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20 Questions With...Michael Maloney

Actor Michael Maloney - currently taking the title role in Hamlet for the second time – talks about the ‘right’ age to play the Dane, Shakespeare’s debt to Kenneth Branagh & what exactly happened with Withnail & I.

By • West End


Michael Maloney is no stranger to Hamlet, not only has he played the title role twice - at Greenwich and in Yukio Ninagawa's production for Theatre Royal Plymouth, now touring the UK – he’s also been in two film versions, one by Kenneth Branagh the other by Franco Zeffirelli.

Maloney has also performed in two Royal Shakespeare Company seasons, where he appeared in Adrian Noble's productions of Henry IV Parts I and II, David Leveaux's Romeo and Juliet and Katie Mitchell's A Woman Killed with Kindness. In 1999, he played Edgar in Ninagawa's King Lear for the RSC, with Nigel Hawthorne in the title role, in Japan and the UK.

But Maloney doesn't limit himself to the classics and has new writing credits by Paul Godfrey and Anthony Minghella under his belt and, more recently, in Kevin Elyot's Mouth to Mouth at the Royal Court and in the West End.

His other film credits include Henry V and In the Bleak Midwinter (both directed by Branagh) and Truly Madly Deeply, while his small screen credits include The Forsyte Saga, A Christmas Carol, Love on a Branch Line, Macbeth, The Painted Lady, The Swap and Telford’s Change.


Date & place of birth
Born 19 June 1957 in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England.

Lives now in...
Clapham, south London.

Training
LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art).

First big break
Telford’s Change, which was a TV show in the Seventies. It was a seven-month contract and I played the son of Peter Barkworth and Hannah Gordon. It was Sunday night primetime TV, and it became immensely popular. That set me up for three or four years.

Career highlights
Professional ones would be playing Hal in Henry IV Parts One and Two in Stratford. Going to Japan to be in King Lear for Yukio Ninagawa. As my very first job, Telford’s Change was very exhilarating. The two times I’ve worked in Italy, one was Othello (on film) with Kenneth Branagh and prior to that an Italian film called La Maschera. Other life highlights are getting married to my wife Kim and the birth of our daughter Martha Rose 18 months ago. When I started talking about touring this Hamlet, Martha was three months old, it seemed seriously impossible. Before the baby was born, Kim and I were starting not to sleep very well, it was uncomfortable. And then, after she was born, we didn’t sleep longer than three hours a day for months – we didn’t know which three hours and they weren’t consecutive hours. You experience a complete mental breakdown from sleep deprivation. You start to think you’ll never be able to work properly again. This year it’s faded away. Martha now sleeps for 12 hours a day so I’ve got a lot of recovery in.

Favourite stage productions you've ever worked on
In Lambeth, written by Jack Shepherd and directed by Bob Peck at the Donmar Warehouse, which started small and was a big success story. Mouth to Mouth by Kevin Elyot at the Royal Court, directed by Ian Rickson. And A Woman Killed with Kindness, which was directed by Katie Mitchell at The Other Place in Stratford. At that stage in my RSC season, it was my fourth play and life was getting a bit grim. I was feeling very exhausted and jaded, and then Katie turned up. She was terribly inspiring and I learned a new way of working from her.

Favourite co-stars
I’ve liked working with them all, but I have to say Sir Robert Stephens. And I’ve really liked Saskia Reeves, Clare Holman and Lindsay Duncan. And Caroline Langrishe I love very much.

Favourite director
My favourite director is not a theatre director. He’s a man called Trevor Melvin, who I’ve done a short film with. Trevor thinks and communicates visually rather than in language, he is very meticulous and highly imaginative. Katie Mitchell, Adrian Noble, Yukio Ninagawa, they’re also particular favourites in terms of theatre. Ninagawa, again, because he’s visually inspired. He knows a great deal. I think he’s directed Hamlet at least seven times in Japan. He carries with him a wealth of experience as well as great hope and great sensitivity. Adrian Noble was a superb example in leadership. I worked with Katie Mitchell at almost the beginning of her career. A Woman Killed with Kindness was the first proper RSC production she’d been given. Katie could take advantage of the slightest thing and turn it into gold. With her, you had a kind of restoration of the rehearsal process, which can be lost in the commercial ventures that keep me in business. If you have a chance to rehearse for up to eight weeks, it’s going to be more stimulating and exciting. I’ve not worked with any director who I haven’t found encouraging or illuminating in some way, even if we haven’t done a good job.

