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Rory Kinnear: ‘All I ever wanted to do was work at the National’

Rory Kinnear rehearses with the cast of The Threepenny Opera. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Rory Kinnear seems to have followed seamlessly in the footsteps of Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings to become one of the leading players at the National Theatre. When I put it to him that it’s his home theatre, he immediately fends off the suggestion. “I don’t like to make any presumptions,” he says, as we sit on the outdoor terrace of the building at lunchtime on a warm spring day. “It’s the home for the nation’s theatre, and I always feel very privileged to work here every time I do.”

However, he also goes on to say: “You want to try to maintain a degree of flexibility as an actor. When people say the National is my home, I don’t see it like that and I don’t want other people to see me as that because you go where the plays or the scripts are. You essentially want to be known for the characters within the pieces you’re doing, so I want to avoid the sense of being only a National Theatre actor, even as luminous a pigeonhole as this is.”

Still, there’s no question that the National has played an important part in his career, and also in helping to forge it in the first place.

The exciting part isn’t the attention you get but the connections you have with people on stage

“It’s the place I first fell in love with acting and plays. My dad [the late actor Roy Kinnear] was here in a season with Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge when I was about six – they did The Cherry Orchard, The Real Inspector Hound and The Critic, and The Duchess of Malfi. I wasn’t allowed to see Malfi, but I do remember hearing his screams from the dressing room because he was killed in it. They thought it would be too much for me to see it, but hearing it was probably worse for a seven-year-old than seeing it.”

Was he hooked on theatre and acting from a young age? “To a certain extent, but I didn’t do any acting until after my dad died. I used to enjoy going on to sets with him – that was fun – but I found it a bit annoying when we were stopped in the street constantly. That was my main relationship to it.”

With his father’s death from a heart attack at the age of only 54, when Rory had just turned 10, Kinnear pursued academic interests, and wasn’t quite sure about following in his dad’s footsteps to become a professional actor.

“I applied to Oxford because I was told I was good enough, though I didn’t really believe it. It was such a surprise to get in, and I did plays there, but I sort of knew in the back of my mind that the reason I enjoyed it was that I got praise and attention for it, and I didn’t think that was necessarily the right foundation for launching a career. So I needed to find that there was something more to it than that, and if there wasn’t, I would have done something else. It took the first year at drama school to make me realise that it is as rewarding as you make it if you’re in work, and that the enlightening part to acting is steeping yourself in new worlds, new places and new characters. That’s the exciting part, and that remains the exciting part – it isn’t the attention you get but the connections you have with people on stage and the energy that is produced.”

Kinnear and Adrian Lester in the National’s 2013 production of Othello. Photo: Johan Persson
Kinnear and Adrian Lester in the National’s 2013 production of Othello. Photo: Johan Persson

If he’s avoided being an attention-seeking junkie as a result, one nice side-effect has been getting attention for the father he only knew for a short time. “It’s very nice being in the same business as your father when he’s well loved, as mine was, because I get to hear so many stories about him. It might be difficult if he was a notorious shit! But when you’re an actor, you get to meet a wide range of people. A couple of years ago, for what would have been my dad’s 80th birthday, I arranged an event at the Cinema Museum in Kennington, and spent about four or five months going through his films. After showing extracts from them, I got some mates of his including Brian Murphy, Sheila Hancock, George Layton and Murray Melvin to come and do a bit after. He’s very much part of me still; his presence is very much alive.”

Not least was the overriding ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps to work at the National. “All I ever wanted to do was work here when I finally decided to do it as a job – that was the only ambition.”

He finally realised it in 2006 when he appeared in Samuel Adamson’s Southwark Fair in the Cottesloe, directed by Nicholas Hytner. “It was a surprise to be asked to work here when I did – you feel that any ambitions you have probably won’t happen and I’d had auditions here that I hadn’t got, and I thought that maybe it was because I wanted it too much. I was surprised to be asked to do a lead part as my first one; and then I was surprised to be asked to do Man of Mode and Hamlet and Iago in Othello. Every time you get pleasant surprises like that, you’re bound to say ‘yes’.”

Now he’s appearing as Macheath in Rufus Norris’ new production of The Threepenny Opera, and he says: “It’s my eighth or ninth show here in 10 years.” One of them was The Last of the Haussmans, a new play in which he co-starred with Julie Walters. “One of the things that most affected me as a drama student was seeing All My Sons with Julie in it. And to be asked to be in a play with her, directed by Howard Davies who also directed All My Sons, was one of those things that I couldn’t believe would happen when I was starting out, and now here I was achieving some of those dreams.”

Read The Stage review of The Threepenny Opera

the cast of his playwriting debut, The Herd, Bush Theatre, 2013 . Photo: Mark Douet
the cast of his playwriting debut, The Herd, Bush Theatre, 2013 . Photo: Mark Douet

Is Hamlet likewise a dream role for an actor? “I’m sure it is for some, and I don’t want to denigrate it, but it hadn’t been my ambition, actually. I hadn’t necessarily seen myself as that kind of actor, whatever Hamlet is supposed to be – it was Nick [Hytner] whose imagination led to it. Iago wasn’t quite such a jump in my mind.”

