|Jim Carter in President of an Empty Room|
20 Questions With... Jim Carter
Date: 1 August 2005
Actor Jim Carter, currently appearing in The President of an Empty Room at the National, chats about rehearsal fright, cycling across India, salsa dancing & keeping the peace in his marriage to actress Imelda Staunton.
Though actor Jim Carter dropped out of university to join a fringe theatre troupe, he has become best known over the years for his many screen roles.
His films have included Brassed Off, Shakespeare in Love, Heartlands, Bright Young Things, Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, Ella Enchanted, The Thief Lord, 102 Dalmatians, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Richard III, The Madness of King George, Black Beauty, Blame It on the Bellboy, A Private Function and Flash Gordon.
On television, Carter has been seen in The Singing Detective, Lipstick on Your Collar, Tube Tales, Blue Murder, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Midsomer Murders, Trial and Retribution, Hornblower, Dalziel and Pascoe, Ainít Misbehaviní, A Year in Provence, A Dangerous Man, Precious Bane, Lost Empires and The Way We Live Now, amongst others. He has also provided regular voice-overs, particularly for television documentaries.
On stage, Carterís credits include The Wizard of Oz, Gasping and, most notably, in 1982 Richard Eyreís National Theatre revival of Guys and Dolls, on which he met his wife, the actress Imelda Staunton.
After a 14-year absence, Carter has returned to the stage, and the National, to appear in The President of an Empty Room, the first stage play by Dirty Pretty Things screenwriter Stephen Knight. Directed by Howard Davies, the play is set amidst the vibrant community of a Cuban cigar factory.
Date & place of birth
Born on 19 August 1948 in Harrogate, Yorkshire.
Lives now inÖ
West Hampstead in north London
I didnít train. I went to Sussex University in the late Sixties to read law. I lasted two years, then I dropped out and I started working in fringe theatre.
First big break
I donít think Iíve ever had such a thing! Iíve just always worked. But a significant moment would be Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre in 1982: (a) for the fun, and (b) because I met Imelda. In terms of telly, The Singing Detective was good for me, because it was the thing that changed peopleís perception of me.
Career highlights to date
Top highlight would be playing the baddie in a cowboy movie, all dressed in black and coming through the saloon doors and the piano stopped playing. It was called Rustlersí Rhapsody, which nobody has seen, but for a lad from Yorkshire to play the baddie down in spaghetti western land in southern Spain was pure heaven! The aforementioned Guys and Dolls is another.
I loved being in the film A Private Function - sitting around waiting to work on that film was the funniest ever, working with Maggie Smith, Liz Smith, Alan Bennett, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Palin, Denholm Elliott Ė we just laughed all the way along. It was brilliant! Hiawatha that I did at the National with director Michael Bogdanov was a fantastic piece of kidsí theatre, and to hold the Olivier Theatre full of kids at 10.30 in the morning absolutely spellbound was great.
Thereís a woman called Imelda Staunton whoís quite good. After Guys and Dolls, we also did The Wizard of Oz together at the RSC, she was Dorothy and I was the Cowardly Lion, but we havenít done a huge amount together. There are so many people Iíve liked working with Ė and Iím far too discreet to tell you about the arseholes that I donít like!
Richard Eyre, who I did both Guys and Dolls and Schweyk in the Second World War with when I was part of the Olivier company. Thereís a television director called Chris Menaul who Iíve worked with a couple of times Ė on A Dangerous Man, in which Ralph Fiennes was Lawrence of Arabia, and also a thing called Precious Bane with Janet McTeer and Clive Owen, and I was ludicrously cast as their father! Iím enjoying working with Howard Davies very much on The President of an Empty Room now. Itís the first time Iíve worked with him - heís so gentle and pragmatic and calm and organised. He delivers you very well prepared, which is fantastic.
