Ben Chaplin: ‘If people think my Harley Granville Barker isn’t up to scratch, i’ll just blame the director’
After being directed by Ford Coppola and Richard Eyre, Ben Chaplin comes to Hampstead to help tell the story of the first theatre director
Would butter melt in your mouth? could be the first question for Ben Chaplin. With his propah Landan accent and an absence of any past diva behaviour in interview, it would be easy to see him as the handsome happy-go-lucky puppy, who landed roles in Hollywood and theatre and television all with his down-to-earth charm.
Well, it’s true he’s approachable – he greets me with a big smile and asks me where I’m from when I disturb his cigarette break outside Hampstead Theatre to start our interview. It’s also true he’s handsome, even hiding under a baseball hat and layers of shirt, T-shirt, jacket and coat, which would make most people look like a frumpy dad at a children’s football match but somehow transform him into a Hollywood actor on downtime.
But this nice guy personality, I just don’t buy. No one who has starred in so many movies (and worked with big league directors like Francis Ford Coppola) is truly so sickeningly nice and normal as Chaplin is portrayed. Chaplin, 42, has been rehearsing all day for his new role in Hampstead’s next production. It’s about Harley Granville Barker, the godfather of theatre, whose productions went down in theatrical history. A rep of the theatre asks if we want a drink. Chaplin hints at an alcoholic one – he’s been drinking tea all day. Apparently the budget doesn’t stretch to that. So we begin the interview disappointingly drinkless. Predictably he doesn’t make a fuss.
Chaplin began his career on Brit-com BBC series Game On, before appearing in loads of movies – using his Stateside-friendly face to star opposite people like Uma Thurman and in Hollywood hits like The Thin Red Line. He’s no stranger to the theatre, though, having worked with the likes of Richard Eyre on The Reporter at the National and at the Donmar. Perhaps this might be his most pressured role, though – playing the theatre director of legend, in a theatre, to a load of theatre buffs. “I think I’d feel more pressured if he was alive. I did think about directors who I’ve worked with who he’s their idol. I’ll admit that it’s crossed my mind that I wonder if some people who come to see it might think my Harley Granville Barker is not up to scratch, but, if that’s the case, I’ll just blame it on the director,” he laughs.
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He took the script after Roger Michell, the director, called him and asked him if he wanted to do it. It’s another role on a CV that covers everything from an agoraphobic couch surfer to Edgar Allan Poe. It’s the best bit of the job, going for lots of different characters, he says. I wonder what he’s gone for that he’s not got. He evades a direct answer.
“It’s either self-delusion or denial that you didn’t get it, so it wasn’t meant to be. You’d go mad as an actor if you think, ‘If only I’d got that part’, you know. There’s been many instances where it would have been really lovely to get the part and I didn’t. But you get used to it, you know. If you don’t get used to it, you probably won’t last.”
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Today is Valentine’s Day, and I wonder if a man who appears on quite a few “Hollywood’s sexiest actors” lists (and is reportedly single since his split from actress Embeth Davidtz) has got offers streaming in? “I don’t have a date. I’m not going to do anything. I’m going to go home and learn my lines. Nothing exists for me outside this play at the moment,” he insists. “My only time off in a day is eating dinner – it’s the only time I don’t think about the lines. I’ve got a lot of lines in this play and when you are doing that, that’s all there is. Valentine’s Day doesn’t exist for me particularly anyway.”
On his American iPhone are recordings of him rehearsing his lines, something which he has to do to practise because he lives on his own. I show him how to label them and he sounds eternally grateful. He calls the file we label ‘tricky bits’. What are the tricky bits? I wonder. “They’re non- sequiturs and stuff like that,” he says, “bits where you have to give yourself a mental cue to remember what to say, because it doesn’t immediately follow.”
His London iPhone rings. Is it the date he possibly just concealed from me? “It’s my agent, good sign, good sign,” he says, without answering it. Has he got other things coming up? “No, I haven’t. I’m hopefully going on holiday, to the Caribbean, with my mum. Yeah, that’s my date.” He’s been a couple of times before, making the easy trip from New York, where he lived for a couple of years, to watch cricket, something which he seems to like. “I love it there, it’s a proper holiday,” he says with the lovely oration of a London cabbie.
Chaplin actually has a soft spot for cabbies. He even considered being one for a bit. Apparently a lot of cabbies are out-of-work actors because of the flexibility. “I always ask black cab drivers about the Knowledge,” he says “That’s PhD-level memory. It’s so impressive. Cabs here are great, you get in, tell them the address and breathe a sigh of relief, they know where you are. Not like in New York. After a couple of months you know better than them where you are going.”
The talk of New York reminds me he’s only a wannabe cabbie. In real life, he’s a transatlantic actor. It’s uncertainty which is the worst part of the job, he says. “Say I get a call from the Coen brothers and they want to offer me the lead in their film, but I’m taking my mum away on holiday – it’s exactly what I’m talking about. You never know when you are going to be working or free.” What would he do? “I’d like to say I’d take my mum away, but if it was a lead in a Coen brothers film, I probably wouldn’t.” It’s a relief he’s not disappointingly nice. Just impressively normal.
Farewell To The Theatre runs until April 7 at Hampstead Theatre.