"My Friends Say I Need a Psychiatrist"
Radio Times, January 1997
by Andrew Duncan
Tortured he is not - he is too
down to earth to pose as the anguished artiste - but he has a
particularly personal understanding of the turmoil men can experience
in their early thirties. And now he has completed directing and
starring in a brilliant full-length film version of Hamlet, he
suffers from post filming tristesse as well as identifying with
the Prince. "He's 30, I'm 35. We're both at the moment where
some kind of crisis happens. You reach the end of your roaring
twenties, when anything is possible. Suddenly parents are a little
older, if they're still alive; you either have the career you
want, or you don't; you're poor, or rich. For the first time
you have the chance to think, to look forward, and it's impossible
to resist agonising over whether anything you've done is worth
it. What's ahead? Oh, my God, I hear the time clock ticking.
Friends are having kids. I'm not suggesting that I'm going through
a mid life crisis, but it's a period of questioning after dealing
with success, criticism, all the hurly burly."
And hurly burly there has been.
He is the most praised and mocked actor of his generation, the
son of a carpenter who became, at 23, the RSC's youngest Henry
V, who asked the Prince of Wales what it was like to be royal
so he could better prepare for the role when he made his directorial
debut in the film version; cursed with the meaningless mantle
of 'the next Olivier' and was derided as 'wally of the week'
for writing his autobiography at 28. "I've been accused
with Prince Charles and Andrew Lloyd Webber of being the reason
why British culture is in such a mess," he says mildly.
"Success is meaningless, a transient manifestation of flattery
that could easily go away. I don't want to be 'Sir Kenny O'Luvvie,
lord of the theatre'." He wrote his autobiography for money
- "Simple as that. Very vulgar I'm afraid" - and the
50,000 advance allowed him to rent offices for the Renaissance
Theatre Company, which he co founded in 1987 and wound up 2 years
ago. "7 years is a good time period. I'm a pathetic believer
in these numbers and cycles."
The last year has seen two blows
- separation from his wife, actress Emma Thompson, and much criticism
for his mega bucks Frankenstein, with whose co-star, the willowy
and self-willed Helena Bonham Carter, he has consorted. For a
man of his immense accomplishment (excuse the luvvie speak -
it is hard not to swell into hyperbole when discussing his career)
he is underwhelming to meet - 5ft 7in, with bouncy hair, as Emma
calls it, an ordinary, even boring, face, self-effacing, humorous,
an actor who not only asks questions but manages to seem interested
in the answers. It is difficult to dent his amiability. Hoping
to discombobulate him during a previous interview, I took along
as photographer the former call girl and lover of newspaper magnate
Andrew Neil, Pamella Bordes, fragrant with too much exotically
cheap perfume and not hitherto known for her snapshot skills.
He was patience and charm, but there is, of course, a down side.
His nice guy image allows critics to call him bland, an adjective
he hopes his four hour Hamlet will for ever dispel.
It is high risk, particularly
as there has been a surfeit of Shakespearean films, and Mel Gibson's
Hamlet is still recent. "He was excellent, but I have a
completely different view of the play." He schmoozed his
way to the $18 million budget by explaining the play to Hollywood
moguls in language that they could understand - "lots of
sex and violence and it ends with a big fight". He told
them that, at one stage, Claudius goes into Norman Schwartzkopf
mode, compared another character to the OJ Simpson trial judge,
and one scene to a presidential press conference with spin doctors
and security experts. "When they decided to back this rather
crazy venture they let me have a free hand, for better or worse.
It can be a painful experience if you have 16 suits watching
over your shoulder, who all think they know better. My films
have been financed in Hollywood, but I insist on making them
in England because it's where my friends and family are. It also
helps to be physically thousands of miles away from the dreaded
studios. The executives aren't unpleasant, but the system makes
me tear my hair. There's an atmosphere of fear and it's difficult
for anyone to risk an opinion that might lose them their job.
I've been offered a lot of money depending on my heat. They say
(he uses a fast talking American accent),'Talent doesn't fade
but heat does, so take advantage when you're hot.' I'm as straight
as I can be about money. That works in the end, although they're
suspicious. They think honesty is very devious and wonder what
He set the film in the mid 19th
century, so it would have some relevance to today, and yet the
language would not seem out of place. "I wanted the excess
and gaudiness of a court you'd be intrigued by, curiosity about
the royal family and juxtaposition of their glamorous public
lives and seedier private passions. At the heart of it is someone
struggling to find out whether life is worth living. That's relevant
today. There are piles of literature about how to love, be happy
and know yourself. I wanted it to be colour blind, accent blind."
