My father died when I was really young and that’s always made me want to try and live a really full life—not to feel like I’ve missed out on anything.
Fox’s country music-driven series, Monarch, was originally slated to premiere in January, before Covid-19 invaded the show’s Georgia set and shut down production. And just a few weeks out from its midseason launch—some episodes were ready, others were not—Fox faced the difficult decision of releasing episodes in chunks, or to wait to debut. The network smartly chose the latter.
“I’ve done things that can never be forgiven,” confesses country music superstar and matriarch Dottie (Susan Sarandon) in the premiere episode of the drama. Turns out, everybody in this Texan dynasty—the Romans—is hiding a sin or two, from adultery to straight-up murder, not to mention their not-so-honest rise to stardom as the first family of country music. Dottie, whose health is now waning, would like to see her eldest daughter, Nicky (Anna Friel), inherit the crown. But little sister Gigi (Beth Ditto), long consigned to the shadows, is primed for a power move. Meanwhile, Luke (Joshua Sasse), the CEO of the family’s record label, Monarch Entertainment, is concerned about how all this might affect the bottom line, all the while routinely locking horns with patriarch Albie (Trace Adkins), who browbeats his corporate-minded son about covering up a murder that he, or someone close to him, seems to have committed. This is one busy family.
Sasse, an immensely talented English actor, is one non-American trying on a Texan accent to tell a story about a seemingly all-American musical genre. His name is one to keep on your radar.
Monarch makes its long-awaited series premiere on September 11th on Fox following the NFL.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Hi, Joshua. You’re Down Under right now?
I’m Down Under, yeah. I’m in the wild.
I know you’re from London. You grew up in the Himalayas. How did you end up there?
My wife is Australian so we moved here four years ago. We wanted to start a family, and all her family is here. I sort of surprised myself by loving it because I hate heat. I hate sweating. [laughs]
I still haven’t been. Australia is high on my list.
It’s really great if you go to the right places. It’s really beautiful.
So did you end up rerooting the family while you were shooting Monarch?
Yeah. I did a couple months out there to set up and then they all joined. We were filming for nine months. The shoot was pretty grueling. We were filming like 92-hour weeks.
And my daughter was actually born the day I auditioned for this job. We were in hospital when they asked me to audition. They had asked me to audition for a different role and Luke is an amalgamation of two characters now. They emailed me that the night before we were going to have our daughter and I sort of put it in my rucksack thinking I won’t be able to do this for a week. My wife had the baby in one arm and drips in the other, and she was like, “Didn’t you have an audition?” I was like, “I did, but don’t worry about it. We can do it later.” She went, “Josh—get out of the hospital and do this right now.” A month later, I was in Atlanta. Then the family came out when my daughter was three months old and my son was one and a half, which didn’t make for the most conducive working atmosphere. [laughs] I mean, there were some pretty long days.
Sounds like you had an exciting day at the hospital.
It was a very, very long day. [laughs] Lots of coffee and some whiskey to keep me awake.
You’re wonderful on this series and I was curious to see you for so long. There was obviously a big delay with the premiere and I guess we have Covid to blame for that.
I think there were multiples reasons for that all happening—Covid being the main one. We just had so many shutdowns on set, and because we had the January release date, a couple shutdowns set us back to the point where they weren’t prepared to release what they had with hundred percent confidence. We had like a dozen episodes where they had to make decisions about what to do to do the most with the show. And the delay ended up being great because that gave us so much leeway to then go back and have a look at things in more detail. A lot of times with TV, you’re filming a movie a week basically, and I don’t wanna say corners are cut necessarily, but inevitably, sacrifices are made in order to carry on making stuff. So in the end, I think it was good because it allowed them time to go back, revisit things, and rework things. We had a little buffer.
How did you cope with the delay? Maybe well since you had a lot of life things going on.
We were moving house at the same time so we had lots to do. But it sucks. It’s sort of like doing a marathon and then you get to the end where someone says, “We’re doing another seven miles.”
That’s a great analogy.
