Though actor Jim Carter dropped out of university to join a fringe theatre troupe, he has become best known over the years for his many screen roles.
His films have included Brassed Off, Shakespeare in Love, Heartlands, Bright Young Things, Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, Ella Enchanted, The Thief Lord, 102 Dalmatians, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Richard III, The Madness of King George, Black Beauty, Blame It on the Bellboy, A Private Function and Flash Gordon.
On television, Carter has been seen in The Singing Detective, Lipstick on Your Collar, Tube Tales, Blue Murder, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Midsomer Murders, Trial and Retribution, Hornblower, Dalziel and Pascoe, Ain’t Misbehavin’, A Year in Provence, A Dangerous Man, Precious Bane, Lost Empires and The Way We Live Now, amongst others. He has also provided regular voice-overs, particularly for television documentaries.
On stage, Carter’s credits include The Wizard of Oz, Gasping and, most notably, in 1982 Richard Eyre’s National Theatre revival of Guys and Dolls, on which he met his wife, the actress Imelda Staunton.
After a 14-year absence, Carter has returned to the stage, and the National, to appear in The President of an Empty Room, the first stage play by Dirty Pretty Things screenwriter Stephen Knight. Directed by Howard Davies, the play is set amidst the vibrant community of a Cuban cigar factory.
Date & place of birth
Born on 19 August 1948 in Harrogate, Yorkshire.
Lives now in…
West Hampstead in north London
I didn’t train. I went to Sussex University in the late Sixties to read law. I lasted two years, then I dropped out and I started working in fringe theatre.
First big break
I don’t think I’ve ever had such a thing! I’ve just always worked. But a significant moment would be Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre in 1982: (a) for the fun, and (b) because I met Imelda. In terms of telly, The Singing Detective was good for me, because it was the thing that changed people’s perception of me.
Career highlights to date
Top highlight would be playing the baddie in a cowboy movie, all dressed in black and coming through the saloon doors and the piano stopped playing. It was called Rustlers’ Rhapsody, which nobody has seen, but for a lad from Yorkshire to play the baddie down in spaghetti western land in southern Spain was pure heaven! The aforementioned Guys and Dolls is another.
I loved being in the film A Private Function - sitting around waiting to work on that film was the funniest ever, working with Maggie Smith, Liz Smith, Alan Bennett, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Palin, Denholm Elliott – we just laughed all the way along. It was brilliant! Hiawatha that I did at the National with director Michael Bogdanov was a fantastic piece of kids’ theatre, and to hold the Olivier Theatre full of kids at 10.30 in the morning absolutely spellbound was great.
There’s a woman called Imelda Staunton who’s quite good. After Guys and Dolls, we also did The Wizard of Oz together at the RSC, she was Dorothy and I was the Cowardly Lion, but we haven’t done a huge amount together. There are so many people I’ve liked working with – and I’m far too discreet to tell you about the arseholes that I don’t like!
Richard Eyre, who I did both Guys and Dolls and Schweyk in the Second World War with when I was part of the Olivier company. There’s a television director called Chris Menaul who I’ve worked with a couple of times – on A Dangerous Man, in which Ralph Fiennes was Lawrence of Arabia, and also a thing called Precious Bane with Janet McTeer and Clive Owen, and I was ludicrously cast as their father! I’m enjoying working with Howard Davies very much on The President of an Empty Room now. It’s the first time I’ve worked with him - he’s so gentle and pragmatic and calm and organised. He delivers you very well prepared, which is fantastic.
I can’t really answer that question, because I don’t go to the theatre very much, or read plays very much, so I don’t feel qualified. If you asked me about favourite cricketers or favourite gardening writers, I’d feel on safer ground, really. But I do think that new writing is important. I like to see new plays, I don’t want to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream or anyone else’s Bottom. I know that Chekhov is terribly good, but I just don’t really want to go there – it’s not how I choose to spend my time. I’m sure I’ve missed amazing productions of The Cherry Orchard, but I’m sorry….
