"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 you're hiding."

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 I am."

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.'"

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