Character actor. It’s an expression that seems to damn with faint praise. You could argue that it has outlived its primary function and that it’s a hangover from the days when rep companies were assembled according to type. Yet, the Spotlight actors’ directory, now swollen to several hefty volumes, continues to differentiate between character actor and leading man in terms of classification and, perhaps, in the scale of ambition within each performer. Yet occasionally an actor through sheer force of talent will emerge from the character ranks to join the stars at the top table and the latest arrival is Jason Watkins, currently limbering up to play Roald Dahl’s Mr Twit in the Royal Court’s production of The Twits.
After 30 years of exemplary work mainly in support, Watkins found his day in the sun last year when playing the title role in The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, the Bristol man caught in the eye of a tabloid storm after the tragic murder of one of his tenants by another. Previously, Watkins had strong claims to be Equity’s best-kept secret, an impression confirmed when you consult the lengthy list of his varied credits. Suffolk in The Hollow Crown and a smooth BBC operator in W1A are now behind him, and ahead lies the fifth series of Trollied, the supermarket sitcom. More immediately, it’s The Twits that claims his attention, the latest Roald Dahl story to find fresh life on the London stage, “mischievously adapted” by Enda Walsh.
As a parent, Watkins had first encountered The Twits as one of his children’s favourite bedtime stories. “It’s one of the most fun books to read to your kids,” he says. “Dahl’s words simply fly off the page and you get so fond of certain speeches that you forget about the audience, the children, because you’re enjoying it so much for yourself. It’s full of cruelty but the kids love all that.”
“As I said, both the words and the characters fly off the stage. The idea of The Twits, who are horribly cruel to everybody, including each other, is unashamedly and delightfully subversive and Dahl gives children licence. You can’t help but be impressed by Dahl’s sheer imagination. Villainous characters such as The Twits terrify the kids but the kids love to be terrified. Perhaps Dahl was a childlike character himself. In his world, you can be as surreal as you like. You can make up a story and the more surreal it is, the better. Dahl’s characters will suddenly grow taller or larger and children will accept it. Yet for all the fantasy of Dahl’s world, it stays concrete. It has its own reality.”
In bolstering the narrative element in the source, adaptor Walsh has added a number of new characters – “more people for The Twits to dominate and humiliate”, says Watkins with relish. One wonders how he brings empathy and understanding to Dahl’s grotesque inventions.
“It seemed to me that there is such richness of language in Dahl’s great dialogue that we could make them posh. We’re not making any political point but poshness seemed to sit well with the characters. There are also various levels to their relationship. They are cruel to each other and enjoy hitting and being hit and it occurs to me, speaking psychologically, that here we have an example of co-dependency.”
As a boy, Watkins was a talented all-round sportsman with a number of skills including running on his hands, as Twits audiences may well experience. Such physical fitness, which he displayed in his award-winning turn for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters in 2000, has once again been utilised.
“Unfortunately, I am now 15 years older than when I was doing The Servant of Two Masters, and by the end of the day I’m utterly exhausted. Rehearsals have been a very fluid process and that is terrifying but it’s what I’ve signed up to. It’s exhausting but necessary. This is what we have to do to reflect the colours and the vibrancy of the book. We do an hour and a half warm-up each morning, including circuit training and yoga, and by five o’clock we old people have started to peg out.”
The list of Watkins’ multiple credits could give anything by Tolstoy or Tolkien a run for their money in the doorstep novel stakes, with names such as Sam Mendes, Roger Michell and Max Stafford-Clark prominent among the many leading directors who have called on the actor’s services down the years. Like all actors, a physical appearance can to an extent determine what he is asked to play but Watkins’ current CV, embracing Shakespeare, sitcom and Roald Dahl, reflects the breadth of his abilities. He is not afraid to play loners, mavericks, originals such as Jefferies, and he can be sinister, unnerving and moving.
It is hard to credit that Watkins has ever been out of work for more than the duration of a quick call to line up the next job. “There was a time during the last recession when I was unemployed for six or seven months – six months of not bringing a wage into the house and I don’t want to go back there again,” he adds feelingly.
Born in the Midlands but brought up in west London, Watkins attended a local comprehensive where two inspirational teachers encouraged his interest in acting and led to him winning a place at RADA in a year that also included Jane Horrocks and Ralph Fiennes, Imogen Stubbs and Iain Glen. Did he feel overshadowed by such company?
“I remember that one day at RADA we were all talking about ambition and what we wanted to do in the business. It was pretty clear that people such as Ralph and Iain were going to play all the kings at Stratford. But I could never see myself as Henry V. What I wanted to do was to play lots of different characters and that’s how I’ve carried on. When you leave drama school you’re grateful for anything they offer you, but eventually you hope that you are ambitious not to play particular parts but to be ambitious for the good of the work, however much of a platitude that is.”
Watkins cites Jim Broadbent’s performance as Lord Longford as a model, and Broadbent is a good example of the traditional character actor who has broken through to starring roles.
“I like the fact that I was born in one place and brought up in another and in this way I was open to different influences. As I get older, I feel that this is what I’m best at – taking a character that I feel I can do something with. As an actor, you want to play the big interesting parts and if you’ve taken on something that isn’t immediately interesting, you have to find a way of making it so. In playing Christopher [Jefferies], I completely identified with him in telling the story but I also understood the political aspect of what happened – and the debate about the need for some kind of press regulation. I did enjoy playing Christopher and I liked the responsibility of playing the leading role. But parts like Christopher don’t come along every day.”
For the future, Watkins has aspirations of following the example of his friend, Martin Freeman. “In the same way that Martin went over to the States to do the TV version of Fargo, I’d love to take on the challenge of playing an American character with a Southern accent. Once I’ve finished work on Trollied, I’ll take a look at what’s out there. We’ll see what happens. Watch this space.”
Watkins may be close to founding a theatrical dynasty since his son Freddie has taken a few tentative steps into the business. Has Watkins offered the lad any fatherly advice? “I try to fill him with confidence,” he says. “I can’t teach him how to act but I can encourage him to use his imagination and to be inquisitive about the world and about real people. I remember playing David Garrick and finding out that what was central to his acting was his belief that reality will always be an inspiration. Look at the real world.”
The Twits continues at the Royal Court Theatre, London , until May 31