Cassidy Little: I lost my right leg in Afghanistan, but now I am walking tall as an actor

Having lost his right leg while serving out in Afghanistan as a Royal Marine, Cassidy Little tells Sarah Freeman how becoming an actor has helped him come to term with his injuries.

Cassidy Little as the face for the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal.

Cassidy Little is 36 years old. He is a former professional ballet dancer, a one-time stand-up comic and now counts both television presenting and jobbing actor among his current occupations. It’s not a bad CV, but it’s one made all the more impressive given he also served as a medic in the Royal Marines and during his second tour of Afghanistan was caught in a blast which saw him lose his right leg below the knee.

Some of the events of May 27, 2011 are a little hazy. Others though Little remembers in vivid technicolor. Then a medic in 42 Commando, the day had begun much like any other. Tasked with creating a diversion to allow colleagues to push into a nearby town, known to be an insurgent stronghold, Little was all too aware of the dangers of being a sitting duck in the face of and enemy for whom the Geneva Convention meant little.

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“We did what we had to do and then our officer decided it was time to go out and try to force them out into the open,” he says. “We were Royal Marines. That’s what we were trained to do and I don’t have any problems with the decisions which were made. Unfortunately on that particular day, it didn’t end well.”

Cassidy Little in rehearsals for Soldier On. Picture by Amanda Searle.

That is something of an understatement. Little’s colleague Sam Alexander, who a couple of years earlier had been awarded a Military Cross for charging down a group of insurgents and in so doing drawing fire away from an injured colleague, stepped on an IED. He died instantly. So too did Lieutenant Ollie Augustin and the company’s interpreter.

“It was a device known as an legacy IED,” says Little. “It had been buried months earlier so there was no obvious sign the ground had been disturbed and it had made using materials that wouldn’t be picked up by our metal detectors. The amputation happened instantly. I have blocked out the really horrible bits, but I do know that the explosion also left me with a fractured pelvis, head injuries and a pretty impressive list of other problems.”

Flown back to England and to Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, Little spent a week in an induced coma as doctors battled to treat the worst of his physical injuries. Later transferred to the Surrey rehabilitation centre Headley Court, it was there that his recovery proper began and where he began address the psychological impact of losing not just his leg, but the career he had loved.

“I had survived, but really that was only the start of the journey,” he says. “I had to learn to walk again - and there is a reason why we don’t remember doing it the first time around. It’s painful and it’s hard, but I knew I would get through it. Then I had to work out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

The cast of Soldier On which will come to York Theatre Royal next month. Picture by Amanda Searle.

It wasn’t the first time that injury had forced a career change. While Little, who was born in Canada’s Newfoundland, had grown up in a military family - his father was a Brigadier General - he had originally trained as a ballet dancer.

“I come from a very supportive family and when I told them I wanted to dance they said, ‘Ok, go do it to the best of your ability’,” he says. “That’s what I did and I loved it, but when I picked up an injury I knew I couldn’t dance professionally any more. I tried stand up comedy, but I wasn’t very good at it and that’s when I joined the Royal Marines.

“I’ve always been a believer that if you can pick yourself up when it feels like the ground is rushing towards you then you will be ok. That’s what I did then and that’s what I did in 2011.”

At Headley Court, sport and art play a key part in the recovery programme of injured veterans and while Cassidy wasn’t much interested in the former, he immediately embraced the latter.

Cassidy Little in rehearsals for Soldier On. Picture by Amanda Searle.

“I think I have always loved telling stories, so when I was introduced to the director Stephen Rayne and the writer Owen Sheers it felt natural to tell them some of the things I had gone through, the experiences I’d had.

“I’ve always said communication is chemotherapy for people injured like I was. You have to talk about what happened and how you feel about it, otherwise it just simmers away inside.”

Those initial conversations saw Little return to his performance roots when he was given the lead role in The Two Worlds of Charlie F. Initially a one-off gala performed by injured servicemen and women who were encouraged to put their own stories centre stage, the show secured a UK tour and Little ended up working alongside British acting stalwarts Sir Trevor Nunn and Ray Winstone, who both signed up as patrons to the project.

“That was an incredible experience and I did have to stop and pinch myself,” says Little. “In the end we did 120 performances, I was nominated for an acting award and everyone involved knew it was something special.”

The cast of Soldier On which will come to York Theatre Royal next month. Picture by Amanda Searle.

Clearly comfortable in the spotlight, in 2013 Little was chosen as the face of that year’s Royal British Legion poppy appeal. He has since carved out a decent career as a motivational speaker and has a regular spot on Forces Television as both a celebrity interviewer and games reviewer.

Earlier this year he also appeared on the People’s Strictly for Comic Relief. It was the first time the BBC had drafted in members of the public and with dance partner Natalie Lowe, Little was an instant hit and thanks to an impressive pasodoble the pair took home the famous glitter ball.

“It’s true what they say about the Strictly family. It’s a lovely show to be a part of, but honestly it was also absolutely terrifying.” Next up is Soldier On. Produced by the Soldiers’ Arts Academy and written and directed by Jonathan Lewis it features a cast half of whom are actors and half like Little are veterans and follows this group of strangers as they become friends to stage their own production.

“It’s a show about a the making of a show and an awful lot of fun,” he says. “The cast dynamic really works for a production like this. It’s about the Armed Forces so those of us who served on the frontline can make sure it feels authentic and that’s important. It really does feel like we have built a proper community and that’s what you need for a play like this to work.

“Because of the subject matter, for me some of the scenes are incredibly close to the bone. I have had to step away and take a deep breath because there are certain scenes which take me back to where I was seven years ago.”

The play comes to York Theatre Royal next month as part of a short UK tour and these days Little, who is married with a young daughter, knows what to expect when he steps onto the stage each night.

“There is a reason why you get both a company of actors and a company of soldiers,” he says. “When you are standing in the wings and you can hear the audience taking their seats it’s the same feeling of nervous tension that you get when you are about to go into a fire fight. The details are different, but the sensation is exactly the same.”

Soldier On, York Theatre Royal, April 4 to 7. 01904 623568,