BWW Interview: Anthony Head Talks BUFFY and LOVE IN IDLENESS

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Anthony Head in rehearsal
for Love in Idleness

Anthony Head's diverse work ranges from popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Merlin, Little Britain and Doctor Who to theatre work like Ticking, Six Degrees of Separation and The Rocky Horror Show. He's currently starring as Sir John Fletcher in Rattigan's Love in Idleness at Menier Chocolate Factory, directed by Trevor Nunn; the run begins on 10 March.

What was the first play or film that inspired you to perform?

I was actually just talking to Trevor about famous Hamlets, as this play uses a Hamlet analogy, and I suddenly remembered Christopher Plummer doing this BBC presentation from Elsinore Castle - that had a definite impact.

But it was something that was always there. We'd do these little playlets, and I took them very seriously: when we were being soldiers I practised doing this double take in a scene set at a guarded entry, and my poor mate had to put up with me saying "Let's do it again, let's do it again." I'd dress up every day at playschool - the teachers said "It would be lovely to actually meet Anthony", because I was always in character. One favourite was Rusty from Rin Tin Tin.

My friend's mum used to organise these plays, and I wound up playing the emperor in The Emperor's New Clothes (not naked, I hasten to add). I walked down this little aisle and all these people turned to look at me - I thought "This is it."

Was drama school always the plan, with your family in the business?

Well, my father got me to do a varied bunch of O-levels and A-levels, so I had a wide-ranging education - he wanted to make sure I had a second string to my bow. I tried to get into Central and got close but didn't quite make it, so he had the brilliant idea of sending me off to work in the cutting room for his documentary film company, where I learned a great deal. Then he suggested I do Young Stages one summer, and the woman who ran it, Joan McAlpine, found this amazing audition speech and coached me, which made all the difference. So I finally got into LAMDA.

Anthony Head in the iconic
Nescafé Gold Blend advert

Were you pursuing music as well?

The music was because my brother had a band and I thought he was so cool, so I learned to play guitar when I was 13. I then had - well, not quite a band: it was me and another guitar player and a girl singing. Then at LAMDA I found other people like Nigel Planer and Clive Wood - we used to write together. Some people seemed to be favoured by the ones in charge at LAMDA and we wanted an outlet, so I set up this lunchtime club where people got up and sang.

What was your first professional acting job?

Bizarrely, at the time I was coming out of drama school you couldn't get a job unless you had an Equity card, but you couldn't get the card without getting a job! We heard about this national tour of Godspell that Cameron Mackintosh was doing, where they were giving out provisional cards, so we pitched up at the audition. I just happened to have quite a wide range and they'd not been able to find an understudy, so I wound up on tour for a year.

Every Saturday matinee I'd go on for someone different - I had to get to know each of the dances from that point of view. So I was going from Jesus to Judas to playing out-and-out comedy. And we went into the West End with it, so I got a bit of everything in that experience.

How did the famous Nescafé ad come about?

I'd literally just missed the Guinness ad - I came very close, but they cast Rutger Hauer. Then Nescafé happened. The creator came up to me on set and said "Be prepared to be a household name". He always intended it to be a series if the first one worked - he was setting up do a soap opera. It took me to the States and gave me a real profile out there.

That's what this business is - opportunities coming in strange ways. I tell my daughters, who both act, we're on a learning path, and you have to figure out disappointment, becoming resilient, finding the bigger picture. Of course it's easy to take things personally. By and large all actors are insecure, which is why we like dressing up and pretending to be someone else!

You have to realise rejection is universal. Trevor was talking about this film he was asked to do looking at all the great Hamlets, and he interviewed Olivier, Gielgud, Richard Burton who'd done it on Broadway, and then the project ran out of money and had to be shelved. So it happens to us all. But a few years down the line you might think there's a reason something didn't come together, and it was meant to go this way.

Anthony Head and Sarah Michelle
Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

You mentioned Nescafé gave you a profile in the States - is that why you went out there?

Around that time I was finding I had a limited marketability in the UK, partly because of the ads - I was being offered a lot of handsome chap from next door type roles in Agatha Christie touring productions. So my wife said why don't you go to the States and I'll stay here with our kids. I had a few months of twiddling my thumbs, so she encouraged me to find an acting class out there. I took one with this guy called Milton Conzales and it changed everything - my whole understanding of acting, making it immediate and being in the moment. I owe my wife Sarah everything.

What attracted you to Buffy?

It was really that chance to be a character actor - it wasn't the most obvious role. And that was brilliant, because it completely changed people's perceptions of me. We had no idea if it would go, but Joss [Whedon] was confident right from the start that it would be a success, that audiences would get it even if the suits didn't, and he was right - it had this huge online following, one of the earliest shows to get that.

What was it like developing that character over seven series?

Joss's writing is so brilliant, in lots of ways, and one of them is that he knows nothing happens without effect. When my character killed a human, that was a big moment and he was affected by it. Joss really allows characters to change, like after Jenny Calendar died, Giles carried that with him.

There was a point where I was feeling a bit spare once we weren't in the library, so I went to Joss and said "I don't feel relevant, no one's coming to my gaffe, and I'm thousands of miles away from my children and it feels a bit pointless". Joss turned that conversation into Giles having a midlife crisis and feeling irrelevant. That was him - always turning real life into fiction and vice versa. He has such an extraordinary angle on how people behave. And he has a very clear vision, but he's a great collaborator.

Anthony Head in Merlin

Why do you think the show is still so beloved?

I was reading a lot recently, as we're coming to the 20th anniversary, and people were saying it's amazing it never won any major awards. "The Body" is an extraordinary piece of television, up there with any great drama. "Hush", "Once More with Feeling", no one had done anything like it - though there's talk the broadcaster dropped the ball and didn't get the episodes to the nominating committee.

