If acting ever gives him up, the multi-talented Greg Wise tells Phil Penfold why he’d just go build himself another career.
It was probably assumed, given that both his parents were gifted architects, that Greg Wise would follow them into the profession. And, indeed, after an education at the prestigious St Peter’s School in York, young Matthew Gregory Wise enrolled at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh to study architecture.
He was, however, slightly more taken with the university’s theatre company and moved to Glasgow and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
“So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I was handed my first job,” says Wise settling back into his chair, and breaking into a huge grin. “At college you’re doing things like Shakespeare and Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw. What was my professional break? Playing the lead in a musical called Good Rocking Tonite, which was the story of a really rather flamboyant TV producer and record impresario called Jack Good. He’s still with us, I believe, in his eighties. A real character, and a lot of fun. But a long, long way from the classics.”
Mr Wise has been a busy man of late. He’s got three films coming out in quick succession. There’s the lively musical romp that is Walking on Sunshine, next is Blackwood, a film he describes as “a complete contrast, a rather spooky ghost story” and in which he co-stars with Russell Tovey and Ed Stoppard, and then comes the long-awaited Effie, written by his wife, Emma Thompson, which tells the true story of Victorian art critic and philanthropist John Ruskin and his rather bumpy relationship with Effie Gray (played on screen by Dakota Fanning), the daughter of family friends.
“He married her, but the relationship was never consummated and it all ended unhappily. And that’s an understatement!” Had it occurred to him that Walking on Sunshine and Effie share a link in that both films are about an older, middle-aged man, having a troubled time with a much younger woman?
“No, and thanks very much indeed,” he laughs, “for pointing out that I am somewhat senior in years to most of the Walking cast – very kind of you.” Greg Wise, is, in fact, all of 48-years-old, and looks about 10 years younger, albeit with distinguished greying temples.
In Walking on Sunshine, he is Doug, who has just dumped Maddie (Yorkshire’s Annabel Scholey) after a five-year relationship. She decides to take flight to Italy, gets involved in a whirlwind romance and plans a wedding. Enter Doug, in hot pursuit, and driving a Maserati.
“I did it because they sent me the script and I thought to myself, ‘You know, I’ve never done anything like this before. Ever. You do get to a point in your career when just about everything that comes along is a repeat of what has gone before. Wearing gorgeous costumes, chatting to make-believe Duchesses and society ladies in wonderful locations and on sumptuous sets. I seem to have done quite a lot of ‘breeches’ parts along the way... Cranford, Madame Bovary, Sense and Sensibility, Hornblower, but you do tend to get both slightly stale and also slightly bored.”
Walking is crammed full of pop songs from the Eighties and Wise, who gets to sing a duet with Scholey admits music has always been a passion. He first realised that I was “more than a little in love” with the guitar when I was at school in York.
“St Peter’s was a superb place to get an education. All they wanted was to encourage your abilities. If you showed an inclination toward drama, that was fine. Music? Also great. I’ve got lots of really good memories – one is of my best friend Nick and I being allowed to perform in front of a full assembly one morning. He was on the recorder, I was on my guitar. Something classical? No way – we gave them a version of Stairway to Heaven, which, if I say so myself, was a pretty unconventional choice.
“Oh, and when I was there the school was pretty big on doing all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. These were the days before it was co-educational, so I was picked to be the female lead a couple of times. One of my most embarrassing moments ever was playing Elsie Maynard, which is normally a soprano role. Rehearsals went OK, but on the opening night, my voice started to break right in the middle of the first number. My leading man, who I seem to recall was one of masters on the staff, was almost hysterical.”
It was on the set of Sense and Sensibility that he first met Thompson, almost 20 years ago. They married in 2003, and now have a daughter Gaia, 14, and an adopted son,Tindy. The couple are “totally delighted” that Gaia has picked up some musical talent.
“We do play together whenever she allows me to jam with her. She’s already a lot better than I am, but we do listen to music an awful lot when we are in the car, on trips or on the way to school – and, oddly enough, it’s all that 80s stuff again, she loves it.”
If he’s a proud dad, he’s also an equally proud son and recalls a celebrity cricket match he was involved in at Headingley a few years back.
“I managed to acquit myself quite well in front of a crowd of many thousands of people. Best of all for me, however, was that my late father was there, and able to watch me. It was a nostalgic trip to Leeds for dad, he hadn’t been there to the hallowed ground since something like 1946, and the fact that it was a rather wonderful game was a huge bonus”.
He reveals that Gaia is also showing some commendable cricketing skills and almost turned out for Hampstead Lady Cricketers last week before something got in the way.
“I have the feeling that if she could be allowed to be Yorkshire’s first lady captain, she is really going for it.”
Born on Tyneside, he is still able to turn in a very credible native Geordie accent.
“If you are raised there, it never leaves you,” he admits, “but I’ve only done it on screen once, in a film where I was asked to play a rather grubby taxi driver. The script called for him to be a Cockney, but I thought that I was getting rather too close to mimicking Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, so I asked if he could be a Geordie instead, and they gave me the nod. Somewhere at home I still have a cassette tape that dad made of me, talking when I was about three years old, and you can hear the lilt in the little lad’s voice…”
For Walking on Sunshine, Greg and the rest of the cast were flown out to Puglia, in Italy, for several intense weeks of work.
“I spent a lot of time in the gym, getting myself into shape, “ he concedes, “because I didn’t want to look like the ‘elderly gent’ in front of all the other youngsters, who, I admit, were a terrific bunch to work with. When I was called in to audition, I took the guitar with me, and gave them George Michael’s Faith, which must have done the trick. My character, Doug, definitely wants Maddie back, and he’s a big child, really. A lot of fun, and a man who makes all the big gestures but who cannot remember the small things in life. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him, and his reason for living is just being happy. It is, essentially, a ‘feel-good movie’, and what is wrong with that?”
Greg is also a more than capable designer and craftsman, and with whatever spare time he has, you can find him working with wood, or laying paths and foundations.
“I’ve had a very physical few weeks, actually, doing work for our next-door-neighbours, who happen to be Downton’s Jim Carter, and Imelda Staunton. Jim is a darling man, but one of the most inept people I know when it comes to putting anything up or building even the simplest object. I can hear him over the fence muttering away, and then comes the inevitable call of ‘Greg... Greg, can you give me a hand here?’
“I’ve built all sorts of things over the years – one big commission was to build a sort of writer’s hideaway hut thing in New Mexico, which I am glad to say is still in use. You ask for it, and I’ll definitely have a go at it. I built a tree-house once, only me being me, and with my architectural background, it had to have an oriel window, and sort of gargoyles flying off the roof.
“I keep pretty grounded. Sometimes I’m just Mr Thompson, sometimes when I’m at the school gates I’m Gaia’s dad. I don’t think of myself as ‘Greg Wise, actor’.
He adds rather wistfully: “And, you know, if acting hadn’t claimed me, I think that I would have made a halfway decent living out of carpentry.”
• Walking on Sunshine is out now.