Bertie Carvel: ‘I’m always looking for the man in the monster’
Bertie Carvel has humanised troubled characters from criminals and adulterers to politicians and child-hating headteachers. As he prepares to star in Ink at London’s Almeida, he talks to Matt Trueman about putting himself into those roles, creating Rupert Murdoch’s origin story and digging into Miss Trunchbull’s damaged past
Everyone loves a baddie, but few more so than Bertie Carvel. “I get to play villains and make them into human beings,” says the 39-year-old actor, almost licking his lips with relish. “I’m always looking for the man in the monster.”
To certain sections of British society, few are more villainous than Rupert Murdoch: media mogul, political power-player and the next character in Carvel’s crosshairs. On Saturday night, when James Graham’s new play Ink opens in London at the Almeida Theatre, the Olivier award winner will transform himself into the man that remade the global media landscape and who caused a lot of friction along the way.
Transformation to morally ambivalent characters is Carvel’s bread and butter and every time he steps on to a stage, he is all but unrecognisable. He was a hulking, coal-smudged ship’s stoker in The Hairy Ape at London’s Old Vic then, months later, a wild-eyed warrior woman in a gore-soaked gown for Bakkhai. In Rope, he was a human sneer in wire spectacles; a world away from the former Olympian hammer-throwing headmistress, a tank-chested child-torturer, that was Matilda the Musical’s Miss Trunchbull.
The man that strides into the Almeida Theatre’s back office is tall and well-built with a confident air and a gentle manner. His face is handsome: strong-jawed and bright-eyed with a toothy smile that gives it a slight gawkiness.
Unshaven, he can seem raffish with hints of Hugh Grant in his prime. The longer his hair grows, bubbling into thick curls, the more eccentric he looks. The shorter he shaves it, the more a hard-nosed nut-job comes out.
‘I love playing characters that people make moral assumptions about, then introducing doubt and inconsistency into that’
Today, close-cropped with a slight beard, Carvel cuts quite a dash – especially for an actor on a mid-rehearsal lunch break. Rather than the usual rehearsal room slacks, Carvel is in a crisp navy suit and a trim blue shirt.
Becoming Rupert Murdoch
It is a clue to the Murdoch he’s playing in Ink – not the pension-age pantomime villain, but rather his younger self, a man so driven he had his own chauffeur before the age of 40.
Graham’s play tracks back to the late 1960s, when Murdoch snapped up the Sun. The Australian executive was already circling Fleet Street, having bought the News of the World the previous year, when he added a failing daily broadsheet to his empire and reshaped it into the red-top that still flies off the shelves today.
“It’s an origin story,” says Carvel. “Behind it is the irony of what we know Murdoch’s empire will become, but it’s about the ideological beginnings of that. It’s about a battle for the soul of Fleet Street.”
In one corner, there’s Murdoch – the moderniser and free marketer. In the other is the Sun’s first editor, Larry Lamb, an old Daily Mail hack with some semblance of journalistic standards and ethics. “It’s a sports movie, really,” Carvel continues. “A complete outsider, this visionary crackpot, buys a failing team thinking he can turn it around and, indeed, introduces some magic ingredient that not only succeeds, but changes the game for good.”
For Carvel, that change is personal. He comes from a long line of journalists and Fleet Street is a world he knows well. His father, John, worked at the Guardian for 36 years, covering beats including education and social affairs. His grandfather Bob was at the Standard, his great-grandfather, John, the Star. “Newsprint is in my veins, somehow. Even though I was the one who got away.” Ink, he says, was a case of “stars crossing and planets aligning”.
The romanticism of journalism
“I have really strong memories of my dad’s office.” His eyes half-close as he thinks back. “This was before the Guardian moved to Kings Place – all Apple Macs and open-plan offices. The old place on Farringdon Road was piled high with paper and higgledy-piggledy desks. The presses weren’t in the basement at that stage, but there was a sense of a world beneath, churning away.”
Carvel would often sit in the car as his dad nipped off to an interview. “It was proper old-school analogue journalism: scribbling shorthand and phoning copy in. The idea that there was a physicality to journalism, there’s a romanticism about that.”
