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20 Questions With...Hugh Bonneville

Iris BAFTA nominee Hugh Bonneville, who starts previews this week for Hampstead's world premiere of Anglo-American comedy US & THEM, explains how fear has driven him back to the stage after seven years of filming.

By • West End


After completing just one term at drama school, actor Hugh Bonneville spent many years establishing a solid career on the boards - moving from seasons at Leicester Haymarket and Colchester's Mercury theatres to seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National by way of understudying Ralph Fiennes at Regent's Park - before breaking into the television and film roles for which he's now best recognised.

Bonneville's many early theatre credits include The Devil's Disciple, School for Scandal, June and Paycock, Yerma (for the National), Hamlet, Amphibians, The Alchemist, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (RSC), Beautiful Thing, Habeas Corpus (Donmar) and My Night with Reg (West End). His last stage appearance was in the 1996 production of The Handyman at Chichester Festival.

In more recent years, Bonneville has been regularly seen on screen. Amongst his television credits are Love Again (in which he played poet Philip Larkin), The Commander, Daniel Deronda, Tipping the Velvet, Dr Zhivago, The Gathering Storm, Armadillo, The Cazalets, Take a Girl Like You, Madame Bovary and Thursday the Twelfth.

His film credits include Notting Hill, Mansfield Park, The Emperor's New Clothes, Conspiracy of Silence, High Heels Low Lifes, Blow Dry, Tomorrow Never Dies and Iris. In the last, he played a young John Bayley to Kate Winslet's Iris Murdoch, was nominated for a BAFTA and won the award for Best Young Actor at the Berlin Film Festival.

After an absence of seven years, Bonneville returns to the stage this week to star alongside Harriet Walter and Siobhan Redmond at Hampstead Theatre in the world premiere of Tamsin Oglesby's US and THEM. In the Anglo-American comedy, a chance meeting between two couples - one English and one American - provides fertile ground for a dissection of the so-called "special relationship".


Date & place of birth
I was born in London, but I don't want my date of birth appearing.

Lives now in...
Sussex.

Training
I did all of one term at Webber Douglas.

First big break
Apart from getting my Equity card? My first job was at Regent's Park, understudying Ralph Fiennes as Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which we took on tour. I went on for Ralph in Florence and the director Jonathan Lynn, then at the National, was there on holiday and came to see the show. Having had countless rejections from the National, suddenly I got an audition. Getting your foot in the door is everything. I held a spear there for two years.

Career highlights to date
My biggest highlight I suppose was American journalists not realising the role of John Bayley in Iris was played by two actors. They thought it was Jim Broadbent in both parts of the film. It was a triumph of marketing and a real compliment to the performances.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
My Night with Reg. I was in the second cast; I took over from John Sessions. It was a combination of a wonderful play, a great cast and a brilliant director - a very very happy experience. On film, Notting Hill was wonderful, despite the fact that most of me and my compadres' work ended up on the cutting room floor. It was nice to work on a proper Hollywood movie. You get looked after really well. Both of those were directed by Roger Michell.

Favourite co-stars
Guy Henry - he's one of my best friends. On stage, you never know what he's going to do. One night, he might do a performance like it's a funeral and the next like it's a funfair. He's the most infuriating actor to work with but also really exciting. Kate Winslet is also a favourite because, again, you don't know what to expect, every take is full of possibility. I like the unexpected even though I'm crap at delivering it myself. Performance-wise, I'm like a dray horse and they're colts or bucking broncos.

Favourite directors
Roger Michell. There was a scene in Notting Hill - it didn't make it into the final cut - which was a single, wide shot of five of us walking down the street. Roger very quietly gave each of us notes that made you rethink and adjust what you were doing in the most natural way. He has the ability to latch on to what an actor thinks and what a character would think in the most unassuming way. In theatre, the mark of a great director is that you don't notice his stamp on a play. I've worked with directors who like having their signature on a production rather than the playwright's signature whereas Roger's work is invisible. Also, he makes you think you're a better actor than you are so have a lot of confidence.

By the same token, I loved working with Richard Eyre on Iris. John Bayley is a very intellectual, complex character, and Richard gave me the confidence to stick with it. Perhaps because Roger and Richard are grounded in theatre, they're better able to understand and cope with the neurotic way an actor's brain works and get the best out of us. Their focus is more on the performance than a traditional movie director like, say, Peter Greenaway, where the visual is all. I've been lucky working with directors who have theatre backgrounds because that's where I trained and it's how I think.

Favourite playwrights
I have a soft spot for Kevin Elyot after My Night with Reg. I love his take on things and the elegant structure of his plays. He has a real sympathetic worldview and writes such delicate characters. I relate to his outsiders - these socially uneasy, solitary figures who are at times misunderstood. I like Tom Stoppard because he reminds me how utterly thick I am. The Real Thing is one of my favourite plays. Also Shakespeare. And I love Chekhov. His plays are so funny. No one seems to realise that - even though he writes "comedy" right there under the title - because they're almost always played like dirges.

What roles would you most like to play still?
I normally say "the next one" to that question, but I've been thinking about it more recently. I'd love to play Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, I've never done that. I'd be a terrible Hamlet - I always want to slap him and say, get on with it. In about ten years, I'd like to do Simon Gray's Quartermain's Terms. I haven't done Chekhov since drama school. I'd love to play any of his screwed-up characters. And I'd love to do Henry from The Real Thing sometime, even though I think people are going to remember Stephen Dillane in that role now. I didn't see him but everybody says he was "so marvellous".

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Jerry Springer - The Opera, which I've just seen at the National. I've got the Chick with a Dick badge on my coat. Knowing about the show's genesis, what I love it is how they've taken this tiny little chamber piece and turned it into a full stage extravaganza without losing anything. It owns the stage and, in the most charming way, subverts the musical form. It's witty, filthy, irreverent and yet communicates a very simple message about how we live our lives today. I can't wait for the cast recording.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of theatre?
I would tell them to give playwrights tax breaks. As it is, writers can make ten times as much writing for television, so they - and their agents - are easily seduced, even though British broadcasters don't allow much originality and most TV writing is formulaic. There are no Dennis Potters around today. Tax breaks for theatre would encourage a lot more new writing. There should also be a student card system, valid for all productions across the board, so students can afford theatre tickets. Finally - and this is all part of a ridiculous wish list - I'd like to strip away the layers of administration you see in most theatres these days. Money should go where it can be seen - into the productions, the performances. Like a lot of industries, theatre now has far too many unnecessary middle managers, though I'm sure they could all justify their own jobs.

Why do you think theatre is important?
In the West End, it's important to be able to go sit in a theatre with your legs wrapped round the person in front of you who's got a Brian May haircut, spend the interval queuing for a drink you have to take out a mortgage to buy and then come out afterwards to find your car has been towed because you've forgotten to pay the congestion charge. Apart from that, theatre is important because it reminds you what it is to be human. Life's a joke and theatre lets you share it with other people.

If you could swap places with someone, who would it be?
Samuel Pepys. He loved life, he was a bit naughty and he saw a very vivid era of our history at first hand.

Favourite holiday destinations
Grenada in the Caribbean. I went there ten years ago and I've always wanted to go back. The difficulty is persuading my wife, who loves Barbados.

Favourite books
Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh. That has to be my favourite at the moment because my 18-month-old son loves it. I'm moving him on next to A La Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust.

Favourite after-show haunts
Certainly not Hampstead Theatre bar. You're not allowed to smoke.

Favourite websites
They're not favourites, just ones I use a lot. I ought to have shares in Amazon considering the amount of books I order. I also spend an inordinate amount of time on BT.com. It is the most frustrating site. These guys are meant to be at the cutting edge of technology and their site is terrible. I spend most of the time emailing them, asking why I can't see my bill, why my service keeps going down and why I can't get broadband where I live.

If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
A very corrupt lawyer. I always wanted to be a barrister. I loved the whole campery of dressing up in wigs. I used to say that, when the acting dried up, I'd read law. But I now know more corrupt lawyers than corrupt actors. I mean, actors are allowed to be corrupt - we're all wastrels, layabouts and vagabonds.

How different do you find performing on stage versus screen?
Quite apart from the money, the main difference is control. On stage, you have control over your performance; on screen, you have absolutely no control. On stage, the audience decides where to look; on screen, the director decides where everybody looks. On stage, you can get it right tomorrow; on screen, you can't. Ten years ago, I couldn't have imagined what it'd be like to work in movies, but that's all I've really done for the past eight or nine years. I love being on set now. But I also love the shared experience of theatre. There's nothing like that on a film set.

Why did you want to return to theatre now?
Having seen a number of plays over the past few years, I've got more and more scared about going back onto the stage myself. The parts of the brain used in theatre had got very flabby in my case. It was important to exercise those mental muscles and to remind myself why I became an actor in the first place. And also because, quite honestly, I can afford to do theatre now. It just isn't feasible when you've got a mortgage and a family. I've been very very lucky, having worked in film for some years, that I now have a cushion that allows me to be a bit more selfish in the roles I choose.

Why did you want your part in US and THEM in particular?
I've been offered a lot of plays recently and this was the best one I read. It made me laugh on page one. That's utterly refreshing. I get scripts for sitcoms all the time that are so bad I'd rather eat my own child than appear in them. This play is also quite, in inverted commas, 'topical'. I like my character, too. Martin is a quintessential type of middle-class English person. He's a wannabe inventor, with all that that implies, and I suppose like me, he's proud to be English but also has an increasingly vague sense of what that actually means. When I was a kid, our national identity was much clearer, but now the Union Jack has been hijacked as a symbol of fascism. People are confused about being English whereas there's an absolute certainty about what it means to be American.

How do you view the "special relationship" between the US and the UK?
I view it with scepticism and caution. Looking at in terms of recent events, I wonder, if the "special relationship" didn't exist: would the war in Iraq have started sooner? Would there have been a different aftermath? Possibly we would be looking at a more brutal outcome if British notions of decency and fair play didn't come into it. I don't know. From a wider perspective, the relationship between our two countries is based on a bond through history and a lot of received ideas. Americans seem to think we all live in Anne Hathaway's cottage and drink tea every day, while there is this British idea that they're all gum-chewing, gun-toting warmongers. That's what US and THEM explores - these assumptions about each other and each other's cultures, which are totally wrong.

Have you ever had been misunderstood in your dealings with Americans?
Once, when I was in Los Angeles, I said I was going outside for a fag. That raised a few eyebrows. The play doesn't deal so much with linguistic differences, though.

What's your favourite line from US and THEM?
How posh is your website? The line is: "Shut up, you fucking t**t." It makes me laugh because it's so unexpected. It's funny that, no matter how civilised people are, they can be reduced to the baseness and banality of playground insults when there's no basis for real debate.

What are your plans for the future?
I'm doing a television drama with Juliet Stevenson about the MMR vaccine and then a film directed by Richard Eyre about the first female actors after the Restoration. I hope do some more theatre next year.

- Hugh Bonneville was speaking to Terri Paddock


US and THEM opens at Hampstead Theatre on 28 May 2003, following previews from 22 May. Its limited season continues to 28 June. To WIN one of TEN pairs of tickets, click here. Competition ends 29 May 2003.


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