What roles would you most like to play still?
There’s never been a role I wanted to play. I haven’t done theatre for 14 years, and I wouldn’t have done this if it was doing a role in an old play like Uncle Vanya. I think enough people have done that. But this is a new play, nobody has done it before, we get first crack at it and that’s great, so you’re not treading in other people’s footsteps. The last play I did was Ben Elton’s Gasping at the Haymarket with John Gordon Sinclair – we took over from Bernard Hill and Hugh Laurie.
What are the different skills you need for stage vs screen?
I think the acting is exactly the same. You have to be slightly more technically aware in film, just in terms of hitting marks and props from the point of view of continuity; but in terms of the way you approach a part, there really isn’t any difference. It’s a bit more instant in films and television – you don’t get much rehearsal time, but I quite like that. I like to just get out there and do it! I like films, you say cut, let’s fix that bit, cut, let’s do that again; and I do like the acting on films and telly, but the problem always is the scripts. For some time now, I’ve felt I’ve been papering over the cracks in rubbish scripts – that I’m trying to give a performance the script doesn’t merit. I’m not being grand, but how these things get put on I just don’t know. They pay the mortgage, and also they can be fun to do; it’s just that the end product isn’t very good. But by the time they come out, it might be a year down the line, you’ve moved on and you’ve forgotten about it and you watch it purely objectively, if you ever watch it all. Then this script (for The President of an Empty Room) came my way, and I just thought, that’s knockout! Well, I think so – but we never know until the audience arrives, but hopefully it’s a good play and it’s interesting! And because I’ve suffered from a plethora of bad scripts recently and low budget films that don’t get released, I wanted to act again. I’ve been working with Dennis Hopper and Andy Garcia, good interesting exciting people, and I’ve enjoyed doing those jobs, but they disappear out into the ether and you never see them. So I thought that maybe I should do something solid, where I know an audience is watching because I can hear them coughing!
You’re also king of the voice-overs. What’s the challenge for an actor in doing them?
Actually, I do very few commercial voice-overs, but I do documentary ones, which I like. They are like telling a story, and they’re quite fun. You don’t have to learn lines and you don’t have to shave!
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I have no idea really. I wouldn’t have pursued law – I’d actually dropped out of law into English, I’d even changed my course. But when the offer came from this fringe theatre group, the Brighton Combination, to leave university and join them for five quid a week, it was like a door opening, and there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. I walked through that door and never looked back. I have never earned a penny from doing anything apart from acting. I have never had another job. I taught magic and juggling and I’d go out busking or doing my magic act on the cabaret circuit. When I was at the Young Vic earning £65 a week, I could go to Jongleurs and earn 75 quid for doing a bit of an act, so I’ve always worked, whether creating my own or working for others. The Brighton Combination moved to London and started a theatre called the Albany in Deptford, and I was with them then. In fact, the lady who started them is now head of the education department here at the National, Jenny Harris.
What's the first thing you saw on stage that had an impact on you? And the last?
The first thing that made an impact was hitch-hiking to Stratford to see David Warner’s Hamlet. Me and my mate hitch-hiked there when we were about 15 or 16, and thought it was so exciting. We saw David Warner walking along to the Dirty Duck with his scarf around his neck, looking just like Hamlet, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe that Shakespeare could be like that, actually talking to you. It was one of those seminal productions, if you were the right generation it was the one for you. Recently, I liked Don Carlos very much, but the last thing I thought, “Jesus!”, was The Pillowman. I thought it was a fantastic play, and the production and the acting all made it brilliant.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
It would be Michael Vaughan when he lifts the Ashes at the end of the cricket series against Australia, which in reality we’re going to lose three nil, but I fantasise we’re going to beat Australia in the cricket and I fantasise that I’ll be him lifting the Ashes.
What’s the secret of a happy professional marriage?
