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20 Questions With...Richard Coyle

Actor Richard Coyle, best known for TV's Coupling, is making his stage presence felt in The York Realist & the upcoming premiere of Proof, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow - but he wouldn't choose Hollywood over London or Yorkshire.

By • West End


You'd be forgiven for thinking that actor Richard Coyle is Welsh. He is, after all, most familiar to television audiences for playing the inept and unlucky-in-love Welshman Jeff in the popular BBC2 sitcom Coupling, which begins filming its third series this summer.

In fact, Coyle is a Yorkshireman and Coupling is but one of an increasingly long list of television credits, which also include Uprising, Hearts and Bones, Lorna Doone, Sword of Honour, Young Blades, Wives and Daughters, Dalziel and Pascoe and the title role in supernatural murder mystery Strange. And that's not to mention his screen credits such as Topsy Turvy, Human Traffic and the upcoming Happy Now.

In the past, Coyle has appeared less frequently on stage - his last major outing was back in 1998 in the Leicester Haymarket's revival of A View from the Bridge - but he's certainly making up for any lost time on the boards now.

Since November 2001, he's been starring in Peter Gill's acclaimed new play, The York Realist, first on tour and now in the West End via the Royal Court. Once that finishes its limited season at the Strand Theatre later this month, Coyle will step straight into rehearsals for another, even more high-profile premiere production.

From 9 May 2002, he'll co-star, opposite Hollywood's Gwyneth Paltrow, in the UK premiere of David Auburn's Tony Award-winning play Proof, directed by Shakespeare in Love's John Madden as part of the Donmar Warehouse's annual American Imports season.


Date & place of birth
Born in February 1972 in Sheffield.

Lives now in...
Clapham, south London

Trained at...
Bristol Old Vic

First big break
Coupling (BBC2). In my opinion, Jeff is the best written character in the series. He certainly hits home with a lot of men who probably wouldn't admit it. And he's the character people remember, so they remember me too.

Career highlights to date
I spent three months in New Zealand filming a period drama for TV called Greenstone. I got to travel somewhere exotic and got paid to do it - what a phenomenal opportunity. As an actor, The York Realist has been second to none because I've learned so much about myself. I've realised that I have a lot of self-censorship and I'd like to break that down.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
The television mini-series Uprising, because I met my girlfriend (the actress Georgia Mackenzie) doing that and we've been together ever since so that was very special.

Favourite co-stars
Georgia, that goes without saying. Also from Uprising, Anton Rodgers. And the entire cast of Coupling, I love them all. I recently did a pilot for BBC1 called Strange and worked with an actor called Timmy Laing who was a lovely lovely lad. I could go on for days.

Favourite directors
Peter Gill, who wrote and directed The York Realist. He can read you like a book. It's very disarming. He picks up on all of your hang-ups and neuroses and then says, let's examine those, let's break them down. Matt Lipsey, who directed Uprising, is a lovely man. He's the first director who said to me, whatever you do I'm happy with. That's good to hear every once in awhile. Matt is very trusting.

Favourite playwrights
John Steinbeck. Although he's more of a novelist, I've always enjoyed adaptations of his work. Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett are great for sheer power and economy - there's not a single wasted word. And I absolutely love Anton Chekhov. He's the yardstick. A good Chekhov production is sublime.

What roles would you most like to play still?
I don't want to say the obvious. Okay, everybody wants to do Shakespeare and I do too but I don't want to sound boring. I'd also love to play Konstantin in The Seagull. There are millions of roles I'd like, though most scripts I see are for films and television.