The fact it was a genre show meant it wasn't taken seriously, but it paved the way for all these shows that are huge now. It stands out as this creative beacon - it was ahead of its time in so many ways.

You've done other genre shows like Merlin that have taken some risks

Merlin I said right at the beginning, "This can go one of two ways: it's a kids show, or we can make these things more adult." Luckily the director said "We're going adult" - there's no ducking the darker stuff. Eve Myles played this character who was devastated by the death of her son and she gave this speech in a square begging for his life - I remember the extras giving her an ovation because it was so powerful. At that point I knew yes, it's a genre show, but as with Buffy, we can play things for real.

I had great fun playing a character who on the page is a villain, a pain in the arse, but in his head he thinks he's doing the right thing. He's this old-fashioned, old-school king and father. Then he breaks a few rules and has to pay for it.

You're playing another character in Love in Idleness who might be construed as the villain

What's fascinating about Rattigan is he felt the play's job is to argue one side against the other - that theatre is the natural place of debate. But he's not dictating; you should come away and make up your own mind.

Anthony Head and Eve Best in
rehearsal for Love in Idleness

Tell us about the play's premise

It's set in 1944, when England is coming to the end of a war, and the whole social structure is changing, with Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan, the NHS - people looking at socialism as a realistic way of life. It's a fascinating playing field.

This young man has come back from Canada, where he was sent during the Blitz. His father's died and his mother's shacked up with my character, this Government minister who just happens to be an industrialist - he's been brought into the cabinet to sort out tank production. That's no accident on Rattigan's part: throughout the war the British tank was seen as singularly failing compared with the German tank, and then right at the end of the war the British had success with the Cromwell and Centaur. So Sir John is desperately trying to fix that important problem.

But the young man's come home with all these socialist ideals, which means the industrialist, in his mind, is a reactionary and a fascist. Where I'm coming from he's not! So it's got human emotion, political conscience - and shades of Hamlet. It's a really meaty piece.

And it's two versions of the play combined?

Trevor was looking for a play to do and he came across this volume that puts Less Than Kind, the original version, with Love in Idleness. The Lunts, this great acting couple of the time, told Rattigan they'd do the play if they could work on it - it became lighter, moved slightly to the right politically, more commercial, but became tighter too. Rattigan was happy at the time, but later he said he deeply regretted those changes.

So you've got these two plays, neither of which is quite the culmination of what Rattigan wanted. [Dan Rebellato's] intro to this volume said perhaps some day some enterprising director will come along and synthesise the two, and that's what Trevor's done. I'm cross-referencing to see what the original emotion was in some scenes, and it's such a joy to explore this amalgam. You get these moments of light comedy, almost farce, and then moments of real passion and sadness, where it feels Chekhovian. This version has never been seen, so it's a world premiere.

Anthony Head and Eve Best in
rehearsal for Love in Idleness

What sort of research did you do to find your character?

There are lots of possibilities for who he's based on - people like Lord Beaverbrook, who also came from Canada. Sir John has a hybrid Canadian/English accent, which I'm trying to get to grips with. There are times I can hear it sliding into Irish and I think, "Oh, fuck."

The thing is he's actually quite open-minded, but the youngster boxes him into a corner. As far as he's concerned the open face of private enterprise is more honest than the tyrannical control of soulless oligarchy. He's open to change, but he thinks it's crazy to believe you can establish some peacetime utopia. For me personally the problem with that is someone like Thatcher taking private enterprise to its logical conclusion - if something doesn't succeed in the open marketplace, that's it.

The personal situation must also colour the argument

Our antipathy is certainly affected by the fact this young man has basically come in to break up a relationship that's been working well. That makes it hard for my character to really listen to him.

Do you think the piece has particular resonance now?

This kind of discussion is always timely. I hope that plays will always be there to make us think about these arguments and be fully aware of the choices we're making.

What's it like working with Trevor Nunn?

It's actually been 30 years since we first talked about working together! I took over a part in a production he'd directed, and kept being told "You can't do that until Trevor sees it", and finally he was there my last night. Then we did a piece at Buckingham Palace for The Queen's 80th birthday, playing baddies from British literature - we only had a day and half to rehearse, so it was more running on, finding your mark, shouting a bit and running off, but Trevor did a great job with that.

Trevor Nunn in rehearsal
for Love in Idleness

Since then there's been a few possibilities, but I've been involved in American TV shows, so when he called me about this I thought "I really can't turn this down". He's a very thoughtful director, which sets the tone for us all, and he's done some really interesting casting. I was a bit concerned at first about the age gap with Helen George playing my wife, but it means Sir John initially went for a young thing - as a lot of men with money do - and then she went off with someone else. But he's deeply in love with Eve Best's character, and she's a real match for him, which is why it's so gut-wrenching when the son tries to get between them.

What else have you got coming up?

I'm waiting to hear on this Shonda Rhimes show I've done for ABC, Still Star-Crossed - it's about the Capulets and Montagues after Romeo and Juliet's deaths, and we shot it in Spain last year. That's hopefully appearing soon.

What's really wonderful about this job is it offers so many different ways of expressing your art - I just have a whale of a time. I love theatre: you can't manage it year-round financially, but it brings you back to why you're doing this. And then it's fantastic doing screen work as well.

And radio, with the wonderful Cabin Pressure

That's another one I adored doing. It was a real family - we had such a laugh with it, and it had this warmth that people really responded to.

Do you work hard to not get pigeon-holed?

I've always tried to keep everyone on their toes. Doing Rattigan, Shonda Rhimes, Buffy, Rocky Horror - people go "What next?" They don't quite know who the hell I am and what exactly it is that I do. It's such fun.

Love in Idleness at Menier Chocolate Factory 10 March-29 April

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

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From This Author Marianka Swain