Interview: Classic Interview – Rory Kinnear

rory kinnear

Rory Kinnear must be one of the UK's most versatile actors, equally at home onstage in classical dramas and on TV in comedies. His latest role on the box is in the new BBC2 series, Count Arthur Strong, where he demonstrates some mighty meaty comedy chops. It may well raise his profile further, so for those who are new to the Kinnear charisma I thought it might be worth revisiting this early interview he did with me for The Times in 2007. Kinnear was about to appear in the rather serious Philistines by Gorky at the National Theatre, but already had a pretty impressive comedy pedigree, cropping up all over the place, most famously as the PM blackmailed into doing an unspeakable act involving a pig in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. He also, of course, played Bill Tanner in a couple of James Bond movies, including Skyfall. And his dad was the great comedian Roy Kinnear. It has also been suggested that he might be the next Dr Who, but it has also been denied. But, no pun intended, who knows?

Location, Location, Location. Rory Kinnear has three good reasons for choosing to appear in a revival of Maxim Gorky’s Philistines at the National. It is a theatre that he always admired. “I remember seeing Anthony Hopkins in Pravda and Ian Charleson in Hamlet here as a kid.” It is also where he has just received rave reviews for his bravura comic performance as Sir Fopling Flutter in The Man of Mode. And, finally, it is a 15-minute meander from his home in Borough.

After the slapstick frolics of Sir Fopling there is less knockabout humour in Philistines,which is actually another attraction. “There is comedy in it,” the 29-year-old actor is quick to point out during rehearsals at the South Bank, “but it is much darker. Within the words.”

Like most actors, Kinnear is keen to avoid being pigeonholed, but he has more justification for wanting to be judged on his own merits than most. His father, Roy Kinnear, was a famous comic actor, best known for his appearances in the satirical sketch show That Was The Week That Was and as Veruca Salt’s indulgent dad in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Kinnear Junior is understandably keen to make his own name (2013 update from BD – maybe this was why he waited until he had made his name as a straight actor before he plunged more fully into the same genre as his father? And interestingly in Count Arthur he plays the son of a comedian).

Gorky certainly seems to be back in vogue at the moment. David Hare’s adaptation of his later and lesser known Enemies was well received at the Almeida last year. It, too, was initially banned in Russia, and places a family – and its inevitable samovar – at the centre of the action, using the characters to make pointed comments about a nation on the cusp of change.

In a starry cast directed by Howard Davies that includes Ruth Wilson ( Jane Eyre), Kinnear plays Pyotr, the wayward law student son who has been suspended from Moscow University for being disruptive. Back home he comes into conflict with his upwardly mobile decorator father (Phil Davis). It is a classic clash of generations complete with the usual tantrums and turmoil, but it eventually turns out that father and son are not as different as initially painted.

You could say the same about Rory Kinnear and his father. Although Rory is taller and more classically handsome than his chubby, asthmatic parent, he has inherited both the thinning hair and the funny bones. Father and son, it transpires, were very close until Roy’s death aged 54, when he fell from a horse during the filming of The Return of the Musketeersin Spain. Rory, the youngest of three, was 10 at the time. “I used to travel to the theatre with my father and worked as his dresser in the summer holidays. It might have been different a few years later, but I was at that sort of age when you hero-worship your parents.”

There is an understandable continuing obsession with his father. Working so close to the British Film Institute, Rory has been to the new Mediatheque to watch some of his father’s old films, such asSparrows Can’t Sing with Barbara Windsor. He also went through a period of buying up his father’s work on eBay. “I saw one of his earliest films, Heavens Above, with Peter Sellers. I wanted to see how he worked, although it was not as cold and analytical as that. But it was brilliant that someone can make you laugh long after they are gone. It was a way of building a relationship, watching him when he was about my age, playing men of about 40, which was his lot in life. One lovely thing about becoming an actor is pretty much every job I do somebody has got a good story about him. I’m lucky he wasn’t an a***hole.”

The impact of losing his father has been a lasting one, though Kinnear is cheerful in conversation. “He has probably informed all sorts of decisions. I guess in work I tend towards the more heartbreaking. Melancholy? You could say I got that aspect quite early.”

However, he was determined to cope with the death. “Six months afterwards – I must have been a horrible, precocious kid – I can remember saying to myself, ‘You can let it cast a dark shadow over your whole life or you can use it as a springboard to the future.’ ” His family has certainly had more than its fair share of bad luck. His oldest sister Karina (his other sister, Kirsty, is a casting director) was deprived of oxygen at birth and is brain-damaged and paralysed from the waist down. His mother, the actress Carmel Cryan, runs a charity for disabled children.

For a long time, however, Kinnear shied away from an acting career. For a while he had even considered becoming a butcher. “Dad used to always take me to the butchers with him.” After St Paul’s School in West London he read English at Balliol, where he was a contemporary of Rosamund Pike, and then went to LAMDA to study drama. Even then he was not sure if he wanted to make a career out of it. “I wanted to make the decision to act on experience and knowledge rather than aspiration and hope. Otherwise I might have become a very well-read butcher.”

After a year, though, he began to consider acting as a serious career prospect and on leaving he was proved correct, working consistently on stage and picking up great reviews even in lukewarm productions. He was regarded as the best thing in Southwark Fair at the National last year and also notched up favourable notices for his Laertes at the Old Vic and in Festen at the Almeida. On television he caused a stir as a suspected paedophile in the BBC thriller Five Days.

Until The Man of Mode and to a lesser extent Southwark Fair, though, Kinnear seems to have avoided full-on comedy. He has no great aversion to humorous pieces, but I get the impression that he wants to steer clear in the long run and play Hamlet rather than the fool. I think he could be magnificent in the right sitcom or a broad modern farce, but I suspect his mind is set on what he considers to be a higher intellectual plane.

“One of the reasons that I wanted to work with Howard Davies at the National was because he directed All My Sons here, which was marvellous. And who was the star? Julie Walters, a great comedy performer playing a straight role.” It can only be a matter of time before Kinnear gets his teeth into a similarly defining stage role. Comedy’s loss may well be drama’s gain.

 

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