I canít really answer that question, because I donít go to the theatre very much, or read plays very much, so I donít feel qualified. If you asked me about favourite cricketers or favourite gardening writers, Iíd feel on safer ground, really. But I do think that new writing is important. I like to see new plays, I donít want to see A Midsummer Nightís Dream or anyone elseís Bottom. I know that Chekhov is terribly good, but I just donít really want to go there Ė itís not how I choose to spend my time. Iím sure Iíve missed amazing productions of The Cherry Orchard, but Iím sorryÖ.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Thereís never been a role I wanted to play. I havenít done theatre for 14 years, and I wouldnít have done this if it was doing a role in an old play like Uncle Vanya. I think enough people have done that. But this is a new play, nobody has done it before, we get first crack at it and thatís great, so youíre not treading in other peopleís footsteps. The last play I did was Ben Eltonís Gasping at the Haymarket with John Gordon Sinclair Ė we took over from Bernard Hill and Hugh Laurie.
What are the different skills you need for stage vs screen?
I think the acting is exactly the same. You have to be slightly more technically aware in film, just in terms of hitting marks and props from the point of view of continuity; but in terms of the way you approach a part, there really isnít any difference. Itís a bit more instant in films and television Ė you donít get much rehearsal time, but I quite like that. I like to just get out there and do it! I like films, you say cut, letís fix that bit, cut, letís do that again; and I do like the acting on films and telly, but the problem always is the scripts. For some time now, Iíve felt Iíve been papering over the cracks in rubbish scripts Ė that Iím trying to give a performance the script doesnít merit. Iím not being grand, but how these things get put on I just donít know. They pay the mortgage, and also they can be fun to do; itís just that the end product isnít very good. But by the time they come out, it might be a year down the line, youíve moved on and youíve forgotten about it and you watch it purely objectively, if you ever watch it all. Then this script (for The President of an Empty Room) came my way, and I just thought, thatís knockout! Well, I think so Ė but we never know until the audience arrives, but hopefully itís a good play and itís interesting! And because Iíve suffered from a plethora of bad scripts recently and low budget films that donít get released, I wanted to act again. Iíve been working with Dennis Hopper and Andy Garcia, good interesting exciting people, and Iíve enjoyed doing those jobs, but they disappear out into the ether and you never see them. So I thought that maybe I should do something solid, where I know an audience is watching because I can hear them coughing!
Youíre also king of the voice-overs. Whatís the challenge for an actor in doing them?
Actually, I do very few commercial voice-overs, but I do documentary ones, which I like. They are like telling a story, and theyíre quite fun. You donít have to learn lines and you donít have to shave!
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I have no idea really. I wouldnít have pursued law Ė Iíd actually dropped out of law into English, Iíd even changed my course. But when the offer came from this fringe theatre group, the Brighton Combination, to leave university and join them for five quid a week, it was like a door opening, and there wasnít a momentís hesitation. I walked through that door and never looked back. I have never earned a penny from doing anything apart from acting. I have never had another job. I taught magic and juggling and Iíd go out busking or doing my magic act on the cabaret circuit. When I was at the Young Vic earning £65 a week, I could go to Jongleurs and earn 75 quid for doing a bit of an act, so Iíve always worked, whether creating my own or working for others. The Brighton Combination moved to London and started a theatre called the Albany in Deptford, and I was with them then. In fact, the lady who started them is now head of the education department here at the National, Jenny Harris.
What's the first thing you saw on stage that had an impact on you? And the last?
The first thing that made an impact was hitch-hiking to Stratford to see David Warnerís Hamlet. Me and my mate hitch-hiked there when we were about 15 or 16, and thought it was so exciting. We saw David Warner walking along to the Dirty Duck with his scarf around his neck, looking just like Hamlet, and I thought it was the coolest thing Iíd ever seen. I couldnít believe that Shakespeare could be like that, actually talking to you. It was one of those seminal productions, if you were the right generation it was the one for you. Recently, I liked Don Carlos very much, but the last thing I thought, ďJesus!Ē, was The Pillowman. I thought it was a fantastic play, and the production and the acting all made it brilliant.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
It would be Michael Vaughan when he lifts the Ashes at the end of the cricket series against Australia, which in reality weíre going to lose three nil, but I fantasise weíre going to beat Australia in the cricket and I fantasise that Iíll be him lifting the Ashes.
