Ken Stott: ‘Actors can’t make a living from theatre anymore. It’s chilling’
When I go to meet Ken Stott at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre, he’s like a touring actor arriving at the stage door for his latest visit to a familiar place.
He is starring there in a new production of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, and it’s the first time he’s been back since he last appeared at the venue in a revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge in 2009.
We enter the Number One dressing room, just inside the stage door entrance. He sniffs around the room that he’s going to call home for the next 16 weeks, checking out the fridge (empty, except for a pint of fresh milk), the kettle (same make, but different model to the last time he was here), and the furnishings.
For the next hour, he barely settles, and talks to me mostly standing up. There’s a restlessness to him, and there are times when his mind seems elsewhere. He’s not good at recalling facts – he can’t remember which West End venue he performed God of Carnage in, for instance (it was the Gielgud Theatre) – but he’s unfailingly polite and chuckles frequently. He is both warm and brutally honest in his replies to my questions, even when he is extremely critical about aspects of the business of being an actor. This ranges from how Margaret Thatcher changed the business forever by abolishing the closed shop, to how film auditions are conducted, to bad behaviour in the stalls.
“I do think it’s very bleak at the moment,” he says at one point, towards the end of our conversation. “For so long we’ve lived in this awful society created by Thatcher’s deregulation of everything. We can’t even make a living anymore from the theatre or television. The first thing an aspiring actor must do is become an Equity member and support anything that gives more power to the actor. We relinquished so much in one fell swoop with Thatcher and in the ensuing years with the belief that anyone can do this. I seem to find myself working with people who have not been to drama school; we’re losing the language that used to unify us about how to rehearse and approach a script. I find it very chilling.”
It’s not the only thing he’s down on. He’s been performing in more films recently, including a recurring role in The Hobbit feature film series, and also a surprise appearance (to him as well as us) in Woody Allen’s recently released Cafe Society. How did the job come about? “I have no idea. They sent me a piece of dialogue, and I put myself on a tape for him, and he liked it. That’s all I know. It was pretty daunting – you have to remember I’m being asked to play a Jewish man from the Bronx, by a man from the Bronx. It’s quite far from myself, but too close to him for comfort. But I got away with it.”
Q&A: Ken Stott
What was your first job? Appearing in Saint Joan at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. I earned £18.50 a week.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That you can’t see good acting. I’ve always known what bad acting was – I would be carrying a spear and watch someone thinking: ‘I can fucking do that a lot better’ – but I wish I’d known what good acting was.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Wear something that makes you feel comfortable – you are yourself, so don’t try to be someone else until you open your mouth.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? A singer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I used to love them, thinking they were part of the fabric and rich tapestry of theatre, but I have none now. I do not observe them anymore at all. I don’t have any God that I believe in, so how could I possibly have superstitions?
The Hobbit came about in similar circumstances, following an audition tape he sent in. “It’s become the norm for the way films are now cast, which, if you think about it carefully, is wrong in so many ways. There was a time when you only met the director, if you were up for a job. Now, we never meet them; we do a piece of dialogue in front of a camera, and the director chooses from that accordingly. We don’t have a clue about each other. What they don’t realise – or maybe they do and there’s nothing they can do about it because the production company won’t pay for them to come across and meet the actor and talk to them – is that if they don’t like what they see, they can’t change it. If the actor and the director were in the same room, we might have the opportunity to turn it into something that they do want. But with a tape, what you see is what you get. The art of acting is insulted, and the art of directing also gets a swipe.”
They’re fighting words, yet they’re spoken with a measured kind of resigned calm. That’s not always been the case. When he was last on the same stage in A View from the Bridge, there was an incident with a rowdy school party and he stopped the show to admonish their bad behaviour. “Choose a show – any show – and they’ll tell you stories of wretched mobile phones going off, or in this case teachers who were not controlling their children properly.”
