20 Questions With ... James Fleet
Date: 30 July 2007
Actor James Fleet, who opens this week in Richard Beanís new political sex farce In the Club at Hampstead Theatre, shares his joy of tools, Brian Rixís techniques for trouser falling & what it might take to bring back The Vicar of Dibley
James Fleet is perhaps best known to TV audiences for his role as Hugo Horton in the long-running BBC series The Vicar of Dibley. From its first appearance in 1994, the show has been on and off UK screens until its two-part culmination earlier this year. Now Fleet returns to the stage, where he began his acting career, to star in Richard Beanís political sex farce In the Club.
He has a notable film career, having appeared in Charlotte Gray, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sense and Sensibility, Phantom of the Opera, Blackball, Kevin & Perry Go Large, and most recently, Michael Winterbottomís 2005 adaptation of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, entitled A Cock and Bull Story. His recent stage credits include Mary Stuart, Three Sisters, Art and The Late Middle Classes, in which he was directed by Harold Pinter, and he has also done a wide range of radio and television work.
In the Club, Fleet plays hapless MP Phillip Wardrobe, who has a busy day ahead of him, balancing his less-than-irreproachable political career with his attempts to start a family. As he prepares for his girlfriend to fly in from Kettering for an afternoon of fertile frolics, his plan to be voted President of the European Parliament is foiled at every turn by his unpredictable colleagues: uncouth Yorkshiremen, irate Turks and amorous Frenchwomen.
Fleet is joined In the Club, which is directed by David Grindley, by Sian Brooke, Dermot Canavan, Anna Francolini, Huw Higginson, Carol Macready, Carla Mendonca, Richard Moore, Gary Oliver and Roderick Smith.
Date & place of birth
Born 1954 in Staffordshire.
What made you first want to become an actor?
I joined the drama society when I went to university. I studied engineering in Aberdeen and they let me join the university drama society Ė I used to make the scenery. I did it purely to meet people and get a girlfriend, have a social life, I think. I donít know, maybe that seed was already planted and I just didnít know. Certainly Iíd never been to the theatre; I didnít know anything about acting or plays when I was 19 or 20. But it was something I liked straight away.
If you hadnít become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I probably wouldnít have gone into engineering, because I wasnít any good at the maths! Iíd have probably worked in a shop or something.
First big break
Getting into the RSC. I did rep in Scotland, because I went to drama school in Glasgow. When I came to London I got into the RSC very soon after arriving, and I think that was my big break, because I had a steady wage, and I was getting seen by lots of people. Then this wonderful casting director called Sarah Bird, who saw me in something at the RSC, gave me this fantastic part on the telly, with Edward Fox, in a Simon Gray Screen Two thing. It was the first big part I had, and that was when I fell in love with filming. It was lots of sitting in cars, being driven around!
The Vicar of Dibley I suppose. It was great seeing people youíve worked with over ten years - when see them again and itís kind of like a family thing. I loved that. I loved being married to Emma Chambers and having kids. But that doesnít sound very ambitious does it? Iím not sure if I would like it as a program, it was just that I was in it. If Iíd have been a viewer, I might have thought it was a lot of twee nonsense! I like filming at night shoots and stuff like that. Sometimes itís so exciting, when there are big lights everywhere, and itís cold. I love all that, I love this huge event that youíre part of, and theyíve got all these trucks, and blokes with wires and so on. Then youíve got to step out and youíve go to say your lines. I love that, it never gets boring.
How did you feel when The Vicar of Dibley finished?
I was quite sad. It was a laugh though. It had run its full course, weíd all grown old! It was all getting a bit ridiculous. I think programmes should finish, they shouldnít go on for ever like Only Fools and Horses, where theyíre all about 800 years old. But you know, they havenít destroyed the set. Itís in storage somewhere in the Gormenghast that is the BBC. Itís in a room somewhere all locked up, so they might always bring it out in times of national emergency Ö something like the death of the monarch!
Youíve done various things in your career, including radio, TV, film & stage. Do you have any preferences?
Itís nice to chop and change. I think I act best in the morning, I like getting up early! Then I can sit in the make-up caravan and have a cup of coffee and talk to the make-up people about their private lives. And I like that team thing. I like finishing and then going home and sitting with your feet up at night. The theatre is the complete opposite. Itís not family-friendly. You lounge around all day in your dressing gown, and then you do mega stuff in the evening. But whatís great about theatre is that you get to do it over and over again, so you expand as a person because you get more confident. If you think of film, you just have to just jump in. With this, you get to stretch yourself and make it fit Ö like a leather jacket.
Have you ever been tempted to do a musical?
No, I canít sing. I love music in films, but musicals? I donít get it really. I couldnít do something like Moulin Rouge or Chicago or something. I enjoyed doing (the film of) The Phantom of the Opera with Joel Schumacher. Heís great, heís 6í4Ē, really enormous, really skinny and dressed in denim with cowboy rhinestone ties and rings and so on. It was like working for Bill in Kill Bill! I was only in the first ten minutes of the film, and itís the best bit. Itís where there are millions and millions of dancers dancing this Egyptian kind of thing. I made the huge mistake at the interview when I met Joel of saying ďwell, whoís writing the music for this?Ē. I couldnít believe they were going to use Andrew Lloyd Webberís music, because I didnít think it was any good! I thought they must have written something better - which is the wrong thing to say at an interview.
