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Anthony Head: ‘We’re the only artists in the world who don’t practise’

Anthony Head Anthony Head

Anthony Head is many men to many people. Rocky Horror fans will remember him as a rip-roaring Frank N Furter, his seminal turn in the 1990 West End production and later reprisals seared on their minds. To those with longer memories, he’s one half of 1980s coffee advertising’s most famous couple. For me, and almost everyone on the planet under the age of 35, he is Rupert Giles – mentor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, librarian extraordinaire and the father figure we all wish we had.

CV Anthony HeadIt is a paternal man who greets me today at Theatre Delicatessen in London, where he is midway through rehearsing Ticking. With our interview only seconds away, he asks me sheepishly if he can call his daughter to finalise her arrange-ments to visit him. His hurried but easy chat with her couldn’t be further from the fatherhood he will portray in Ticking – a man visiting his imprisoned son for what could be the final time before the latter is sentenced to death for murdering a prostitute. On paper, it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs.

“But it actually is,” Head assures me, laughing. “It’s very funny, very haunting and very tender. And beautifully written. It’s clever and a bit of a thrill ride because you really don’t know whether he’s going to get a reprieve or not; whether this is actually going to be his last night.”

The play is written and directed by film director Paul Andrew Williams, and marks his debut stage production. Head says it took Williams a while to reconcile the differences between film and theatre work – “I think he was in awe of the fact he got a four-week rehearsal period” – but once he was adjusted the play quickly began to take form.

“You don’t often get to work with a writer/director, and certainly not someone who is as intuitive as Paul,” Head explains. “He writes extraord-inarily. And he hasn’t got any hard and fast [rules]. If you ask him a character question, he knows, but if you ask him about a line, he’ll say: ‘Oh, that could mean that, or it could mean that.’ He’s got a really open mind to the shape of the play. It’s shaping up for him at the same time as it’s shaping up for us.”

Head in Six Degrees of Separation at the Old Vic, London, 2010. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Head in Six Degrees of Separation at the Old Vic, London, 2010. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Though his last theatre role was Six Degrees of Separation at London’s Old Vic in 2010, Head has hardly been twiddling his thumbs since. BBC1’s fantasy drama Merlin kept him busy starring as the unyielding King Uther Pendragon between 2008 and 2012, and last year he signed up for a new Syfy series, Dominion, which imagines the aftermath of a semi-biblical apocalypse. With Ticking as his latest project, is he drawn to roles in extreme or heightened stories?

“Basically, it’s fun playing… not heightened drama, because that says the wrong thing, but…” Head pauses, then references his role in Dominion as an ex-televangelist facing a world where angels have waged war against mankind. “It’s great to put yourself in those positions, to flex those muscles and find out what works and what doesn’t work. Because that’s what acting’s about – getting to do things in your life that, hopefully, we don’t have to do. And when it’s a rollercoaster ride, it’s exciting. We go through a gamut of emotions in this play.”

While filming Buffy the Vampire Slayer in America, Head signed up for acting classes – something he thinks British actors are missing out on. “We’re the only artists who don’t practise regularly,” he explains, “and if you can’t throw crap at the wall in a safe environment, you can’t really do it when you’re working. You can in theatre to a certain extent, but in the confines of a role. The thing about acting class is that you can do anything.”

He trained with renowned acting coach Milton Katselas at the Beverley Hills Playhouse over several years. Once, while Head was devising a “sexy Richard III”, Katselas invited Head’s partner Sarah to watch. “She said she did not recognise me at all,” he recalls. “She had no clue who was on the stage. And that was the height of compliment for me, especially from Sarah. She will speak her mind – if I’m crap, she’ll tell me, and if I’m good, she’ll tell me.”

Head in a tribute performance of The Rocky Horror Show in 2006 with Sophie Lawrence. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Head in a tribute performance of The Rocky Horror Show in 2006 with Sophie Lawrence. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Head’s partner not only suggested he went to acting class – “which changed things completely for me” – but also set him on the path as an actor in the first place. Torn in the 1980s between singing and acting, he eventually decided to ditch the rock’n’roll. “Again, that was Sarah,” he adds, “who basically said, ‘Listen, you need to do something well, instead of doing two things half-arsed’.”

If it was his partner who made him an actor, it was his role as insane transvestite scientist Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show that made him realise his potential. “Frank was hugely pivotal [to my career], because he released me. And he gave me the most extraordinary power, because he controls everything – and in a 2,000-seater like the Piccadilly…” He trails off, lost in the memory.

anthony head Q&AHead took over the cult role from Tim McInnerny in 1990, while the show was playing at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End. Rocky Horror is, of course, notorious for its audiences, who roll up bedecked in fancy dress and don’t take the show quietly – something Head was warned to prepare for. “It’s no secret that Tim did not enjoy the role, and one of the things he didn’t enjoy was the heckling,” Head explains. Head armed himself with a book of acidic quips, though perhaps read it too thoroughly. “Chris Malcolm [the show’s co-producer] came up to me at the end of the first week and said, ‘Well, you’ve got the put-downs okay. Could you maybe answer just a few less? Because you’ve put about 25 minutes on the show.’”

Even with the zingers reigned in slightly, the role did wonders for Head’s confidence as a performer. “You put somebody down by just giving them a look,” he reminiscences. “I could do it as Frank, I couldn’t do it as me. But up in the balcony? I could just shut them up.”

Throughout our conversation, I tell him, I’ve had to stop myself from calling him Giles by accident several times. How does it feel to be, in the public’s eyes, forever known as someone else? “It’s great,” Head responds, with a genuine smile. “Most actors are lucky if they get one iconic role in their career, and I’ve had…” he screws up his face in concentration and tots them up under his breath… “I dunno, half a dozen? But it’s great, because it means that different people come up to me for different things.” However, playing an American character on Dominion when his most well-known roles are British has caused some minor resistance, and there is a limit to his understanding.

“People who say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re Giles to me’… dude, I’m an actor!” he exclaims. “Come on – I do more than just the one role. One person [on Twitter] said ‘I’m sorry, I can’t think of you as anyone else but Giles,’ and I said ‘Well, that kind of means you can’t enjoy anything else I do.’ Hey ho.”

Born to actor Helen Shingler, and with two daughters who have TV and film credits under their belts, Head has become the centre of his own mini-dynasty. He was initially cautious about letting his children perform professionally, but his partner admonished him for it.

Head recalls her words: “If they get to 40 and find they wished they’d done it, you would be the person that stopped them.” Now, he believes it has been good for them. “It gets things into perspective. If you’ve got no self-confidence and you’re very insecure, it’s a marvellous way of becoming someone else, and you get a little release from it. I can’t say that’s my daughters, I don’t know. But most actors are insecure.”

Having shifted between the worlds of theatre, TV and, occasionally, film, Head insists he has no preferred medium, valuing instead the freedom to change. “I’ve been really lucky,” he says, “I’ve fought hard against being pigeonholed. It is hard work, but I think the fact I have licence to do anything is fascinating.”

Ticking is at Trafalgar Studios, London, until November 7

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