Raised in Scotland, Peter Capaldi was studying at Glasgow School of Art when he landed a role in the BAFTA-winning 1983 film Local Hero, directed by Bill Forsyth. Over the next few years, he continued to work in television and film, as well as making his way to the London stage, appearing in plays such as The Duenna and Twelfth Night at the Young Vic.
Capaldi’s TV credits include Minder, The Vicar of Dibley, The Comic Strip Presents…, Prime Suspect, Midsomer Murders, Peep Show, and Rab C Nesbitt. Most recently, he’s become best known for his portrayal of spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the BBC’s satirical ministerial comedy The Thick of It, directed by television comedy impresario Armando Iannucci. His Alastair Campbell-inspired performance earned him a BAFTA nomination in 2006.
On film, Capaldi has been seen in Dangerous Liaisons, Shooting Fish, Bean, Modigliani and 2007’s Brit comedy Magicians with Peep Show’s Mitchell & Webb. As a director, he started out making short films, and won a Best Short Film Oscar in 1995 for Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life, which starred Richard E Grant.
After nearly a decade away – his last major theatre production was Richard Eyre’s 1998 premiere of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss in which he played Robbie Ross to Liam Neeson’s Oscar Wilde – Capaldi returns to the stage this month in Absurdia, a celebration of British absurdist playwrights, at the Donmar Warehouse.
The triple bill comprises NF Simpson’s short one-act plays A Resounding Tinkle and Gladly Otherwise and the world premiere of The Crimson Hotel, written by Michael Frayn. Actor-turned-director Douglas Hodge directs Capaldi and his fellow cast members include Lyndsey Marshal, John Hodgkinson and Judith Scott.
Date & place of birth
Born in Glasgow in 1958.
What made you want to become an actor?
God it seems so long ago. I just liked the idea of hanging about theatres, and the sort of performance element of it. I think that that’s just a cover for saying showing off really! And then you get stuck with it!
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I would have become a designer probably, because I went to art school. So I may have gone into production design, something like that.
Career highlights to date
Funnily enough, it’s strange being down here, because we’re rehearsing in The Cut, opposite the Young Vic - that’s where I got my first acting jobs in London years ago. They were very small little parts, but I loved doing those. But career highlights? I don’t know. I don’t think that’s really for me to say.
What did winning an Oscar mean to you?
It was so long ago. It was just fantastic, such a wonderful surprise. But it was confusing a bit, because it was just for doing a short film. I didn’t even know they had Oscars for short films! So it was all a bit of a delightful surprise. You get to go to the ceremony. It’s not like the BAFTAs, where they cordon off the people who are starting off and doing short films, and put them into a less glamorous ceremony. I don’t know why they do that - perhaps they feel that those people aren’t interesting enough or something! In the Oscars, you get the full whack. The statue’s on the mantelpiece in my bedroom.
What’s it been like working with director Armando Iannucci in TV’s The Thick of It?
Great! We’ve done it for two years now, but we work in very concentrated, compressed blocks of time. Over the last year we’ve really only done two hours, two specials. It’s a totally different way of making television. The sets are just lit normally, there are no rehearsals, you just shoot and the cameras have to follow the actors. Normally when you go to work, everything is pinned down, you’ve got to get marks, you’ve got to stand here, there’s a close-up here, a wideshot there, and everything has to be choreographed, which often makes things very dull. With our show, it’s just all up for grabs. That’s what gives it this energy and attack, it’s the destruction of all the rules of television production.
You’ve worked across TV, film & theatre. Do you have a preference?
It’s all different. On a show like The Thick of It we never have any time to learn lines. Here in Absurdia, we have plenty of time to learn them, but old habits die hard. I’ve got my lines written up all over the stage because that’s what I do on the TV show! It’s only to help me along in rehearsals, of course. The discipline is very different, the challenges are very different. Here, you’ve got to pin things down. You have to be very thorough about which prop you lift, when you lift it, where you put it down. It’s got to look accidental, but it’s actually very thoroughly worked out, whereas if you’re doing it on film you can get away with the energy and bask in it. In theatre you need the energy and the precision.
You’ve written, directed & acted. How do you pick what your next project is going to be?
I suppose it depends on how your career’s going at the time really. If you’re doing a lot of dull acting, then you think, I’d quite like to direct really! Luckily, I’ve been doing a lot of challenging acting, and I’m really enjoying that. I would only direct something if I really wanted to do it. I don’t want to be a director for hire. It’s too hard and it takes too much out of you emotionally.
Everybody in this show is lovely - Lyndsey Marshal, Judith Scott, John Hodgkinson, everybody’s very nice. Sarah Parrish is lovely to work with. And Jo Scanlan from The Thick of It. I get on with most people, really.