Probably Kristin Scott Thomas (with whom he appeared in Three Sisters at the West Endís in 2003). Yeah. She has this wonderful ambiguity when youíre acting with her. Her mind is doing something else while sheís talking to you, and that draws you into her very richly textured world when sheís on stage. Most actors just plump for one thing, but she keeps two or three going at the same time.
I manage to get on with them all. Iíve been directed by Harold Pinter, and Iíve been directed by Peter Hall and quite a lot of famous directors. Yeah, I kind of get on with them all, thereís no particular favourite.
Recently you were in director Michael Winterbottomís A Cock & Bull Story, an offbeat take on Tristram Shandy. What was that like as a filming experience?
Very very different. He (Winterbottom) doesnít film like anybody else. He does it all on digital camera, and he shoots all the time. Thereís no continuity, and you can make it up as you go along. Then you do it again and again. Itís different every time, and you can say whatever you like. You can stand up, sit down, move wherever you like. And then somebody, some genius person, must watch 800 hours of footage and edit it. But youíll notice that the finished result is very close to the original script that you read. You think youíre improvising and changing it, but the bits they use keep you on message with the script. But itís very free and I liked it a lot, though itís very tiring, as you film all the time. You do millions and millions of takes, because thereís no film to pay for Ė itís all digital, so they just shoot everything.
Itís case by case, isnít it? Thereís something about something which just catches your imagination. If itís good writing, you can tell pretty early on. You can tell actually just by looking at the list of charactersí names whether somethingís going to be good or not! Itís nice to have some change though. I donít want to get stuck doing light farces or political sex comedies!
Whatís the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I saw a play here at Hampstead a couple of weeks ago, Glass Eels, which has got great acting in it, really nice acting. Before that, what did I see? I canít remember.
Iíve got the new William Boyd book, whatís it called? And Iíve also got on the go The Company of Wolves, which Iíve inherited from my wife, whoíd finished reading it, which is sitting by the bed as well.
Favourite holiday destinations
Well, we very rarely go on holidays as a family. We just kind of argue about what restaurant to go to. Iíve got a motorbike, and I like to take it to pieces, potter about with it and clean it up. I like tools, and I like setting all my tools out and looking at them. I inherit that from my family background I think, and it all ties in with the engineering somewhere along the line. I like the oily feeling of wiping your hands on a rag. So I think Iím quite practical, and I do lots of building stuff around the house. Where we go on holiday I donít know. We used to go and see educational things, because I always felt it was a waste of time to be just relaxing, but now I think Iíd quite like a beach holiday. Having years and years of tearing off to Florence and looking at pictures and so on, I think Iíd just like to sit on a beach now and do nothing! Iíve slowed up and grown lazy.
In the Club is described as a political sex farce. Do you find that those elements are quite compatible?
Yes. I think theyíre quite compatible. Itís not particularly heavily political, but yes, it does involve all of those elements. Politicians do have to often live away from home and stay in hotels. That kind of hotel life Ė ďDo not disturbĒ and chatting up people in the hotel bar Ė itís kind of a mixture, like conferences are.
Do you have any political role models for your part?
No, I donít. Itís just an amalgamation of all the news broadcasts Iíve seen over the years I suppose. Itís mostly me. Iíve played a politician before, and I never do any kind of research! Iíve played a prime minister, and a Labour MP, so I feel like I know all about the world of politics, but actually I donít know anything at all. Iíve been to the Houses of Parliament once, to sit in the public gallery. I generally get it all from the telly.
Do you normally approach your work in a certain way?
You have to be completely open-minded. I approach every job thinking that itís going to be fun, and if itís not fun, Iíll find something in it that I like. Some people expect it to be difficult and go into it in a combative way, saying ďThis is what I want to do with the partĒ. I donít do that at all Ė lifeís too short. Iím the easiest, nicest actor, because Iíll just wear whatever you tell me to wear, do whatever you want. It sounds like I donít give a shit, doesnít it? (laughs) But youíre part of a team, and actually they have a lot better ideas than I do, so I may as well just do as they say.
Whatís the oddest/funniest/most notable thing that happened during rhearsals?
We were all quite pleased in rehearsals, I think. Itís a bit of an unknown quantity, because itís a new play. Richard Bean is a brilliant, brilliant writer, and we all just laugh at the lines we say. Weíre all very keen to see what an audience does. You think youíve got the show speeding along nicely, and then you run into an audience, and you think ďI canít say that line there, because theyíre laughing at the thing that just happenedĒ.
What are your future plans?
Hopefully, this play will go into the West End and lots of people will see it. Itís funny. I worked on a film (Kevin and Perry Go Large) with Brian Rixís daughter, Louisa Rix and I said to her, ďyou know, I think your dad was one of the reasons that I became an actor.Ē I saw him on TV in a farce Ė they used to televise farces when I was a boy Ė and I canít remember the plot or anything about it but I just remember peopleís trousers falling off, and the wonderful world that they lived in. And she said ďso many people have said thatĒ. He obviously made a huge impression. I donít know what heíd think about my trouser-falling. I seem to be very inexpert at getting my trousers to fall off at the right point! Heíd probably have a lot of tips!
- James Fleet was talking to Stuart Denison
In the Club opens at Hampstead Theatre on 2 August (previews from 25 July) and runs for a limited season until 25 August.