He had previously played Laertes to Ben Whishaw’s Hamlet at the Old Vic in 2004, six years earlier than his own. In the Bond film Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, there’s a scene in which he is reunited with Whishaw, as well as Ralph Fiennes, each of whom had played Hamlet. “Albert Finney, who was another Hamlet, also turned up later,” he points out. Kinnear has become a regular part of the Bond franchise, playing the character of Bill Tanner, but doesn’t take it for granted. “I was 30 and had just done Man of Mode when I turned up at Pinewood with a page of lines and I wasn’t allowed to see anything else. I wasn’t sure what I was going in for – I assumed it was a one-day kind of a part – and I remember them saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve got the part,’ and I said, ‘I’ve no idea what it is. Is it just that one scene or is there other stuff to come?’ When I got the script, there was quite a bit more! Then a few years later they asked me to do another, and then another. I still find it as exciting to be asked each time as I did the first time.”

Apart from the first film, when there was a location shoot in Panama, the rest have kept him much closer to home. “When you sign up for a Bond film, you probably expect something a bit more exotic, but Vauxhall Bridge has pretty much been the extent of it – I’ve done scenes in Waterloo tunnels and Tower Bridge, so it’s great to be able to walk to work when you’re doing a Bond film.”

He now lives in nearby Kennington with his actor partner Pandora Colin, and their two children, a son aged five and a daughter, aged two. He and his partner have just worked together for the first time, filming the new series of Penny Dreadful in Dublin. “We didn’t meet through acting, but it’s useful to have someone who understands the nature of the business,” he adds.

As for fatherhood, that’s created a different sense of priorities. “It changes your life, obviously, but it also makes things so much clearer and cleaner. There’s less angst and worry now when I’m in work – partly you have more confidence anyway as you grow in experience, but there’s also a sense of not having time to waste. I’ve always relied on my gut and instinct as a way to build character. But it’s also only important when I leave the house, and not at all when I’m there.”

He has not stuck to the standard template as an in-demand actor, but has also premiered his first original play The Herd at the Bush in 2013 (and subsequently also seen at Chicago’s Steppenwolf). Is there another on the horizon? “There is another play in me somewhere,” he replies. “I’m chiselling – there’s a reasonably amorphous piece of marble in front of me, and I sort of know what the end product is going to be, but I just need to find time to sharpen my chisel.”


Q&A: Rory Kinnear

What was your first non-theatre job? The day before my last A levels, I went down Putney High Street and there were jobs in an estate agents and at a dry cleaners. My mother refused to let me work in a dry cleaners because of the chemicals, so I went to the estate agency. I remember having to show a young Japanese family around a house, and repeatedly stalling on the way there – I’d only just passed my driving test. My skills were brutal and frank honesty – I’m not good at acting in my own life.

What was your first professional theatre job? I was in a Bible Belt TV film called Judas – I played the disciple Andrew, who, owing to a lack of biblical evidence, was a comedy disciple. I paid off five years of student debt in five weeks in Morocco, and luckily the film will never be seen by humanity.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That it’s the best job in the world when you’re working and the worst when you’re not, so you have to maximise the former rather than the latter. And it’s good to remember that as long as you are working, at whatever level or profile, you are learning and getting better and improving. And as long as you are improving, the chances to work elsewhere and be noticed will come round.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Personally, my mother, and professionally, Nick Hytner has to be one of them, and then on a more distant scale, Michael Gambon and Albert Finney were my heroes growing up.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Some people like having an element of fear, but I always find it a handicap – it equates with nervousness to think about yourself, and you can’t do the job properly if you’re thinking about yourself.

If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I wanted to be a butcher when I was younger, but I’d probably have been a lawyer.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No, that equates with fear – see above!

But first he’s got another new assignment after the run of The Threepenny Opera: he’s going to go straight from this 1920s musical to direct for the first time, with the world premiere of Ryan Wigglesworth’s new opera version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for English National Opera at the Coliseum next February. He already knew Wigglesworth through the designer Vicki Mortimer (“she’s designed almost every show I’ve done here”) and her husband Mark Padmore, who runs the St Endellion summer music festival in Cornwall.

“Three years ago Ryan said he’d been commissioned to write his first opera and had chosen The Winter’s Tale, and he wondered if I’d like to write the libretto with him. I told him I didn’t think I was his man, and that there might be better qualified people to do that. Much as I love the art form, it requires a particularly unique skill set to come up with a libretto, especially for a Shakespeare play, and there are some pretty large ghosts looming with Shakespeare and operas – and doing it in the English language you might not be able to be as free as Verdi was. Ryan went away and did it himself, and then about six months ago when I was filming in Dublin he rang me and said, ‘How about directing it?’”

