Peter Eyre’s career in film, television and on stage spans almost five decades.
He has been directed by some of the world’s leading directors including Trevor Nunn, Jonathan Miller and James Ivory, and regularly treads the boards at the Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court, Chichester Festival Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, Sheffield Crucible, Nottingham Playhouse and the in the West End.
His stage credits include The Wild Duck, Richard II, Don Carlos, Smoking With Lulu, Hamlet, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Hedda Gabler, Crime and Punishment, The Desert Air and The Seagull.
American-born Eyre is now starring in Terre Haute, the first new play in a decade by A Boy’s Own Story author Edmund White, which transfers to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios this week following its world premiere last August at the Edinburgh festival and a regional tour.
In the two-hander, Eyre plays an aging man who decides to visit an angry former soldier who has been incarcerated for mass murder. Eyre’s character is a fictionalised depiction of the writer Gore Vidal; his co-star Arthur Darvill plays a version of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a decorated Gulf War hero, with whom Vidal corresponded prior to McVeigh’s execution.
In 1995 McVeigh was responsible for detonating a bomb in an Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people, an action said to be the greatest massacre of Americans by an American since Waco two years earlier.
Date & place of birth
Born in New York on 11 March 1942.
Lives now in
When I was 18, I secretly took an exam at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). I didn’t tell my parents because they wanted me to go Oxford. When RADA couldn’t take me for a year, I went to university in Paris, got bored and decided I would study acting in France.
What made you first want to become an actor?
My acting teacher was an English actor who had moved to France in the Thirties because of some sort of sexual disgrace. He took me on until I earned a bursary allowing me to attend classes under a very old famous French actress called Berthe Bovey. When she asked me what plays I had acted in while in England, I lied and told her I was at the Old Vic. Being a good Catholic boy, I didn’t feel right lying so when I returned to England I auditioned for the Old Vic and got in.
First big break
The first role that really affected me was playing Konstantin in The Seagull with the Nottingham Players. Jonathan Miller directed. When I got nominated for lot of awards, I moved to London and was able to make my career there. Konstantin was my part - Olivier saw my performance.
Career highlights to date
Playing Polonius in Hamlet with Ralph Fiennes on Broadway in 1995, partly because I’m half American so walking up Fifth Avenue to the theatre somehow made sense and felt right. Until then, I had many American relations and friends who knew I was an actor but had never seen me in anything.
Actors who never date such as Rex Harrison, Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern - incredible improvisers who never repeated their performances.
I’ve only worked with Trevor Nunn twice, otherwise I love working with Jonathan Miller and Michael Grandage. All three are different as directors and people, but what they all have in common is incredible imagination.
I’m very fond of Chekhov and Ibsen, both unique geniuses. Chekhov created truthful life on stage in such a subtle way while still using poetry and heightened reality. I’ve just been in the The Cherry Orchard (directed by Jonathan Miller) in Sheffield). I always enjoy the way Chekhov composes scenes and brings in characters using oddly connected line sequences, which seem bizarre and artificial on the page but become total truth onstage. Ibsen’s scenes are usually duologues or for three people but he always manages to create something quite epic.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that made a big impact?
The Reporter because it is an entertaining but disturbingly dark play about a journalist written in an entirely non-journalistic way. Much further back, Trevor Nunn’s Nicholas Nickleby was the first time I’d ever seen a big adaptation of a novel on stage. It was two plays, parts one and two, both with incredible invention. Nunn is one of only a few directors who can create a real sense of ensemble on stage. Most of my favourite productions have been directed by him - Juno and the Paycock with Judi Dench, Once in a Lifetime with Zoe Wanamaker – his productions are filled with exuberance.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Whatever you do with your life in theatre, never limit yourself to it. Always feed yourself with everything in life. Look at nature, read, go to the opera – curiosity is the greatest gift you can have as an artist. Some people get stuck in a kind of groove, and many young artists don’t read or know about anybody older than three minutes ago. Be interested.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Fire Tessa Jowell (Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport). It’s been a long time since we’ve had an arts minister who’s actively interested in the arts without wanting to win votes from it. These days I can’t think of many politicians who go to the theatre. We should not have arts ministers that are also sports ministers. That way the arts are fucked.
I’m reading the autobiography of Lincoln Kirstein of the New York City Ballet. I don’t read many autobiographies, mostly fiction. I just finished Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. I also read a lot of French and European literature - may I recommend Stefan Zweig’s 1930 autobiography The World of Yesterday?
Favourite holiday destinations
Greece has everything – air, sea, sun, impressive people and landscapes.
Why did you want to accept your role in Terre Haute?
I know the writer Edmund White and read the script some years ago. When I told him I thought I was perfect for the part, he went completely silent. Later I did a small workshop of it in America but that didn’t come to anything. When Nabokov (the producers) secured the rights, they came and saw me in The Wild Duck at the Donmar and I signed up for another workshop at the Old Vic. I’ve been asking to do this part for more than four years!
Terre Haute is a fictionalised prison meeting between Gore Vidal & Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh but in the script they have different names. Why?
Vidal and McVeigh never actually met. The play is an entirely fictionalised scenario and you really can’t write a play about someone who’s still alive doing something that hasn’t happened. I certainly don’t think I’m being Gore Vidal. I do copy some of his mannerisms and vocal rhythms but my character isn’t him. While many documentary and journalistic plays incorporate a good dose of fiction, this play has a major dose.
The line “political & sexual tensions simmer” is used in the press release to describe the bond between the men in this play. Do you think the work of an artist is enhanced by such intense involvement with his subject?
There’s definitely a gay element to the relationship between the men in the play but, in the case of my character, it’s more about trying to understand an incomprehensible action. Trying to understand someone doesn’t mean you want to fuck them but you do have to get involved. How could this man (McVeigh) never apologise for killing 168 people? Even though my character doesn’t understand the motives, he empathises with the ordinariness of this man and begins to see him less as a killer and more as a person. My character becomes shocked by this empathy and begins to learn more about himself. An attempt to penetrate an impenetrable mind is so interesting but ultimately futile.
Has the production changed since originally staged in Edinburgh last year?
We’re playing bigger theatres and have had to adapt. As there’s just the two of us on stage, we end up playing together like a couple of musicians in a jazz band. We’re always finding new things and making suggestions.
What’s the oddest thing that’s happened in the run to date?
At one performance in Edinburgh a man jumped on stage during the curtain call and embraced us both before asking to meet up with us afterwards. He was obviously quite overexcited by the play. We passed on the invitation.
What are your future plans?
I might be doing the The Cherry Orchard again, but otherwise I don’t know.
- Peter Eyre was speaking to Malcolm Rock
Terre Haute opens on 10 May 2007 (previews from 8 May) in Trafalgar Studio 2, where it continues until 2 June.