Ben Daniels: An out and out success
With a diverse series of projects lined up until the new year, Ben Daniels tells Mark Shenton that being an openly gay actor has not held him back and he is excited to be working with Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse again
Ben Daniels is a man with a busy schedule. He is currently appearing for the third time at the Donmar Warehouse, while juggling the filming of a major new feature by day, and he’s got two more British films lined up straight after those jobs before another play in the autumn.
His Donmar show, Luise Miller (which reunites him with director Michael Grandage, with whom he previously worked on The Wild Duck, also at the Donmar) marks his first time back on stage since his 2008 Broadway debut in a revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for which he was Tony nominated for best actor in a play. In the meantime, he’s been busy filming 26 episodes of the British version of Law and Order.
Clearly, the fact that he is also an openly gay actor (he’s been quoted as saying, “Out? I’ve never been in”) has not, been an impediment to his career. Indeed, in TV’s Cutting It, he played a character that he refers to himself as a “serial shagger”, sleeping with each of three sisters.
Yet a couple of years ago Rupert Everett suggested that aspiring actors should stay in the closet for the sake of their careers, saying: “It’s not that advisable to be honest. It’s not very easy. And, honestly, I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out.”
What does Daniels think? “I think [Everett] is a brilliant actor but, hold on, he’s also got a really great career. And I heard him saying in an interview that he’s earned enough money to eat out every night of the year, so it should be put in perspective.
“On the other hand, I know that there is a problem with homophobia in Hollywood. There is at the BBC, too. It’s come up sometimes for some jobs with me, but thankfully someone in the room will say that’s ridiculous. I’ve been around for long enough now that people know I can do it. I have that whole bag-load of serial shagging behind me to prove it.
“I would never advise anyone to stay in the closet to further their careers – I’m sure it leads to big fat gay ulcers,” he adds. “There are actors I know who won’t come out, and I can see it crippling them as human beings. It’s a great shame that people can’t be who they are in the 21st century, and people won’t let them be who they are.” He believes that being honest about yourself frees up work: “There’s nothing that gets in your way then.”
Yet he acknowledges that in one respect Everett may be right. “He is absolutely right to bemoan the lack of out gay A-list movie stars. Of course, there are gay A-list movie stars in existence. It’s just that we, the public, don’t know who they are.
“Lying about one’s sexuality seems to be one of the ridiculous rules of what constitutes being a Hollywood movie star. Obviously, my own experience of working and continuing to work as an out gay actor is exactly that – working as an actor and not as a movie star. I don’t think the two are the same. But the whole hankering after being an A-list movie star as the pinnacle of one’s career seems to somehow denigrate the rest of our profession.”
Yet for all that Daniels may not be a fully-fledged movie star, he doesn’t do badly, either. He is in the happy position of being equally in demand for film and theatre work, “which is the best combination”, he says. “Theatre is where my passion lies – I just love it. I love watching it and I love doing it.”
He won an Olivier Award for his performance in the National’s 2001 production of All My Sons, and has regularly appeared there since, including in Katie Mitchell’s productions of Iphigenia at Aulis, Three Sisters and Therese Raquin. Working with her, he says, is “very intense”.
“It’s like joining a cult, but you become very committed and protective of your show,” he adds. “If the opportunity came up again and I was free, I’d take a deep breath but jump straight back in.”
But doing theatre work comes at a cost, namely to the bank balance. “Fortunately, I’m doing a movie at the same time as working at the Donmar. It’s a Bryan Singer movie, Jack the Giant Killer, in which I’m playing a CGI giant with Bill Nighy. The Donmar play came up after I accepted that job, but fortunately one of the producers of the film is a huge fan of the Donmar and said he’d make it work for me, and they’ve agreed to let me leave the studio in time to get to the theatre.”
He’s delighted to be reunited with Grandage at the Donmar: “He’s an absolute master – you learn so much from him. He’s like a French polisher – the work gets more and more layered every time you go through it, without realising it. There’s none of that polystyrene cup phase, where you sit around for a week and a half sipping water and talking about what you’re going to do. You get up straight away and act the play.”
In Schiller’s Luise Miller, he plays the Chancellor, whose son has fallen in love with the title character, the daughter of a music teacher. “My character rules the state and is very, very corrupt. Every character has a strong desire in the play. Mine is power and the continuation of it. I need my son to marry someone else to continue the reign of my power. The drama ensues from that.”
No sooner does the Donmar season end than he has two British films lined up, back to back, in August and September. “There’s a psychological thriller called Perfect Skin, about a crazy tattooist, and a political thriller based on a novel.” Then he’s doing another major new play that will take him through to January.
Now in his late 40s, he is in a contented place. He’s been with his partner, fellow actor Ian Gelder, for 18 years. “We did Entertaining Mr Sloane at Greenwich in 1993 – he was Ed and I was Sloane, so it was very Ortonesque,” he quips.
Making his Broadway debut three years ago fulfilled another dream: “It was fantastic and very cushy for me – no one knew who I was, so I could do what I wanted. But New York is also there for the taking. You are so embraced and people want you to succeed. There is a great theatre community, and people seem to want other people’s shows to do very well.”
* Luise Miller runs at the Donmar Warehouse until July 30. For more information, see www.donmarwarehouse.com