Kinnear pointed out that he’d never directed anything before. “I didn’t know if I could do it for a start, so I thought about it for a day and called my friend Richard Jones and asked him if he thought I could do it. He told me, ‘I’ve seen directors working before, it’s not science’, and that I would have a fantastic time. I’ve never lusted after a director’s career, but it interests and intrigues me. And the fact that this is The Winter’s Tale, which is probably my favourite Shakespeare play, felt like it was home turf in some respects. And then I thought, ‘Who else is ever going to ask me to do something like this again?’ If it goes well, they might ask me to do another.”

No wonder he readily accepted the challenge, and says now: “It’s incredibly exciting – I’m probably more excited about this than anything in the past five years. At this macro stage of coming up with ideas and imagining it, which I presume is the bit that lures directors in, you are intellectually and emotionally trying to find your way through the piece and that is incredibly rewarding. I’ve often seen with directors how trying to get it how you want it to be can become frustrating.”

Rory Kinnear in Hamlet, National Theatre (2010). Photo: Johan Persson
Rory Kinnear in Hamlet, National Theatre (2010). Photo: Johan Persson

He’s sounding out and shadowing others to see how it is done. “I’ve shadowed Richard [Jones] when he was doing Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House and I hope to do so again when he’s doing Don Giovanni.” He’s happy to be experimenting on an opera rather than a play: “If I was asked to direct a play in a reasonably high-profile way like this, I might have been cautious – there’s something about gamekeeper turned poacher there – and worrying about casting friends becomes awkward. Whereas this is an entirely new sphere, so I am able to start as a director from scratch.”

But first, there’s another new challenge to face, too: singing on stage for the first time in The Threepenny Opera. “I had actually sung the Epitaph song from it at my graduation ceremony from LAMDA – it’s been incredibly hard to learn new lyrics to something I knew already.”

He approached the task of getting fit to sing rigorously, as another actor’s muscle to be exercised. “I started last November or December doing lessons every fortnight, not in terms of the songs but more like vocal pilates, with the National’s head of voice Jeannette Nelson, who used to be a singing teacher and is extraordinarily gifted at making your vocal cords and mind work together. So much of it is in my own imagination with the mental focus required and the imaginative leaps you have to do as an actor to make your voice do what you want it to do.”


Rory Kinnear’s top tips

• Professionalism – making sure you learn your lines for an audition and are on time for it, and have done as much research as you can on the part and the people you are meeting. You have to see it as a job you need to turn up for, rather than a whimsy. And once in work, the same applies.

• Remember to be in the moment at all times – for an actor there’s no past or future, it’s just the moment of it – the readiness is all.

• It feels now that everyone needs to be fit, and that wasn’t how I started out. It’s a struggle to think about, but doing plays really helps you to stay fit. My exercise regime the rest of the time is not an exacting one.

It is being directed by the National Theatre’s boss Norris, who first directed Kinnear in the West End transfer cast of the Almeida’s Festen, and subsequently in his debut feature film Broken in 2012. “Rufus has wanted to do it since he was about 15, and I did The Beggar’s Opera when I was 14 at school, when I also played Macheath. I then played Peachum in a revamped version at the Lyric Hammersmith. The Threepenny Opera has some of the most sublimely fantastic music ever composed, but the book is slightly sketchy, which is a product of the fact that they had six weeks to write it. That makes the aberration of the excellence of the music even more extraordinary.”

Norris has duly brought Simon Stephens on board to revamp the book, with the permission of the Brecht/Weill estate. “It’s probably looser than we first imagined it, but we’re not straying away from the spirit of it.” And it means that, as with Kafka’s The Trial that Kinnear did at the Young Vic last year (adapted by Nick Gill) and also Philistines at the National in 2007 (adapted by Andrew Upton), “it’s not a surprise to me to have the writer in the room rather than the ghost of them”.

For Kinnear, collaboration is always the key. “I like to see things come to fruition as a collaboration, not just through the creative team but also through the performers – they know the gaps. My job as an actor is to make sure there aren’t any gaps.”

As a leading actor, does he have special responsibilities for that? “No. I don’t like to dominate a rehearsal room. The only thing I can do as a leading member of the company is to make sure that it feels like an entirely democratic room with no sense of hierarchy throughout and in which everyone’s opinions and additions are valid. I try to encourage that as much as possible – that’s also very much Rufus’ way of working, which is why we like each other and like working together.”

CV: Rory Kinnear

Born: 1978, London
Training: Balliol College, Oxford; LAMDA
Landmark productions: Hamlet (Laertes to Ben Whishaw, Old Vic, 2004, and Hamlet at National Theatre, 2010), The Man of Mode, National Theatre (2007), Measure for Measure, Almeida Theatre (2010), The Last of the Haussmans, National Theatre (2012), Othello, National Theatre (2013), The Herd, Bush Theatre (as playwright, 2013)
Awards: Olivier awards for The Man of Mode (2008) and Othello (2014), Evening Standard award for Othello, Ian Charleson award for The Man of Mode, British Independent Film award for Broken (2012)
Agents: Markham, Froggatt and Irwin (acting); Nick Marston at Curtis Brown (literary)

The Threepenny Opera runs at the National Theatre until October 1

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