Charles Dance

Given that Charles Dance is an actor, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his manner off stage is quite actorly. Yet somehow it does. I suppose it is because he is often cast as the reserved, taciturn, patrician type, while, in person, he is tactile and garrulous. Sitting on a sofa in his dressing-room at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, he makes big theatrical, off-the-shoulder gestures, taps the wood of his dressing table – the superstitious actor – and leans forward to touch my knee occasionally, to emphasise a point. Moreover, he punctuates his anecdotes with ‘darlings’, ‘sweethearts’ and ‘dears’.

Physically, he looks taller and more athletic than seems decent for a 61-year-old. He doesn’t dress his age, either: his 6ft 3in frame looking rangy in faded jeans, T-shirt and heavy black boots. His hair may be thinning and becoming as pale as his skin, but his face is still strong boned, his hooded eyes still flinty. Intellectually, you suspect, there is not as much depth there as he likes to think there is, but he is friendly and engaging. Like many in his profession, he enjoys having a whinge about the actor’s lot.

Don’t get him on the subject of dressing-rooms, for example. He has just been touring the provinces before opening in the West End this week – ‘the foreplay before the penetration,’ he calls it, rather alarmingly – and the dressing-room he had in Cambridge was dark and subterranean. This one is windowless and has a fan whirring, but at least it is freshly decorated and all the light bulbs around the mirror are working. ‘That’s thanks to Madge,’ he says. ‘I was doing The Play What I Wrote here in 2002, just before Madonna did a show here and she paid for the dressing-rooms to be done up. But the funny thing was?…’ he bounds up from the sofa and marches across the room to the shower area; here he describes two diagonal slashes with his arms, ‘…?they put crime scene tapes over the shower so no one else could use it before Madge.’

The play he did before that was Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue. ‘In the dressing-room were little sachets of vermin poison. Pretty bloody awful. There was a mattress in there with a piece of fabric that looked like Monica Lewinsky’s old dress on it. Half the lightbulbs had gone. I was there for 12½ weeks doing a play that was not a bundle of laughs, so I bought some ready-made curtains and a throw and some lightbulbs and insisted they had the room painted. They brought colour swatches of white, white or white – so I chose white.’

In his latest play, the first major revival of William Nicholson’s award-winning Shadowlands, Dance plays C.S. Lewis. Although Nigel Hawthorne, on stage, and Anthony Hopkins, in the Oscar-nominated film version, are hard acts to follow in that role, Dance proves himself worthy. His struggle as the middle-aged Lewis to accept that he has fallen in love for the first time, only to lose his new wife to cancer, is mesmerising. ‘It is about love in the presence of pain and suffering,’ Dance says. ‘C.S. Lewis believes pain is a tool. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’

Presumably getting in the right reflective mood beforehand, while sitting in a pleasant dressing-room, is crucial to this performance? ‘Your mood can be affected by the state of your dressing-room, and by the day you have had, but hopefully that doesn’t affect the performance.’

I ask whether he can relate to the religious aspects of the play: C.S. Lewis, the devout Christian, agonises over the faith that has let him down. ‘Not at all. I am an agnostic. I’m not bothered about not knowing. Religion is at the core of the play, but we pretend. It’s my job. If I’m playing a murderer I don’t murder people.’

And the academic aspects, the donnish world of Oxford? ‘I am not an intellectual. I am reasonably intelligent, but not intellectual.’ I only ask because he often plays men who are in professions that others find inspiring: Army officers, doctors and so on. When he prepares for such roles, does he ever wonder whether, by comparison, being an actor in greasepaint is somehow not quite a proper job for a grown man? He seems affronted by this question and answers in a loud and indignant voice. ‘Some might think it’s a job for children, but it’s not! We do work very hard!’

Slightly taken aback, I say that I didn’t mean to sound rude. I reframe the question in terms of the Samuel Johnson quote about every man thinking meanly of himself for not being a soldier. ‘I see; well, I like pretending to be all those things. I like pretending to be someone in the military, but whether I could do it I don’t know. That’s why I am an actor.’

