Those partial to a period drama have a new series to get stuck into this season. Just launched on ITV is Hotel Portofino, which tells the story of a British family who move to the Italian riviera in the 1920s and, as the name suggests, open a hotel there. Here to tell us all about the show is one of its stars, Oliver Dench, who plays Lucian Ainsworth, daughter of Bella (Natascha McElhone) and Cecil (Mark Umbers). You might recognise Oliver’s last name – and yes, you’re right, he’s related to the iconic Judi Dench (she’s his great aunt). His acting career began with a role in Nickelodeon show Ride, but he’s perhaps best known for his role in sci-fi action series Pandora. We caught up with Oliver to hear all about filming in Portofino, his switch to veganism and the difficult side of being an actor.
Q&A with Oliver Dench
What can you tell us about Hotel Portofino?
I can tell you a lot, but I don’t want to spoil it too much. So I’ll stay safe and say it’s a period drama, very beautifully shot, about an English family in the 1920s. We move to Portofino to start a hotel, and each member of the family gets into some sort of trouble. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s really all about Lucian.
What can we expect from your character, Lucian Ainsworth?
Angst, probably. Lucian had a terrible time during the first World War, as almost everyone involved did. He’s sustained some serious injuries and scarring, and this season follows his journey through recovery, working out the kind of person he wants to be, and how to square that with his familial expectations. So a lot of angst.
Any funny stories from rehearsals?
A lot of the scenes and work we found ourselves hashing out on the set itself, so there are plenty of funny stories of being on set and trying desperately not to laugh at someone’s outrageous choices and performances – that someone normally being Mark Umbers who plays Cecil. Something about his empirical Prince Phillip-esque performance always made me laugh.
Favourite person you worked with on Hotel Portofino?
Everyone was truly lovely, an almost frighteningly nice cast. During the second season, Claude Scott-Mitchell, Louisa Binder, Oscar Lloyd, Louis Healy, Rocco Fasano and I all got together to play Dungeons and Dragons a few times, resulting in more people than just me wetting ourselves laughing.
Favourite role to date and why?
So far I’ve been lucky that every new role makes me think of nice new things and teaches me a lot. It remains constantly satisfying, so in lots of ways they keep getting better.
Role you’d cut your right arm off to get?
When I was first starting out, all I wanted to do was run through the Shakespeare canon of leads in age appropriate order. I imagined my career starting with Romeo, Troilus, and Hamlet, and then slowly getting older and older until I finish with Propsero and then die triumphantly on stage in the final act of King Lear. But then I realised that that was agonisingly pretentious. I still want to do it though.
What demands do you have during rehearsals?
I’m very partial to a rice cake with peanut butter and slices of banana on top. The perfect snack. Balanced. Tasty. Sweet yet not too unhealthy. On the set of Pandora they became known as a ‘dench’. A plate of Denches. This upset Priscilla Quintana a lot, who insisted, completely incorrectly, that she had invented the snack. The liar.
What qualities do you think have made you successful?
I was an excellent standing long jumper in school, which gave me a good sense of spatial awareness. I always hit my marks. And I only have to look down once or twice.
Film you think everyone in the world should see?
I’d probably go for something serious like Dominion or anything about climate change. But I’d also like everyone in the world to watch Lilo & Stich because I love it so much and feel it’s much overlooked and that’s a travesty.
What’s your relationship with social media like?
Terrible. I hate it. I’m not very good at it, but I find some sites like Reddit and TikTok so addictive that I have to ban myself from them to stop myself from ruining my life.
What did you want to be when you were a little boy?
A marine biologist. I think for some reason everyone when I was a child wanted to be a marine biologist, which was a very specific aspiration, and one that no one in my school (to my knowledge) achieved. I then wanted to be a chef, but I thought that professional kitchens were too scary and intimidating for me.
If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be?
I’d be serious and tell him to stop worrying and feeling so angsty all the time, and that everything is lovely and the process is the reward. I spent a lot of my life and career so far not being happy with where I was, or thinking jobs or experiences or education was a stepping stone to something better rather than something to be enjoyed for what it is. I have few regrets, but I wish I had enjoyed things as they came to me and been less pretentious.
Three books you’d take to a desert island and why?
I’d take Infinite Jest and Ulysses so I could finally sit down and read them with no distractions because I keep bloody trying but I don’t think I’m clever enough for them. So I’ve never succeeded. And then I would take The Very Hungry Caterpillar so when I’m in tears all frustrated because I don’t understand James Joyce I can read that for comfort.
The most challenging moment of your life?
I’m not sure. I have spent an awful lot of time unemployed as an actor, and the mental health challenges that come from those times are very real. It’s a lovely job when I’m working, and a terrible one when I’m not, so helping myself deal with depression and anxiety in very low times is the realest challenge I’ve faced, though not a very exciting one for an interview.
How can we all live a little bit better?
Go vegan, if you have the ability to do so. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Be nice to people around you. Vote left.
What are your indulgences?
Food, mainly. I always save up my money to spend on fine restaurants when I can find them, and I’ve never regretted it. I think it gets a lot of criticism, but London is one of the best food cities I’ve ever been to, and I spend a lot of time looking for food in other cities. Especially for vegan food. It’s the best.
What would your best friend say about you?
Hopefully nice things, or I won’t let them be my best friend anymore. Maybe that I’m never around? But we have a lovely time when I am. I should call them.
How do you relax?
I lie on my bed and watch videos of people cooking on YouTube for hours. It’s meditative. Cathartic. Heavenly. I recommend it.
If we’re coming to your area for a visit, what should we do?
Right now I’m doing a play in Paris, and staying in an apartment building in La Defense, which is a Parisian sort of Canary Wharf. So if you ask me, we should get out of this area, and go to somewhere that feels more Parisian, so we can eat delicious pastries and drink enough coffee to give me an anxiety attack. Which is a single coffee in my case.
Are you a rule breaker or a rule taker?
I love a rule. I wish I were a super cool rule breaker but I’m probably not. I’m not interesting enough for that. In general I follow rules unless it’s something really abhorrent, or something so minimal that I can break it with no consequences and live my fantasy of being a naughty boy.
Hotel Portofino is available now on ITVX
- Photographer: David Reiss (@davidreissphotography)
- Grooming: Charlotte Yeomans (@charlotteyeomansmakeup)
- Styling: Bertie Taylor-Smith (@bertie_ts)