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Kris Marshall: “I kept Jane Asher waiting!”

Actor Kris Marshall on his parents’ divorce, alcohol-fuelled scrapes – and getting fired from Iceland for wearing blue sunglasses on the till.

When I was 16, I was living between three different places. My parents had just divorced – which was better for everybody. They needed to get divorced a long time before, so it wasn’t a great existential crisis for me. I was at boarding school in Somerset, then spent the holidays with my mum in Wiltshire or with my dad in Hong Kong.

We’d always moved around because my dad was in the air force. I had a Canadian accent until I was 10. My dad still has tapes of it. Very strange. We were in Germany for a time. My dad flew transport planes and later flew the Queen – he was her navigator.

I suppose, like most 16-year-olds, I was full of it. And I was a public school kid as well, albeit not the full silver spoon. I lived with 40 boys and there is a mentality you get in that environment. We used to run feral. You become independent very quickly.

I got a moped for my 16th birthday. We weren’t allowed them at school so I stashed it at the top of the rugby field. That worked well until the police turned up wanting to know why I was dragging a moped out of some bushes.

I wasn’t the class clown, but would always question authority. I was cheeky and would disturb the class. It was a happy time in my life. I was the kid with big glasses but I got contact lenses and girls started taking a bit of notice. I felt young and strong. I was getting into drama. At school we would do everything from obscure Czech playwrights to Woody Allen. I affected this persona that I was going to be successful, that it was written in the stars, and fuck everyone else. I’d tell my younger self not to behave like a rebel without a Porsche.

My hero was James Garner. I was a massive Rockford Files fan. I still am. I loved his style of acting. There was an element where you could see he knows acting isn’t a proper job – a twinkle: “I know this isn’t real!” If anything, it adds to his performance, like a little secret, inviting you to come on this journey with him.

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I didn’t want to be an impoverished artist so didn’t seriously consider acting as a career. I fancied being some globe-trotting financier. But once I decided to be an actor, schooling didn’t matter and I got into the romance of the journey. I went years living hand to mouth, working on travelling fairs, in one of Robert Maxwell’s printing factories, at an Aquafresh toothpaste factory, delivering tax discs, at nightclubs – and I was fired from Iceland for wearing blue sunglasses on the till.

I was an hour late for my first ever day’s filming – a cardinal sin. I was only in a couple of scenes of a film called Closing Numbers in 1993, but I kept Jane Asher waiting! Time is money on a film set, so I never did that again. I changed from this whimsical teenager, thinking I was amazing, to someone prepared to get their hands dirty. I’d reassure my younger self that it is going to be fine, but remind him to apply himself.

When I did my first play in London, I was working as a hod-carrier. I’d arrive at the theatre, underneath a pub in Barons Court, covered in brick dust. This was 1997. I had been struggling for years. It got me seen, which got me to the National Theatre and onwards. The roles that mean the most are these watershed moments. Another early job I’m proud of was Je t’aime John Wayne, which was nominated for a short film Bafta. We all worked together again on My Life In Film for BBC2, which I also loved.

I’d tell my younger self not to behave like a rebel without a Porsche

All actors, unless they are very lucky or very astute – and I am neither – have to compromise. My 16-year-old self might not have chosen a job on My Family, but it is easy to have high and mighty ideas when you are at boarding school, being fed, watered and clothed by your parents. The character was 19 but I was 27. That job took me in a direction I hadn’t thought about before. My younger self would have been impressed with some of my career, but I would tell him real life gets in the way and not to beat himself up if he has to compromise.

I would tell my younger self to be easier on his body. Don’t drink so much. I was one of those young drinkers who get into scrapes through drinking. Life is always easier if you don’t get into scrapes.

For a while, being famous was a lot of fun. There are benefits when you are young and have a few quid in your pocket. People want to talk to you. It became a bit of a bind when My Family took off and Love Actually happened, which I am very grateful for – in no way do I look that gift horse in the mouth. But you can’t leave your face at home. That is another thing I would tell my younger self. Like a lot of teenagers now, all I wanted when I was 16 was to be famous. But the reality is that you never get a day off. You can’t ask someone where the beans are in the supermarket without them going: “Oh, I know you!” You always get the double take.

My parents taught me not to waste my emotions over-worrying about my own kids. You are always stressed as a parent. You need to manage your resources. It is easy in the modern age, with the overload of information, to micro-manage how much sugar is in their diet or how much TV they watch, because there is instant advice online about everything. Kids are good at mediating themselves – though maybe not with sweets – but they get bored, which is their bodies’ way of telling them what is enough.

I am nearly 44 now and still learning how to get through tough times. But if you are still kicking, you are still fighting. No matter how bad things seem, wake up the next day and get back on the horse.

Kris Marshall stars in the new series of Death in Paradise, 9pm, Thursdays, BBC1

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