I tell him I went to see his Coriolanus years ago, the ultimate role for an actor with martial aspirations. ‘London or Stratford?’ The Barbican. ‘Good. I was reasonably happy with it by the time we reached the Barbican.’ It was a powerful and memorable performance, I say. Perfect casting.

The irony, though, was that Coriolanus is the patrician who is condescending towards the plebeians, and Dance’s background is plebeian. He is the son of Nell, a former parlour-maid.

Dance returns to his actors-are-just-pretending theme: ‘I just pretend. I was able to observe the aristocracy at close quarters because my mother worked for them. She certainly worked for much posher people than we were. Housekeeping. One observed it and absorbed it. My mother married above her station. She came from the East End. I’m not sure what my father did, because he died from a perforated ulcer when I was four, but I think his family had been confectioners. And I think he had been an engineer. A little further up the social scale than my mother. He used to do the occasional music hall recitation.’

Despite this background, when Dance started out in acting a fellow actor noted that he was ‘a toff actor’ as opposed to ‘a peasant actor’. ‘It’s because I have a patrician face,’ Dance says. He does indeed. But it is also to do with his bearing. As an actor he has a commanding presence and a certain grace. He can convey emotions with the flicker of a muscle, with the slightest movement of the eye. Two of his more polished aristocratic roles are the Earl of Erroll in White Mischief and Lord Raymond Stockbridge in Gosford Park. When he was filming the latter he told the director, Robert Altman, that he was in the wrong place, upstairs with the toffs; he should be downstairs with the servants. Altman said: ‘Not with that face, Charles.’

It might be that he learnt his patrician bearing from observing his step-father, Edward, a civil servant. He had been the lodger. He drank lots of tea and did the pools. ‘A fairly solitary men who seemed to have no friends or family, but quite decent. He looked after my mother. She would say, “When your father died I had 10 bob left in the world, dear”.’

His mother’s wasn’t a happy life. Nell nursed Edward through cancer and then died from a heart attack six months after he did, in 1984, the year The Jewel in the Crown was making her son’s name. They used to row a lot, mother and son. ‘Terrible emotional scenes. She was a very emotional woman.’

I ask if she was socially insecure. ‘She came from the servant class, which was not the same thing as the working class. The servant class is right in the middle. I’m not sure I believe there is such a thing as a middle class: it is either working class on the way up or aristocracy on the way down. She also, of course, was a lifelong Tory voter, as most people from the servant class were; you can’t possibly be governed by your equals. You have to be governed by your betters.’

His brother is 10 years older, a retired naval officer who lives in France. ‘He had been a difficult adolescent and my mother thought joining the Navy would make a man of him. So she marched him off to the recruiting office when he was 15, a decision my mother regretted until the day she died. I remember sharing a bedroom with him before he left for the Navy and there were books of poetry around the place and he wasn’t a bad draughtsman either. All that had to go. My mother learnt from her mistake and allowed me to indulge in poetry and the arts.’

Charles Dance had been studying graphic design and photography at Leicester Art School when he got the acting bug. Steve McQueen and Peter Finch had inspired him to become a screen actor, while ‘Brian Rix dropping his trousers in a farce made me want to prance about on stage’. He abandoned his course in favour of acting lessons from two retired thespians, Leonard and Martin. They were gay, but quiet about it, as society demanded at the time.

What was he like at that age? ‘When I was 19, I was long-haired, going on the Aldermaston march, shagging everything in sight. The march was more fun than anything. I’m not especially political.’

Was he narcissistic as a young man? ‘Not really, not until way after my teens. Mid to late twenties, possibly. I look around now and see guys who are fantastic looking and then I look in the mirror and think this is a very odd face. It doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Bags under the eyes, thinning hair, I don’t see a handsome man when I look in the mirror. Never have done. It is not an easy face to photograph, which is tricky in a film career unless you are in the hands of an astute and clever director of photography. I wear clothes quite well and am reasonably fit and have a good body, but I don’t think I am particularly handsome. When people first started describing me as being that, at the time of Jewel in the Crown, I was surprised, but then I learnt to embrace it, a little too fondly.’

