You have quite a few things coming out…
Yeah, I have actually, I spent a whole year doing a lot but I had nothing coming out, and now suddenly everything at the same time.
Do you like having that quiet period?
I like doing the work and then when it comes out it’s always bit anxiety inducing, with TV it’s often something that you filmed ages ago and when it comes out you’re thinking “Oh god! What are people going to think? What if it gets slated?!” With a play it’s much more immediate, you can feel it from the audience, you know how it’s being received, and generally in rehearsals you have a feeling, it’s very instinctive, whereas if you put something in a can you just don’t know what it’s going to end up like.
Yes, because you’ve done a lot of theatre – is that because you prefer it?
No, it kind of evens out, I now do less and less theatre, because it’s impossible…it’s incredibly gratifying as an experience, and it’s incredible in terms of honing your skills, but I’ve got three kids now and I just can’t afford to take four months out to do a play for nothing, so pragmatically you go much more into stuff like film and TV. With film in this country it’s not like in the 90’s where you would be earning big bucks, there’s no money but you want to do film because it’s more permanent, there’s something disposable about TV, and you love doing films but then you have to do more of them… so it becomes much more about the choices that you make, and just gratifying my own desires of what I want to do.
What work do you find the most satisfying?
I honestly don’t know, it depends, sometimes you can do a project whether it’s a film or TV and it’s so satisfying, and then you can do a piece of theatre where you have a bad experience or do TV show that you know is rubbish and you’re just doing it for the bank balance and that’s quite dispiriting. It’s always worth carrying on for those bits of work that you really enjoy doing.
Yes, it can be a tough career - a lot of people struggle to get work…
Exactly and what kind of depresses me is that some people think acting is one of those things that anybody can do, like, “If only I had the balls I would have done that” (Laughs) – “If only I didn’t mind getting up in front of a hundred people and making an idiot of myself then I would have done that!” and it isn’t like that, you could do it but you might be really shit! You have to work hard, it’s not just a natural, given thing - I mean you’ve got to have the kernel of instinct and innate talent, but you’ve got to work hard and now it’s a much more populated industry, there are such few parts, you’ve got to work even harder. A lot of the criteria for why you don’t get a job that it’s so ephemeral – you just don’t understand – is it about my ability or the way I look or whatever…
Has your approach to choosing roles changed?
Yeah, I think when I was starting out I was very idealistic and thought that I was only going to do what I really wanted to do and I was very picky and very choosy and now I do have lines that I will not cross, very definite parameters but they seem to be getting wider and wider because I’ve got mouths to feed, I’ve got to keep a roof over my head…if I was on my own and 25 then I could be more picky.
I think I’m very lucky in that I have been able to keep up a standard. and what I do love about being an actor in Britain means that you can do all sorts of different things, whereas I think, for example, if I had moved to the States and done that whole Hollywood thing then it’s film or TV and that’s it. Here I know that I can do a film and then do a bit of TV or radio or a play, there’s so many things I can do, and that’s not just to make money, that’s to make you feel good about what you’re doing, that you’re doing things that you want to – more creative and rewarding.
You were going to go to Hollywood at one stage and you’ve done a few films there…
I did and I really did try it for a while and I’ve got friends that love it out there – they love the climate, the set-up, they love the way it’s all geared towards the industry out there, but for me I just find the weather depresses me – I like a bit of rain. I like it out there for a while but then it just gives me the creeps, the whole fact that it’s all about the industry out there – there is no escaping it and I do have other interests in life. It’s just so geared towards success and money and I find that remorseless and uncreative. It’s a choice that I do sometimes regret, like if I had tried harder there maybe it would be easier now, but for the most part I’m happy with what I’ve got and living in London.
How do you think it has changed in Britain then - and what do you make of Cameron’s speech about the British film industry and how we should only be focusing on commercial films?