It was harder for me in terms of trying to plan for future work. The December, January, February period is normally a really busy time for auditioning, and I basically couldn’t audition. I was so busy, but also, a lot of productions said, “We won’t even audition you,” because if you’re contracted to something, you’re locked into that. That was really inhibiting my ability to get work this last summer. That delays you because people wanna wait until the show comes out. So it meant I had a quiet year, which wasn’t bad ‘cause it was nice after nine months of filming to see my daughter grow up. Everything has consequences—it’s part and parcel of it—and everybody’s gone through that with Covid. I actually did audition for some projects that they flew me out to New York for and I remember walking through Broadway, realizing even Daniel Craig’s show got shut down two weeks into it. So there’s a camaraderie in the way that everybody’s going through it and I’d rather be in the trenches with everybody who’s going through it. As an actor, you’ve got so little control that it has to be que sera, sera, you know? If you don’t feel that way, you’re always gonna be frustrated. You gotta surrender in a way, you know? That’s the only way to survive.
There’s gonna be a lot of eyes on you on Sunday night.
Being released as a double-header with football is a big deal.
The placement makes the show feel like an event in itself. A spectacle.
It’s brilliant to be a part of it. It’s a wild, wild ride and such a privilege. Like you said, I grew up in the Himalayas. I grew up in a village where we didn’t have electricity. Kerosene lanterns, washing in the waterfalls, and going everywhere by donkey was my childhood. It was a two-day walk to a telephone. I’ve been on billboards in Times Square like four times now and that’s an extraordinary thing. Most of my friends that I went to drama school with are either out of work or struggling. It’s really hard to break through that wall, you know? It took me the best part of ten years of doing theatre in England out in the sticks performing to a man and his dog—literally. I remember doing Peer Gynt, which is like a three-hour-long play. There were only about seven people to start with and half of them walked out halfway. In the second half, there was a man and his dog, and only the dog was awake. [laughs] So to go from that to this is wild. You gotta remind yourself to be full of gratitude ‘cause it’s a one in a million thing. You have to be really joyous about it.
How did this audition come to you in the first place?
After doing Galavant, whenever a musical show is floating around, it sort of comes to my door. When this one came through, I was really excited because I’ve always wanted to do a Western, I love doing accents, and I love jumping into a world that is really unfamiliar to me. It gives you some fire and it’s nice to grow. The audition process normally means that you do a first audition, another one, a third one, then you do one with maybe the producers, another one with the studio, and then a screen test. I just did this one in Australia as a recorded thing, and not even a Zoom. I sent off three scenes and three songs. Three days later, I got a call from the producer with an offer. I mean, there were a couple of other projects with other networks that we were looking at at the time, but in terms of character, this was the one I wanted. And it was really nice because Melissa [London Hilfers], the creator, has a son in real life named Luke. A lot of things in Melissa’s life are transplanted onto the show. When the producer called me, he said, “Melissa says you are the one. When she was writing it, you are what she had in her head.” That’s such a lovely thing. It was nice seeing her beaming on set. The eternal hope is that you are the embodiment of somebody’s imagination. To feel that somebody’s created a character in their imagination that you fulfill is phenomenal. And going forward, there’s this intangible, simpatico language that you’ve got ‘cause you’ve already achieved something. That gives you a lot of confidence. And luck? I mean, that’s a big part of the business: just luck. I happen to fit what she was looking for so that’s just lucky.
So how much of a country music guy were you going into this?
To be honest, I listen to mostly classical music. But my stepfather, who’s an artist, is really big into country music ‘cause he grew up in California. I was kind of raised on it. Johnny Cash and young Elvis’ Sun records—not Vegas or ‘70s Elvis. And with the show, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew we weren’t gonna be doing a lot of the old catalogue, and we didn’t know how much I was gonna sing in the show as well. I recorded six songs and I don’t think they’re using all of them just because of how the character ended up being. But I love that world and, like I said, I’m a big Western fan so I love all the older, croonier stuff. [Joshua breaks into song] “For I must face a man who hates me, or die a coward in my grave.” I’m a bit of an old fogey like that.