Whatís the secret of a happy professional marriage?
It helps if you both work. You donít have to work equally necessarily, but I think itís really difficult if one works and the other doesnít. Men find it more difficult coping with that than women. Itís always a matter of give and take and trading off Ė Iíll take a backseat now because youíre doing that, or youíve had a good run so let me do this because this is a great script that I want to do. You have to trade off all the time, and you both have to have something to trade off with. If one doesnít, and the successful one is turning work down to appease the other, itís very tricky. Imelda and I have been very lucky that weíve both had very steady careers, so weíve been able to work that juggling act pretty compatibly. Itís also about knowing when not to work, too, and being able to say no, because youíve got to be able to spend time together, too Ė to have home time! Now weíre confident enough that something will come along if we need it, so we have learnt to say no. But that only comes with the benefit of experience.
Why did you want to accept your part in The President of an Empty Room?
The play is set in a Cuban tobacco factory. Itís original Ė though people have told me there was a play at Hampstead Theatre also set in one (Anna in the Tropics), so for those of us who didnít go to the Hampstead, it seemed like a new topic! I hope that weíll prove that itís a really good play Ė it really is very true psychologically for the characters. It has got drama, pace, humour and wit and itís political but not with a capital P. It doesnít bash you over the head with politics, but I think you can read it as a brilliant state of the nation play about Cuba or about a lot of places. Itís dramatic and itís theatrical Ė and thereís tango dancing, too! I donít have to dance, thank God Ė but for the sake of company solidarity, I turned up for the dance practice, knowing full well that my character was in another room all the time so I wouldnít have to! You wonít get me doing the salsa! My character is the tobacco taster. In one room, there are the tobacco rollers, but Iíve got slightly higher status, selecting the tobacco to be used in the cigars. As the boss of the factory has disappeared and fled to America, the status quo dissolves, and itís about how we react to that situation.
What, if anything, is special about working at the National Theatre?
Thereís a sense of continuity here, coming back to see so many people, from Linda at the stage door, a lot of the stagehands, stage management and the people in the canteen, are all still around from when I was last here over 20 years ago, and theyíre here because theyíre good and they enjoy it. So the building works well. Itís a nice building, even as a member of the audience. You can park, thereís bright and lively music, you can get a decent bite to eat, there are places you can hide away in the corner; and backstage, itís very professional and very well run. As an actor, you feel completely supported and confident in going about your job, knowing that the back-up is there. And everyone is very committed and excited. And the building is very successful at the moment. You sit in the Green Room and you see Kenneth Cranham and Jim Broadbent and Geraldine James and Michael Sheen and Michael Gambon and Stephen Moore and you think, ďOooh, there are some good people here!Ē
What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals of The President of an Empty Room?
In the first week, we were dancing the salsa and the young, fit, handsome guy Fraser James, had a line ďI donít danceĒ and Anthony O'Donnellís character was in a wheelchair so he didnít either, and so it looked like it would just me and Stephen Moore doing it. Then I realised Iím in my office at the time, so it was Stephen who was going to be the sole representative of male sexuality in Cuba!
What are your future plans?
Nowadays you never know more than about three weeks in advance when youíre doing anything. So beyond this, I have no idea at all. More stage work would depend. I find I get so wound-up and uncomfortable in rehearsals. I donít get stage fright Ė I get rehearsal fright! Put me in front of the punters and Iím okay, but the rehearsal room I find so inhibiting. In the immediate future, I have to engineer the autumn so I can go on this bike ride in India. It starts at the Taj Mahal and ends up at the Pushkar camel fair. How cool will that be? Itís a six-day ride, off road Ė a tough terrain Ė because the roads are so dangerous, weíll be on tracks. Fifty British cyclists doing a charity bike ride would be a big target to rampant bus drivers, from what I hear!
- Jim Carter was speaking to Mark Shenton
The President of an Empty Room received its world premiere on 28 June 2005 at the NT Cottesloe, where it continues in repertoire until 27 August 2005.