Favourite playwrights
Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim, though I suppose he’s not strictly a playwright. I like to go and see Timberlake Wertenbaker plays. Also Edward Bond, Kevin Elyot and Anthony Minghella. Top of my list of Shakespeare plays is probably Henry V. I want to direct it so I’ve been thinking about it a great deal. I wanted to play it at Stratford but didn’t, then I got offered it another time and, unfortunately, decided against it. What an idiotic decision that was, for reasons I cannot even believe now – you know, “it was the wrong direction that year” or something.

Is it true that you also turned down the part of Withnail in the film Withnail & I, which eventually went to Richard E Grant?
I know that’s been written, but it’s not true. I did, however, ask to be taken off the list for consideration. There were various reasons why, which are not really politic to go into. What I expected to be on screen and what actually ended up on screen were two completely different things. I was doing read-throughs of contemporary work at the National Theatre Studio at that time, and often I would read scripts cold and make my own assumptions about how the piece would end up. I made a mistake on Withnail and I and I regret it.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Macbeth, King Lear and any role that a contemporary playwright comes up with that I can do.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I would say ensure that talented young people are able to get the funds to go to proper drama schools without necessarily having to study for a degree first. If you are competent academically, that does not mean you can act as well. When I went to drama school, it was called a discretionary grant. It was extremely important for my family that I got all my fees paid and some living money too. Otherwise, there would have been untold stress. And my family were okay for money, not brilliant but okay. When you get young lads and lasses from low income families, they don’t stand a chance of going to drama school. We’re only getting one class of people going into drama school and that’s not right. It’s always been a middle class profession, ever since I’ve been involved in it, but not 100%. Other ways of getting into the profession are through reality TV shows, through soaps and so on. There is some great talent there, but I think everyone should benefit from some sort of training. Received pronunciation, London accents, Yorkshire accents, all have their uses depending what project you’re working on. I get begging letters from people every week – “just send me £10…”. It’s very resourceful, hats off to them, but it’s just not good enough. I also think regional theatre should be supported more by the government, and that art should be recognised, not as some kind of leech on society, but as an enhancement, an enrichment.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I haven’t seen anything properly in about 20 months because of childrearing. I wanted to see Simon McBurney’s Measure for Measure at the National but I missed it. I do very much look forward to seeing The History Boys. Oh, I tell you what I enjoyed very much recently – Hamlet! Trevor Nunn’s production at the Old Vic, which I saw with Al Weaver (who alternated with lead Hamlet Ben Whishaw). Aside from that and a couple of benefit shows at the Royal Court, that’s probably it for about 18 months. It’s been a funny time. I’ve never had it like this before, when you’re just out of it, you cannot function, you know. I would go up for jobs and almost fall asleep in their face. Ridiculous.

Why do you think theatre is important?
I think every kind of art is important, it doesn’t have to be theatre. Art is about embellishing, it’s offering something that gets outside of the box. We’re increasingly encouraged to be logical, to earn a living, to hit certain hours, to work to financial targets in order to buy materials, to educate our children, to live in a certain way. Anything that’s inspired - I wish I could stop using that word this morning - anything that steps out of what we’re required to expect from the world, is a plus really.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would be a magnificent euro million lottery winner, £49 million pounds or something, which I’d quickly deposit in my bank account before swapping identity back. Just so I could stop worrying about money.

Favourite books
John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, yeah terrific. And any beat poetry, a lot of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.

Favourite holiday destinations
I like to see my in-laws in New Jersey, and I’ve had such fortunate experiences in Italy. Somewhere like Bali or Thailand would be very appealing, too.