Douglas Hodge obviously! And I think Max Stafford-Clark is brilliant. He has a very rigorous, very disciplined way of approaching the work. One of the things I don’t like in theatre is that there’s a lot of mystery about it, about its processes. There are certain actors and directors who like to encourage this fog of mysticism, they act like high priests who hold the secret knowledge and they like to make sure that you know that they’ve got it and you haven’t. But it’s simple: the only secret knowledge is talent. Either you’ve got it or you haven’t. All other knowledge should be available. The kind of director I like will share their knowledge. When someone says to you, this is how you can do this, that’s fantastic. That’s what Max or Douglas will do. They teach you how to do it or help you find your own way to do it. They’re also sensitised to leaving you to get to where you have to get to at your own pace and respecting your maturity.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I haven’t really got any. I always think it’s alarming when people say, I’d love to play Cyrano de Bergerac … Actually I would love to play Cyrano de Bergerac! But it’s up to somebody else to make that decision.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve had a lot of kindnesses from Terry Gilliam, Stephen Frears and David Leland. Lots of people in the film business have been very encouraging and helpful. I suppose the best advice was from Stephen Frears. He just said “make another film”. When you’re moaning about not being able to get the money, keep at it. That’s not very interesting advice!
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I really enjoyed Boeing-Boeing. That’s because Roger Allam was in it - he was in The Thick of It. I also saw something last week, but I can’t remember what it was. Must’ve been good!
I’m in the middle of a book called The Dig by John Preston, which is a really nice novel about archaeology. It sounds dull but it’s not at all! There’s an archaeological dig in the 1930s on a group of mounds in Suffolk which turn out to be where a whole pile of Viking stuff is. I didn’t know anything about it, and it’s very, very interesting. I normally have about two or three books on the go. I’m also reading a biography of Catherine de Medici, and the last book I read was The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, which was great.
What made you decide to do Absurdia?
The real thing was Douglas Hodge. I think he’s a really talented actor and director. I felt that in his hands we could make something interesting and fun. I worked with Doug years ago, and I’m obviously an admirer of his. It’s been a while since I’ve been on stage so to work with somebody I trust so much was a very valuable thing. And the nature of the plays themselves - because they’re funny and part of a comic tradition – was something that I was quite interested in.
And how have you found working with Hodge?
Great. I just think he’s absolutely brilliant, he’s disciplined, rigorous, full of knowledge about the material while at the same time clearly understanding the acting process .He knows that you can’t arrive with something completely ready, you have to spend a number of weeks developing it and working it through. If something’s not right today, maybe it will be next week. Also he’s great fun.
How has it been working on three different plays at once?
Knackering! It’s very strange, I don’t think any of us have ever done it before. Although they’re three short plays, you still have to develop three different characters, whilst in one longer play you’re only concentrating on one. What happens is you become very embroiled and engrossed in the world of the play you happen to be rehearsing at the time, then the next day you go back to one of the other ones and you have to get into that groove. That’s quite a weird thing, marshalling your energy and your concentration to be able to jump about between those different worlds efficiently. The plays are all related actually, and the relationships between the plays become more obvious as we do them. Having three plays absolutely adds to the absurdity of the production - seeing everybody move from these very different worlds is quite an entertainment in itself.
Do you think the idea of absurdist theatre can put people off?
Probably. I think the actual term “Theatre of the Absurd” is rather frightening and grave, whereas in fact – in our hands and the hands of the writers – it’s, let’s say, surreal comedy. It seems to me that it has more in common with Monty Python than with any grave theatrical academic world. It certainly seems funny to me. NF Simpson, who wrote the first two plays, ended up going into television comedy. The Pythons were influenced by these plays in particular. It’s possible to draw a line from them to Pinter and Beckett, but I think in this particular production the comic elements come to the fore.
What are your future plans?
Absurdia goes on until September. Then I’m going to do another episode of Skins, the teen show, which is the only programme which gets me any credibility with my daughter! I’ve got a couple of things that are my own, which may or may not be happening.
And what can you tell us about your upcoming film collaboration with Ewan McGregor?
Yes, hopefully that’s next year. It’s one of those things that’s not going to happen until the money’s there. It’s set in the 1930s, and it’s a comedy. Ewan’s very funny, and this offers him a part in which he can stretch his comic muscles. We’re not quite there yet. It’s looking pretty good, but these things can always collapse at the last moment. I wrote the script and will direct. It’s one of those projects I’ve been working on for years – it’s my baby. Ewan’s come along and been absolutely fantastic. He’s been hugely committed to it, but it’s an offbeat thing. It’s really more like four different films in one. - Peter Capaldi was speaking to Stuart Denison
Absurdia opens on 31 July 2007 (previews from 26 July) at the Donmar Warehouse, where its limited season continues until 8 September.