At the time, he was described as the English Robert Redford. I suggest it must have given him confidence to be told he had matinee-idol looks, even if he couldn’t see it himself. ‘Confidence is something I have had to acquire. This profession is littered with people, who, by their nature, are more introvert that extrovert. I can have my flamboyant moments, but I am, by nature, an introvert. I acquired confidence by giving myself severe talkings-to from time to time. I found that aspect of Coriolanus – the opening scenes where he is confident, strutting, all “I’m f—ing wonderful, and powerful”, harder to act than the more vulnerable moments later in the play when it emerges that he is a mummy’s boy.’

He thinks that early on in his career he may sometimes have been cast because of his looks – but not any more. ‘Now I am getting more interesting roles. Mr Tulkinghorn in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House, for example. Or Ralph Nickleby [in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby]. He is a complete s—. Evil, but interesting. Whereas there are only so many ways you can play a romantic leading man. You know you are there for a reason.’

He described himself earlier as ‘shagging everything in sight’; just how successful was he with women? ‘Not that successful. You know how it is when you are a young man: lots of groping most of the time, nothing serious.’

For 23 years he was married to Joanna, a sculptor. They have grown-up children: Oliver, who works in film, and Rebecca, who is in publishing. Then, in 2004, they divorced. Dance’s name has been linked to one or two actresses and models since, but he nevertheless worries that he might end up alone. He prefers not to think about it. Indeed, he feels uncomfortable with this conversation, not least because his ex-wife was door-stepped by the press at the time of their divorce. ‘I’d rather you avoided the subject,’ he says, ‘but I can’t blame “the business” for the breakdown of my marriage. I don’t want to talk about it. If I had a choice in the matter I would say “please don’t go into all that”, but if you want to insert something about it I can’t stop you.’

I note that actors tend to be liberal by inclination, that this is partly to do with the bohemian life they lead: the touring, the intimacy with fellow cast members, the abandonment of self-consciousness. In Dance’s case, that includes appearing nude. He has no qualms about it, as he demonstrated recently in the film Starter for Ten. He turned up on set for that scene already naked. When the wardrobe assistant offered to cover him up, he said: ‘No need, darling’.

‘Well, if you’ve done it once, after that it doesn’t bother you,’ he says now. ‘To continue the painting analogy, painters have brushes and paints, we have this.’ He sweeps his hands the length of his body. ‘The audience feels cheated if you don’t open up and be honest about yourself. I feel I have cheated myself if I don’t go that far. Having stuff in reserve is to cheat.’

Similarly, he is not fussy about what he appears in, so long as the money is good. He has done a number of forgettable Miss Marple-type dramas on television and memorably wore fishnets and a red rubber micro-skirt for the Ali G movie. ‘I’ll do anything for money,’ he says. ‘People talk about choices. What choices? The choice is to work or not to work.’

I suppose he has an additional choice in that he can also write, produce and direct. Notably, he wrote, produced and directed Ladies in Lavender, a film about two sisters, played by Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, living on the Cornish coast, who take in a Polish stray just before the Second World War. ‘There was a day when I was stupid enough to try to direct Judi. She came up with a line that was a bit sentimental for her and I knelt down and touched her knee and said: “Judi, it is a bit Celia Johnson-ish.” And she said: “How dare you? And get your hand off my knee.”.’

The film grossed more than $30million. ‘But none of it found its way into my pocket. It all went to the f—ing distributors and sales agents. I see the returns. I get “0000” next to my name while they are coining it in. It was a bugger to get the financing together for that film. I had to ask Judi and Maggie to defer fees and they sweetly said “of course, darling”, even though they knew deferment usually means deferred indefinitely.’

He slips on a black polo-neck and scoops up a packet of cigarettes from among the greasepaint pots. He is going to pop outside for a quick fag. As we walk through the theatre we talk about Shadowlands and its funereal themes. He says he would have loved to have gone to George Melly’s funeral. ‘He had a cardboard coffin which people wrote funny things on, like, ‘You owe me 20 quid, George”.’

