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Brief Encounter With … Ron Cook

Actor Ron Cook plays Sir Toby Belch alongside Derek Jacobi\'s Malvolio in Michael Grandage’s Donmar West End production of Twelfth Night, which opens this week at the Wyndham’s Theatre. Cook’s recent stage credits include The Seafarer and Howard Katz at the National, On the Ceiling at the Garrick and Juno and the Paycock at the Donmar, for which he was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2000. His television credits include The Singing Detective, The Other Boleyn Girl, Doctor Who and Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!, while on film he has appeared in Hot Fuzz, Quills, Topsy-Turvy, Charlotte Gray and Chocolat among many others.

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How did you get involved in Twelfth Night?
I got a call from my agent saying “Michael Grandage would like you to play Toby Belch in Twelfth Night” and I said, “are you sure?” There are roles that are on your radar, but Sir Toby was certainly not on mine. I went to see Michael and said, “isn’t Toby Belch a big fat man in tweeds?”, and he replied “where does it say that?” So I went home, read it and realised he was right.

What’s your take on Sir Toby?
Whenever I approach anything, I try to see it as a completely new play. What am I given, what does he say? I try to unpick it. Belch is something of a lord of misrule – most of the other characters are quite melancholy, but he’s a bit of a rogue. There’s an added pressure playing a comic character, because obviously you want to make people laugh. Michael gave me a bit of a telling off early in rehearsals for trying to make so many gags. I had to take all of these things out my pocket that I’d prepared – we had a joke amnesty!

Does Sir Toby have a contemporary equivalent?
I did a bit of detective work and tried to piece together a back-story. He’s Olivia’s uncle, so I thought perhaps he turned up at his brother’s funeral hoping to inherit a bit of money and just stuck around. In those days there were hundreds of younger sons of wealthy families in that position. There are also constant references to his drinking, so he’s clearly an alcoholic. And because I’m playing him a bit older, there’s a darker edge to that. If he was played by a younger man, you might be able to say he’s just going through a phase.

Does following the success of Ivanov bring added pressure?
We all went to the first night, which was exhilarating but also terrifying for us as a company. I said to them afterwards, “you’ve gone and set the bar very high!” But there’s always going to be pressure, not just from that but also from previous productions of Twelfth Night.

You have a long association with the Donmar.
I’ve been associated with it in its various incarnations going back to when it was the London studio space for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s changed over the years, but the quality of the work remains constant. It’s great to have directors who are willing to take risks. For example, the way Michael approaches Shakespeare is very different to most directors. One of the first things he did in Twelfth Night rehearsals was get us on our feet. There wasn’t a lot of sitting down chatting. By the end of the first week we’d done a full run, which is rare. It’s great, because it gets you through a big initial psychological barrier.

Is this the first time you’ve shared a stage with Derek Jacobi?
We crossed paths once before, on a film called The FoolI which was set in working-class Victorian London. I played a flypaper man and had one scene with Derek. The set was a tiny room with loads of flypapers hanging from the ceiling – I was covered from head to foot in orange make-up and had several orange kids running about the place. It was all rather bizarre! It’s great to finally be working on a play with him. I told him how much I’d been inspired by seeing his Cyrano de Bergerac at the RSC, but he’s very modest of course, won’t take a compliment.

What advice do you give to younger actors?
I always say to young actors who ask me for advice, “try and work with good people”. That’s how you learn. I\'ve been very lucky to work with the likes of Max Stafford-Clark, Mike Leigh and Sam Mendes, but I’m still learning – Michael’s teaching me an awful lot. Sometimes he’ll just say something in rehearsals that completely makes sense and helps you work out a problem in a second.

Which dream roles would you still love to play?
People often ask me if there are any characters I still want to play but I don’t really look at it that way. I’m not ticking them off. Different things come up at different times and you never know what’s coming. I never plan anything. Same applies to film – it all depends on where you are in your career. You do jobs for different reasons, all varied and all valid. If I’ve been off touring then I want to come home and settle for a bit. If you’re hard up you obviously have to go for the money. Sometimes you think ‘I haven’t taken any risks recently’. It’s just a matter of thinking ‘where am I?’

I play a trick with friends who are deliberating whether to take a part. I take out a coin and we flip for it – then when the answer comes I say “how did you feel?” That instinctive reaction is what matters.

- Ron Cook was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Twelfth Night opens at the Wyndham’s on 10 December 2008 (previews from 5 December), where it continues until 7 March 2009. An abridged version of this interview appears in the December/January 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!!

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