Christopher Eccleston on True Detective, searching for a second act and an emotional return to Leeds
Proud Lancastrian Christopher Eccleston might like to joke that “the only good thing to come out of Yorkshire is the motorway” but the truth is that his return to Leeds Playhouse on Saturday will carry a special resonance for the actor.
The 59-year-old actor will be heading back to the very same stage at Leeds Playhouse where in 2002 he gave acclaimed performances as Hamlet; a time he describes today as “the greatest moment in my stage career”.
Eccleston was asked to play the iconic role by the Playhouse’s then-artistic director Ian Brown – the same man who in the late 1980s had persuaded him not to give up acting after years of unemployment and failed auditions pushed him close to quitting the profession entirely. Within a couple of years, Eccleston had secured his big break in the film Let Him Have It and went onto a host of successes.
Now one of the country’s most-respected actors, Eccleston is returning to the Quarry Theatre stage in the Playhouse on Saturday evening but not for a new production. He is instead participating in the Leeds International Festival of Ideas where he will discuss the increasing barriers facing working-class people from breaking into the arts as he aims to help new generations of actors in a similar way that Brown did for him.
"Ian said to me, ‘Don’t give up’. Twenty years later he wrote to me saying 'You may remember I told you don’t give up, I see you didn’t and you’ve done very well – would you like to play Hamlet?' Originally, it was human kindness when I most needed it – and I’ll never ever forget what Ian did for me.
"The greatest moment of my stage career was to play Hamlet. It felt right for me as somebody with such a strong Northern identity to do Hamlet there. I fell in love with the city and stayed on for at least a month after the run had finished."
Eccleston hit the headlines in April this year following the closure of Oldham Coliseum when he told the BBC that it would be “impossible” for people from a working-class background like his in Salford to enter acting today.
He says this weekend’s event, which will see him being interviewed by Leeds screenwriter Lisa Holdsworth before taking audience questions, is like nothing he has done before.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post over Zoom, he explains: "Before I agreed to it I said let’s not make it some celebrity interview with someone stroking their ego in public.
"If it is Festival of Ideas, let’s see if we can come up with some ideas about social mobility within the arts rather than it being some kind of negative rant because I have had a wonderful career.
"It is statistically proven there are far less people of working-class origins working in the arts than there was 30 to 40 years ago when I entered it. So it is much worse for people of my background now then it was then. It falls on people like me to highlight that fact and suggest ideas as to how we can improve it.”
He says he sees his role this evening as a “conduit” for bringing people together and discussing how to improve the situation for working-class people wanting to break into the arts.
"Obviously I would like that it doesn’t just become answering questions about Doctor Who, etc. I’m happy to talk about it a little bit but this isn’t a convention event, we’re going to be talking about my experience as a working-class person in a profoundly middle-class industry and the North and levelling up.
"We’re hoping that myself, Lisa and the audience come up with ideas and voices are heard, not just mine.”
He says the event has the potential to be the starting point of further campaigning on the issue and opening up the arts world.
"I’d like to be instrumental if possible. I have experienced it and it is something I feel very deeply. I’m hoping this does lead to something else and it is something I feel I could be an activist around because I know it and feel it.
"It is really urgent, there is so much unused brilliance in our communities. Everybody has an area of brilliance but only a very privileged few are being given an opportunity to expand on it.”
In recent years, Eccleston has increasingly worked in America on shows like The Leftovers and says working on US productions is often a more positive experience compared to the UK.
"Working in America was very refreshing for me because I was not cast according to class and I could play anything.
"It is very significant the majority of black actors of my generation – people like David Harewood and Lennie James – have said in order to get a break and lead roles they had to leave the UK and go to America.
"America is a huge industry but the UK film industry doesn’t exist really because we don’t put any money into it. It is a cottage industry and it gets cliquey, it is not like in America.”
Eccleston has recently been filming the new series of True Detective, which has Jodie Foster in the lead role.
"She is a massive hero of mine and she didn’t disappoint, she was just exceptional and has had an exceptional career based on principles. Pre-Me Too and Black Lives Matter, Jodie was leading the way. She was brilliant and funny.”
The latest series, which now has Issa López as the showrunner and was filmed in Iceland, is based on the investigation into the disappearance of eight men from a research station in Alaska and Eccleston says he is excited for audiences to see it when it is broadcast early next year.
"True Detective has not had the best reviews recently but Issa López who wrote and directed it and Jodie have done something very exciting,” he says. "It is a reinvention by two brilliant females.”
Eccleston also has a part in the forthcoming Disney+ film Young Woman and the Sea, while he will be reprising his role as Fagin in a new Christmas special of CBBC production Dodger and then is set to play Scrooge on stage for the first time in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic Theatre in London this winter.
But the star, who has two young children with his ex-wife Mischka, admits that his career is not quite where he wants it to be.
"It is difficult,” he says candidly. “I have a very difficult personal situation because I’m divorced and have two small children and they are my priority. Career comes second but I still have to financially provide and Albert and Esme are everything. That was shock to me because acting had always been everything.
"Also I’m white, I’m straight, I’m male and quite rightly we have gone down the queue. That’s fair enough because I lived off the fat of the land for many years because of that profile. But also my visibility has gone down a lot because I have prioritised my children so I’m struggling a bit.
"I’m not finished but I’m looking for a second act to my career and it is nowhere near as high profile and successful as the first act. But I like a comeback so I will have to see what I can do.”
He adds: "I want to get back to leading a television series like I used to do, that’s what I want to do. If I had my own way, I’d do theatre for the rest of my life but I can’t afford it.
"I’d like to lead a TV series, something like Our Friends in the North would be nice. I just want to do good work and make sure the work doesn’t keep me away from my beautiful Albert and Esme.”