theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Hugh Bonneville is not only a sublime actor but a charming and erudite chap with a fine line in drollery. He sounds a little wary at the start of our telephone conversation — I’m an unknown quantity, after all — but it isn’t long before he is exuding warmth and gladdening my heart with an unexpectedly hearty and infectious laugh. I am talking to the actor because he is about to open at the Old Vic in Cloaca, the first production in Kevin Spacey’s inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Old Vic Theatre Company.
When it transpires that Bonneville and I have the same drama school in common, Webber Douglas — or ‘Rubber Duck legs’, as it was known by some of us in the late Seventies — I only have to mention the name of teacher Hilary Wood and, almost as one, we launch into the never-to-be-forgotten words of a particular ‘acting technique’ exercise. Past and current students of the school will know exactly to which one I refer without reading further! “There’s a girl in our company who graduated this summer,” says Bonneville, “and Hilary’s still doing ‘As you can see, this is the largest of the rooms…’” What was its objective? Neither of us bother to discuss the answer, though I seem to remember it had something to do with injecting new thoughts into a speech.
Bonneville was not overly fond of his time at Webber as a postgraduate, and cut it short when David Conville, artistic director of the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park at that time, offered him an Equity card. “I did about a term and a half at Webber, somewhere about ‘85/’86. I wasn’t having a bundle of laughs, I have to say, and I got my Equity card at Regent’s Park so I left. David Conville gave me my first break and of course in those days, there was the quota system and all that, so I leapt at the chance.”
He had previously been a member of the National Youth Theatre and went on to Cambridge where he studied Theology. Webber was not to his taste. “Having done so many plays at university and school and the National Youth Theatre, suddenly to be told you’re ready or not ready to go on stage so that you don’t do public performances I found completely mystifying because I think the only way you learn, or one of the ways you learn as an actor is by doing it; deconstructing it and pulling it apart is all very valuable, you know, but I think it should be done in conjunction with performance.”
What made him study Theology before going to drama school? Did he not already know he wanted to act? “Yes I did, secretly. Not secretly, but I knew I wanted to act, I think, but I also thought I wanted to be a lawyer but I had a fantastically inspiring Theology teacher at school, and I thought, I want to do three years of something I really love. And then I’ll go and do 47 years’ law! And in fact, I did three years of Theology. I was a terrible student and did loads and loads and loads of plays and thought, actually, what I really, really want is to be an actor. And I’ll give it three years and if I don’t get my Equity card, then I’ll go off to law school. Luckily, I got my Equity card!” he says with a chuckle.
His first eight or nine years were spent on the stage — “it’s weird how you can’t plan your career” — as Regent’s Park was followed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which had been his great ambition. “I would still be there now if Adrian Noble had asked me to stay. I was in seventh heaven when I was at Stratford. I wanted to go on and he didn’t have any room for me and I thought, I’ll never work again; my life has lost its meaning.” And what a familiar feeling that is for an actor, even if the job in question hasn’t been as fulfilling as the RSC clearly was for Bonneville.
In fact, the next seven years took him into television and more recently film, where he has proved himself to be an exceptional actor. One only has to look at his appearances on the big screen in Notting Hill (1999) and, most famously, playing John Bayley, real-life husband of the late novelist, Iris Murdoch, in Richard Eyre’s Iris (2001). As the younger Bayley, Bonneville gave an interpretation that, to my mind, eclipsed that of Jim Broadbent as the older Bayley. Although he won the Best Newcomer Award at the Berlin Festival, I find it hard to understand why he was not nominated and awarded as handsomely as his fellow actors, Kate Winslet, Judi Dench and Broadbent, since his performance was remarkable in it’s touching intensity as a man falling in love with the promiscuous and unconventional Murdoch. He also appears as Samuel Pepys in Richard Eyre’s latest film, Stage Beauty.
Bonneville’s work on the small screen has been equally engrossing, whether as Henleigh Grandcourt in an adaptation of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Ralph Banner in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, or the lead in the beautifully dramatized exploration into the life and loves of the poet Philip Larkin in Love Again. “I’m very fond of the Larkin project,” he says, “largely because we shot it in thirteen days and it was, I think, a fantastic script by Richard Cottan.”