Today, he seeks to make amends for it and to put it into context. “I do have some regrets around that. The spotlight was suddenly on these two kids who were making the performance hell for everybody, but it’s the teacher who should be blamed. What I should have done at the time, and I didn’t – and it’s something that wakes me up in the middle of the night – is that I didn’t take the steps to identify the school, the teacher and the children and invite them back to see the show again. That is what I should have done – not the teacher, but the kids. For goodness sake, my father was a teacher, and I should have known better than to blame the kids. It was, I suppose, a fit of pique. The red mist came down and I took it out on them. In retrospect, I wish I’d apologised to the kids for being so angry.”
A few years earlier he had starred in Heroes opposite Richard Griffiths at Wyndham’s Theatre just up the road, and remembers Griffiths stopping the show when a phone went off. “He launched into a tirade, lambasting the person for ruining the play for everyone. It went on too long, quite frankly, and I thought: ‘Enough.’ Also, it was just one page from the end of the play, so by the time we got back to it, we’d kind of forgotten what we’d done and then the audience was asked to applaud. Sometimes it is better to say nothing.”
But then he chuckles as he remembers how he stopped a show himself at this very theatre: “I do remember a phone went off here, and I said, ‘Is it off now?’ There was no reply. So I said, ‘Switch your phone off and tell me when you have done so.’ This small voice finally mumbled, ‘I’ve switched it off.’ ”
There was also the sad event of his previous West End first night, when he starred in the title role of Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre in 2012. The last minutes of the performance were disrupted by an audience member crying out that it wasn’t good enough. It turned out to be the great former director of the National Theatre, Peter Hall. “That was rather unfortunate,” Stott says today. “None of us are sure why he was invited, as it was well-known that he was not in sound mind [Hall was diagnosed with dementia in 2011], but they did their level best to pretend he was and it didn’t work.” He is, however, proud of the work: “I think our production was rather good, and it grew. All productions do.”
Theatre, of course, was for a long time his main home as an actor. He had a particularly golden age during Richard Eyre’s tenure at the National, appearing in the world premiere of Miller’s Broken Glass (for which he won an Olivier in 1995 for best actor in a supporting role, and which transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre), Three Men on a Horse (which transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre, London), The Recruiting Officer, The Sea, Jacobowsky and the Colonel and The Prince’s Play, the last of which he gently recalls as “a thing of beauty”. He also says he’d love to go back: “I’d be very happy to work there again – I would welcome it.”
He subsequently earned his stripes in the commercial theatre when he was part of the original triumvirate of stars in Yasmina Reza’s Art at Wyndham’s Theatre. When I ask how it feels today to know that it is coming back to London’s Old Vic in December, he says: “It’s a play that never occurred to me would be done again. It’s nice to know that, when people get a copy of it, my name is on the front, and I was very proud to be on stage alongside Tom [Courtenay] and Albert [Finney]. I used to pinch myself – ‘I can’t believe this, I’m on stage with them.’ ”
I didn’t want to do The Dresser. I thought it was dated… [but] it is so much better than I remembered
His co-stars in that show provide a nice symmetry with his return to the stage now in The Dresser, since Courtenay was in the original West End production (playing the title role opposite Freddie Jones as Sir), and Finney appeared in the 1983 film version as Sir, opposite Courtenay reprising his stage role.
But Stott initially resisted approaches to do it himself. “Funnily enough, there was talk of doing it a few years ago, and I didn’t want to. I’m not sure why. I think I thought it was dated, but this time around when I was asked to do it by [producer] Mark Goucher, I read it again and I thought: ‘What on earth had made me think it was dated?’, because it isn’t – it’s bright and it’s funny and it’s tragic. It is so much better than I remembered. And people outside our business are fascinated by the theatre, they absolutely love it, and any opportunity to have a glimpse backstage is gleefully accepted.”
Playwright Harwood was himself a dresser to the veteran actor-manager Donald Wolfit, but Stott notes that Harwood “is adamant that it is not about them”. In his long and varied career, however, Stott notes that he’s known actors like Sir and dressers like Norman.
