From Game of Thrones to Wolf Hall, there hasn’t been a year since the early 1980s that Anton Lesser hasn’t appeared in a TV drama. Nick Smurthwaite finds the actor looking forward to his first stage role in 10 years in The Pope
So familiar is Anton Lesser’s face from countless television appearances over the past four decades that it’s easy to forget he started out as a leading actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Now the Bafta-nominated actor, who counts Games of Thrones, The Crown and Wolf Hall among his recent credits, is returning to the stage after an absence of 10 years to play the title role in The Pope at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton.
Anthony McCarten’s new work focuses on a fictionalised encounter between Pope Benedict and his successor, Pope Francis, played by Nicholas Woodeson. Over the course of the play they thrash out the controversial issues surrounding Benedict’s troubled tenure, such as child abuse in the Catholic church and financial impropriety at the Vatican.
It is a colossal role for the affable Lesser, 66, and he is facing it with a combination of trepidation, determination and joy. “I’m having a great time,” he says, “but it is absolutely terrifying. I’m on stage practically the whole time, and it really doesn’t get any easier the older you get. If I lose my way in the script I guess I’ll just have to make it up and hope the audience doesn’t notice.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Henry VI Trilogy, RSC, 1977
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To value the truth and kindness above all else.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
John Wood, Ian Richardson, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Howard.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Choose a piece you feel passionate about and not something you think they’ll like.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I like to get there early, sit quietly and collect my thoughts.
The best thing for the actor is being back in the rehearsal room. “It’s what I’ve missed most about the theatre,” he says. “Working closely with your peers and supporting each other. On the first day of rehearsals for The Pope I remember looking around and thinking: ‘There is nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.’ It is far, far better than being stuck halfway up a mountain, waiting around for hours and hours to do five minutes’ filming.”
He adds: “There is nothing to match the creative process on a good, intelligent play, with a bunch of people you enjoy hanging out with.”
Lesser’s extraordinary versatility as an actor has been very much in evidence in recent times, with four high-profile TV roles – Chief Superintendent Bright, Morse’s buttoned-up boss, in Endeavour; Qyburn, the sinister quack-turned adviser, in Game of Thrones; Thomas More in Wolf Hall; and former prime minister Harold Macmillan in The Crown.
He says: “I love playing characters who are equivocal and difficult to pin down. I’ve been fortunate not to be typecast. I seem to be cast as rather damaged characters who are neither evil nor dodgy but possibly somewhere in between.”
Far from being a child acting prodigy, Lesser was all set to become an architect when he had a Damascene conversion in his late teens. He says: “Growing up I had no interest in acting at all, but I was in Nigeria doing voluntary service overseas between my terms at university when I happened to see a British Council film about the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“In it the actor Ian Richardson was doing a scene from The Tempest, as Prospero, and I suddenly had this feeling of absolute certainty that I wanted to act, even though I’d been dead set on becoming an architect. It was as if the blue touchpaper had been lit.”
He got into RADA and went on to win the school’s highest acting award, the Bancroft Gold Medal. His final performance was the role of Gethin Price – made famous by Jonathan Pryce – in Trevor Griffiths’ 1975 play Comedians. In the audience was Joyce Nettles, casting director for the Royal Shakespeare Company, who offered him a contract, beginning the day after he left college.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Stratford-upon-Avon couldn’t get enough of Lesser. He played, among other roles, Romeo, Hamlet, Troilus and Richard III in quick succession. Amazingly, he didn’t find it daunting.
“I suffered from a lack of self-doubt. I didn’t question anything that happened to me in that first year with the RSC. I just thought: ‘Oh right, I’m doing that now’,” he says.“Later on, reality kicked in and the reviews became a lot less favourable when I started working in London. I did a production of Hamlet for Jonathan Miller and the Time Out critic said it was the only production he’d seen where Hamlet would have been better off without the prince.”
Though the unfavourable reviews for his Hamlet knocked him for six at the time, Lesser got on with the job, constantly alternating between stage and screen.
There hasn’t been a year since the early 1980s that he hasn’t appeared in a TV drama production.
On stage his roles have ranged between a downtrodden Stanley in Pinter’s The Birthday Party, to the swaggering Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, from the roguish Rover in Wild Oats to a smooth-talking, Tony Blair-like Brutus in Deborah Warner’s memorable 2005 Julius Caesar.
Lesser’s TV presence seems to have grown in stature in recent years, greatly helped by his masterly performance in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall four years ago, though some Catholic bishops deplored More being portrayed as “a cold and creepy misogynist”; and of course Chief Superintendent Bright in Endeavour, the seventh series of which will be shown later this year.
Lesser says he was attracted by the character’s “rich history” when the role was first offered to him. He says: “As the series has developed, we’ve got to see a bit more of the man behind the uniform, and I think audiences love that. It’s not enough just to be a two-dimensional figure of authority.”
His role as Harold Macmillan – the Tory prime minister who resigned as a result of the 1960s scandal known as The Profumo Affair – in The Crown was less satisfactory from Lesser’s point of view. When he finally got to see the episodes in which he appeared, the actor says he noticed that “eight really beautiful scenes I filmed didn’t make it to the final cut”.
Playing Qyburn in Game of Thrones has introduced Lesser to a much younger fan base, never more evident than when he attended a comic-book film convention in 2014. He says: “At first I wasn’t keen to do it because I assumed it would be a lot of rather sad people turning up in funny costumes. But I’m glad I did because the people who came turned out to be so appreciative and charming. They clearly just love to meet the people they enjoy watching on the screen.”
Does he mind watching himself on TV or the big screen? “I feel quite mixed about it. At my age you think: ‘Who is that old man? I thought I was about 19.’ I watched myself in a repeat of something the other day that I’d forgotten all about, and I felt ashamed because I was so awful. Other times I’m quite impressed with myself.”
Despite his high TV profile, being the ultimate chameleon actor enables him to walk around without being recognised everywhere he goes. He says: “I love the degree of recognition I have, which is minimal. When I am recognised it is often something charming, such as the Irish air stewardess who said to me, as I was leaving the plane: ‘Is it yourself?’”
Are there still roles he would like to play? “I’d be quite interested to play Prospero as that was the role that started me on my journey as an actor, and I’d like to do a really good comedy. Other than that, I’ll take whatever comes along.”
Born: Birmingham, 1952
Training: RADA, 1974-76
• Romeo and Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon (1980)
• Hamlet, RSC (1982)
• Troilus and Cressida, RSC (1985)
• Twelfth Night, Riverside Studios (1987)
• The Plantagenets, RSC (1988)
• The Taming of the Shrew, RSC (1992)
• Art, Wyndham’s Theatre, London (1997)
• Private Lives, National Theatre, London (1999)
• Cymbeline, RSC (2003)
• Julius Caesar, RSC (2005)
• The Vertical Hour, Royal Court (2008)
• A Doll’s House, Donmar Warehouse, 2009
Agent: Conway Van Gelder Grant
The Pope runs at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, from June 8 to 22. For more details: royalandderngate.co.uk