As we stand outside the stage door, in the drizzle, I ask if he has thought about what form he would like his own funeral to take. ‘God no,’ he says, lighting a cigarette. ‘Too busy trying to live, for f—‘s sake.’


Jake Gyllenhaal

He may have a large head, but at least it is a film actor’s large head, one that casting directors and cameramen favour. The ‘he’ I refer to is Jake Gyllenhaal, pronounced ‘Jill-en-hall’. The favouritism is to do with the body-to-head ratio: think Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman; big heads, small and compact bodies. True, at 6ft 2in, Gyllenhaal is taller than the average film star, but tall actors can have that golden ratio, too. Look at Rupert Everett and Hugh Grant.

Anyway, I mention this because I am on a low and squashy sofa, while Gyllenhaal is managing to sprawl, somehow, on a high and upright chair. The man is almost horizontal, with his neck disappearing into his shoulders and his long legs foreshortened in front of him, in front of me. From this viewpoint, I can appreciate that his body-to-head ratio is golden indeed.

He is golden in another respect. At 26 he has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood. As he himself jokes, he has gone in a short space of time from having directors say, ‘Who is Jake Gyllenhaal?’ to ‘Get me Jake Gyllenhaal’ to ‘Get me someone who looks like Jake Gyllenhaal.’

In the past eight years he has starred in 14 films, but the one that put him on the radar was the strange and possibly deep, possibly meaningless Donnie Darko in 2001. Three years later he had a more conventional box office hit with The Day After Tomorrow, about the apocalyptic effects of global warming. But it is on the three films he made in 2005 that his reputation rests: Proof, about a maths genius played by Gwyneth Paltrow; Jarhead, Sam Mendes’s film about marines kicking their heels while waiting for the first Gulf war to start; and Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s lyrical epic about the relationship between two gay cowboys. Gyllenhaal received an Oscar nomination for that one. Gravity disguised as lightness of manner: that is what critics have identified as the secret of his mesmerising screen presence. Like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, they say, he knows how to emote without words.

In person his manner seems easy, his voice gentle with dark undercurrents. Gyllenhaal’s eyes are blue, and big like a cow’s, his nose is solid-looking and he has a full and sculpted mouth which turns up at the corners. He is talking about how, despite being born there, he is not really a Hollywood person. ‘I just don’t really buy it. But I do buy London, because there is an appreciation of growth here.’

Having no idea what he means by the phrase ‘appreciation of growth’, and suspecting he doesn’t either – he is bright and articulate, was educated at Columbia University indeed, but he does occasionally slip into actor-speak – I ask him about another growth, the one on his face. ‘This?’ he says stroking a neatly clipped Edwardian beard that is dark auburn in colour and at odds with the sloppy, crewneck jumper and T-shirt ensemble he is wearing. ‘I grew it for The Brothers, a Jim Sheridan film.’

Oh, I thought it might be to play the president of Iran.

‘You saw that?’ he says with a laugh. ‘Yeah, right, supposedly he looks like me.’ He refers to his cameo in a recent Saturday Night Live sketch: it was a rap song called I Ran. One of the lyrics was about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being like ‘a hairy Jake Gyllenhaal.’

He still gets recognised, even with the beard. ‘There is a certain type of fan who will recognise you no matter what disguise you wear. But, hey, I have a grey spot right here.’ He points to his beard.

‘Maybe when I’ve got grey all over no one will recognise me. My sister has a grey spot there,’ he points to his head. ‘Maybe it’s something genetic.’

His sister is the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who made her name in Secretary. Must have been weird for him to watch that one, I say, especially the erotically charged scenes in which his sister is stripped and spanked by her boss. ‘Well it wasn’t necessarily erotic for me,’ he says.

I compliment him on his use of the word ‘necessarily’. ‘Thank you. It’s funny, when she was first going for auditions everyone was telling her she wasn’t sexy, not sexual. I remember her buying some skimpy cut-off dress for one audition and it just wasn’t her. Now she is treated as a sex object. Go figure.’

