SILENT WITNESS STAR OPENS UP ABOUT ACTING
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
How long have you lived in the area?
28 years. First we had a flat in Rylett Road, then we moved with our first baby to Cobbold Road, then with our second to near Bollo Lane and with our third to Wendell Park.
Where do you hang out?
The Anglesea and Detour's. And the Artisan below Ravenscourt Park and The Carpenter's Arms on St Peter's Square are on my dog-walking route to the river.
There are some ingenious ways to die
Who were your contemporaries at RADA?
Steve McFadden, Phil Mitchell in EastEnders, and Ralph Fiennes and Clive Owen.
Does an actor have to go to drama school?
No, some people turn up fully formed, like Robbie Coltrane. Many comedians cross over naturally, but if you want to do theatre, I recommend drama school. It teaches you stagecraft and all the theatrical technicalities. However, when I first walked onto a film set, I didn't know what a camera looked like. The film starred Sophia Loren. I was a soldier and she was a nurse. She was supposed to be giving me a bed bath. I didn't know what it was so I asked my father and he was extremely jealous to hear I was going to be rubbed all over by Sophia Loren. On the day they changed it to her serving me some soup and my father said, serves you right.
Although you've been in many long-running TV series such as House of Eliott, was it daunting joining an institution like Silent Witness as the head of the unit?
Yes, it was. I was very aware the programme is close to people's heart. The viewing figures are huge. And I was replacing a much-loved character. But, right from the start, I completely got the guy. Even now, when I first get the script, if I think he's behaving out of character, I'll call the Script Editor to say whether he's being too cruel or too kind.
What's the secret to Silent Witness's success?
A lot is down to the hard work of the writers and producers. The central idea that a body can speak after death, can reveal its secrets, is a brilliant concept. And because it's not a continuing series, it doesn't matter if you missed the last one. Each story is a stand-alone, told in two parts, scheduled on consecutive nights so you don't have to wait a week to find out how it ends.
You studied English Literature at Durham University. Are you cut out to be a forensic pathologist or are you too squeamish?
I don't have a squeamish bone in my body but I couldn't do the job because I'm useless at science. I got a D in physics O-level.
Have you ever seen a dead body?
Yes, in a body bag being carried into a private ambulance. Every time I see one I shiver because I suspect I know what's inside. The odd thing is, even though I know the bodies on Silent Witness are prosthetics or an actor I saw ten minutes ago having a fag outside, when you see a figure on the slab, that outline, particularly if it's a child, it generates the same emotional response, one of deep respect.
Has Silent Witness changed your attitude to death?
It's certainly shown me there are some ingenious ways to die. But, no, I still believe we die like leaves falling from a tree. I know the idea will hurt people I love but I accept that we end up as dust. Though I'll probably change my mind like everyone else when I'm nearing the end.
The show looks authentic. Are the stories based on real events?
Yes, they're often inspired by real cases and developed or twisted.
You're well-known for film and TV, but also do much theatre (e.g. National Theatre, Royal Court and RSC) and voice acting (e.g. Ferrero Rocher, Gillette). Which is most difficult?
The most challenging without a doubt is reinventing a classical theatre role that's been played many times before. But filming is pressurizing too. There's a perception that you can do take after take but it's always a rush. We film a Silent Witness in six weeks, fast for a two-hour film by Hollywood standards, and they're full BBC hours with no ad breaks.
Do people treat you like public property?
I get a degree of recognition but I'm not a famous actor, I act in famous films. I can see how Madonna's life could be a nightmare, but whenever I hear actors complaining, I think, if you're smiled at in Sainsbury's, what's not to like?
You've worked on movies starring Hollywood heavyweights such as George Clooney and Matt Damon (Syriana) and Jason Statham (The Bank Job). Did any make a strong impression?
Matt Damon was sweet. He made a video for our kids. And Jason Statham was great. A friend of my wife's was desperate for George Clooney's autograph but I never actually met him so I got his photo and signed it myself. It's still on her fridge.
What role are you most proud of?
DCS Richard Patterson in Hugo Blick's The Shadow Line. It was a slow burn, off-the-wall murder and drugs mystery with an interesting cast (including Christopher Ecclestone, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lesley Sharp, Stephen Rea).
What role do you still want to play?
Claudius in Hamlet, the greatest play ever written.
Who would you most like to watch you play it?
My mum's dead now but I'd like to think she'd be looking down. And I'd like my kids to see it.
If you weren't an actor what would you do?
A sports journalist. I'd love to report on the ATP tennis from around the world.
How would you spend your perfect day?
I'd like to walk along the river with my dog, Bella, and my wife. And then watch Chelsea winning at Stamford Bridge.
Thank you, Richard. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed September 2016
Headshot by Teresa Walton © teresawaltonphotos.com