did you stay there for the whole three years and get your degree?
JH: I got it and I pretty much just moved to London town with my knapsack on my back and just experienced London for a few years.
DB: How old were you then, 21-22? Where did you land in London when you first arrived?
JH: I was around that age and was in North West London. I had friends in Harlesden and then I moved down into Willesden, and then towards Kilburn. This was a fun, fast town and I was still trying to figure it out. I didn’t have that much money.
DB: What sort of things did you do?
JH: Teaching English as a foreign language and I worked at a couple of TV production companies. I worked for the Council of Westminster Council, sounds glamorous but definitely not, I was doing a mail clerk job.
DB: When you’re teaching your audience is captive as well and there is a lot of performance involved. Why, and how, did you decide to do something on a more permanent basis? You are saying you were trying all these different jobs because you didn’t know what you wanted to do, when did your road to Damascus moment come?
JH: I’m still waiting for it! (Laughs) I didn’t know I would always do this until I taught English in a summer school in London and a guy says, “Why don’t you just come out to school here?” [Prague] . I got to stay for a year, had a great year, really enjoyed it and ended up staying longer. And then at that point getting involved with a company doing not super avant-garde but sort of weird stuff. I started going for casting and booking commercials and then went on to other roles.
DB: What year did you move out to Prague?
DB: You were teaching, did that overlap with the acting?
JH: I know when I was in London I had known a few actors who were teaching as well and it seemed to suit them. Especially just being available so if you’re the guy, even if they [casting] phone you up and you say, “Well, let me check.” They might not call you up next time!
DB: At what stage were you when you dropped the teaching part – because that’s a steadier income?
JH: I definitely thought a bit like that. I didn’t mark the occasion but it was, I guess, around 2014-15. There was no particular thing that made me think, it was just the payoff between again that thing that I should be available.
DB: What other acting training have you done?
JH: I’d been doing it with the school and used to get lessons with a friend and his mum. I have a memory from that, which I don’t like. There were a few competitions for kids that we were doing and it struck me then, as a sort of “pushy mum” situation, but not mine – my mum wasn’t (in the best way) remotely interested, But I did a competition there, messed it up, cracked my voice and yelled and screamed. I was upset. And I remember seeing one of my friend’s mums roll her eyes. And I thought, “Please!” I never wanted to be part of that. I’m aware that there’s a sort of fragile opposite protectionism to this but I still don’t like that. I did a bit of stand up when I was at university, and got a pretty good handle on it. When I got here I was just picking up stuff here and there in workshops and I’m doing an improv comedy group now as well – that’s a really tight group and I love that. I’m really missing stuff like that at the moment.
I don’t think I would have liked it in the environment in London if I’d been trying to make my way there. I know lots of London actors and they’re perfectly lovely people, but just in terms of the intensity of the competition…
DB: Do you find your improv, which you enjoy, is a great benefit when you’re doing any of your craft?
JH: Probably not. If anything it pushes me towards being a clown. The environments are so different, you’re in a different mindset. I would like to get more chances to try stuff like that, in a film, but I’m very grateful to be a day player. It’s unusual to get to the point where you know… I’ve watched the making of the Joker with Joaquin Phoenix’s multiple takes where he does a different thing each time. Just to be able to spin with improv like that but I’m not really in a position where I can.
DB: You mentioned you first started off doing commercials.
JH: I had done some student films. When I came out here I threw myself in with a lot of students, which was useful. The great thing about commercials was I got used to the chaos of the set, the hustle and bustle and the cameras.
DB: What was the first main role that you got on a big production?
JH: There was a show Masterwork (Fox) which was pilot, which didn’t get greenlit to go further. Natalie Dormer later of Game of Thrones was in it. It was an art heist, European with a couple of American cops, checking around Europe for stolen art. The first scene I had to do was at Prague’s main train station and it was me meeting two American cops off the train. The shot was a steadicam, starting up on a crane and then coming down and over to me, meeting the guys as the train comes in and then walking along with us. That just meant we needed to walk and talk but each take required them to reset the train and the camera back up.
And Snowpiercer the movie as well, I’m very proud of that!
DB: A Korean director?
Yes, Director Bong as we call him on onset [Bong Joon Ho]. He’s a genius. I’m glad he’s got all the recognition he has. Making a film like that was a blast just to watch. I got to meet John Hurt and watched Tilda Swinton and a whole bunch of other stars. It was a very cool set, they built the train on a gimbal so it was moving around all the time. It is the closest that I get to be on one of my favourite films Aliens, and I am very grateful for that.
DB: It’s a “Marmite” film isn’t it but I love a bit sci-fi and the visuals are so strong!