What differences do you find performing on stage versus film or TV?
The main difference is that, on stage you can really build a performance - you develop a momentum from curtain up right the way through. On camera, everything is filmed out of sequence so it's a real effort to build a character. It's much more natural on stage. And there's nothing like the feeling of being on stage. There are moments of complete liberation, when sometimes you almost step out of yourself and realise you've got a live audience there in the palm of your hand.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
How do you start on that one? I find it shameful that subsidised theatres have to charge prohibitively high ticket prices. I think the government should strip off one-third from defence spending and put it into supporting the arts. They should also reassess how the money is spent. I have nothing against the Royal Opera House, for instance, but that isn't for Joe Public. It's appalling that that kind of money can be channelled into such projects. The subsidised theatres are the ones that are for the people in the street and very often the people can no longer afford to go to them.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Stevie Wonder circa 1972 because that's when he was just about to embark on a string of incredible records. I'd love to have been in his head while he was writing those albums. Stevie Wonder swept up at the Grammies from 1972 to 1976, though he had a year off in 1975 when Paul Simon won and said something like, the first person I should thank is Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album this year. '70s funk is the only music I listen to. I'm a complete vinyl spod.

Favourite holiday destination
The Scottish Highlands. As a child, I spent every summer there in a tent.

Favourite books
Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien.

If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I'd probably have been a really bad builder. My dad was a good builder and he actually asked me to stop coming along to help him - I was so bad he was getting complaints.

Why did you want to accept your part in The York Realist?
First and foremost because it was working with Peter Gill and also working with him at the Royal Court where he first became famous in the 1960s. I thought I'd never have a chance like that again.

What's your favourite line from The York Realist?
There are so many funny lines. Probably my favourite though is from the top of Act II. One character says, "Jesus Christ wasn't Yorkshire", and another replies "Yes he was". As a Yorkshireman myself, that sums it all up for me.

Have you noticed any differences in reactions to The York Realist from regional vs London audiences?
It's a Northern play so people in places like Manchester warmed to it. I was worried about bringing it into London. I thought Londoners might hold that Northernness against the piece. In fact, they've given it a great welcome. It might take them a little longer to work out what's happening, to decide whether it's a comedy or a drama, but they've embraced it nonetheless.

What's the funniest thing that's happened during the run to date of The York Realist?
The other night the lights collapsed on Lloyd Owen as he walked off stage. My character is still on and, as Lloyd goes off, he slams the door after a big row. I just heard this crash-bang-wallop and had to pretend that was normal. I spoke afterwards to someone in the audience and they thought it was part of the play so I guess I got away with it.

Why did you want to accept your upcoming role in Proof?
I haven't read anything like it before. You can feel the questions hanging over the whole thing. And my character Hal is a lovely part. He's a maths graduate student. I liked the fact that he's very different to me. There's a lot I can identify with, but a lot to him that I don't know too. He's pushy, driven and incredibly quick-minded. He sees life in terms of formulae - I find that fascinating. I haven't seen the play performed before and I don't want to. I couldn't imagine seeing someone else's interpretation and then coming to it myself. I like parts to be like freshly fallen snow - there are no footprints until I make my own.

How do you feel about performing alongside Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof?
I try not to think too much about it. Obviously, I'm excited about working with both Gwyneth Paltrow and John Madden, but I also have reservations. Because the production is so high profile, there's that much further to fall. It could be a very public failure, which tempers my excitement.

Any chance you might be cast in the film version of Proof?
I'd be a fool to expect them to cast me, an English actor, in that. I didn't even know there was going to be a film when I auditioned; I read that later. Sure, it'd be a complete dream, but it's a great opportunity as it is. I'm happy just with the part and the play and the chance to work at the Donmar. Everything else is a bonus.

Do you have any interest in a Hollywood career?
I visited California last year. I saw the Hollywood sign from a distance and I think that's close enough. I love living here too much. I would go to work but I couldn't move there. If nothing else, I couldn't stand to be so far from my family. In London, I can hop on a train or get in a car and be home within an hour or two. And I would always want to come back to the theatre. Films and television may seem very glamorous, but ultimately they're not as satisfying as being on stage.

What are your plans for the future?
In addition to Proof, I've got to publicise a new film I've done called Happy Now, and later this summer, we're filming series three of Coupling. After that, I'd love to go travelling for a bit, before I get too old. Maybe I could take a year out and slum around China, the Greek islands or South America. There are so many places I'd like to go.

- Richard Coyle was speaking to Terri Paddock


The York Realist continues at the West End's Strand Theatre until 20 April 2002. The UK premiere of Proof, part of the annual American Imports season, plays at the Donmar Warehouse from 9 May to 15 June 2002.


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