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Playing a British Rogue, With Added Firepower

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In the first episode of Guy Ritchie’s new Netflix series “The Gentlemen,” a British aristocrat is forced to dress up in a chicken suit and dance on camera at the pleasure of a gangster to whom he owes money. He flaps his arms wildly, thrusts his head forward and crows at the top of his voice, as tears stream down his face.

The man in the costume is Daniel Ings, an actor whose face people might recognize more than his name. He is best known for playing Luke, a lovable womanizer on the sitcom “Lovesick,” but he has also appeared in many other television roles that fit a certain archetype: the charming, posh British man, who is a bit of a cad.

In “The Crown,” he played a roguish friend of Prince Philip; he was the unreliable father of Dr. Jean Milburn’s baby on “Sex Education” and the resentful husband on Lucy Prebble’s “I Hate Suzie.”

“I probably should show some range at some point,” Ings, 38, joked in a recent interview at a London hotel. But he enjoyed playing “the cheeky chappy,” he said, as well as the challenge of transforming characters who, on paper, seem quite unlikable into endearing onscreen presences. When Ings reads a script that frames his prospective role as a villain, he said, he thinks, “I bet I can find something childlike, something fun in there.”

To play Freddy in “The Gentlemen,” Ings brought this approach to what might be his most reprehensible character yet. The arrogant, drug-addled eldest son of a duke, Freddy is passed over in his father’s will in favor of his younger brother, Eddie (Theo James), who discovers organized criminals running an enormous weed farm underneath the family estate.

As Eddie tries to safely extract his family from the criminal world, Freddy creates chaos. It was essential to the plot, Ings said, for viewers to feel some of the affection that Eddie has for his “idiot brother,” so that they understand when Eddie enters into dodgy deals with gangsters to protect Freddy and pay his debts.

Although Ings has made a career playing upper-class British rogues, his own background is a little different. He went to a private school in England, but his family was lower-middle class, he said, and he learned to play posh by observing his classmates. “It’s a thing that I know from watching it, and I can perform it ironically,” he said. Though many of his characters are lotharios, Ings has been in a relationship with his wife since they were teenagers.

An Ings performance is a balancing act between careful attention to what he calls “the cadence of dialogue” and physical improvisation, in which he lets loose and makes himself ridiculous. Filming “The Gentlemen” gave Ings the opportunity for both. For a scene in which Freddy learns from his father’s will that he won’t get the inheritance he expects, Ings said he carefully prepared his lines of furious dialogue. But Ritchie, the episode’s director, gave him free rein, take after take, Ings added, to see where the scene could take him. “There was an opportunity to rampage,” Ings said, smiling.

Ritchie said in an emailed statement that the opportunity to evolve Eddie and Freddy’s story over the course of eight hourlong episodes was “tremendously liberating,” compared with the restraints of a 2020 film, also called “The Gentlemen,” that he had made featuring a similar plot.

Ings’s characters — including Freddy — are often loud, verbose and physically expressive. In person, the actor also spoke exuberantly with his hands and swore a lot. “On the one hand, he’s very English,” said Johnny Flynn, who starred alongside Ings in “Lovesick,” “but in terms of his energy, it’s more of an American comedy atmosphere.”

Ings cited actors like Vince Vaughn and Robin Williams as his heroes. His dream role, he said, would be something similar to Williams on “Mork and Mindy,” a sitcom that premiered in the late ’70s, in which Williams played an extraterrestrial navigating life on Earth. Williams would “come in and just improvise these insane rants and physical comedy, or go bouncing around the set,” Ings said.

Although Ings seemed happy in his posh cad niche, he said if he were to branch out, he would want to do more theater. He hasn’t been onstage since 2013, when he provided comic relief as the Porter in a London production of “Macbeth” — though he wasn’t interested in a yearlong, West End run. “I know I would get bored,” he said, “and you can’t improvise onstage — unless you’re Mark Rylance.”

Ultimately, performing “should be fun for the audience, and fun for the community of people who were there on the day doing it,” Ings said. “Bring back ‘Mork and Mindy,’ you know what I mean?”

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