It bolsters the show to have country stars like Trace Adkins because this is his real-life terrain. That must charge the production with an energy that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
Oh, massively. Especially for me and Anna [Friel] coming into it being English, we were tentative about making sure that all the choices we were making were authentic. That was a thoroughfare throughout the whole thing. We had music producers there and Trace was always there. Trace is such a good buffer for all that because he knows what’s real and what isn’t. So we relied on that a lot and we would always ask him questions. Obviously, the main worry was the accent. Me and Anna sort of stayed in our accents for the first month or so I reckon. Trace was like, “So where you from? You from West Texas?” We’re like, “No, we’re English,” and he’s like, “What?!” [laughs]
That’s the best reaction anyone could hope for, isn’t it?
It’s nice because when you look at someone, that’s obviously the first thing. And the costumes are fantastic. If you don’t immediately buy into that world, you as the audience member have to work a little bit harder. There’s a balance as well. It’s not like Yellowstone where we’re cowboys. It’s a different world of Southern America. There’s a lot of money in the music industry. There’s a lot of money in oil and ranching and stuff. I think we tried really hard to show the other side of it. People have seen Yellowstone and it’s been such a success and it’s nice to show the other half of it.
Where do you start with taking up accents? Is it a cliché to ask if you people watch?
It’s not a cliché at all. Absolutely. You people watch. It’s really about the amount of hours you put into it. You really gotta put the time in. To do an accent really well, I reckon you gotta put in anywhere in the upwards of 500 hours. And it starts with watching people. You pick a couple of people that you think are good transplants for who your character is because you gotta have a reference point, right? Just as an artist would have a reference point for their style, for their color palette, for anything, you start there. You have to be very technical at the beginning, learning how your vowels change. It’s mouth shapes. In that sense, the beginning is more arduous and much more technical, and you gotta write it all out and make sure you’ve got vowel maps to sort of remind you. And it depends on where you’re coming from obviously. Then you gotta put the hours in again and just practice and people watch. It was nice in Atlanta ‘cause they’ve got a nice Southern twang to it. And you sort of just steal bits from movies and make a patchwork of things that sound nice. Then—it’s what I do anyway—I have a single sentence in my head where if I’m ever going, “Oh god, hang on. What’s this accent?” I’ll say that and that’ll get me back into it.
Did you have one for your Texan accent?
It was, “I never seen nothin’ like that in my god damn life.” And my Northern Irish one is a line from a Van Morrison song: “Put yer fur boots on.” [laughs]
When did you discover your singing voice?
I mean, I always sang. I’ve had singing lessons all my life. I was in the choir at school for the best part of 15 years, really. I always did musicals when I was younger. But I didn’t think I was gonna use it. I always wanted to join the Royal Shakespeare Company and do just straight drama. Then you get out there and you’re trying to make money, and somebody offered me a job to play Elvis doing a touring theatre show. I said straight off the bat I don’t wanna sing for my job because it can sort of take the joy out of it sometimes. When you sing a song a thousand times, it stops being as fun. But I did it and I loved it. And then straight off the back of that, I got offered to do Mamma Mia in the West End. It was like every time I did something, people wanted me to sing. I think if you’ve got an extra string to your bow, people generally want you to use it. Look—when you’re starting out, it’s hard to get jobs. So if someone offers you a job, it’s like, “Let’s go for it.” You’re not picky. I gotta make money. I got three kids. I mean, it’s nice because it’s a different thing to do. That’s the joy of the job: you never know what you’re gonna be doing next. One minute, you’re working with a stunt team doing really physical stuff. The next, you’re learning how to drive a sports car. And the next, you’re in a recording studio with producers who made Glee. Our producers have done such a body of work that just to record music with them is amazing. You’re working with people at the top of their game and you’re learning technique. You’re just constantly learning. As long as you think about it like that, it’s the most wonderful thing.
You have this line in the show, where Luke tells a new signing at the record label, “Every artist has a different way to the top.” It echoes what actors also experience. Looking back, was there was any way of knowing how to draw a straight line to where you are currently?
