Oliver Dench’s acting journey has taken him from performing in a one-man production of Hamlet all the way to a hotel on the Italian Riviera as Lucian Ainsworth on PBS/ITV’s historical drama Hotel Portofino – think The White Lotus but with more 1920s glamour and less Jennifer Coolidge.
Oliver’s roots as a classical theatre actor shine through in his compelling performance as Lucian, a creative soul learning how to move through the traumas he endured as a soldier during World War I. 5ELEVEN caught up with Oliver to ask about Hotel Portofino, inspiration – and of course – Shakespeare.
Words by Maddie Anderson.
Oliver Dench was photographed by David Reiss.
Styled by Bertie Taylor-Smith. Makeup by Charlotte Yeomans.
I heard your first love was theatre. Did you always intend to make the jump to television?
No, not at all. I didn’t think it was likely for me. I think I told my agent that all I wanted to do was classical theatre, and he probably told me that that wasn’t going to work. I’ve been very lucky to get work in television. But I’m sad to not be working in theatre more – it’s a trade-off.
You've acted in several Shakespeare stage productions — would you consider taking on a Shakespeare role on-screen?
Definitely. It’s a bit of a challenge to translate Shakespeare to the screen – I feel like there are a lot of bad versions of great work. I didn’t used to think it could be done well and still preserve what was good about the plays. That was until I saw the Rupert Goold’s version of Richard II with Ben Wishaw. That film is a masterpiece. So, if either of them is involved, or preferably both, I’ll do anything.
My favourite Shakespeare adaptation is She's The Man. What's yours?
I think The Lion King or 10 Things I Hate About You – because Timon and Pumba are great and so is Larry Miller. Also, I haven’t seen Gnomeo and Juliet, but I’m told it’s brilliant.
If you could work with any actor - stage or screen - who would it be?
I’m obligated to say Ciarán Owens with whom I’m sharing a dressing room right now. Other than that, I normally idealise working with writers or directors - I would do anything to work on a Charlie Kaufman project.
Who was your inspiration growing up?
I always found my grandad very inspiring – he was a bottomless font of knowledge on theatre and always amazed me every time we spoke. His technique was incredible.
Suit by Massimo Dutti. Vest, stylist’s own
Who is your biggest influence now?
I find the people I work with on any project to be very inspiring. Everyone comes at acting from such a different place and we have so much to learn from each other. On Hotel Portofino, I was always impressed by Mark Umbers for the clarity of his performance and the perfection of his choices. Right now, I’m working opposite Lizzie Connolly who amazes me every show with the emotion she brings to the part and our scenes. Most memorable role to date?
I’ve enjoyed Hotel Portofino a lot – the role, the shoot, and the people with whom I’m working. I also did a one-man Hamlet in France years ago for only a couple of performances that remains one of the most intense things I’ve ever done.
T-shirt bu Sunspel. Jeans by Lee
Tell me about your character in Hotel Portofino. What can we expect to see from Lucian in season two?
For me, season one was about Lucian learning that he can’t put everything off forever. After the war, he refused to face his trauma, turning instead to drink and sex and art – all the best things. He came to realise that he would not be able to run away from these things, and that he had responsibilities put on him by his father. In that respect, he was growing up.
Season two is a journey for Lucian in terms of relearning what he used to love about the world after the disastrous effects of his father’s pressures. You can expect to see him reconnect with art, sex, sun, and love, and what that means for a more developed Lucian than we knew in season one. What first drew you towards the project?
I was excited to delve into Lucian’s mental state. He’s definitely suffering from PTSD as well as social anxiety and depression in a world and time period where a stiff upper lip was prized over self-awareness. That’s an interesting position to be in – a tragic position. What's next?
I’m in Paris right now playing Cliff in a production of Cabaret. I’m having the greatest time. After this, I’ll be returning to London and crossing fingers for a renewal for Hotel Portofino!
Hotel Portofino’s brand-new second season drops Friday 3rd February
available to stream on BritBox.
Blazer by Hugo Boss. Jewellery, stylist’s own