Greg Wise is ’asking for a kicking’ with new his play, Kill Me Now
- Credit: Archant
The West Hampstead actor talks to Bridget Glaton about his return to the theatre and how a ‘witchy friend’ predicted his marriage to wife Emma Thompson.
Greg Wise seems oddly cheerful when he declares he’s “asking for a kicking” returning to the stage after 17 years in a play called Kill Me Now.
The 48-year-old gleefully imagines the Ham&High’s review: “Five minutes into this turgid play that’s exactly how I felt!”
In fact the 48-year-old turns out to be an inveterate joker, firing back to the query of what’s kept him from the stage: “the money!”
Once he settles down to chat, it becomes clear that filthy lucre is the last motivation for a man committed to his West Hampstead vegetable patch, who periodically announces his retirement from acting to climb a mountain or become a carpenter.
“My last proper play was at the old Hampstead theatre and was called Nabokov’s Gloves. The C-word was mentioned 200 times. In those days, we would get the good burghers of St John’s Wood coming to see everything, but they objected to the C-word and throughout the entire performance they kept tutting. It was glorious in a strange way. We took it as a badge of honour.”
Although Kill Me Now tackles some weighty topics: sexuality and disability, euthanasia and terminal illness, Wise promises no walkouts. Chiefly because there’s no interval and - another gag -“we are locking the doors!”
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“This kind of writing you have to go at full tilt. It’s fast and furious, hopefully it will pull audiences along with that momentum and we will all be in the bar by ten past nine.”
Returning to the question of why, after more than a dozen movies and countless TV series, he’s back on stage, he replies: “Because it’s terrifying. I decided a few years ago it would be a better use of my time being a carpenter. But then I decided: ‘I will just do jobs that scare me or things I haven’t done before and don’t think I can do.’
“I did a big daft musical last year (Walking On Sunshine) and I can’t dance. But I thought ‘why not?’ and I trained for two weeks before filming. Next (on TV) I am in Sadie Jones’ The Outcast playing someone as far away from me as you can probably get. A man with almost no ability to connect with any emotion.”
Besides Wise isn’t entirely convinced there’s much difference between stage and screen acting.
“When people ask what kind of actor I am, I reply: ‘a bloody good actor’. Acting is acting, apart from the fact that unlike filming if you stuff it up, you can’t do it again. One of the things about this play being in the round is there’s less ‘theatre acting’ involved. Everyone is so close you can make it more ‘natural’”
He’s full of praise for the “blissful, joyful” experience of working on Brad Fraser’s in your face black comedy with its whip-crack dialogue and “extraordinarily well drawn” characters.
It opens with Wise’s widower Jake tenderly bathing his disabled teenage son Joey and dealing with the difficult topic of the boy’s sexual urges that he’s unable to physically satisfy. Jake it turns out, has relinquished a promising writing career to care for Joey while quietly having an affair with a married neighbour and leaning on his acerbic sister.
“We all understand family, love and responsibility and sometimes as all parents are, being over protective and unable to let go. This choice he has made, because he feels responsible, is a perfect excuse not to live properly. We can all find excuses for not doing things because we are scared.
“Once you take scared out of the equation, you go and do stuff.”
Kill Me Now “sustains unblieveably detailed forensic examination” says Wise.
“It tackles living, the most important part of living, realising you are going to die. Until you realise that, you are not going to live properly.”
Wise famously lives with his wife Emma Thompson, their daughter Gaia on the same street as his mother-in-law Phyllida Law and sister the film executive Clare Wise. Most evenings Phyllida gets a call to say ‘the bar’s open’ and they all sit down to dinner.
“The fact that we are lucky enough to all sit down and have dinner every night - with my mother in law over the road we have three generations all sitting down eating, hanging and talking about the day - that’s really essential to me. You have to remember my missus has moved 50 yards in 50 years. She was brought up at the end of the road and now lives in the middle of it.”
It’s been 20 years since Wise met Thompson on the set of Sense and Sensibility:
“I had more hair then, and very pointy sideburns.
“It was an extraordinary job. I met Em at one of my auditions. She was pretending to be Kate Winslet. A witchy friend of mine had said I would meet my wife on this film. I got the job and thought. Hmmm.”
When Gaia was small he wouldn’t go away and leave her, though he’s betternow she’s 15.
“I have given up acting countless times, for example when our daughter was born. I think to loosen one’s grip on something is really healthy. Even before I could afford not to work I would borrow money from mates and go travelling. It’s partly because I am too interested in too many things to do one thing properly. I love carpentry, climbing, sculpture, travelling, making a documentary, being a dad, cooking, I’ve started welding. I love that!”
What’s useful is that whatever he does informs his acting when he returns, he says.
“Because acting is about living, exploring what it is to be alive.
“It’s glorious to do a job at my ripe old age, draw on experience and hopefully be as emotionally honest as I can be.
“I have played paedophiles, vampires and baddies at the darker end of the spectrum but I am reasonably light in the rest of my life. The most important thing is not to bring your own morality into play. Don’t judge who you are playing. Understanding of the human condition is what we do. We explore things so the audience can feel it touches their life.”
Kill Me Now is at The Park Theatre until March 29.