The actor knew little about poet beyond what he had picked up during O-level English and says he was ”stunned” when the director, Susanna White, offered him the part. “Because I thought, you know, I bore absolutely no physical relation to him and I think it’s important in TV, perhaps differently than on stage, that you are getting some sort of similarity and that its important to go for that. And so we did our best but I’m still never going to be completely… I mean, the fact is, I’m quite chunky and Larkin wasn’t. Latterly he was, but anyway, I said I must go on a crash course because I don’t want to do him a disservice. And Susanna said, ‘Well, you can, but it’s all in the script.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no.”
So off he went to read, as fast as he could, all of Larkin’s work, as well as the books — namely Andrew Motion’s biography, and the memoirs of two of his lovers: fellow librarian at Hull University, Maeve Brennan, whom he almost married, and Jean Hartley, his first publisher, and a friend for thirty years.
“And by the end of all that, I realized it was all in the script!” He gives one of his now familiar chuckles. “Richard had done his script so well that there was everything there. I have no regrets because I’ve now become a complete Larkin fan — a fan of his work, I mean, not of his life. But it was a very, very happy experience. It was shot on a budget of about two and a half pence, and I think it’s a terrific piece of work.”
So well did those thirteen days go, that they still have reunions. “We were such a tight little team and we have reunions every six months or so and go and have dinner together because we all had such a nice time. Fabulous actresses in it as well. Eileen Atkins — well, she played my mum before in Madame Bovary a few years ago. She’s such a great woman, and Amanda Root and, gosh, Lorraine Ashbourne and Tara Fitzgerald. It was a great thrill. We shot all the bedroom scenes in one day. So I had three women in one day, it was fantastic!”
Last year, Bonneville went to Hampstead Theatre to play Martin in Us and Them by Tamsin Oglesby. It had been seven years since he had trodden the boards. What was the meaning behind the lead-in to a short interview with him in Whatsonstage.com — “Hugh Bonneville … explains how fear has driven him back to the stage…”?
“What it was, was that you use such different muscles as an actor, mental muscles, and I read Us and Them, which I thought was a wonderful play and I just thought, this is so terrifying, the idea of going back on stage. Suddenly to find — well, I worked out it was seven years since I’d done a play; it was very scary to go back.”
He was beset by all the classic concerns, thinking he would never be able to learn the lines after getting used to the divergent techniques required for the screen. “You have a completely different technique: there’s no point in learning the whole thing at once because you never shoot it that way.” But he had also forgotten about the “adrenalin of rehearsal” when it comes to the stage. “I’d forgotten how scary and exciting it is at the same time, particularly if you’re doing a play that you care passionately about.” It is this adrenalin, however, that propels one towards a performance.
The worries returned when it came to rehearsing with Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic. “I slept terribly at the beginning of the rehearsal process for Cloaca, and I was getting up very early and getting in a right state. And my wife just laughed and said, ‘You did exactly the same at Hampstead.’ I said, ‘Did I?’ Your brain erases these things.”
I suggest that in some ways it’s like getting back onto a bicycle. “It sort of is,” he says. “I never ever want to be complacent about it, and we’re still working on the text and changing things. Currently, Cloaca is still fairly enervating. It’s that age-old thing of the difference between film work and theatre work.”
How did his casting in the part of Joep, an ambitious politician whose marriage is in crisis, come about? “Out of the blue, really There was this phone call from my agent saying there’s a very secretive project at the Old Vic — because Kevin hadn’t announced his season or anything and was still juggling what plays were going where, and which plays, and if they were going to do X, Y or Z. So it was very much on a need-to-know basis.”
As if this wasn’t exciting enough in itself, when he was finally allowed to read the script, he quickly realised just how special was the writing of Dutch playwright, Maria Goos.
“After about page one, I thought, I really, really want to do this play. And then I came in and met Kevin and that was that. I didn’t have to audition as such, I didn’t read; we just had a chat about the play and the characters. It was the most painless casting process I’ve ever been through. I didn’t have to beat down the stage door and say, ‘Give me the part, give me the part!’ I would have done but luckily, it was given to me before I had to do that!”
