Why choose In a Dark Dark House for your stage comeback?
For two reasons. I’ve thought about doing theatre again for some time. My last stage play was back in 1999, when I was with Colin Firth in Richard Greenberg’s play Three Days of Rain, which was part of the Donmar Warehouse\'s American Imports season. Since then, I turned offers down for personal reasons rather than play reasons. I also have three kids and these things would come along during the summer when we wanted to get away from London on holiday as a family. But it’s mainly because I’m a big Neil LaBute fan. In this play, and in others like The Mercy Seat and Fat Pig, he leads the audience to make presumptions about his characters and their relationships, which are constantly dispelled as you discover more about them and he’ll take topics like obesity, 9/11 and child abuse and turn them around. He also writes great dialogue for actors – you really get to skip along with it. And there’s an underlying sense of menace running through this particular play, which I love.
Is that where the darkness comes in?
Well, yes, although there are comic moments in the overall canvas. On the surface it’s about the relationship between two brothers, but then it digs down into family issues, the power of memory, lack of parental care, childhood abuse and that male need to control emotions. These two guys have a volatile relationship anyway, but when the younger brother (played by Steven Mackintosh), who has been sent to rehab, starts to talk about being abused as a child by a family friend, it’s about what the two of them do with that information. It’s a pretty rocky ride.
Is it daunting coming back to theatre?
Oh yes. In TV or film you might start off on your first studio day working on the final scenes then go back to the middle bits and jump forward to the beginning. You can be all over the place, so part of your job as an actor is to keep a clear eye on the chronology of your character. A play sort of naturally unfolds – but you can’t stop and do it again, so that’s kind of scary. I never learn lines when I do TV and film. I work on everything else first – like the character or what a scene is about – and I’ve enjoyed doing that with this play. With Three Days of Rain it was very different and more about learning the lines and standing where you were told, whereas here we spent the first week of rehearsals just sitting around a table with our director Michael Attenborough and with Neil opening up the script. It’s frightening, but I quite like that sense of fear.
Does that mean you’ve felt unchallenged as a film and TV actor?
British television has served me very well. I’ve been lucky enough to work with great writers and directors. But there were certain film roles where I was unsatisfied with the writing and the directing and felt that, as an actor, I was earning money but was unchallenged by what I was being asked to do.
You direct films. Have you thought of directing theatre?
I have now that I’ve been working with Michael and I’ve seen how a theatre director can get the actors more involved with the text and the creative process of bringing the play to life. But I formed a film company, Tubedale, some time ago and I have a commitment to that. I see myself as an actor first – but an actor who also directs or produces films. The Pool should be out in the New Year and it’s based on The Pool - City of Culture?, a play I saw at the Arts Theatre last year about a cockney boy going up to Liverpool, meeting a local girl and spending a day together – all made on a challenging budget.
What was your first stage role? At school near Huyton in Liverpool. I played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz and suddenly that was it. I was the youngest of four children and the others were all high achievers and went to grammar school. I wasn’t academic. I got my education and sense of self via the Everyman Youth Theatre where I found myself at the centre of a creative universe. I came after the likes of Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce and Willie Russell, but the buzz was still there. I must have only been 13 or 14. Up to that point I wanted to be a boxer, then suddenly here I was in a different arena altogether.
You’re in the Doctor Who Christmas special. What can we expect?
Well, it was Kylie last year and me this year! I play a character called The Doctor – a man who believes himself to be a Time Lord. It was great to be on board, because I’m a huge fan of the programme and of David Tennant. As for any talk of me taking over as the next Doctor, well, if or when they do choose someone, they would have to totally different to David, which I am!
In a Dark Dark House receives its UK premiere on 27 November 2008 (previews from 20 November) at the Almeida Theatre, where it continues until 17 January 2009. An abridged version of this interview appears in the November issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!