He’s no tortured soul, in fact Stephen Campbell Moore is doing just fine
- Credit: Archant
He’s appeared alongside Scarlett Johansson and often on TV but had no great passion for acting to begin with, he tells Bridget Galton
Happily, Stephen Campbell Moore’s early foray into acting – featuring two runaway horses – didn’t put him off.
The 35-year-old didn’t take treading the boards too seriously when appearing with Hertfordshire’s Pendley Open Air Shakespeare.
And he was dead set on studying history at university when, “for something different” he applied to drama school as well.
He ended up training at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and has gone on to appear in a string of stage and screen roles, from A Good Woman opposite Scarlett Johansson to the original cast of The History Boys alongside James Corden and Dominic Cooper.
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“I did a lot of acting at [Berkhamsted] School and outdoor Shakespeare,” says Campbell Moore.
“I remember one production of Two Gentlemen of Verona used real horses. They got animals who were ridden by the blind, hoping they’d be quiet, but on the first night when the lights went down they bolted and galloped off into the distance, leaving two kids on the floor.”
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During his first year at drama school, Campbell Moore felt he was faking enthusiasm.
“I never really planned on acting. I loved it but didn’t take it too seriously and had a low opinion of performers – often the ones who felt it was a great vocation – but sometimes choices make themselves for you.
“When training, you are always being told, ‘It’s a life of pain and misery, you should only do this if you couldn’t possibly do anything else’, but there is a place in the arts for everyone – you don’t have to be tortured or have always wanted to act to be an actor. You can come to it later on or have a wider life.”
By the second year, he was swept up in the training, won a medal and has rarely experienced misery during regular stints on British TV from the Titanic mini-series to Ashes to Ashes and joining Joely Richardson as Edward VIII in Wallis and Edward.
Campbell Moore also relishes complex and challenging stage work – past runs have included All My Sons and Clybourne Park – and his latest is not an easy ask.
In Chimerica, he plays Joe, a fictional photojournalist who, in 1989, captured the iconic image of a protester and a tank in Tiananmen Square.
He had always assumed the hero in his picture was executed but, following a clue in a Beijing newspaper, Joe discovers him living in New York’s Chinatown.
On the eve of the 2012 presidential election, the pair meet to discuss the changing fortunes of their two countries and the power of one image to change their lives.
“It’s interesting, very complex. I am still getting to grips with what the play’s about,” says Campbell Moore when we speak during rehearsals.
“On a wider level, it’s about globalisation, interdependence between China and America, credit, debt, the industrialisation of China, the environment, and a migratory labour force.
“On a basic level, it’s a human story about a man searching for someone – of a photojournalist whose life changes when he takes that picture.
“He returns to the USA but never recaptures that moment and it’s almost as if he spends the next 20 years searching for something. He’s not aware of how important it is for him to find this man. It becomes a fascination and the play has elements of a mystery thriller as he tracks him down.”
Chimerica’s opening was delayed by a week to allow co-star Benedict Wong to finish his stint as Ai Weiwei at Hampstead Theatre.
The fact that Wong had to pile on two stone to play the Chinese dissident artist has been worked into Chimerica’s script by playwright Lucy Kirkwood.
“There were four or five photographers who captured the same iconic image from different angles. Most took it from the same hotel room, but [Kirkwood] has taken a certain licence with my character.”
The play asks questions about the environmental cost of China’s economic boom and increased living standards, and points the finger at the West for viewing its huge market as a cash cow.
One character is marketing credit cards to a people who have culturally never entertained the idea of debt, allowing the impact of such a change in China to be examined.
“I like plays that don’t try to simplify the complex or allow audiences to make easy judgments,” says Campbell Moore, who praises theatre’s role in addressing issues we are inclined to ignore.
“That’s the great thing about this play, tackling something confusing, trying to understand what it’s about, especially something that happens thousands of miles away and goes beyond our provincial way of looking at things. People don’t want to relate to such huge issues like thinking about the environment or taking responsibility on a wider scale.”
He confesses to a certain pickiness with his roles – there are TV scripts that read well but, by the time they are in production, have been “reduced and filleted”, adding: “Sometimes you wonder, ‘Is this good for my soul, speaking these words?’”
But the joint enterprise of theatre is good for making him think outside himself – “your character is just another part of something bigger”.
“So when things like [Chimerica] come along there is no choice.”
One show that made a lasting impression was The History Boys with its famously close cast who roved from the National Theatre to Broadway and on to celluloid.
Campbell Moore recently attended its star Richard Griffiths’ funeral.
“Everyone had these very specific, beautiful memories of Richard. What I loved was that everyone loved him but were able to take the good with the bad, they were honest expressions of a man’s life. It was one of those funerals where you learn to live a little bit.”
Griffiths would urge younger actors to “put things away when you move on, don’t live in the past” and Campbell Moore has taken him at his word.
“In theatre work, you can get so used to repeatedly expressing yourself emotionally through a character that when it ends, you’re left with the feeling, ‘Where am I going to put that?’”
But he and his partner, fellow thesp Claire Foy, are good at setting parts aside – which is probably lucky since she’s just finished playing Lady Macbeth opposite James McAvoy.
“We are both really good at just leaving it. My worst nightmare would be doing a 24-hour cycle of being self-absorbed about the thing that I do.
“The world’s a bit bigger than that.”
Chimerica runs at The Almeida from May 20 until July 6.