JH: It was pointed out to me (I didn’t know much about it) but with Korean cinema, one of its characteristics is it will shift genre during a film, a lot. Snowpiercer does that and it can be disorientating sometimes.
DB: That must have been an amazing experience!
JH: It was so cool to work on that. It was 14 days, so I got to watch him do his stuff and the storyboards. It’s crazy because the film is all in that one train and he manages to have images for a different shot on everything. He could go from the side and managed to open that space up and get in there. Chris Evans, I would be watching him doing his stunts.
DB: Other than Snowpiercer do any other films or TV shows stand out in your mind?
JH: I really enjoyed working on Shadow and Bone down in Hungary last year. Two TV shows that I’ve enjoyed working on are Carnival Row and Knightfall. I had a couple of good runs on those, and they both have amazing sets and production and were an absolute blast.
DB: Talking a little more about Knightfall the locations, costuming and the guys that you worked with.
JH: I was a Templar Knight that came in halfway through the first season. They built an amazing set in the backlot of Barandov Studio of 14th century Paris, and also the Templars’ temple. When we were inside the temple it was epic and surreal. We were inside the courtyard, the shot was Tom Cullen and Simon Merrells are coming back into the temple and the cameras were with them. So when they shut the doors it was just me and a bunch of other Templar Knights in this castle, and you couldn’t see any film or a set or crew and it was one of those moments of “Whoa, yeah, nice!”
The first scene was with Tom and Simon and it was cool. We started off technically specific because you had to be walking in, and then hit the mark at the right time and get some sort of eye contact and chat each time. Anyway, I got through that test. Simon said to me afterwards, because he’s a scholar and a gent, that I did well. And then they asked me back for a few other so that was great.
It was amazing! I got to shoot in a battle which was just a dream come true. We were shooting in a really beautiful park in Prague. It was a 5-day shoot with mud! It was tough but really good fun and an amazing thing to watch. They did similar things in season two, lots of running around, riding horses, swinging swords.
DB: Did you do much training before or did they check you already knew?
JH: I had used a sword before and I think I can hold it the right way. (Laughs) We had training for the specific fights with this amazing stunt team, so in control, and great! They trained us up, drilled us on it. It was a lot of fun to learn it. I had a bit where I was fighting with Simon, so I had to be careful with him, but for the most part, I was facing stunt people, and they’re just so in control.
DB: Did it start at a slow speed and then gradually increased speed?
JH: Yes, we would walk it through, step it out, work out for a video and then watched the video again and again. I would be just thinking it through because you want to have it down like lines, so far as you don’t want to be having to think, it’s just going to “be” and you are going to concentrate!
DB: What about horse riding? Had you ridden before?
JH: Only a little bit just enough to say you have done enough for castings.
DB: Did you have the same horse each time?
JH: Most of the time but they’re all crazy chill and super. It’s not guns going off but there is shouting and other noises and movements. I’m pretty comfortable just focusing on what I need to focus on. I was just thinking, “what am I doing” and luckily the horses are so good and just go with the flow.
I’ve been working a bit in Poland and Hungary, as well. I went to Hungary last year, on a Netflix show called Shadow and Bone. That was a big production! I’m in Hanna, which is an Amazon TV show and I’m currently shooting a bit in a film called White Bird, which is very interesting.
DB: At least everything has starting to move again.
JH: I think so. The main problem I know is the budget they spend on COVID management and testing. Also, the travel is tricky with restrictions and the quarantine breaks at the other end and whether you’ve got have a code test before you go and then another one at the other end, it all adds up immensely.
I am in a German film that is coming up Blood Red Sky, I think it’s pretty crazy and it’s been fun shooting. We started March 2020 and then it was off until we came back in September, and then we shot in November.
DB: Prague itself is a beautiful, stunning city.
JH: It makes use of its history, and locations here like the castles. We do have bigger productions coming because it’s this grandiose medieval thing. You can also match up parts of it to America.
DB: What can you tell me about Shadow and Bone?
JH: I can’t talk too much, really but it’s looking great! I like the guys they’ve got in that show. Ben Barnes is wonderful. The younger guys are awesome. From what I’ve seen of the footage it looks great and the craziest!
DB: Netflix is just starting to promote it with their first teaser trailer.
JH: There is a big fan base of the books, and the response was encouraging so far as it matches their expectations. It’s got quite a specific look, quite different to anything else I’ve seen.
DB: I would have watched it regardless but I’m looking forward to watching it even more now. You had a bit of horse riding in The Letter for the King as well.
JH: Yeah, I wasn’t in that so much but there were some lovely landscapes.
DB: I liked the young cast as well, I thought they were really good.
JH: They were amazing! A real little unit together, very supportive of each other and just having fun with it and enjoying themselves.
