At 16 my passions were girls, a half-hearted attempt to learn karate and an equally half-hearted interest in punk rock. I liked The Stranglers very much. I went to one of their concerts in Southampton when I was 15 or 16, but I wasn’t a fully fledged punk. My mum sewed my jeans über-tight and I had a scraggy haircut that wasn’t a mohican, it was a weird mess of a crop. I didn’t know what I was doing. I straddled somewhere between The Stranglers and David Bowie. I was a bit of an outsider. Like many adolescents, I was slightly unformed and eager to find out where the next party was, when the next disco was and who I fancied.
Out of all of the hormonal tempests of adolescence, the art room gave me a kind of focus and clarity. I had shown myself to be inept at sports, so I put my energy into art. I went to a grammar school in Salisbury and had a very good art teacher, Duncan Davies, who gave me a lot of support.
So I thought I would go to art school and attempt to be a painter, that is where my strengths were in terms of schooling. To a degree that led me to here. I went to do a foundation course at Chelsea Art School when I was 18 and things happened on that course that took me towards deciding to be an actor. I realise now I have been behind the camera on three films [including the newly released Rudolf Nureyev biopic The White Crow] that I have got back in touch with my visual sensibility, making choices about camera and composition and lighting. It is very exciting to re-engage with my visual awareness.
I could have worked harder, I could have applied myself harder, and I don’t just mean in relation to exam success.
If I could direct my younger self, I would try to encourage that person away from an excuse not to work or an excuse to just go out all the time. Don’t waste your time! Life goes by quickly, so any time spent hanging out or idling your time away – which is a natural thing – just be aware that is valuable time when you could be doing something, making something or thinking forward about stuff. I could have worked harder, I could have applied myself harder, and I don’t just mean in relation to exam success. I mean just embrace things. Embrace life. In adolescence, any excuse to sit in front of the telly or amble about half-heartedly smoking somebody else’s cigarettes hoping that girl you fancy will look at you – so much time is wasted like that.
My mum would play recordings of Laurence Olivier doing speeches from Hamlet and Henry V when I was very young. So he was always this mysterious voice, this incredible, expressive, elastic tenor voice and very quickly became a symbol of a great actor. Later, as I was more conscious of wanting to be an actor I became more alert to the performances of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Trevor Howard in The Third Man and became more aware of American film acting – Brando, Robert Duvall, those naturalistic actors that challenged the old school.
I remember seeing Paul Scofield on stage in the National Theatre in 1979 and then Michael Gambon in Brecht’s The Life of Galileo – and I can still feel the excitement of those performances. I worked with Paul Scofield much later, so that was a huge thrill. He played my dad in Quiz Show. But seeing him on stage, hearing that voice, I can still feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle at that incredible voice and that presence on the stage.
When I started off being an actor, my Mecca was to go to the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre. I have been very lucky in film, but I hate being away from theatre for too long. I feel that it is the purest arena for an actor. Interaction with an audience is that kind of challenge to you, to engage in that moment. It is intense.
I still feel a delight when I am invited to be in a film. I see how quickly everything goes by and one is lucky to have these opportunities. I never take the invitations to work for granted. I hope I have a greater appreciation of what it is to be asked to be part of something. My younger self would not believe if they were told this is what you would achieve. That younger person would go, No, really? No, I don’t believe you. They would be thrilled and delighted that these opportunities have come my way.
When it comes to his love life, I would advise my younger self to have the courage to be honest in whatever situation. Don’t lie, don’t deceive. And do your best not to hurt people. Oh god, there is lots of advice. Know when to walk away is one, don’t hang around in a needy way. Get out.
. You want to be offered something that no one has done, that is completely original and fresh,
I am very grateful to people like Wes Anderson and Martin McDonagh. When Martin said ‘Come and be in In Bruges playing this East End gangster-type’, there were many actors who have more affinity for the background. But as an actor, that is a great, rich, red-meat challenge. That film had a black, comedic, humorous streak in it for sure – and after that and a few Harry Potters, Wes came to me with The Grand Budapest Hotel. People ask me what I want to play. But it is the part you never thought of that comes through the letterbox. You want to be offered something that no one has done, that is completely original and fresh and challenges you in an area you have not tested yourself before. It seems to me that is what happened with The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Sometimes there is a sadness that collaborations are not repeated. I loved working with Steven Spielberg on Schindler’s List all those years ago. That was thrilling. I loved his energy – I try to remember that when I am directing. He is very focused and very energised and very vocal on a film set – you feel his passion for the making of a film and that boyish excitement, which is lovely. I loved the energy, I like being on a film set when you feel there is a forward momentum. I hope one day I might be invited to do something with him again. I also hope to work with Wes Anderson again – we have talked about collaborating again, so that might happen and I would also love to work with Luca Guadagnino because I loved A Bigger Splash.
I don’t think I had enough respect of what it takes to make a film. On The English Patient, I had a great time. But I think now part of me would have a greater appreciation that this film was being made. I had too many assumptions that these people make the film and I turn up and do my part – there was a slight feeling of, ‘Oh yes, of course, this is how it will always be’ and not enough awareness that ‘Wow, this is amazing we are doing this here!’ I would revisit that film and others with the awareness of how extraordinary it is that one is doing this at all. Now I have been the other side of the camera and in proximity to the problems of financing films, I would have a greater appreciation and respect for what people are doing to put out a film, or put on a play.
Have the courage of your own convictions and have the courage to speak your mind, which is sometimes harder than it might sound. That is the main thing I would tell my younger self. But be open to other people’s opinions. Listen. And be alert to the continuous journey of believing in yourself while being open to others without betraying your own conscience. That is what I would say. It is the continuous alertness. Don’t be complacent.
The White Crow is in cinemas now.