One of the main reasons for his enthusiasm, he says, is “because what Maria Goos has done is skewer male friendships and men in general, I think, beautifully. And what’s intriguing is that a lot of audience members who we’ve talked to said that as a man, you watch the play and think, oh yes, I’m a bit like him, and then actually no, I’m a bit like him too. She’s written three-dimensional characters which is really what the point is. And they’re each deeply textured. Not only the plot but the emotions turn on a sixpence. What the exciting thing is, is that of course it’s an untried commodity over here. She’s huge in Holland but that doesn’t mean the thing will translate”.
With several preview performances under the cast’s belt when we speak, Bonneville says they’re beginning to feel “that it is translating well and the audiences are not confined to Dutch people, it’s actually universal”. She has, he says, written excellent characters with a sympathetic ear, and provided a complete story in the process. “It’s the way that men behave when they’re on their own in a gang and how cruel they can be to each other and how supportive. How men can be through cynicism and, with wit and irony, reach out to each other. So it’s very engaging in that way.”
As for Kevin Spacey directing, it’s patently obvious that the experience is a joy for all concerned. “I have to say he’s in the top two directors I’ve ever worked with, I think. I think it’s largely because his own nature is calm and laid back and passionate at the same time. Above all, being an actor, or a stature that he is, he understands actors; he’s instinctive. And we’ve done, whatever, six previews now, which is a luxury in itself. We’ve got another four to go and we’re still working on the script, we’re still changing ideas or even perhaps, you know, not moving scenes around but moving scene breaks and where to take pauses and where to take the interval and that sort of thing. He’s constantly listening to the audiences, listening to what the play is saying and what the actors need, and what the building needs.”
Anyone who might have been worried about Spacey’s commitment to the Old Vic should take heart. “He’s a very hands-on guy,” Bonneville tells me, “and I know he’s getting a buzz out of running this place, and it’s fed back to him. I was talking to one of the bar staff last night who was saying it was such a lovely atmosphere to work in. It’s a great relief. And it just makes you all want to do your best.”
On who is the other director in his top two, Bonneville will not be drawn. “Ah, that would be telling! I want each of the directors I’ve ever worked with to think it’s them!”
The Cloaca company is close. “I’ve worked with Neil a couple of times. And I’ve known the others socially, as it were. But we’ve become very close on this because, obviously, of the nature of the play. We did a ‘very important’ research trip to Amsterdam one weekend,” he goes on, “and we certainly became chums over that experience. We just laughed our heads off for twenty-four hours and then came back and got on with the work. There was a serious side to the whole of the trip which was to go and meet Maria and we met the original cast and went to the original theatre where it was first done, so it was a real hands-across-the-sea thing, cultural exchange, if you know what I mean. And they were incredible hosts and took us round Amsterdam. It was a wonderful, wonderful weekend and we all got to know each other and so it became part of the rehearsal process, really. It was very constructive.”
Prior to starting at the Old Vic, Bonneville spent time with his wife and their three-year-old son, Felix. It has been erroneously reported elsewhere that his wife is a professional artist. “No, she’s not. She was briefly — well, she wouldn’t call herself an artist, though I think she’s a brilliant artist — no, she’s a full-time mum now, basically.” And spending his time thus occupied has been much needed. “Frankly, because I’ve had a pretty busy time in the last couple of years, to relax is just being with my family because they haven’t seen a lot of me. The end of last year I was away pretty much for three months with the odd couple of days back. And it was not great, nor for my wife. So I was lucky enough, because I knew Cloaca was coming up, to be able to take two months off and just had time at home, and just playing with this little bundle of energy — the best recreation you could have.”
“I would have been a hopeless lawyer,” is Hugh Bonneville’s closing comment. And fortunate are we that he is the very antithesis of a hopeless actor.
Sarah Vernon © 27-09-04
N.B. In the near-decade since this interview, Bonneville has done much other fine work, not least on the small screen in REV and as Lord Grantham in the ubiquitous Downton Abbey. Kevin Spacey, meanwhile, has announced his intention to step down as Artistic Director of the Old Vic in 2015.
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Pingback: Archive Interview • Hugh Bonneville • 2004 | Rogues & Vagabonds
I first became aware of Hugh Bonneville when I saw Stage Beauty. He was perfect as Pepys in a film that was much underrated, I believe, because of its limited distribution.
I don’t think I’ve seen it. I must rectify this immediately!