DB: You are also in Tribes of Europa. Where was that filmed?
JH: I’m not sure if they started in Germany and then came to Prague. I’m also not sure how long they were in Prague in the end, whether it was half the shoot or not. I was in right at the end of their shoot for that. That’s another crazy production design.
DB: Again, a good talented cast. Did they film that in studios in Prague?
JH: They were in the studio and a bunch of locations. Yeah, I was in a prison somewhere (I should know where it is actually) but I really don’t know! It was terrifying!
DB: You play Fergus in Carnival Row.
JH: Yes, that’s great fun to play. I really enjoyed that. It’s an amazing show! The set is built right next to the Knightfall set. They don’t quite overlap but you can walk from one to the other. It’s incredibly elaborate in the backlot. There are a couple of studio sets and costumes, and of course the beasties, fairies and creatures. I was so lucky to be Agreus’s guy [David Gyasi] with scenes with Andrew Gower and Tamzin Merchant as well. That’s my favourite part, not just the costuming but by the time they got their prosthetics on…
DB: David has loads of prosthetics on that must be an instant aid to the performance and with the sets, you are stepping into a different world.
JH: Absolutely. There are almost no green effects. David has got those feet on as well, so you can just lose yourself into it, and just as funny is that it fades away and you’re just talking to each other. It is a very realised world.
DB: I am looking forward to season 2! It is just up my alley the fantasy, steampunk, Gothic and yet still relating to the world today.
JH: Yes, very much, it’s right on the pulse.
DB: Do you have a backstory for your characters such as Fergus?
JH: In terms of my relationship with David we sketched out that fairly clearly, not dates, so much but a chronology. It’s funny because in terms of the actual show’s backstory there were a couple of different potential backstories for David and consequently for me. I got my attitude down to my relationship, where I needed to be and had an idea of where the focus was and when he wasn’t serving him what Fergus’s interests are.
DB: What kinds of roles, appeal to you the most?
JH: Just anything that gets you outside!
DB: Who are your acting idols and would you love to work with both actors and directors?
JH: I’d love to be directed by David Lynch! I know he’s worked with a lot of great actors and has got really good concepts, so it would be interesting. David Lynch’s films, it’s not a major thing but I like Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man. Being directed by him would be different. This year I have seen some footage from behind the scenes in Twin Peaks: The Return and it’s really interesting watching the production of it. And because he’s so hands-on and he’s also making things all the time. But there’s always this connector, and this first direction he says, “Okay, you’re in a dream.” If a direction starts like that it’s quite a useful thing.
Joaquin Phoenix, he’s like another level. I like Jack Nicholson, De Niro, they’re all cool people. Jack is fantastic, and you see the stuff he’s done and he’s always been great. Really having fun… I can’t name a Jack Nicholson role where I think he’s not having the best time ever doing it.
DB: Do you watch yourself on screen?
JH: I have, not so much but it can be useful on the day if you’re doing something in a way that you didn’t realise.
DB: Afterwards, when something comes out, are you’re quite happy to watch yourself or do you cringe?
JH: I don’t think I’ve watched myself in something I haven’t seen with other people. Friends are aware, I guess, but yeah it’s kind of cringe. I’m not quite sure what you’re supposed to say and do. I’ve been to a couple of premieres and it’s great fun, but when you come out to people saying that it was a good show, we say just say “Thank you.”
DB: You have done some video game voice work as well, haven’t you?
JH: Yes, I like doing that, that’s fun too. I did it for a game called Kingdom Come: Deliverance, which was using motion capture as well. They mapped my face and stuck it on a digital clone, so that was fun to see. It’s quite like when you do a series piecemeal because you’re jumping into all these different parts so there’s a lot on the director to remind you of where you are because there are so many scripts and blocks and they have all these windy roads depending on what options and choices the players make. There are lots of different medieval characters in that, a few villains.
DB: Did you do whole motion capture?
JH: Yes, I did the whole-body motion capture for a few characters and then for another character did motion capture on the face. You get into the sound studio as well and it’s this weird process where you’re doing lots of possible responses. The struggle with that is to keep it from becoming too similar just jumping from one thing to the next, you’ve got to come into each thing fresh.
DB: How long did it take for you to do your motion capture and the voices?
JH: That was a few weeks filming and then weeks in the studio as well. That was a long project for them. I was involved in that very early on when they were just proposing it.
DB: How did you get involved so early on?
JH: Through people I knew from theatre who were working on it, they just brought me in. It was very early in a very long process to make the game. The way things are going games make more money than films and seeing them in the office with hundreds of computers they’re building the world. Some guy’s building a stack of hay, some other guy’s building a house. It’s crazy and interesting because it’s a totally different way into film and it’s attracting more well-paid writers now. And then in games, your palette is infinite.
