Change of role as Richard stops playing the fool

Sheffield actor Richard Coyle is best known for playing a bumbling Welsh fool in the BBC comedy Coupling. Now he's back home in a serious role. Nick Ahad reports.

If you are a fan of BBC2's comedy Coupling, it is difficult when the actor Richard Coyle sits opposite you to see anything other than Jeff, the character he made his own.

When he sits down in a chair, plate stuffed to the brim with sandwiches in a break from rehearsals of Don Carlos in Sheffield, there is no denying that there is something Jeff-esque about this man.

The huge, untamed thatch of hair that seems to be reaching out in all directions, the quiet, bumbling delivery of his words and the self-effacing manner are all traits that Coyle shares with his most famous character. One thing he does not share is the innocent, almost haunted by modern technicalities look that Jeff has.

Instead, his eyes burn with an intensity and focused determination that should not really be a

surprise, considering that here

is a man who wrote "literally

hundreds of letters" to actors,

companies, local newspapers,

asking for the financial help he needed to go off to drama school after graduating from York University.

"My parents (Irish immigrants, father a builder) never had any money and I had got into the Bristol Old Vic and had this 14,000 fee bill," says Coyle.

"So I made a bit of a nuisance of myself, I couldn't get a loan, so – I suppose out of sheer stupidity – I just wrote all these letters off and asked for people to help me to pay for it. It was amazing how generous people were – I managed to get most of it."

After graduating from the Old Vic, he began his trade and has had a remarkable career working almost non-stop ever since.

His biggest role, which brought him popular and critical acclaim, however, was Jeff in Coupling.

"I remember having the script sent to me and thinking, 'This is just brilliant'," says Coyle.

"I love clowning about and playing the fool – although I have a very serious approach to comedy. The role was just an absolute gift."

Coyle chose to play Jeff as a Welshman, something which this proud Sheffield lad does not regret, even though it means that people believe he is from Wales.

"I don't know why, but when I read the part I just heard him with a Welsh accent, I even took that into the audition."

He puts the enormous success of his role down to the fact that most men have a bit of Jeff's character in them and women just want to love him. Coyle left the programme, because, as much as he loved the part, he felt that he did not want to become pigeon-holed. He sees celebrity and fame as a

by-product of his chosen career, as opposed to an ultimate end.

"I am very passionate about acting, this is my life and I want to be doing it when I am 60, 70-years-old, I don't want to be just a flash-in-the-pan. I felt I had to move on," says Coyle. There is little chance of typecasting – he is receiving much acclaim for his portrayal of Don Carlos at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre and has been marked as an actor to watch for the future for sometime, something which he coyly dismisses as "very flattering".

This praise is rightly heaped upon the actor. His portrayal of a troubled prince, cast much from the same mould as Hamlet, is searing and he is clearly delighted to be working in the theatre which gave him his first experience of seeing performance on the stage.

"It's always been a dream of mine to perform here," says Coyle, "Ever since I came to see plays as a youngster."

He is also relishing the chance to work with two theatre greats, Sir Derek Jacobi and Michael Grandage.

"I quite often find myself standing on stage thinking, 'Wow, I'm working with Derek Jacobi'. It is incredible to watch his focus and he has the most amazing technique.

"Michael is also wonderful to work with. He is just so perceptive and insightful, he can make you feel like you are the best actor, he really cuts to the chase and brings out the best in you."

He might be most famous for a character who displays complete ineptitude, but Coyle is anything but – focused, determined and vastly talented. He might look like his character, but Jeff, he ain't.

Don Carlos is at Sheffield Crucible until November 6. For tickets, ring 0114 2496000.