Ask him about his role, though, and he squirms magnificently in his chair. I really think talking about himself is anathema to him. He looks like he’s being given tiny electric shocks. He will never miss an opportunity to turn the question back to you, even if you’ve asked him something so specific that he is the only person who could ever know the answer. Anyway, back to Richard II.
“I find him in some ways quite sympathetic, but that is not a view shared by many people. I find that I like his journey. It’s an interesting one. Someone being forced to confront their vulnerability. Accept their fears. Have their illusions about themselves shattered. That’s what I like about it.”
He wriggles some more and starts to rip a napkin into tiny pieces. He really reminds me of a fairy tale about a child genius who can only relax when she’s playing the violin. I wonder if he’s the sort of person who only relaxes on stage. “I think you feel really alive when you perform. Not necessarily relaxed, but very alive and open. In some ways, it’s easier to relate to another actor than it is to relate to a person in life. Do you know what I mean?”
...he also has terrible judgement. “It’s awful. I’m always wrong. To the point where I try not to bring my judgement to bear on an encounter I have with a person, I just try to take them as they are.”
This must make it hard to make a decision, deliberately holding back from judging anything? “It’s like…” he thinks for a bit… “Death is cold and hard and tight, and life is loose. So when you’re alive, you have to embrace being loose and open and free and engaged with things. To go towards closing things off or making judgements or deciding on certainties is to choose something that’s more like death.
I had this big conversation with a priest who said, ‘It’s all right to be uncertain.’ I wasn’t in confession. I’m not religious at all. I don’t know even why I’m telling you. We value certainty so highly in the world. It can lead to appalling things.
But without it we’d never do anything. So how do you find your way through that?” There’s a long pause. “Do you think Radio Times readers will be interested in death?” I don’t see why not.
I’m sure this is part of what makes him such a persuasive performer, that he’s a natural introvert, who wants to subsume himself utterly for the role, but then in the service of that role, must – literally or figuratively – take centre stage. “I’m maybe somewhere in the middle, between introversion and extroversion,” he starts. I make a very sceptical face. “With a tendency to introversion. There’s a strong thing of not wanting to be watched, but also not being able to help yourself.”