Well…for a start he knows absolutely nothing about the industry, so it’s ridiculous that he’s even commenting…I don’t even think the arts minister has any idea either to be honest. I think we’ve actually got a pretty good industry at the moment, we’ve been making some great films and better films than we have made for quite some time.
I sometimes get shocked at the standard of the scripts that I get sent sometimes and you know that they’ve got finance and you think, “How the hell can they be making this?” You know the difference between reading a script that should be made and a good script is like night and day – it’s that obvious – and if I can see that without really knowing a great deal about writing scripts, I just know what chimes with me and I think it’s a good script…and most of the scripts that I read – 9 out of 10 – are just garbage – generic, boring, not telling me anything I don’t know, it will go straight to DVD and it’s the sort of thing that will get the Nuts readers. But then you’ve got other filmmakers like Steve McQueen and people like that who are making these beautiful, visual, interesting films and that makes me hopeful.
You’ve got the second series of Vexed coming up…
Yes, though I kind of think of it as our first series because the first series was more like a pilot – just three one hour episodes, which was not really enough to bed it down, so this feels like a proper series with six episodes.
And have you enjoyed it? It’s more of a comedy…
Yes, I’ve loved doing it, it’s what they call comedy-drama, but it’s more of a comedy
Do you have to bring a different skill to that?
I see it as part of the whole thing, I like using all my range, what tends to happen in this industry is that they like to see what they’ve got, they’re like, “He does villains. He does English cad villain-types.” I can actually do lots of other things so comedy was always part of my vocabulary but I’ve never done it undiluted, my character in Vexed is a comic creation and I have to say it’s the most fun I’ve had. I just love the character I play, I like playing anti-heroes, it’s more interesting – the guy’s a total dick, but he’s a likable dick, he’s like any guy if they were honest with themselves, that’s what they’re like and that’s where comedy works – when it chimes with reality, so he’s a very real character and he’s very much part of me. I love doing it because you can have fun when you go to work everyday - it’s not like doing a serious drama where you go in and you’re like, “Where am I in the plot, psychologically? Oh god, I have to cry in this scene.”
Do you watch yourself on screen?
I do, only because it’s very good to see what you’ve got, there’s this moment of truth where you have to watch and that’s quite frightening because you don’t know if you’re going to like it or not, and it is hard…
Because you’re self-critical?
Yeah, I’m very self critical, I think everyone is and most of it’s about vanity, it’s about – “Ooh! I look terrible in that shot!” – it’s not about your performance (Laughs). But watching the first three episodes of this was the most fun I’ve had watching something I’ve done because it’s comedy and I can kind of stand back from it and enjoy it, and if it wasn’t funny I’d be appalled, but it amuses me…
Are you worried about critics or has it changed slightly?
It’s changed in that…and a lot of actors say this and don’t mean it but I’ve actually experienced it… I really don’t anymore, because there’s nothing I can do about it, it’s a bit harmful to read it, and people react to you in a very subjective way, some people will just not like me and there are actors that I watch and I just don’t like them - it’s a chemical thing and you’re not going to change their opinion of you, there’s just no point. It’s like a sickness and I know some actors that just won’t stop, they’ll go on blogs and that is the worst! (Laughs) I just don’t want to know!
Do you get competitive with other actors?
I think there is an element of that in any guy but it’s a bit less intense now, one of the things about having a family is that they become the most important thing in your life, and in the end it’s a job, I want to put bread on the table. It’s also just so negative to feel like that or thinking, “He’s doing that? Why aren’t I doing it?!” I’ve seen a lot of friends suffer from that and it’s quite healthy to see that and realise that you don’t want to be like that. It’s also a lifestyle choice, I don’t want to spend my life solely in this industry, I want to step outside of it, but there are some people that are immersed and can’t escape.
And what would you do if you decided to stop or if your career hadn’t panned out?