Such a good question. I’m not sure that as an actor you can plan per se. I think, with your agents, you can come up with an ideal structure for what you’d like. I think it’s important to have an end goal for where you want to be. I can’t speak for anybody else, but my goal is to always do something different and to continue to grow as an actor. It’s really easy to be typecast, and it’s easier to choose a career path if you allow yourself to get typecast all the time. Being English and having the accent that I do, it would’ve been easier maybe to just be typecast and to have stayed in England doing period dramas and that sort of thing. But I wouldn’t have grown as much I don’t think as a performer. So my thing is, whenever I do a job and talk to my team about what’s next, it’s more about saying, “I want to do something that’s a real divorce from this.” When I did Galavant, as an example, I’d done a serious drama just before that. Suddenly, I was doing a comedy musical and I’d never done a comedy before. That was terrifying—and it ended up being one of the best experiences. It depends on what you’re going through in life as well. If you gotta pay a mortgage off, maybe you’re gonna take that job for a different reason. Earlier in one’s career, you gotta make a few more of those choices. And like I said, a lot of it’s really luck. There are choices that you know will be career beneficial and choices that you feel will be artistically beneficial. I try to find a midway between the two. Sometimes there are roles that I’m just absolutely dead for and really want to do ‘cause I’ve never done that before and I don’t know if I can do it and I really want to try that. With Luke, for instance, I was nervous about doing it. I was kind of apprehensive because he’s very straight, he’s a businessman, he doesn’t let his emotions get away with him, and he’s very levelheaded. I’m not like that myself. [laughs] So I was really interested in trying to do something like that, maintaining that for a long period of time, and learning about a culture I didn’t know about. Luckily, I knew it was gonna be a big show so that was a marriage of ideas. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. You just gotta decide where you are in life. As I say, I’ve got three kids and a mortgage so I can’t go and do a play in London for five months. That’s just not the place I’m in. But when that comes up and I am in that place, I will.
Acting is just one part of your story. I very quickly sensed that you’re curious by nature.
My father died when I was really young and that’s always made me want to try and live a really full life—not to feel like I’ve missed out on anything. He was 37 when he died and I’m nearly 35. So I’ve always been very conscious of that.
There are many things to list off here: your poetry, the novels you’ve written, your safari company… It paints a picture of a man. And you were in the British Army, weren’t you?
The army was a big thing for me because my grandfather had been a Gurkha, the Nepalese regiment in the British Army, as was my godfather. The rest of my family have all been in the army pretty much. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, so I applied to the Royal Military Academy and got accepted first class. That was a really big deal for me. But then the Iraq War broke out, and I got offered a place at drama school. I just realized I didn’t agree with the war so I went to drama school. I didn’t even go to my military training. I think getting accepted was enough for me to feel like I was good enough. As a young man, that was really important for me.
Julie Christie was a great friend of my stepfather’s and she’s obviously such an icon, and she used to say when I was growing up, “It’s such a dirty business. I hate it.” I was like, “What? What do you mean?” She was like, “It’s terrible. I hate it! You gotta find other things you love. That’s the most important thing.” That made a big impression on me growing up, having Julie Christie say that to me. [laughs] So I just tried to really culture that. I got into reading whenever I was in the West End. I’d be backstage behind the curtain trying to read a book because there’s a lot of downtime, and that’s when I realized there’s so much downtime as an actor. If you don’t fill that with something, what are you gonna do? I just started doing hobbies. I always draw everybody on set. I’m always taking pictures and just trying to fill it up. And I think now with kids, it’s really important ‘cause you gotta give them a fertile imagination. So I’m grateful that I’ve done all that stuff. I don’t think I would’ve been that way if my father hadn’t died when I was so young because it’s made me appreciate how futile life is. We don’t know when our time’s up. And it doesn’t mean that I’m any good at these things, Kee. [laughs] I might be crap, you know? But I’m trying.
I can only speak on what I’ve seen and I think you’re a fantastic actor, Joshua.
Thank you very much. I feel like I’ve just met an old mate. It’s been a really lovely start to the day.