Jonathan Hyde: ‘I tend to be attracted to flawed characters like Nixon’
Having played the lead role in Sheffield Crucible’s Julius Caesar last year, Jonathan Hyde is returning to the venue to play the disgraced US president. He tells Chris Bartlett about his affinity with villains during a long career
The action in Frost/Nixon is based on the famed interviews David Frost conducted in 1977 with Richard Nixon, which culminated with the disgraced former president confessing his sins while in office.
Peter Morgan’s play was described by critic Michael Billington as taking on “the aura of a boxing bout”. But Jonathan Hyde, starring as Nixon in the first regional revival at Sheffield Theatres, does not appear to have taken on his character’s pugilistic approach to interviews.
In fact, the Brisbane-born, RADA-trained actor is affable company and clearly enjoys being interviewed. “If it’s collegial and intelligent then there’s everything to play for and it can even be rather fun,” he says.
Frost/Nixon is just two guys sitting in comfy armchairs talking, but it’s about the zing of ideas and a battle of wills
The challenge he and his co-star Daniel Rigby have on stage is bringing the somewhat forced format of interviews to life. “On the page it looks quite dry – where’s the drama? It’s just two guys sitting in comfy armchairs talking. But, of course, that’s the thrill of it. It’s the zing of ideas and a battle of wills. It’s a battle of intelligence, really.”
In Frost/Nixon, Morgan elevated the potentially static activity of conversation into a spectator sport. He also portrays the private moments of people in the public eye. This is his stock in trade, from the 2003 television play The Deal about Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to the current Netflix series The Crown, about the British royal family.
The original Frost/Nixon production at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Michael Grandage, opened in 2006 starring Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon. It received stellar reviews and transferred to the West End shortly after.
The pair reprised their roles in a successful Broadway transfer, winning Langella a Tony award, and it was adapted for the big screen in 2008. Surely it is a challenge to step out of the shadow of such a feted production?
“Well, it’s been a while,” says Hyde. “The play was done more than 10 years ago, so it’s not like it was only last week. And it’s never been more timely. Here was a president who abused his executive power. And you can’t open the paper these days without seeing a leader being investigated for corruption. Just look at Trump.”
Hyde’s preparation for the role started with devouring John A Farrell’s 550-page biography. He is balancing that with what he remembers of the man at the time. Hyde came to London to pursue an acting career in 1969, the year Nixon took office, and graduated from RADA in 1973, a year before the 37th president resigned.
He has also scrutinised Langella’s performance and the many and varied other depictions of Nixon in fiction. “It’s been interesting to compare the other performances with how he comes across in the biography,” he says. “I’m inclined to steer a middle path. Personally I find Nixon a tad more vulnerable than how he was played by Frank Langella.”
Hyde’s six-decade career spans long associations with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, while for a period in the 1990s he became Hollywood’s go-to man for English-accented villains in blockbusters such as Jumanji, Titanic and The Mummy.
Q&A: Jonathan Hyde
What was your first non-theatre job? When I was 17 I worked in a number-plate factory in Brisbane. A lot of the guys there didn’t have any hands or had fingers missing because those huge metal presses were so unforgiving.
What was your first professional job? Playing Felipillo the Inca interpreter in The Royal Hunt of the Sun for the Queensland Theatre Company. We always laughingly referred to him as “Phyllis Pillow”.
What is your next job? I was going to do a BBC job but I didn’t like the role and I turned it down, so I’m concentrating on moving house instead.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t do it.
Who or what is your biggest influence? I’ve always been inspired by great stage actors. I saw Ian McKellen in Edward II and Paul Scofield as Uncle Vanya at the Royal Court giving staggeringly good performances.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Keep it simple and tell the truth. In other words, say the lines and get off.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I sometimes whisper my father’s name before going on stage. He died in 1997 and I started doing it just to calm my nerves. It’s a comfort, like talking to a friend.
He is used to portraying real people in productions that have high-profile forbears. He played Australian therapist Lionel Logue in the stage version of The King’s Speech, a play that arrived in the West End just two years after the acclaimed 2010 film. The original featured a BAFTA-winning turn from fellow countryman Geoffrey Rush as Logue.
