I grew up in big house in Honor Oak Park in south-east London that was often full of actors. Every Sunday, my parents would invite the likes of John Sessions and Frances Barber around for lunch, followed by a big dance-up. My two sisters and I loved it, though most of the time we just watched everyone get tipsy and have fun. I wasn’t a gregarious kid, but I had a golden childhood. My parents always encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be.
For an actor, timing and rhythm are all about the writing. With Shakespeare it’s about iambic pentameter; we worked on the very specific kind of timing and rhythm found in classical drama when I was at RADA and, later, at the RSC. For me, the notion of timing is really all about rhythm. Even in modern drama. Every actor will talk about the specific rhythms of a speech. It has its own musicality. As you gather experience, you realise that, only once you’re really familiar with the rhythm of a piece can you start moving around the emphasis – breaking the rhythm, if you like. It can be hugely liberating.
Sitting with Bill Nighy for a few hours on the pavement outside an Italian deli in Notting Hill is an extraordinary experience. First, there are his carefully chosen drinks crowded onto the tiny table: a double espresso with hot water on the side, a bottle of fizzy water, a cold can of San Pellegrino Aranciata Amara, two tall glasses with ice and a slice of lime. When, later, some of the drinks are finished, he is suddenly irritated by the chaos and politely announces he can’t settle until he has moved the debris onto another table.
Sometimes Ralph Fiennes finds it hard to let go. He loved playing Charles Dickens so much in The Invisible Woman that he was reluctant to shave his beard off at the end. ‘I kept telling myself we might have to reshoot some scenes.
When Martin Freeman was shooting The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in New Zealand, his assistant Seamus decorated his Winnebago with record sleeves from the Sixties and Seventies. And when he wasn’t being Bilbo Baggins, Freeman would pop along to Slow Boat Records in Wellington, happy in the knowledge that he’d hired a good sound system to keep him company in his rented house. ‘When I made Breaking and Entering in 2006 with Anthony Minghella, I took a portable plastic record player and a box of records on set with me,’ he says. ‘It made me feel at home, but the quality was pretty awful. If you’re going to win the argument about vinyl, you’ve got to have good sound.’
Often when a director asks an actor if he or she can ride bareback, ski down black runs or jump out of planes without a parachute, they nod enthusiastically and panic later. When Lara Pulver was asked if she’d be happy to scuba-dive in a bikini alongside Dominic Cooper for the opening scenes of TV series Fleming, she opted for honesty as the best policy. ‘I told director Mat Whitecross that I wasn’t a confident swimmer,’ she says. ‘I don’t even like putting my head under the shower.’
The day I’m to meet René Redzepi, he cooks a disastrous omelette live on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen. With remarkable good humour he blames the frying pan for its lack of non-stickiness. No matter. Redzepi can afford to make the odd mistake. For a start, it humanises the Danish superstar chef whose Copenhagen restaurant, Noma (a conflation of “Nordic” and “mad”), was voted Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine for an astonishing three years from 2010 to 2012.
It’s been some year for David Morrissey, who despite being as affable as they come off screen, excels on screen as brutal characters with a glimmer of vulnerability. This might explain his phenomenal success as the inscrutable Governor in the zombie apocalypse hit The Walking Dead. Afraid of nothing and no one, The Governor — who may or may not have been killed just before season four took its mid-season hiatus — slays humans as readily as zombies.
It’s nearly 2am on 24 July 1993 and Kurt Cobain is lying on my king-size bed in a tacky Manhattan hotel. His tiny frame takes up virtually no space. He has discarded the disintegrating black and red jumper he wore on stage earlier at a “secret” gig at Roseland and now, freshly showered, is wearing a white T-shirt, ripped jeans and Converse decorated in graffiti. His red nail varnish is badly chipped. His dirty blonde hair is damp and frames his unexpectedly beautiful face. He is half watching the muted TV which is showing back-to-back episodes of Beavis & Butt-head; their meat-head stoner behaviour reminds him of the people he grew up with in Aberdeen, Washington State.
George Pelecanos novels come with the same Stephen King quote emblazoned on their covers year after year: “Perhaps the greatest living crime writer”. Tease Pelecanos about this and he will assert, in his unhurried Southern-tinged growl, “He said, ‘perhaps’.” There is no doubt, however, that the Washington DC-born author is one of the most able chroniclers of urban America. This we know not only from his 19 novels, but also from his work as a writer, producer and story editor on The Wire.