'There's not the stigma around soap acting there used to be': James Sutton on his career from Hollyoaks to the stage
“I’m a bit groggy,” says James Sutton from a hotel room in London.
The actor was up early to visit the American Embassy to get a working visa for a play which is going on tour to New York later this year.
“I’m going with Caroline’s Kitchen as part of the Brits Off Broadway season where they bring over new British plays,” he says.
Caroline’s Kitchen may not be a household name, but James will be familiar to soap fans.
Regular roles in Hollyoaks and Emmerdale, and appearances in Casualty, Holby City and Scott & Bailey, have made him a recognisable TV presence.
His route to the stage took him via Stafford, where he attended the King Edward VI School, and Newport, where he was a pupil at Burton Borough. And his path to the Big Apple began at Stafford Gatehouse Theatre.
“I was an energetic kid and my mum took me there over the summer to get me out from under her feet,” he says.
“It was incredible and it was where I first got the buzz. I would do things on stage and people would clap.”
He joined Burton Borough when his family crossed the Shropshire border when he was 14.
“It was tricky to move school at that age as a lot of children had already formed their friend circles,” said James. “But it was a wonderful place to learn. At that time it had no GCSE drama and my English teacher Emma Hennessy set up a course for us.
“There were about six or seven of us who would go and spend our lunchtimes doing the GCSE.”
After taking A-levels James then went to study drama at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.
“I always wanted to pursue acting as a career from those early days in Stafford and I was lucky to have parents that really supported that,” he said.
“It was incredible for the school to set up that GCSE. If they hadn’t I would have still pursued a career in acting, but having a that bit of paper helped a lot for me to get to study drama in Cardiff.”
Success for James in the job market was pretty instant after finishing his studies in south Wales. He has recruited an agent, and it was she who called him to tell him that he had landed his first professional role.
“It was actually the day I went in to pick up my results,” said James. “I got a call from my agent to tell me I had landed a role on an episode of Trial and Retribution. I thought to myself ‘this is easy’. But I now know how treacherous and difficult the industry can be.”
A part in Sky One’s Dream Team 80s followed, before he landed his regular gig as John Paul McQueen on Hollyoaks.
It is a role which would see him lauded, notably for gay love story with fellow actor Guy Burnet (Pitch Perfect 3). It won Best Storyline National Television Awards 2007 and James was nominated for Most Popular Actor, losing out to David Tennant for his role in Dr Who.
“Playing that role was incredible,” said James. “It was that storyline that really go people talking. It was the coming out story of a 16-year-old. Massive respect to Channel 4 for showing that at 6.30pm in the evening.
“It’s changed now and and it’s probably not as shocking to middle England as it would have been back then, but we really went there. I still get people now come up to saying that they came out to their parents because of that storyline. That’s an incredible thing and is actually a huge responsibility as an actor.”
He left Hollyoaks in 2008 to play Ryan Lamb, a mechanic from a broken family, on Emmerdale.
“I knew someone in casting and the role was great for me,” he says. “They already had this 18-month storyline written and I knew that it had an expiration date.
“I had a great time up in Yorkshire, and anyone will tell you that the Emmerdale set is the most idyllic set you can work on. It’s beautiful and you have Red Kites flying above you.”
James would return to Liverpool in 2012, where he still lives with his wife Rachael, and took a second stint on Hollyoaks – “I had this nagging feeling that I had already ticked this box and I needed to do something different,” he says. Now he’s heading for the New York stage.
He again left Hollyoaks in 2017, says he is a better actor for his time working in soaps to date.
“Being on telly everyday with storyline variation makes you learn so much as a performer,” he said. “Soap actors are some of the hardest working actors you can find, and once you’ve done it you can pretty much do anything. You have to rely on your instincts and think fast. There is not the stigma there used to be back in the day where it was seen as a lesser art work, it’s a great thing to have on your CV.”
James taught acting in Liverpool for a while before deciding to tour with Caroline’s Kitchen.
“At five months it’s the longest run I’ve done on stage,” he says.
After his run with the play James will be writing with fellow actor Greg Finnegan and getting a pilot for a show commissioned, producing a feature length film on Merseyside and filming for a movie – called Made You Look. But he still finds the time to return to Shropshire.
“It’s only an hour and a half from Liverpool and I like to come back and walk the dog,” he says. “Shropshire is a bit of a secret. It feels like no one knows about it. There are some amazing parts like Ironbridge, Shrewsbury and the bits on the Welsh border. It’s really a beautiful place. I’m a bit of a county boy at heart.”