DB: What would your advice be to anybody who is considering acting as a career?
JH: Well, if you’re considering it get involved in it in some way that you enjoy. That love for simply acting is your anchor. In terms of the practical advice as getting into working as an actor, everybody’s story is different and certainly every actor I’ve met has come in from a different angle. I know that doesn’t answer exactly what to do but it helped me push on my own journey, which seemed very different to other actors, knowing that there’s more than one way to do it. Find something you enjoy with it, make sure it’s something you’re passionate about.
DB: You also kept another job going for a while as well, which gave you that degree of security.
JH: Yeah, loads go to the acting schools and it certainly does work because plenty of those guys come through, I know people who have done that. But I don’t know how you survive in London or wherever as a student by doing that, it’s tough.
DB: Do you enjoy travelling, not just for your job, but elsewhere?
JH: It feels like a millennium ago that was possible but yes. I’m lucky being able to travel around Europe a lot right now and I have plans to go to America this year, once things have settled.
DB: Have you got any particular favourite countries that you’ve travelled to?
JH: I did enjoy Hungary, although we were in the studio in the summer. I spent enough time in Kenya to want to go back. Kenya is based on a completely different emotion, but I do need to get back.
DB: When you are filming in a different location and you are not on-set, how do you spend your time?
JH: Hanging out with other cast and crew, eating, mooching around, just checking out what’s going on, trying to stay out of trouble… (Laughs) I haven’t been ensconced somewhere for months, I’ve always been away for say two weeks at a time and most of the times I’ve been happy. For most of the time, I’m working and then when I’m not working, I want to get my head together between shoots and staying in the zone, just chill.
DB: Taking it easy and recharging your batteries. When you are actually in the process of travelling how do you occupy your time?
JH: I read, music as well, dropping some electronic jazzy weird thing, some cinematic orchestra, jazz, funk, that kind of sort of vibe.
DB: Has living in Europe changed and added to your experience and you as a person?
JH: I think so. I like living in this part of Europe. The culture is quite different in subtle ways. I’ve learned a lot about that in terms of directness and also an outsider’s perspective on the UK. It is just the “getting to the point” that happens here, we instinctually struggle with it quite a lot, but it’s not personal, it’s just getting to the point. You don’t say, “Can I say?” very politely. This part of the world is a bit of a blind spot for us, I think. Nationally, nobody knows much about the Czech Republic.
DB: Who has been the most influential person or people in your life and in what ways have they been influential?
JH: My parents and sisters. They just have that attitude to life and enjoying it and that helped me find things to being infused with the world as well, and having a love for it.
DB: When you are not working, what are your hobbies, interests, passions and how do you spend your free time?
JH: Going out into the countryside, going to someplace in the summer. I’m not too much a winter sports guy but cycling, hiking, swimming, hanging out in nature. A lot of my spare time was about the theatre.
DB: During the winter when you cannot get out quite as much, how do you occupy yourself in your free time?
JH: I go underground really. Visit bars where there’s a lot of music as well. We’re swamped in musicians out here, so I go to a lot of music shows. I do the comedy shows so my social life is catered for on those two nights as we go to a bar once the curtains fall. We never ask an audience to try and enjoy a show without a drink – that doesn’t seem fair – there’s always a bar!
DB: Where do you do your shows?
JH: At the moment we’ve been doing them at a pretty big theatre. Although we were based in one place for a long time we’ve moved around various venues over the years. We were hoping we might resurrect that post-COVID.
DB: What is your Czech like?
JH: Everybody (more or less) in the business and the city has pretty good English (better than my Czech) but if I’m out of town in a pub with somebody who can’t speak English, I can have a bit of conversation. There are lots of kind of weird sounds and the bizarre thing is when you’re trying to get by in the smattering of Czech they just reply in really good English!
DB: Are you reading a particular book or books at the moment?
JH: At the moment I’m reading, George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, which I relate to. I remember as a teenager not liking it but it’s different from how I remember it. I’m also reading DH Lawrence and I saw that he spent some time in New Mexico so I read a little bit about his time in New Mexico. I put him off forever but the short stories are awesome! I think I need to go on with more of them.
DB: What can you not live without?
JH: I could not live without coffee!
DB: What is your preferred drink?
JH: Czech beer and there are weird little shots they have like Slivovitz, which is like schnapps. Pear schnapps, variations of, everybody makes it homemade and has got an apple tree in the garden. They make quite good wine here as well and I’m going to hopefully go around the vineyards this year.
DB: If you could have one wish granted right now what would it be?
JH: I feel like it could be a clichéd answer but it’s probably the only wish without ironic negative consequences and this is what is coming from my heart, can I say world peace?
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