His sister appeared with him in Donnie Darko; are they competitive? ‘I think I was for a time – there was some sibling rivalry – but then we both realised it was a bit dumb. We grew out of it.’

He can afford to be magnanimous because his is the career that has gone through the roof. His parents are also in the film industry – his father is a director, his mother a scriptwriter (she was Oscar nominated for Running on Empty) – but, successful though they are, he has left them behind, too. Meal times at home must be a nightmare. ‘I do get taken down a lot at home. Put in my place. I’m the little brother.’

Thanks to this background, though, he says he is fluent in the language of film, like someone growing up in France is fluent in French. Also he grew up watching his parents go through periods where they were getting awards and enjoying success and then, bang, one bad film and a strange kind of gloom would descend on the household.

His new film won’t be that ‘one bad one’ for him. Rendition is not only thought-provoking and compelling; it also has an ingenious narrative twist which I won’t spoil for you, and which I am not sure I can explain anyway (it is to do with a time shift). Gyllenhaal plays a CIA agent who has to oversee the interrogation and torture of a Muslim terrorist suspect – not in America but in the unnamed country to which the suspect has been flown in what is euphemistically known as ‘extraordinary rendition’. The film explores the moral ambiguities of this policy.

‘You may be torturing an innocent man,’ Gyllenhaal says. ‘On the other hand you may be torturing a guilty man and the information you elicit from him could save the lives of 5,000 innocent civilians.

‘That is the moral dilemma faced by my character in the film. That said, I think for CIA people in those circumstances, moral imperatives do not come into play. They leave that for the philosophers. All they care about is what is working and what isn’t working. Practicality wins over morality. Extraordinary rendition is intended to protect. Sadly, as a policy, it has been over-used and misused.’

Considering what happened to the country singers the Dixie Chicks when they spoke out about the Iraq war, is he worried he is going to get hate-mail accusing him of being treasonous and unpatriotic? ‘I have gotten the usual accusations that this is lefty propaganda. In my opinion I feel like there is not much despargy, dispari, sorry?…’

‘Thank you. That’s going to look good in print: “The guy can’t even say disparity.” I flew in yesterday and my tongue is still on American time. I can see that in America people see this huge disparity between Left and Right, but actually they are more alike than different. If you criticise extraordinary rendition, or Guantanamo, or Abu Ghraib, that doesn’t make you a lefty, that makes you a humanitarian.’

Does he feel ashamed to be an American? ‘Well, it’s complicated, isn’t it? There is a lot of fear in America at the moment and some of it is justified. I wouldn’t want to lay it all on one political leader.’

Spoken like a politician, or at least a politically engaged Hollywood actor who campaigned for the Democrats in the 2004 American election, appeared in ‘Rock the Vote’ advertising and is talked about as the next George Clooney, or God forbid, Sean Penn.

It’s not unheard of for an actor to become a politician in America, I note: is that a career move he has considered? ‘I think it is a sad time when actors become politicians and politicians become actors, but actually the two roles do overlap. I don’t want to run for office, though I am an active member of the Civil Liberties Union. I believe in the First Amendment. I believe the right to free speech is inalienable and that we put that freedom in jeopardy when we throw out due process with rendition. Personally, I would say extraordinary rendition is not morally ambiguous. It is wrong.’

I can see the headlines now, I say. ‘Hollywood liberal thinks torture is wrong shock!’ He has the good grace to laugh. ‘You can say I’m in favour of it if you like. That might be quite funny. Say I tried to torture you during the interview. Say Jake was torturing me with his boring comments.’

He adds that he knows how annoying it can be when actors start lecturing people about politics. ‘I don’t think audiences need to know my political beliefs to appreciate this film. Nor do they need to know who I am dating. It’s not important.’