I think I would still do something creative. I’m very much interested in starting to write more, I would like to create something and I’ve just written a short film that I’d like to get made. Writing is a process that I really enjoy and it was really out of frustration of the scripts I was getting and thinking, “I could do better than this drunk so how would it be if I did it sober?” It might not be the best thing in the world but it would certainly be better than this shit that’s getting financed!
There’s something so creative about it - creating something that wasn’t there before, making something tangible, something you’re responsible for.
I can’t just do this (act) for the rest of my life, it’s great when you love what you’re doing but…
It can be a little unfulfilling?
Exactly. I love it when it’s really great material but when it’s not it sucks, and when you’re hanging around waiting for someone to make their minds up about whether you’re in the last episode of Sherlock…I don’t want that to be the criteria, I’d much rather create something for myself.
What were your expectations when you entered acting?
I always thought that something would be totally defined by your ability but that was a big misconception and that’s something that you suddenly realise when it’s too late to back out. You’ve just got to hope that there will be times when it is about ability and that someone has made that choice for the right reasons.
You’ve also got The Machine coming up…
I’m just about to start filming that, it’s a brilliant script, it’s set about 20-40 years in the future and it’s about a guy who’s trying to create artificial intelligence, he’s being funded by the government and he has a child who has a debilitating disease called Rett Syndrome, so he is searching for this artificial intelligence to create his son as perfect. The military are funding him because they want him to create this invincible solider - a killing machine - with the ability to be a peace-keeper, a negotiator as well as a soldier. He’s doing it for his own personal reasons and blocking out what the military are going to do with it. He creates this female android and he has to work out how to he should treat it – this is a sentient thing now, when do they become human? Do they have a soul? It’s really interesting and it’s very ambitious, I’m really excited about doing it. It’s very brave, it’s more than just a sci-fi film - it’s actually about our future.
What else have you got coming up?
I’m in a film called All Things To All Men and it was another great script, it’s sort of a heist film and Rufus Sewell and Gabriel Byrne are in it, I play a safe-breaker who breaks into these very high security safes, and this gangster, played by Gabriel Byrne forces me to do a job for him, he has this corrupt relationship with a cop and in order to screw each other over they get me to do this job - I’m sort of the pawn in the middle. It was one of those scripts that I just thought was really impressive, very tight.
As soon as I finish The Machine, I’m heading to Chichester for a production of Noël Coward's Private Lives with Anna Chancellor. A friend of mine, Jonathan Kent, is directing and it will be the 50th Anniversary of the theatre that has also been a great launch pad for London shows - they do really high quality stuff.
They’d asked me to do some plays in the season down there but I wasn’t that keen on he plays they had offered me so they asked me if I could come up with something; I re-read the play, because Jonathan had asked me to do it a while back and I just thought it was an amazing piece of work – it’s funny but it’s also incredibly moving. It had become stuck in this very stylized thing where everyone was coming up and doing this very Noël Coward camp acting when it actually could have been written yesterday as a great piece of naturalistic dialogue. It’s a very real relationship, it’s about the impossibility of love between two people where it’s great when it’s great, but it’s awful when it’s not. We wanted to do it in an environment more like the Donmar where people are on top of you and you can be much more naturalistic and make it less of a performance. I love when you can fool an audience for a very short period of time that they’re observing something that they shouldn’t be seeing, and you can feel it, I love creating that.
Who is your IDOL?
Gene Hackman, I love him, I just think he’s the most brilliant filmmaker. I’m not normally that intimidated by other actors, I’m normally intimidated by musicians, but I remember being in Las Vegas when I was staying at the Four Seasons for the weekend and I was walking around downstairs and Gene Hackman walked past me with his wife! I really wanted to say something but I just couldn’t, and that’s how much I admire him, and also partly because I was scared he wouldn’t be the way I’d want him to be.
Vexed starts Wednesday 1st August on BBC TWO at 9pm
Interview: Emma Hurwitz
Photography: Elliott Morgan
MUA: Zoe Moore using Bobbi Brown and Origins
Hair: John Mullan