What actor wouldn’t want to play Murdoch, a personality who looms large in the public imagination, especially with the connections to journalism Carvel has? Not only is he one of the most significant figures of the last half-century, he’s also one of its most enigmatic.
Q&A: Bertie Carvel
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a ‘gopher’ at Labyrinthe – a live role-playing club in Chislehurst Caves. Responsibilities included selling weapons and cleaning the toilets.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Revelations at the Hampstead Theatre in London [in 2003].
What was the best advice someone gave you when you were starting out?
I got lots of good advice, but it’s really hard to hear when you’re anxious to prove yourself.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
[Israeli director and actor] Gadi Roll. He taught me that it’s not good enough to look and sound the part: you’ve got to mean it.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Make a strong offer then listen to direction and try something you hadn’t prepared. A good audition usually feels like a good rehearsal.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I used to warm up obsessively. I’ve tried to take the obsession out of it but it’s still really important.
“There are almost two Murdochs in the play. He’s got so much backstory, and you can kind of enjoy that, but he has to be someone living into his destiny, not yet aware of what’s coming. I’m trying to work out how to square those two things.”
For Carvel, that is the sweet spot. “Murdoch did something that allowed him to be both hero and villain at the same time,” he explains, both the iconoclastic moderniser and the ruthless profiteer. That is what he loves best, he says: “Playing characters that people make moral assumptions about, then introducing doubt and inconsistency into that.”
‘Carvel is one of the most exacting actors I’ve ever worked with’
Director Jamie Lloyd
Murdoch isn’t the first real figure Carvel has played. In Coalition, also written by Graham and screened on Channel 4 shortly before the 2015 general election, he portrayed then Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. The drama charted the five fateful days at the turn of the decade that led to Clegg’s love-in with prime minister David Cameron in the rose garden at Number 10.
Courted by both Labour and the Conservatives, Carvel’s Clegg was a man wavering at a fork in the road, deliberating over the right course to take. His Clegg seemed to swallow compulsively: a yellow rabbit caught in the headlights of history. It rang horribly true for viewers, but was it? “None of this is ever the truth. You’ve a responsibility to – quote unquote – the truth, such as it is, but you’ve also got a responsibility to drama. It isn’t the truth. It’s a representation that should feel like it goes to the very heart of things, and that isn’t necessarily the same.”
The directors’ take
That gets close to the crux of Carvel’s approach to acting. Directors talk of two sides to his process – on the one hand, rigour and research; on the other, play and physicality.
Jamie Lloyd, who directed Carvel in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride at London’s Royal Court in 2009, remembers him as “one of the most exacting actors I’ve ever worked with” – a man “with a hundred thousand questions about every moment”. At the same time, he talks of Carvel’s electric unpredictability and imagination. “He has this huge sense of adventure.”
“On the one hand, he’s got the instinct of a showman,” says Matthew Warchus, who directed him in Matilda. “He’s capable of very deft, technical, virtuosic feats of acting, but he’s also really interested in psychology.” Even with a figure as outsized and absurd as Miss Trunchbull, Carvel dug deep into the character’s damage, considering details such as when she won her Olympic medals and how long it had been since she accidentally killed her brother. “He finds this really intricate, internal wiring,” Warchus says – a product, perhaps, of having a journalist father and a psychologist mother.
The result can be rather thrilling: grand grotesques grounded in reality. Carvel is a rare breed of actor. In an acting culture that tends towards self-expression, he leans more towards self-obliteration. “There is,” he tells me, “a perverse pride in disappearing.” Indeed, one of his keepsakes is a fan letter addressed to Miss Bertie Carvel – the actress who must have played Miss Trunchbull.
Bertie Carvel’s top tips
• Work hard in preparation; relax in performance.
• It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
• Believe in yourself.
Warchus describes him as “a nose-putty actor” – a reference to the old stage-slap school of acting. “It’s a style of acting that I mourn the loss of slightly,” he says. “That physical transformation can be so exciting.”
Lloyd agrees: “Most actors work either inside-out or outside-in. Bertie sort of does both at the same time.”
