One of Britain’s most sought after actors, Christopher Eccleston talks to Phil Penfold about returning to Leeds, unemployment worries and why a long run sorts out most anxieties.
A pared back production it received universally rave reviews and Eccleston, all shaven- headed and brooding was pretty mesmerising in the title role. There’s a large photograph of him still up in the theatre foyer and ever since there have been mumblings about when he might be persuaded to return.
Sitting back in his chair, in a rather up-market London hotel, Eccleston does a quick calculation. “Let’s see, it would be 2002 when I was last in Leeds, for that Hamlet. Blimey, 13 years ago... I was just a kid. I loved the experience, I just remember it as terrific fun.” And then he grins and adds: “OK, let me tell you the truth. I am in talks with James Brining, (the Playhouse’s artistic director) and we’re trying to get something together for later in the year. I can’t tell you what, it’s all very much under discussion. But watch this space, eh?”
If there is a hint as to what he might be appearing in, then he has a ‘bucket list’ of Shakespearean heroes and anti-heroes that he’d like to have a crack at, Richard III...Macbeth... Shylock... King John….Titus Andronicus….”
Now 51, Eccleston’s career has been anything but predictable. Almost immediately after training at Central School of Speech and Drama in London, he was given a lead in Let Him Have It, based on the story Derek Bentley, hanged for his role in the murder of a police officer. Then came the cult film Shallow Grave, in which he starred with Ewan McGregor, and after that was the huge success that was Our Friends in the North. He played Nicky Hutchinson, in a cast which also boasted Daniel Craig and Mark Strong.
Topping that could have been difficult. However, Eccleston has always had an eye for parts with emotional depth, memorably playing Trevor Hicks, who lost two daughters in the Hillsborough disaster. Jimmy McGovern’s screenplay avoided histrionics, but squarely laid the blame at the door of South Yorkshire Police.
Eccleston, who later served as Hick’s best man at his wedding in 2009, understandably won’t comment on the current inquests, except to say he is following proceedings “with very keen interest. There are a lot of very nasty things lurking under a lot of very large stones”.
Since Hamlet, there’s been little theatre, but there’s been plenty of films and TV, including a stint as Dr. Who. It’s one of the small screen’s most sought after roles, but Eccleston stayed for just one series.
“I’d had enough”, he says. “I wanted to do it my way, they wanted something else. We were never going to compromise, so it was best to be straight about it and just go. It’s very easy to stay in one job, and make that your comfort zone, and I want to resist that temptation.”
Eccleston is well-known for wanting to keep his private life private and while he seems to have mellowed a little over the years, he’s still not one to suffer fools gladly. Next for the actor will be Safe House, playing a former police detective who has given up the force after being shot while protecting a vulnerable witness, due to testify against her gangland husband.
“He’s severely traumatised,” explains Eccleston, “and his road to recovery is going to be a long one. I had a real connection with him, though, because he’s a great runner and swimmer, and physical exercise is what I do when I feel the need to get my head straight.
“Listen, I’ve had terms of unemployment, wondering where the next job was coming from, and there’s absolutely nothing like a long run, or a cold swim to start to put things in perspective. It’s all probably part of me tackling my own ‘mid-life crisis’.”
Eccleston’s character is drawn back into his old life when a colleague turns up at his new home in the Lake District and asks if he and his wife would consider putting themselves forward as a safe house, place where people can be taken for refuge when they are being threatened and they need round the clock protection.
“For Robert, it’s a little step back to being a copper again, to be back in touch, however vaguely, with his old career. After only the slightest thought, Robert leaps at the idea, and it’s an ill-advised move in a lot of ways. But I think that we all do that, sometimes, don’t we? It nearly always takes us to what we need, even if we were unaware of it at the time. Then, through a lot of pain and struggle, he discovers some pretty uncomfortable truths.”
The series was filmed on location in Cumbria, which also brought back some memories for Eccleston.
“Our locations were absolutely stunning, and we filmed for most of the late autumn, just as the leaves were turning,” he says. “It’s so beautiful over there. I’m a Salford lad, and we were always being taken on holidays to the lakes and to Yorkshire, and I always looked forward to those weeks away. I could get out, get off, and explore. I was a lucky kid in that respect, and I was also pretty inquisitive.
“That’s all a long time ago now, but I tell you one thing that hasn’t changed, and that’s the unpredictability of the weather. I remember those holidays when we’d have bright, warm weather in the morning, and then a few clouds would appear and, within a matter of minutes, it’d be sheeting down with rain, the moist would come in, and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. And then, almost miraculously, everything would lift again, and the sun would once again break through.
“My mantra to just about everyone I know, since I made Safe House has been to tell them to grab the kids and take a long break in your glorious countryside. Children will love it, and if you don’t have kids, just come up anyway. I’m always singing the praises of the North. Never stop. Great food, wonderful people. And, where we stayed, there was a terrific pub, which was next door to its own mini-brewery.
“The North is full of great beers – what’s not to like? The crew did a lot of socialising and trying out the brews, and it would have been churlish not to have joined them. I want to tell everyone that the North is what the REAL England is all about….we used very rugged, very varied locations, and they weren’t ‘chocolate box’ at all. But that’s what makes it all look so great. That toughness.”
But, he admits, in such a remote part of the world, there was a drawback.
“People were going bonkers trying to get a signal for their mobile phones. They’d go to any lengths to keep in touch – shinning up trees, climbing on roofs, driving half-way up a mountain. For me it was absolute bliss. Not being in contact with the rest of the world for a few weeks was a complete bonus. Mind you, if you are running a business in North Yorkshire or the Lakes, and you can’t get a signal, or an internet connection, I can see that things would be very difficult, and I have every sympathy for anyone in that situation – it’s a serious problem for them, and it does deserve attention.”
Safe House begins on ITV on April 20.