Christopher Eccleston: ‘A crime was visited on the working-class about art’

In an interview as honest and engaging as his performances on stage and screen, Christopher Eccleston talks disordered eating, unlearning gender roles, fatherhood and working class ownership of the arts in his Letter To My Younger Self

I was quite lost at 16. From the age of eight I had very unrealistically, the way many children do, decided I was going to play professional football for Manchester United. But it was clear that was not going to happen. I was very fit and committed and played for Salford Boys, but in big games I would go to pieces. I now realise the failure was useful. I wanted to be a footballer for my dad’s sake. Acting felt more of an original idea. And I think my parents recognised that the offbeat nature of the choice suited this offbeat child of theirs.

I underperformed at school because of peer pressure. Our working-class community had this depressing way of holding each other back. Anyone who did well was seen as part of authority. So I had no idea what to do with my life. This was 1980. We were a year into Thatcher, it was very post-industrial and Joy Division were providing the soundtrack. The great terror was unemployment and it was pointed squarely at working-class people. I would say to my younger self, live in the moment and the future will take care of itself. But when unemployment is looming that is very difficult.

I wanted to get away from what I felt was my fate: a factory, a building site or a warzone. And they said if you want to go further with acting, go to London. I was a strange mix of self-dismissal and raging ambition. Some part of me must have believed in myself, but the larger part was getting in my own way with the anorexia and what Billy Bob Thornton once called ‘the personal radio in his head’. The minute I thought I wanted to be an actor, I also thought, ‘You can’t do this because you are not artistic, you don’t look or sound like an actor, you don’t have a poetic sensibility.’

My ambition was to play Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I virtually carried a copy of the play with me from 17 onwards. I could imagine playing the role because he was a soldier, and I could convince you I am a soldier. And I did it. When I did Macbeth [in 2018] I fell off the stage in the third preview and got poor reviews, quite rightly. But you progress and change and improve. I played Macbeth for a year and came out a better actor.

I always felt I was being cast for my cheekbones and physical appearance. Never for a moment did I think my voice was strong, my poetic imagination was original or my interpretation was unusual. So if it meant starving myself, I would keep starving myself. I would tell my younger self you are not too big, you are not too clumsy. Don’t go on this suicidal quest for superficial perfection, because your heart is poetic and your brain is lively.

My whole career has been a letter to my younger self and people from my background. It has been sticking two fingers up to how I was conditioned and it will remain that till the day I die. A great crime was visited on working-class people about art. To me, art is to give a voice to those without a voice. That is when it is urgent. Shakespeare, Milton and Blake? They belong to us more. That is what I feel.

Christopher Eccleston in Macbeth at the RSC
Macbeth
Eccleston in Macbeth (photo: Richard Davenport)

I didn’t have imposter syndrome with television because I felt I had a part-ownership of it. My mum and dad watched it fiercely and were dismissive of television that spoke down to them. I only realised latterly, but maybe TV and film being industrial relaxed me – I had been on building sites and in factories, where there is hardware all around. I was making TV for my mum and dad and the people on our estate who I knew were profoundly discerning.

There is a lot of bad behaviour in TV and film because money and power is up for grabs. Many times people said ‘Kiss my arse and I will look after you down the road’ – and I would bite their head off, which is the Salford way. It is about dignity. I will get work based on my work, not on sycophancy. I am convinced I could have gone further if I played nice. I’ve had run-ins with powerful people… and I am very proud of my enemies.

Becoming a father seven years ago made me a happier person. I thought the most important thing in the world was to deliver the greatest Hamlet. I now know it is to nurture decent human beings who will hopefully grow up to be activists on climate change. Fatherhood mellowed me. It made me less judgemental, more tender. I feel very maternal with my children. That is from my mum. She lost her own mum when she was four, so she gave her children what she never had and that bled into me. I would say to any dad, do as many nappies as you can. That is where the love comes from, not taking them to Disneyland. It is the greatest thing I have ever done. Forget soliloquies, nappies! Having led a very selfish, self-absorbed life, Albert and Esme introduced me to the real world.

A huge part of my life has been unlearning gender stuff. I was brought up in a brutal patriarchy and given misogynistic and destructive messages about women – not within my home, within society. I believed women’s roles were at the beck and call of men before I came to London and met my first wave of feminists. Also, Morrissey showed a different way to present masculinity, which was closer to how I felt. I have broad shoulders, a big nose, I am physically imposing, but I am terrified inside. So I would tell my younger self, see the human being, not the gender, if that is not too clumsy.

Nobody worked harder than me on my 13 episodes of Doctor Who. I adored playing the character. The problem was that as it was being celebrated, I was being vilified. I felt a lot of anger at certain individuals that excluded me from enjoying what I had achieved. I was wary of fan conventions, but now I sit all day signing things. People talk to me about The Leftovers, HeroesOur Friends In The North, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later and even Let Him Have It and Cracker. You think, there is a body of work there and people have stayed with me. You have to accept the love and the compliments without relying on them. And it is important to demystify what we do – so if a young lad is shaking and thinks I am amazing because I played Doctor Who, I will be quick to address that. At the height of my success I was a very insecure, damaged person and I think it’s important that is communicated.

The people I hero worship in the business are not actors, they are writers. Jimmy McGovern, Peter Flannery, Peter Bowker, Russell T Davies. But watching Anthony Hopkins on stage while I was at drama school changed my life. And working with him, particularly on King Lear, didn’t disappoint. Cate Blanchett on Elizabeth was similar – she had read every book under the sun, but once the camera was on, it was all instinct and risk. You can see that in her career since. I learnt comic timing from Leon Harrop in The A Word, who has an absolute joy in being creative, which I also see in Albert and Esme. And Gary Oldman was a big inspiration – he looked like he was from my estate, albeit with a different accent. It wasn’t a university approach, we were council estate actors.

I don’t want to always be a gun for hire – I want to father projects now. I need that at 55. I am forming a production company with my best friend from when I was 17 called Correct Productions. I also want to do more theatre because that’s where I get real acting pleasure. I want to do Prospero in The Tempest to explore the relationship I have with Esme, and I want to have a go at Richard III. I want the big challenges. Macbeth was just the beginning.

I didn’t see my children for three months when I had clinical depression and a period in hospital. But the reason I recovered is because of their existence. Realising that life was still there to be lived and my children were still there to be fathered created a tremendous burst of energy. I came out of hospital in May 2016 and have not stopped working and fathering and playing Macbeth and writing the book ever since. I showed my kids the dedication in the book this week to my mum and to them. I said: “You’re too young to read this now. But one day you might read it and find some surprising things in here about dad.”

I would love one last conversation with my dad. Anybody who sits in front of somebody with dementia over a prolonged period of time will know that feeling. I would say I am really sorry society denied your intelligence and your individuality because of your class. Your curiosity and passion for language has given me a career. So I would say thank you and I love you, because we didn’t say that. I would give him a big kiss and I like to think we could cry together, and then arm wrestle. I want to be like that with Albert. I want to be openly emotional about being a man and being vulnerable.

Christopher Eccleston’s I Love the Bones of You: My Father and the Making of Me is out now (Simon & Schuster, £20)

Read the original interview in The Big Issue, 7-13 October 2019, available from the Big Issue shop.