Actually, says Carvel, it’s far more instinctual than that. His characters are not calculated creations, constructed piece-by-piece, one mannerism at a time. Research helps – “I delight in it” – but he’s happy to throw it all away. “You have to live it,” he says. “It’s not intellectual, it’s athletic. Your ideas about a text mean nothing if you can’t physicalise them. We use a lot of techniques and exercises to get to that, but really, at the end of the day, it’s instinct. You have a feeling for a part.”
‘I get to explore what the world feels like in all these different ways because, in all of these characters, there’s part of me’
Carvel felt his way to acting quite late. Having grown up in north London, attending the fee-paying University College School, he started acting at Sussex University, playing Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral. It came quite naturally – and for good reason. “I’d spent my teenage years live role-playing” – LARPing is the technical term, ‘monstering’ is another – “and that’s essentially acting with no audience.” He has in the past joked that he earned his acting chops travelling to and from Chislehurst dressed as an armoured dwarf. In some ways, I suspect, he never stopped live role-playing. Acting might be the adult equivalent.
For Carvel, certainly, stage acting involves a level of authorship. “You can have these quite inchoate, inarticulate convictions and gradually creep towards something,” he says. Often, that involves taking responsibility for the look of a character and, at present, he’s mulling over wigs and contact lenses for Murdoch. “What might it be if the hairline was a bit further back?” he asks aloud. “What story does that tell?”
Retaining the same level of control can be tricky in television. “The machine is that much bigger,” he says. Yet after the success of Matilda, much of it heaped on his padded shoulders, Carvel found himself getting the sort of roles he could sink his creative teeth into: the whimsical magician Jonathan Strange for the BBC and a cynical police-force PR in Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s Babylon. Even onscreen, he’s thinking physically. Witness his role in Matthew Baynton’s comedy The Wrong Mans: a psycho prisoner with what he calls “a World War One helmet haircut”, tattoos and a glass eye. “We had great fun designing that look.”
And yet, with television has come a realisation for Carvel. “As I get older, I don’t need to go so far from my apparent centre to get that sense of exploration. I’ve realised, perhaps, that there’s no fundamental difference between character acting and anything else.”
You see that most clearly in Mike Bartlett’s marital thriller Doctor Foster – a big BBC hit in late 2015 that won a National Television award and a BAFTA nomination. Carvel plays Simon Foster, a manchild approaching a mid-life crisis and cheating on his wife (Suranne Jones) with a much younger woman. He is, ostensibly, ordinary – a decent architect and great dad – but in a series concerned with surface appearances in middle-class life, there’s a far darker streak beneath. He was, momentarily, the most loathed bloke on the box. A second series is in the can. “If anything, it’s even more epic – Greek in scale.”
Outwardly, Doctor Foster is a domestic drama, but it taps into something deeper. Carvel reaches for a Virginia Woolf quotation: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than what is commonly thought small,” he rattles, word-perfect. “In other words, the tiniest atom of experience can contain worlds.” That philosophy might link his forensic attention with his expansive imagination.
Transformation, he says, is still rooted in introspection. “In all these parts, I get to reach quite far from my central self,” he explains. “They’re all in corners of my unconscious, my subconscious, the envelope of my experiences and my sense of self. I get to explore what the world feels like in all these different ways because, in all of these characters, there’s some part of me in there.” It is here also, you suspect, that he discovers the humanity in even the most morally ambivalent of characters.
CV: Bertie Carvel
Born: 1977, London
Landmark productions: Theatre: Parade, Donmar Warehouse, London (2007); The Pride, Royal Court, London (2009); Matilda the Musical, Royal Shakespeare Company (2010); Cambridge Theatre, London (2011); The Hairy Ape, Old Vic, London (2015); TV: Coalition, Channel 4 (2015); Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, BBC (2015); Doctor Foster, BBC (2015)
Awards: For Matilda the Musical: TMA Theatre award for best performance in a musical (West End), 2011; Olivier for best actor in a musical (West End), 2012; Drama Desk award for outstanding featured actor in a musical (Broadway), 2013
Agent: Hamilton Hodell
Ink runs at the Almeida Theatre, London, until August 5