20 Questions With ... Peter Capaldi
Date: 23 July 2007
Actor Peter Capaldi - who starts performances this week in the Donmar Warehouseís Absurdia triple bill - talks about Monty Python, Ewan McGregor, working with Douglas Hodge & sharing the mystery of the theatre.
Raised in Scotland, Peter Capaldi was studying at Glasgow School of Art when he landed a role in the BAFTA-winning 1983 film Local Hero, directed by Bill Forsyth. Over the next few years, he continued to work in television and film, as well as making his way to the London stage, appearing in plays such as The Duenna and Twelfth Night at the Young Vic.
Capaldiís TV credits include Minder, The Vicar of Dibley, The Comic Strip PresentsÖ, Prime Suspect, Midsomer Murders, Peep Show, and Rab C Nesbitt. Most recently, heís become best known for his portrayal of spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the BBCís satirical ministerial comedy The Thick of It, directed by television comedy impresario Armando Iannucci. His Alastair Campbell-inspired performance earned him a BAFTA nomination in 2006.
On film, Capaldi has been seen in Dangerous Liaisons, Shooting Fish, Bean, Modigliani and 2007ís Brit comedy Magicians with Peep Showís Mitchell & Webb. As a director, he started out making short films, and won a Best Short Film Oscar in 1995 for Franz Kafkaís Itís A Wonderful Life, which starred Richard E Grant.
After nearly a decade away Ė his last major theatre production was Richard Eyreís 1998 premiere of David Hareís The Judas Kiss in which he played Robbie Ross to Liam Neesonís Oscar Wilde Ė Capaldi returns to the stage this month in Absurdia, a celebration of British absurdist playwrights, at the Donmar Warehouse.
The triple bill comprises NF Simpsonís short one-act plays A Resounding Tinkle and Gladly Otherwise and the world premiere of The Crimson Hotel, written by Michael Frayn. Actor-turned-director Douglas Hodge directs Capaldi and his fellow cast members include Lyndsey Marshal, John Hodgkinson and Judith Scott.
Date & place of birth
Born in Glasgow in 1958.
What made you want to become an actor?
God it seems so long ago. I just liked the idea of hanging about theatres, and the sort of performance element of it. I think that thatís just a cover for saying showing off really! And then you get stuck with it!
If you hadnít become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I would have become a designer probably, because I went to art school. So I may have gone into production design, something like that.
Career highlights to date
Funnily enough, itís strange being down here, because weíre rehearsing in The Cut, opposite the Young Vic - thatís where I got my first acting jobs in London years ago. They were very small little parts, but I loved doing those. But career highlights? I donít know. I donít think thatís really for me to say.
What did winning an Oscar mean to you?
It was so long ago. It was just fantastic, such a wonderful surprise. But it was confusing a bit, because it was just for doing a short film. I didnít even know they had Oscars for short films! So it was all a bit of a delightful surprise. You get to go to the ceremony. Itís not like the BAFTAs, where they cordon off the people who are starting off and doing short films, and put them into a less glamorous ceremony. I donít know why they do that - perhaps they feel that those people arenít interesting enough or something! In the Oscars, you get the full whack. The statueís on the mantelpiece in my bedroom.
Whatís it been like working with director Armando Iannucci in TVís The Thick of It?
Great! Weíve done it for two years now, but we work in very concentrated, compressed blocks of time. Over the last year weíve really only done two hours, two specials. Itís a totally different way of making television. The sets are just lit normally, there are no rehearsals, you just shoot and the cameras have to follow the actors. Normally when you go to work, everything is pinned down, youíve got to get marks, youíve got to stand here, thereís a close-up here, a wideshot there, and everything has to be choreographed, which often makes things very dull. With our show, itís just all up for grabs. Thatís what gives it this energy and attack, itís the destruction of all the rules of television production.
Youíve worked across TV, film & theatre. Do you have a preference?
Itís all different. On a show like The Thick of It we never have any time to learn lines. Here in Absurdia, we have plenty of time to learn them, but old habits die hard. Iíve got my lines written up all over the stage because thatís what I do on the TV show! Itís only to help me along in rehearsals, of course. The discipline is very different, the challenges are very different. Here, youíve got to pin things down. You have to be very thorough about which prop you lift, when you lift it, where you put it down. Itís got to look accidental, but itís actually very thoroughly worked out, whereas if youíre doing it on film you can get away with the energy and bask in it. In theatre you need the energy and the precision.
Youíve written, directed & acted. How do you pick what your next project is going to be?
I suppose it depends on how your careerís going at the time really. If youíre doing a lot of dull acting, then you think, Iíd quite like to direct really! Luckily, Iíve been doing a lot of challenging acting, and Iím really enjoying that. I would only direct something if I really wanted to do it. I donít want to be a director for hire. Itís too hard and it takes too much out of you emotionally.
Everybody in this show is lovely - Lyndsey Marshal, Judith Scott, John Hodgkinson, everybodyís very nice. Sarah Parrish is lovely to work with. And Jo Scanlan from The Thick of It. I get on with most people, really.