It helps if you both work. You don’t have to work equally necessarily, but I think it’s really difficult if one works and the other doesn’t. Men find it more difficult coping with that than women. It’s always a matter of give and take and trading off – I’ll take a backseat now because you’re doing that, or you’ve had a good run so let me do this because this is a great script that I want to do. You have to trade off all the time, and you both have to have something to trade off with. If one doesn’t, and the successful one is turning work down to appease the other, it’s very tricky. Imelda and I have been very lucky that we’ve both had very steady careers, so we’ve been able to work that juggling act pretty compatibly. It’s also about knowing when not to work, too, and being able to say no, because you’ve got to be able to spend time together, too – to have home time! Now we’re confident enough that something will come along if we need it, so we have learnt to say no. But that only comes with the benefit of experience.
Why did you want to accept your part in The President of an Empty Room?
The play is set in a Cuban tobacco factory. It’s original – though people have told me there was a play at Hampstead Theatre also set in one (Anna in the Tropics), so for those of us who didn’t go to the Hampstead, it seemed like a new topic! I hope that we’ll prove that it’s a really good play – it really is very true psychologically for the characters. It has got drama, pace, humour and wit and it’s political but not with a capital P. It doesn’t bash you over the head with politics, but I think you can read it as a brilliant state of the nation play about Cuba or about a lot of places. It’s dramatic and it’s theatrical – and there’s tango dancing, too! I don’t have to dance, thank God – but for the sake of company solidarity, I turned up for the dance practice, knowing full well that my character was in another room all the time so I wouldn’t have to! You won’t get me doing the salsa! My character is the tobacco taster. In one room, there are the tobacco rollers, but I’ve got slightly higher status, selecting the tobacco to be used in the cigars. As the boss of the factory has disappeared and fled to America, the status quo dissolves, and it’s about how we react to that situation.
What, if anything, is special about working at the National Theatre?
There’s a sense of continuity here, coming back to see so many people, from Linda at the stage door, a lot of the stagehands, stage management and the people in the canteen, are all still around from when I was last here over 20 years ago, and they’re here because they’re good and they enjoy it. So the building works well. It’s a nice building, even as a member of the audience. You can park, there’s bright and lively music, you can get a decent bite to eat, there are places you can hide away in the corner; and backstage, it’s very professional and very well run. As an actor, you feel completely supported and confident in going about your job, knowing that the back-up is there. And everyone is very committed and excited. And the building is very successful at the moment. You sit in the Green Room and you see Kenneth Cranham and Jim Broadbent and Geraldine James and Michael Sheen and Michael Gambon and Stephen Moore and you think, “Oooh, there are some good people here!”
What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals of The President of an Empty Room?
In the first week, we were dancing the salsa and the young, fit, handsome guy Fraser James, had a line “I don’t dance” and Anthony O'Donnell’s character was in a wheelchair so he didn’t either, and so it looked like it would just me and Stephen Moore doing it. Then I realised I’m in my office at the time, so it was Stephen who was going to be the sole representative of male sexuality in Cuba!
What are your future plans?
Nowadays you never know more than about three weeks in advance when you’re doing anything. So beyond this, I have no idea at all. More stage work would depend. I find I get so wound-up and uncomfortable in rehearsals. I don’t get stage fright – I get rehearsal fright! Put me in front of the punters and I’m okay, but the rehearsal room I find so inhibiting. In the immediate future, I have to engineer the autumn so I can go on this bike ride in India. It starts at the Taj Mahal and ends up at the Pushkar camel fair. How cool will that be? It’s a six-day ride, off road – a tough terrain – because the roads are so dangerous, we’ll be on tracks. Fifty British cyclists doing a charity bike ride would be a big target to rampant bus drivers, from what I hear!
- Jim Carter was speaking to Mark Shenton
The President of an Empty Room received its world premiere on 28 June 2005 at the NT Cottesloe, where it continues in repertoire until 27 August 2005.