Hyde feels that the speed of its transition to the stage hampered its chances of reaching a wide audience. “Sadly, the film was too fresh in people’s minds. But I thought the stage version was more savage and stronger than the film, which tended to be a bit soft.”
But the cross-pollination of film and theatre is something that Hyde is all in favour of – and he hopes it will bring in younger audiences.
“I’ve been to so many productions, especially matinees, where you just see a sea of white heads. So the more we can get youth in the better. That’s where Sheffield works really hard. The choice of plays is testament to that.”
Sheffield’s Crucible is currently enjoying a period of success. Hyde saw this first-hand when he played the title role in the Crucible’s well-received Julius Caesar last year, which was Robert Hastie’s inaugural production as artistic director.
Hyde jumped at the chance to make the journey from his home in Bath up to Yorkshire again for Frost/Nixon. “The Crucible is a wonderful theatre and it’s a wonderful organisation. The whole building has such a positive feeling about it.”
Another attraction for Hyde was the return to the stage after four years playing billionaire Eldrich Palmer in Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy-horror US TV series The Strain. That role took him to the vast halls of San Diego’s Comic-Con fan convention, a daunting experience he describes as “not quite my favourite tipple”.
He continues: “This just seemed like a wonderful change, going from filming this end of the world, vampiric nightmare sort of thing to doing a big play on a big stage.”
And in Nixon, there’s also the draw of playing such a complex character. “He’s a fascinatingly colourful human being. The contradictions are simply extraordinary. He had this amazing global vision and tremendous intelligence, yet also had this paranoia and inferiority complex. I tend to be attracted to these flawed characters.”
Nixon is yet another in a rogue’s gallery of memorable villains, so what do directors see in Hyde to keep offering him these dark characters?
“I don’t know,” he says. “In old-fashioned terms, I’ve got the voice and a certain amount of experience in that area. But I’ve never had any plan in my career. I’ve always just picked up whatever crumbs I’ve found along the path. I just feel fortunate and flattered that anybody asks.”
In a varied career, including six “remarkable” years in the 1970s with Glasgow Citizens Theatre, Hyde has moved between stage and screen with comparative ease. But returning to theatre is vital, he says. “Because sooner or later, if you do a lot of film roles, you end up losing the courage to get on to a stage. And I’m wondering how much longer my nerves are going to hold up.”
But despite describing himself as a “semi-retired 70-year-old”, Hyde has no immediate plans to call it a day. “It all depends on the quality of what’s being offered. I’ve turned down quite a lot of stuff – too much, probably. I would have taken more if I’d been a bit more dedicated. But I’ve been a bit too casual with it all.”
One reason he carries on is he feels one thing has escaped him. “I feel like I’ve still yet to do one really great film role. I don’t know how, why or even if, but I’d love to do just one really good filmed piece of work that I could feel genuinely proud of.” He says he has joked with Del Toro that together they should do a sequel to the director’s The Shape of Water, the current frontrunner for best picture at the Oscars.
His only other regret is from the filming of Jumanji, the 1995 family blockbuster in which he played a dual role as the film’s patriarch and Robin Williams’ gun-toting nemesis, which was rebooted last year with Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson.
“I really wanted my character to shoot a [CGI] monkey,” he says. “I’m meant to be this big game hunter but I never manage to hit anything. They wouldn’t let me shoot anything dead. So that’s my only real disappointment.”
CV: Jonathan Hyde
Born: 1948, Brisbane
Landmark productions: Camino Real, Glasgow Citizens (1974), As You Like It, Aldwych Theatre (1981), The Duchess of Malfi, National Theatre (1985), The Seagull / King Lear, RSC world tour (2007), Travels With My Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory (2013), Julius Caesar, Crucible (2017)
Agents: Sue Latimer (UK); Stephanie Ramsey and Jeff Kolodny (US)
Frost/Nixon runs at the Crucible, Sheffield, until March 17