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Photo courtesy of Darragh Cowley.

On the Verge: ‘Masters of the Air’s Darragh Cowley

Darragh Cowley is a thoughtful guy who’s got guts. Plenty of actors would take easy jobs to continue their success rather than take big risks to chase the roles they want to play. The latter is Cowley, whose first name is pronounced DAAH-ra, like Farrah (the g is silent). It’s going to be useful to know how to say his name, now that Apple TV+’s Masters of the Air has begun to stream its episodes. It’s his first major film or television role, and it’s a doozy.

He stars as Lieutenant Glenn Graham in the series, which focuses on the famed 100th Bomb Group that flew missions over Europe during World War II. He spoke with us from his home in London.

How did you get into acting in the first place?

I got into acting because I was 11 and didn’t have any friends. When I first went into musical theater, I didn’t like it. I did not like the subject. I didn’t like how I’d already been in boys school for four years, but I liked the people and eventually jumped into it and loved it. Working with them made me fall in love with it.

I think that’s how a lot of people start, in musical theater.

But I really trained in musical theater. I studied musical theater. I’ve worked in musicals. But it didn’t take me very long to figure out I prefer the telly stuff, and that’s where my ambitions are. I did a very, very traditional route into West End musical theater, then decided early on that I wasn’t going to last. Also, I didn’t like it all that much anymore.

What was it about musical theater that you stopped liking? And why did you find there was no future for you in it?

I didn’t think that there was enough work out there that I was suited to have a long or healthy career. I also think that it doesn’t allow for creativity in the same way.

How so?

The reality of the job is that a musical theater performer is not a creative role. At all. It’s very uniform, very athletic and often very military. If you’re gonna go into a show, like Les Mis or Wicked, you do what the guy did 25 years ago because that works and that’s what the producer wants to do. I grew up thinking, “God, maybe I could do Fiyero [from Wicked] one day, My Fiyero would be lovely.” But it’s not true. And it’s not going to be that different from anyone else’s.

So what you’re saying is that doing straight acting — non-musical acting — is more creative because you have more of a say in the character and how it’s played and performed?

Exactly. Every single time you’re going into a creative position, you’re expected to be the creator, and that is the fundamental skill. Whereas in the musical theater performance, the skill that’s going to keep you going for the longest time is to say, “Yeah, I can do that.” But you’re always sort of being shown and told what to do.

[Wicked’s] Elphaba is a great example. When you see all these compilations of different “defying gravity” riffs that go up and down, you go, “Okay, well, that’s where the creativity is.” But that’s not where my creativity lies. My creativity lies in creating characters creating stories and seeing how emotions play with each other. Creating things that have chemistry that are organic to me, rather than organic to an established thing that I’m trying to apply myself to. But people will still look at you as a musical theater person and sometimes that makes it hard to get seen.

I get how you can be stigmatized by having a reputation as a musical theater guy and maybe not being allowed to present something more grounded.

I turned down two jobs with good West End contracts because they wouldn’t lead to the job that I wanted to go to next. You do have to be picky with the avenues that you go down. You’ve got to be smart about it. As an actor, it’s really hard to turn down work, but if it’s not the right opportunity, it’s not an opportunity at all.

How do you change their minds? How do you get into rooms that aren’t looking to see you?

Be impolite about it. You just go, “Hey, this is what I’m here to do. I think, with musical theater performers, we’re taught to be very grateful actors, very gratuitous. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.” Kiss your feet for this opportunity. There’s nothing more dull when you’re in it, to be honest, but it works for musical theater. That’s the way they like it.

You just have to get in there with your shoulders and put your foot down, be decisive. Don’t listen to people who want to tell you no, if you have a different idea of what you’re good for. They might be right. They might be wrong. But fundamentally, you’re never going to be satisfied unless you’re trying to do the thing that you want to do, rather than the thing you can do.

This role in Masters of the Air must be a big step in the right direction.

Yeah. Totally.

You’re playing a real person, a genuine hero. I’m curious what kind of research you were able to do on him.

There wasn’t lots on Glenn. There’s some information out there, but not loads. If you dig your way through the archives, you can get what you need. He was a pretty serious pilot.

This is a big first gig. Where do you go from here?

That’s the question. I don’t know. It’s been a really interesting climate since we shot this. I’d like to do a lead in something small, something manageable that sort of matches the ambition of where I need to go next. In terms of doing something like Masters of the Air again, they don’t come around that often.

This is a big exception, obviously, but I find telly generally is quite nine to five. If we would compare it to anything, it’s like an office job, but everybody has fun. Whereas movies, you’ve got a group of pirates, they’re jumping out on location with one massive collective vision. A lot of people are sacrificing an awful lot that they can be involved in this great thing. That’s what I want to do. Travel the world and shoot great films all over. I want to effectively run away and join the circus. (Laughs)

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