Favourite after-show haunts
When I worked in the West End, I used to go and play the machines. Though I always wanted to do something, I found I couldn’t so, at the end of the show, I’d end up going home and watching TV I didn’t want to watch. I’d love to be a clubber, any kind of club will do, but I’m just not. It’s tricky. I have to do something, but I’m tired at the same time.

If you hadn't been an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I’d have been a ballet dancer. My mum was a ballet dancer and her career changed quite early on. She ended up going to the same drama school I went to and became a teacher, but her love of ballet really passed through me. Years ago, I worked as a stage hand in Oxford, then called the New Theatre, now the Apollo. All the major ballet companies passed through, including the Royal Ballet, Nureyev, all the greats. I was totally blown away by their dedication, more so than opera. I saw a lot of opera, too, many wonderful productions.

Why did you want to accept your part in this production Hamlet?
I like Yukio Ninagawa very much and Thelma Holt, the producer. People have told me that everyone who ever plays Hamlet ends up missing it. You go into mourning because it’s such a great role. Even if the production’s a failure, Hamlet is a pinnacle in your career, a huge peak in concentration and energy in performance. I didn’t really believe that, but funnily enough, after I played it last time, I never felt as if I’d stopped playing it. Another reason for wanting to it is simply because it’s a big part. It’s as unsophisticated as that - it’s big. And I’m sitting around a lot of the time getting very very bored, as are a lot of us. We do good jobs, but often they’re uninspired parts, so when something like this comes along, you’d be a fool to say no. Let’s face it, I turned down enough good stuff earlier in my life. I’m not going to make the same mistake again.

Why is Hamlet considered the ultimate role for younger actors? Do you think there's a 'right' age to play it?
It has become received information. People say to you, “I look forward to seeing your Hamlet”, and somehow that means you’re very important. I would challenge the idea that any actor had read Hamlet before being offered the part. Very few actors read it because they’ve done it for O-level or A-level. It’s not really a play lodged in their imagination. It’s just something that the English go through, a rite of passage, if you’re lucky enough. I wouldn’t say it really is the ‘ultimate role’. I think there is contemporary work that’s far greater, far more important and far more vital. But Hamlet is an excellent story and it’s Shakespeare. As for a right age, well, 30 is the age mentioned in the play. I think that’s about the right time. You have a certain amount of experience by then that really helps. But It’s great that Trevor Nunn has proved young people can play it, too. I’ve seen student productions, kids who are 18 or 19 and their use of language and their mental agility is so extraordinary. Because of the way this business works, a lot of the time you don’t play the parts at the right age. I’m 47 now, but the age difference doesn’t worry me whatsoever. If I can get up in the morning, I’m there. Anyway, it wasn’t my idea to cast me. It was Thelma and Yukio’s idea. If they have confidence in me, I’m very happy to accept and then I’ll deliver for them.

Why do you think Shakespeare's plays are still such an integral part of British theatre?
Funny, isn’t it? There’s absolutely no reason for it. In the Eighties, after I left drama school, Shakespeare was taken off the syllabus as being quite redundant. Then Kenneth Branagh turned up in the movies with Henry V and then Much Ado About Nothing, again rather charming and rather funny, and then Othello, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, all through the Nineties. I think that did more than anything for Shakespeare for a long long time, especially in America, where they had an enormous following. I think the power of those films was responsible for a great deal of stage revivals. I did Hamlet in 1997 and there were three Hamlets that year - there’d been a Hamlet every year for about seven years. It was no longer just the realm of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I did a lot of Shakespeare on telly, too, and on radio. And, of course, it’s a huge educational thing here, everyone has to study Shakespeare to get through an exam, so you have a guaranteed enforced audience.

What are your plans for the future?
I rarely know what I’m doing. This was the exception - I knew three years in advance I was going to play Hamlet. I’ve just been doing a six-part TV series for ABC in America called Empire about the Roman Empire. Maybe I’ll go back and do a second series of that if it’s successful. More than that I don’t know yet.

- Michael Maloney was speaking to Terri Paddock


Hamlet continues on a national tour until 11 December 2004, including three weeks at London’s Barbican Theatre from 10 to 27 November, at.


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