This is a necessary nod to the spectacular cast of stars he managed
to work for miniscule salaries. "Everyone seemed equally
star struck. I'm always nervous and always engaged in a struggle
to try to hide it. The best thing to do is to try to have a laugh
and retain a sense of humour and proportion. I wanted us to sound
and look like real people doing real things, not to think we
are very, very pleased with ourselves doing a film of Hamlet.
Actors can become very precious, usually out of fear."
His first Hollywood film, Dead
Again, was, like Frankenstein, heavily criticised in Britain,
although it was successful in America. "Maybe audiences
here just didn't like it. I don't underestimate that. It may
also be that they found it hubristic of me to act and direct.
You have to be philosophical. It was probably one of those periods
when I was particularly persona non grata. People might think
I'm irritating - I don't believe I am - but fashions come and
go. I truly don't understand or worry about it. Criticism is
often helpful. You can't assume it's all based on envy. It can
be irritating and sometimes very depressing, but it's self indulgent
to get into a tizz outside the confines of your own room. Just
open your eyes and look at what's going on in the world. There
are many more important and distressing things to worry about.
"Besides, show me the career
of any successful actor who hasn't suffered extended periods
of extreme criticism. It's a price you have to pay, and an acceptable
one, although it's boring when it concentrates on personal things.
I don't think about it because I don't want to get into a situation
of trying to present myself in a way that i think will make the
public like me. That way madness undoubtedly lies. I've had plenty
of excessive praise, so I have to accept that you win some, you
lose some. I'm grateful to keep working and I hope Hamlet gets
an audience, but I'll take any criticism on the chin. A friend
tells me it's the best thing I'll ever do. 'What now?' he asked.
'It's all downhill, luv.' But - health aside - I have the other
half of three score years and ten left. I think I deserve a few
brownie points for hanging about, getting back up from the punches."
RADA was followed by instant
and almost continuous success both on and off the stage. There
are stories he fell in love with most of his leading actresses,
but his memory fades conveniently at this point. "I had
a great time in my roaring twenties, although I thought there
was something wrong with me because I wasn't on a bottle of whiskey
a day. I like to eat, drink and be merry, but i couldn't take
myself seriously as a hell raiser. I get hangovers. I had my
first at 16." That was after his father found him one morning
face down in the dog basket after a party, and he was scolded
by his mother as she peeled the brussel sprouts. He promised
to behave in future. "I surprise myself at how conventional
He and Emma became lovers when
they co-starred in the BBC series Fortunes of War in 1987, and
married 2 years later. His friend Richard Briers says it is difficult
for him to have an emotional partnership because he is so work-orientated,
and he agrees. "I'd like to think it's possible eventually.
It wasn't with Em, which is always a sadness. No one can break
up after a long relationship and not feel pretty devastated,
whatever the rights and wrongs. That is certainly our case. Helena
is a great friend, which is all I'm prepared to say. I'm often
alone but I wouldn't describe myself as lonely.
"My friends have told me
thousands of times to see a psychiatrist. But I have a basic
suspicion of handing over a hundred quid at the end of an hour
talking about myself, during which someone has apparently plucked
out the heart of my mystery. That's a ridiculous attitude, I
have to add, because it's worked wonderfully with friends, but
we actors have endless chances to talk about ourselves whether
or not we like. I don't think it's healthy. It blows everything
out of perspective. But feeling secure in yourself is a tough
thing to achieve." Do you feel more secure now than you
did? When have you been assailed by doubt?
"I'd like to live a little
more, moment to moment, be myself - all the cliches of life.
I don't want to have to try so hard, worry about being liked,
what I'm supposed to achieve, what my purpose is and all the
rest of it. It's hard for us to be ourselves isn't it? We're
forever trying to be what others expect us to be, or our own
hoped for image. I've had a great deal of freedom and luxury
to choose work I want to do. There have been great moments of
camaraderie and wonderful highs, but not necessarily a strong
sense of myself. I'm sure that comes from people asking What
are you? An actor, a director, Irish, English?" So he's
trying to find himself? "That sounds so wanky, but I'd like
to discover a way to be happy. People find that very difficult.
They are always worrying about something. Hamlet is the great
worrier of all time. Personal freedom which involves peace of
mind is so admirable and it's what this film is about. Finding
happiness. How do you? How do you not worry about the bank manager,
the bills, people disliking you, or the feeling 'I've failed
in my own expectations'? Maybe you think I'm having a moment
here. Probably I've been working too hard and fast, so the conclusion
I've come to is 'Calm down a bit, luv, and shut up.'"
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium