Actor Paul Rhys has just returned to the National after more than six years' absence in order to play Angelo in Simon McBurney’s Complicite production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Rhys was last seen on the South Bank starring as the young AE Housman in the world premiere of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, which later transferred to the West End. Due to return to the National as the title role in Katie Mitchell's Ivanov in 2002, Rhys had to bow out of that production at short notice (See News, 29 Jul 2002), but he returns now with a Barclays TMA Best Actor award to his name.

He received that accolade for his performance as Hamlet in Laurence Boswell's Young Vic production. Rhys' other stage credits include King Lear with Ian Holm, Bent (National), Long Day's Journey into Night (Young Vic), Design for Living (Donmar Warehouse), Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice (RSC), Ghetto (Riverside Studios) and A Woman of No Importance.

In addition to the TMA Award, Rhys won the Poel Prize at the National and the Bancroft Gold Medal, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Olivier for playing Edgar in King Lear. For his television role in The Healer, he won a BAFTA for Best Actor.

Rhys’ other screen work includes, on film, Winter, Food of Love, From Hell, Love Lies Bleeding, Chaplin and Vincent and Theo; and, on television, The Deal (in which he played former MP Peter Mandelson), The Cazalet Chronicles, I Saw You, Anna Karenina and A Dance to the Music of Time.

Date & place of birth
Born on the Brecon Beacons in Wales in 1965.

Lives now in...
I've lived in Lancaster Gate (west London) for the last five years.

First big break
The film Vincent and Theo, directed by Robert Altman. He saw me at RADA and a year later asked me to be Theo, younger brother to Tim Roth's Vincent.

Career highlights
I don't think I've had them yet! But I loved Vincent and Theo, and some of the smaller films I made in America in the mid-Nineties, like Nina Takes a Lover. Doing Hamlet directed by Laurence Boswell at the Young Vic, and then in Tokyo, Osaka and New York, was another highlight. I think, for every younger actor, doing that role is a highlight in itself, but we did a very complex, psychological and truthful version of it which suited me.

What do your various awards mean to you?
They're nice to get, but you can't work with notion of there being a treasure at the end of it. It's often not the right person who gets the prize after all, either. It's a whimsical detail rather than a hugely significant thing. But it is nice to have the approval of people you care about.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I get so stressed out working on things in the theatre that it's never 100% joy. But I've enjoyed Measure for Measure hugely because of Simon McBurney, and we really do have the most sincerely, generous, supportive, talented and kind company I've ever been in, to a man. We also all got on really well in The Invention of Love, King Lear and Hamlet. I don't do a job unless I have a good relationship with the director. So I have been very choosy with the theatre work I do. Perhaps I've been a little too choosy and maybe I need to take more risks, but if it's not been 100% right, I've not accepted it!

Favourite co-stars
Tim Roth and I were very close on Vincent and Theo. I was great friends with Robert Downey Jr on Chaplin. And I like both John Wood and Ian Holm who I did The Invention of Love and King Lear with, respectively.

Favourite directors
Simon McBurney, because of his incredible socio-political and physical scope. He has an amazing brain, and his understanding of dynamic space mixed with his social awareness is a fantastically potent combination. Robert Altman is another. Both Robert and Simon share something: they actually have elements of real genius about them. That's wonderful to encounter and incredibly rare. Working with Robert when I was so young partly spoiled me. After that, anything less I couldn't be bothered with; it took me a while to realise that there aren't hundreds of Robert Altman's around.

Favourite playwrights
I love Shakespeare. Every day now before I do the play – as I did when I was doing Hamlet and King Lear - I walk down to the Globe, and say, "Give me some of your power". I've become a real Shakespeare head. I've read everything about Measure for Measure, and have virtually written a book about it myself. Shakespeare i my favourite playwright by a million miles. But I would also really like to do more new work, too. I loved doing Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, and though I've not appeared in any yet, I like Joe Penhall's plays.

What roles would you most like to play still?
I've been asked to do Richard II and Oedipus at the RSC. I used not to want to do Richard II, but now I understand the concept of loss much more than I used to, after someone I lived with, Arkie Whiteley, died a year ago. I had to pull out of Ivanov at the National because of it. Now Richard II makes more sense in a deeply personal way.

You've worked extensively in theatre, TV & film. Which do you prefer?
With film, you get treated like royalty, you get paid a fortune, and it's easy. Theatre is very hard and you don't get any money for it, but the rewards on a personal level are a million times greater and the ripples you feel after being in the theatre, whether it's a successful show or not, are much deeper and there are many more of them. Television has an inherent disposable quality - it's forgotten almost immediately.

With film, if you've got a good face, the camera loves you. But it takes a while to learn to be really good on film, to understand that stillness isn't deadness and you can be still and full-up at the same time. For theatre, you need enormous stamina, great psychological insight, and flair with language, vocal robustness, and a fine mind to untangle the complex thinking of Shakespeare.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Put more money into it! I don't think people should have to pay £35 or £45 for a seat in the theatre. I don't understand what market that is aiming for. Actors often moan about the type of audience they’re playing to, and people constantly worry about young people not being involved in theatre, but at £45, they can't afford it! The Travelex £10 Season is fantastic, and I was very keen to do this play because of it being in this season. I'd like to get younger people into the theatre again, and this is exactly the kind of piece that’s accessible to them and could inspire and lead them to enjoying more.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I've enjoyed Complicite's work over the years. I loved Mnemonic, which was the last Complicite show I saw. I enjoy almost everything at Globe. I know Mark Rylance and I love being there, milling around, listening to the Shakespeare. I buy a cheap ticket and stand by the stage. I look around at the kids, and they're mesmerised by it. I saw everything at the Globe in the last season.

If you hadn't been an actor what would you have done for a living?
A doctor. I was all poised to go to University to train, but I went to RADA instead.

If you could swap places with one person for a day, who would it be?
The richest man in the world - so I could clear away third-world debt instantly, by one transaction. I wouldn't want their personality or their essence, just their money, so I could rid the world of hideous poverty.

Favourite books
What I'm reading at the moment is PG Wodehouse's The Mating Game, as an antidote to Measure for Measure! I love Wodehouse’s work - it's fantastic, and it makes me laugh. But I think my favourite book has to be Dostoevsky's The Idiot. He's such an amazing holy fool character. I like books that are dark and Russian!

Favourite holiday destinations
Of places I've been to, Tibet was remarkable, St Petersburg was incredible, and Brazil was amazing country, too. I also love getting on the Eurostar to Paris, and walking on hills in Scotland and Wales. I really want to go to Damascus next - I've been meaning to for years, but I'm going to have a go this summer. I've never been to India, either, and must get on with that one, too.

Why did you want to accept the role of Angelo in this production of Measure for Measure?
At first I didn't! I'd had this hiccough with Ivanov, and I wasn't sure. The play is so dark. You have to be robust to enter the dark world of a play like this, and I wasn't sure I was robust enough, having dealt with the grief of someone so close to me dying of cancer at 37. But Simon McBurney persuaded me. I really wanted to work with him and I realised I had to move on so I took the plunge. The part has enormous psychological complexity and humanity and loneliness and isolation. It's so terrifying and so deeply, deeply human.

How do you feel about returning to the National for the first time since starring in the multi award-winning The Invention of Love?
It's lovely, I feel it is home for me. I feel a really special thing at the National. They've known me since I was 21 or 22, and I know a lot of the people here. You feel looked after and known. It's my favourite place to work, easily, without any doubt. I could go on doing plays here forever, like Michael Bryant did! Nicholas Hytner has made it just fantastic, too. There's a great atmosphere and wonderful programming, and it's very exciting.

This is your first Complicite production. How different is it to working on other shows?
Simon works in a totally different way to most directors, who start with the text, reading it and blocking it. With Simon, we don't start anywhere. Instead, the rehearsal room is an event that’s full of video and pictures and music. We spent three hours every day doing physical work.

What’s your favourite line from Measure for Measure?
Angelo says: "When one sour grace we have forgot, nothing goes right, we would and we would not."

- Paul Rhys was speaking to Mark Shenton

Measure for Measure continues in repertory at the National's Olivier Theatre until 31 July 2004.