“They abound. Or maybe I should put that in the past tense, as they seem to be a dying breed. But there are dressers I have known who are very much like Norman, and cantankerous Sirs.” Does he have a dresser himself on the show? “There’s a very nice girl in the wardrobe department looking after me.”
He’s relishing being back on stage: “But I’m an old man now,” he says [in fact he’s just turned 62 this week], “and I rue the fact that I can’t run around the stage as I once did. There’s a helluva lot of energy required in this production. I wouldn’t want it any other way, but the body does retaliate, though, and I have to pull and drag myself through it. But it does always feel worthwhile.”
Prior to the West End, it played a few touring dates outside London – in Cheltenham, Brighton and Richmond – but he says: “It feels like we’ve done three months, but it has only been 21 performances.” And honest again to the last, he also admits frankly: “I don’t love touring. I have no fondness for the touring life, I think I can say categorically. I worked all over the country in rep when I was younger, and that experience was enough.”
So was his experience of being a salesman of double glazing, early on in his career, fresh out of training at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. “I had no work as an actor and no money and an overdraft and a desperate need to pay it off. And there seemed to be no prospect of doing it as an actor. A pal of mine, who was also an out-of-work actor, said to try his double-glazing business – he said to tell them I was an absolute shit and all I cared about was making loads of cash and they would love me. I had a couple of lucky breaks with people buying it, but the moment I paid off my overdraft, I kissed it goodbye.”
Another career sideline he gave up a little more reluctantly was performing in a band. “I joined a very good band called Still Life after I left drama school and they were excellent musicians, but I had to leave because I got a job as an actor. I would have loved to have gone on, but I knew I wanted to be an actor and needed to do that. I sometimes wish I’d stayed a little longer just to enjoy it.”
Ken Stott’s top tip for an aspiring actor
• Forget drama school – just go to the gym and get fit. We only need superheroes now, nothing else.
But if he misses that particular calling, he found a ready audience in television, with starring roles in a number of successful TV series – Takin’ Over the Asylum, The Vice, the title character in Rebus, Messiah and, most recently, The Missing.
“I sort of put an end to The Vice and Rebus because I didn’t want to get to a place where all anyone can think about is you and that character. But afterwards, I’ve thought, hold on, Helen Mirren has done how many Prime Suspects? Why was I so worried? An actor doesn’t want to get typecast, but I don’t think anyone needs to worry about it at all. And they’re very artistically useful – it is from them that I get the confidence for film.”
He’s also proud of his Scottish origins and still speaks in a gentle Scots burr. He came to London to train, he says, because “Scottish actors were still seen as people who wore kilts – they suffered from the Gordon Jackson syndrome”.
“But something we never really got out of is the Lord [John] Reith rubbish that there should be a standard English spoken and that the BBC should lead the way,” he adds. “Reith did more damage to our society than I think anyone gives him the credit for. It reinforced, if not invented, the idea that if you speak with an accent, you cannot play leading roles. But RP is the one voice I cannot stand, because of its slipperiness: it hides where you’ve come from and who you are. And there is something about it that is part of an English culture of a feeling of superiority and entitlement.”
Stott shoots from the hip, and it’s certainly refreshing to hear. He’s also proof of the upward mobility of an actor who has retained a connection to his own roots while being able to play absolutely anyone, from a touring actor-manager, as he is now, to Eddie Carbone (the New York longshoreman from A View from the Bridge) or Uncle Vanya.
CV: Ken Stott
Born: 1954, Edinburgh
Training: Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts
Landmark productions: The Recruiting Officer, National Theatre (1992), Broken Glass, National Theatre (1994), Duke of York’s Theatre, London (1995), Art, Wyndham’s Theatre, London (1997), God of Carnage, Gielgud Theatre, London (2008), A View from the Bridge, Duke of York’s Theatre, London (2010), Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville Theatre, London (2012)
Awards: Olivier award for Broken Glass (1995), BAFTA TV award Scotland for The Missing (2015)
Agent: Roger Charteris, the Artists Partnership
The Dresser runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, until January 14