Interview: Actor James Wilby
Arthur W Pinero’s seductive story, The Second Mrs Tanqueray, opens to Kingston theatregoers this autumn in this brand new Rose Theatre production. Rosanna Greenstreet caught up with actor James Wilby ahead of the show
Actor James Wilby sits outside a Kingston pub, smoking a roll-up and downing a pint during a well-earned break in rehearsals for The Rose’s latest play, The Second Mrs Tanqueray. There are just ten days to go before opening night when we meet, and it has been a tough day. “It’s a wonderful play, a brilliant play,” he says, “But, like all plays, it’s hard work to get it set up. It’s at that point where you are in a slight panic.”
James, who is 54, is unfamiliar with The Rose and has not yet set foot on the stage. “I have only been in the rehearsal room, so I don’t know what the stage is like.” This is also the first time he has worked with the Rose’s Artistic Director, Stephen Unwin, although James has worked with Stephen’s brother Paul who is a TV director.
James is probably better known for his television and film roles than his theatre work. On TV he has appeared in New Tricks, Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War, Silent Witness, Island at War and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and his films include A Handful of Dust with Kristin Scott Thomas and the glossy Merchant Ivory period pieces, Howard’s End and Maurice which are based on the books by E M Forster. James played the title role in Maurice, which was released in 1987 and, together with his co-star, Hugh Grant, James went on to win the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival. Later, in 2001, James appeared in the Oscar-winning movie Gosford Park, which was written by Julian Fellowes who went on to give us the ultimate costume drama, Downton Abbey.
James blames his comparatively few theatre credits on his move away from London to Sussex, where he lives with his wife Shana and their four children who are aged between 23 and 11. “After I moved out fifteen years ago, I neglected the theatre. It was a good move for me and my family, but the theatre became a difficult thing to do because the hours are so antisocial. You get home at midnight or one in the morning and everyone’s gone to bed and then you get up and everyone’s gone to school.”
Earlier this year, James performed in the Terence Rattigan play Less Than Kind and, as he puts it, “my stage muscles were reactivated.” Now, at The Rose, he has the meaty role of Aubrey Tanqueray to tackle. “Aubrey is an older man marrying a younger woman – a lady with a past – and then it all goes wrong, so it’s a great part.”
Playing Mrs Tanqueray is the Olivier Award-winning actress Laura Michelle Kelly. James says, “I have worked with some phenomenal actresses but your favourite lady is always the one you are working with, because she gets all your energy. I am loving working with Laura Michelle, she’s got a vibrant, energetic, mischievous quality and she’s sexy and that’s what the part requires.”
The Second Mrs Tanqueray has not had a major revival since 1981, when Felicity Kendal took the title role at the National Theatre. The play was written in 1893 by Arthur W Pinero and was hugely popular with Victorian audiences. James says, “This was Pinero’s great play and people have sort of forgotten about him. He was more famous than Oscar Wilde in his day and this ran for years and was a huge hit. But there is a bit of a revival going on – the National are doing something (The Magistrate in November) and so is the Donmar Warehouse (Trelawny of the Wells in February 2013), so hopefully Pinero will come back on the map.”
As he puffs on his cigarette, James has a somewhat distracted look. He has said in the past that when he is learning a script, everything – even his children’s birthdays – flies out of his head. “Imagine a boardroom that has become so cluttered that you can’t see anything in it. That’s what happens to my head. Does that make any sense?” he asks, trying to explain, “My brain just can’t think straight. People say actors are selfish, but you are just totally focussed – an advertising exec going for the big pitch would be the same, because it’s important. Why be an actor unless you can get it right?”
James feels that a recent six month sabbatical has helped his acting. He says, “I took six months out to teach at my children’s school – their drama teacher walked out and I got asked if I would help. I directed a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a bunch of twelve year olds and it was utterly sensational. It is one of the things that I am most proud of. The experience got my love of the theatre back. For the first time I had to articulate what it is that makes theatre work so I solidified a lot of ideas and, weirdly, I’ve been a much better actor on stage since doing it.”
As our interview nears to an end, there is one question that I have been dying to ask. Did James ever get a call from the Downton casting department? “No. I think the part that would have been right for me is the part that Hugh Bonneville has, and he does it much better than I would ever have,” he smiles and gives a little shrug, “So, hey.” And with that, it’s time to forget about everything except the job in hand and head back to the rehearsal room.