Douglas Hodge obviously! And I think Max Stafford-Clark is brilliant. He has a very rigorous, very disciplined way of approaching the work. One of the things I donít like in theatre is that thereís a lot of mystery about it, about its processes. There are certain actors and directors who like to encourage this fog of mysticism, they act like high priests who hold the secret knowledge and they like to make sure that you know that theyíve got it and you havenít. But itís simple: the only secret knowledge is talent. Either youíve got it or you havenít. All other knowledge should be available. The kind of director I like will share their knowledge. When someone says to you, this is how you can do this, thatís fantastic. Thatís what Max or Douglas will do. They teach you how to do it or help you find your own way to do it. Theyíre also sensitised to leaving you to get to where you have to get to at your own pace and respecting your maturity.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I havenít really got any. I always think itís alarming when people say, Iíd love to play Cyrano de Bergerac Ö Actually I would love to play Cyrano de Bergerac! But itís up to somebody else to make that decision.
Whatís the best advice youíve ever received?
Iíve had a lot of kindnesses from Terry Gilliam, Stephen Frears and David Leland. Lots of people in the film business have been very encouraging and helpful. I suppose the best advice was from Stephen Frears. He just said ďmake another filmĒ. When youíre moaning about not being able to get the money, keep at it. Thatís not very interesting advice!
Whatís the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I really enjoyed Boeing-Boeing. Thatís because Roger Allam was in it - he was in The Thick of It. I also saw something last week, but I canít remember what it was. Mustíve been good!
Iím in the middle of a book called The Dig by John Preston, which is a really nice novel about archaeology. It sounds dull but itís not at all! Thereís an archaeological dig in the 1930s on a group of mounds in Suffolk which turn out to be where a whole pile of Viking stuff is. I didnít know anything about it, and itís very, very interesting. I normally have about two or three books on the go. Iím also reading a biography of Catherine de Medici, and the last book I read was The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, which was great.
What made you decide to do Absurdia?
The real thing was Douglas Hodge. I think heís a really talented actor and director. I felt that in his hands we could make something interesting and fun. I worked with Doug years ago, and Iím obviously an admirer of his. Itís been a while since Iíve been on stage so to work with somebody I trust so much was a very valuable thing. And the nature of the plays themselves - because theyíre funny and part of a comic tradition Ė was something that I was quite interested in.
And how have you found working with Hodge?
Great. I just think heís absolutely brilliant, heís disciplined, rigorous, full of knowledge about the material while at the same time clearly understanding the acting process .He knows that you canít arrive with something completely ready, you have to spend a number of weeks developing it and working it through. If somethingís not right today, maybe it will be next week. Also heís great fun.
How has it been working on three different plays at once?
Knackering! Itís very strange, I donít think any of us have ever done it before. Although theyíre three short plays, you still have to develop three different characters, whilst in one longer play youíre only concentrating on one. What happens is you become very embroiled and engrossed in the world of the play you happen to be rehearsing at the time, then the next day you go back to one of the other ones and you have to get into that groove. Thatís quite a weird thing, marshalling your energy and your concentration to be able to jump about between those different worlds efficiently. The plays are all related actually, and the relationships between the plays become more obvious as we do them. Having three plays absolutely adds to the absurdity of the production - seeing everybody move from these very different worlds is quite an entertainment in itself.
Do you think the idea of absurdist theatre can put people off?
Probably. I think the actual term ďTheatre of the AbsurdĒ is rather frightening and grave, whereas in fact Ė in our hands and the hands of the writers Ė itís, letís say, surreal comedy. It seems to me that it has more in common with Monty Python than with any grave theatrical academic world. It certainly seems funny to me. NF Simpson, who wrote the first two plays, ended up going into television comedy. The Pythons were influenced by these plays in particular. Itís possible to draw a line from them to Pinter and Beckett, but I think in this particular production the comic elements come to the fore.
What are your future plans?
Absurdia goes on until September. Then Iím going to do another episode of Skins, the teen show, which is the only programme which gets me any credibility with my daughter! Iíve got a couple of things that are my own, which may or may not be happening.
And what can you tell us about your upcoming film collaboration with Ewan McGregor?
Yes, hopefully thatís next year. Itís one of those things thatís not going to happen until the moneyís there. Itís set in the 1930s, and itís a comedy. Ewanís very funny, and this offers him a part in which he can stretch his comic muscles. Weíre not quite there yet. Itís looking pretty good, but these things can always collapse at the last moment. I wrote the script and will direct. Itís one of those projects Iíve been working on for years Ė itís my baby. Ewanís come along and been absolutely fantastic. Heís been hugely committed to it, but itís an offbeat thing. Itís really more like four different films in one. - Peter Capaldi was speaking to Stuart Denison
Absurdia opens on 31 July 2007 (previews from 26 July) at the Donmar Warehouse, where its limited season continues until 8 September.