At 16 I was already preoccupied with acting. I was always a bit of a performer as a child. I wasn’t out there in tap shoes and sequins but I loved making up and starring in plays. The boys in my road in Blackheath, where I grew up in south-east London, they all wanted to go off and play football and German soldiers. And I said, fine, I’ll do that, so long as you come and be in my play.
So I would write these little plays which we performed on the landing at my house. And I’d be the king, and they’d play my servants. And I also made the tickets and I was in charge of costumes and the seating arrangements and I was head usher. Of course my parents came and watched and made my brother and sister watch. But my brother was much more interested in my dad’s new radio, which he was glued to because he could get some of the police channels on it. I remember being furious during one of my performances, because he was tuned into the radio instead of paying attention to my incredible performance as King Bobby.
“The National Youth Theatre completely changed my perspective.”
I loved acting because it was fun, but there was absolutely no way in a million years I ever thought of it as a profession, because that’s what other people did. No, I was going to do something sensible. Not medicine – I fainted at the sight of a needle – but I was going to be a lawyer. That was my game plan. The National Youth Theatre completely changed my perspective.
I can remember the moment I opened the envelope to tell me I’d got a place there, because that really did change my life. Suddenly I was meeting like-minded kids from all over the country, coming together because they all wanted to be in plays. That was a game-changer in terms of my passion. I think by the time I got into my late teens, my second year of university, I really thought, maybe I’ll give the acting a go for a couple of years and then go into law. And, well, that was 30-something years ago.
I remember having horrible panic attacks when I was in my teens, but mental health was not addressed or shared in the same way it is now. Particularly if you’re in a boarding school environment where any sign of weakness is… not necessarily pounced on – I think we were a very benevolent school on the whole – but some people suffered. I can analyse what I had as panic attacks now, but at the time I thought I was having a heart attack. But it just wasn’t the done thing to talk about it. When I look back now I think I’d like to say to my younger self, it’s OK. You’re going to be OK.
My younger self would never believe I would be on TV or in films. As I saw it then, British actors did theatre really well but film and TV was for the Americans. So classical theatre, that’s where I saw myself. That was my sole burning ambition. I gave myself three years to get an Equity card, and if I didn’t get one I’d go and do law. So if I told my 16-year-old self that I would one day be in the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the National Theatre, and then be in some films and TV shows that have struck a chord around the world, my 16-year-old jaw would drop.
I can remember the very moment I felt my life had changed and this probably isn’t the answer you expect. I was standing in a friend’s house in Scotland, in Oban, looking out of the window at some sheep. And I got a message from his parents saying, your mum called to say, will you ring the director of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
I’d auditioned there a few weeks before. That phone call changed my life because that was when I found out I had a tiny part as a spear-bearer and would also be understudying Ralph Fiennes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park. And I was going to get £100 a week, and most importantly of all, I was going to get my Equity card.
Every single part of my career since then, I can trace back to that moment. I suppose after that there were gear changes like Notting Hill, and Downton which changed my perceived market value all over again. I wouldn’t have met a bear called Paddington had it not been for Downton I suspect.
“Julia Roberts walks in in a pair of jeans, says ‘Anyone have a cigarette?’ and out come the 10 packs of Marlboro Lights and we’re off.”
With Notting Hill I felt very fortunate because my character was one of a group of friends and I’d worked with most of them – Emma Chambers, bless her, Gina McKee, Tim McInnerny. So I felt very comfortable with that group. And of course I was in awe of Hugh [Grant] because he was already a big major star. We rehearsed for a couple of days in this freezing cold church hall in Portobello, all getting on very well, and of course all terrified of this incoming huge megawatt star about to land. And Julia Roberts walks in in a pair of jeans, says ‘Anyone have a cigarette?’ and out come the 10 packs of Marlboro Lights and we’re off. It was my first sort of decent film part – though of course most of my part ended up on the cutting room floor as usual – but I can remember pretty much every day of it because it was 11 weeks of sheer pleasure and pride.
I did a film with Julian Fellowes in 2009 [From Time to Time], and he told me he had various scripts on the go. And then he started describing one. And, I said, gosh, that sounds really interesting; when it’s ready I’d love to have a look. And he said, well actually there is a part I think you’d be right for. Ten months later he sent me the first draft of Downton Abbey, and I couldn’t put it down. All these vivid characters leaping off the page. In lesser hands the patriarch would have been an evil moustache-twirling stereotype but to have written that character sympathetically, that was a masterstroke. Julian, as he says himself, tends to write from the default position that humans try to be good. Even if they do bad things. I think that’s a very good attitude to life.
If I could have one final conversation with anyone… I lost my brother, very suddenly, last year. I just got a phone call one lunchtime saying, do you know why Nigel hasn’t turned up for work? It was one of those. Sudden and wrenching. All his plans for a long busy retirement snuffed out overnight. My father was entering dementia by then so he didn’t really fully understand it, but it was very tough on my sister and myself. So I’d like to know… I think I’d like to know that my brother was happy. Because I didn’t get the chance to ask.
He loved theatre, he was a very keen am-dram actor. And passionate, in a way more passionate about live theatre than I was. And we never really sat down and talked about it. So I’d like to know that he was as happy as he appeared to be. Because when I went through all his things I was expecting to find all sorts of stuff I maybe didn’t want to discover, other avenues I hadn’t known about. But all I found was his utter, utter devotion to theatre. And I regret not acknowledging that more, that relationship, and I’d like to sit down and talk about it with him.
If I could go back to one day in my life… I was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1991. All four plays I was involved in – Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Virtuoso, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Alchemist – were on, one after the other, in The Swan. That for me was the most intoxicating time. And there was a moment, in August or September 1991, after the matinee of the fourth day when I was sitting on the lawn outside The Swan thinking, we’ve just done four plays in a row and I’m playing four different roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company, somewhere I’ve wanted to be all my life. And audiences are coming and enjoying it. The sun was shining in my face and I think I was probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my professional life.