I haven’t asked who he is dating, but since he raised the subject, he did make some intriguingly ambiguous comments about his sexual orientation at the time Brokeback Mountain came out. A broad grin spreads across his face and he covers his head with his hands. ‘I know, I know.’ He is single at the moment. For several years he had an on-off affair with Kirsten Dunst. And yet?…

I quote something he said about homosexuality: ‘I don’t think I’d be afraid of it if it happened.’ What on earth did he mean by that? ‘Nothing like that has ever happened to me. I live in a different world. What I was trying to say was why leave out possibilities in my life? It wasn’t meant to be provocative.’

So let’s get it on the record: is he saying he is open to persuasion? ‘No, I am not open to persuasion myself, but the idea of homosexuality is acceptable to me. I grew up in a city where half the people I know are gay. Both of my godfathers are gay.’

Paul Newman is gay! He laughs again. ‘No, he’s my celebrity godfather.’ What’s a celebrity godfather? ‘That’s the godfather that the media give you. He’s a close friend of my family. He taught me to drive. I have literal godfathers and celebrity godfathers.’

I see. And Jamie Lee Curtis, is she a celebrity godmother or a literal godmother? ‘Both. That’s why it is confusing growing up in Hollywood.’

OK, having established that he is not bisexual, was he being quite calculating when he allowed people to think he was? ‘It was meant as a way of saying it was important for Heath [Ledger, his co-star in Brokeback Mountain] and I to have the movie exist as the movie, but also to have people know it was two straight actors playing those parts.’

I think I follow. The chemistry and tension wouldn’t have worked as well if two gay actors had been playing those roles, and because they were both straight it made their sexual awkwardness more convincing, more like it might be for two cowboys. ‘Exactly. Here are these two lonely people who find themselves through love. Love has no bounds and these two people found a connection in this massive, lonely landscape of Wyoming.’

Presumably he got nasty letters from homophobes.

‘Determining what was nasty and what was nice was always going to be hard for me with that movie. But yes, I got an insight into homophobia that I wouldn’t normally have encountered.’

Given that he first tasted fame as an 11-year-old when he played Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers, how come he didn’t go off the rails in his teens like other child stars, Macaulay Culkin, say, or Drew Barrymore? ‘My parents kept my feet on the ground. They had me turn down roles so that I could concentrate on school work.’

They also made him spend the day of his bar mitzvah volunteering at a homeless shelter so that he would appreciate how privileged he was. And yet he feels he did have to struggle to get his parents’ attention, because they were so immersed in their work. One of the reasons he wanted to act, he says, was to command their interest and ‘be a part of their world’.

Something about Gyllenhaal’s intense yet dreamy and deadpan stare suits him to playing mentally disturbed characters, such as Donnie Darko. And according to Robert Downey Jr, who co-starred with him in the serial killer film Zodiac earlier this year, ‘he’s nice all right, but he’s also wet, dark and wild’.

That darker side emerged during the filming of Jarhead. A playful fight with his co-star Brian Geraghty suddenly became serious. ‘Something happened and I just started hitting Brian,’ he said at the time. On another occasion he was filming a scene in which he was to hold down a fellow actor and throttle him. The choking actor had to hit Gyllenhaal in the face to make him let go. What’s with this aggression? ‘Yeah there is that side. That is a part of me. Part of me would like to know what I would be like in battle. Have my courage tested. Would I be an altruist or a coward? Would I run away or engage? The engaging is what I would want of myself.’

So he feels frustrated? ‘No, I would just love to test myself. I loved the marines. I shaved my head for Jarhead and both my parents were, like, F—! I came back from the boot camp and they were terrified.’

His aggression in that film, he adds, was more about a search for authenticity. ‘I like the process of digging for that truth. I try to pay attention to my emotions during the day, bring them to my work. I have sometimes read in a script that my character cries, but not everyone cries when they are unhappy. That’s not how people always grieve.’

When he experiences genuine emotions in his own life – anger, grief, love – do they feel less authentic because he has had to fake them in films? ‘Hmm. Have I devalued the currency? I tell you, when I fall in love in real life it has felt nothing like I have acted it in the movies.’

Recalling the rumours about him and Reese Witherspoon, his co-star in Rendition, I say: just don’t fall in love with your co-star on screen, eh? ‘Yeah, well?…’ He laughs. ‘I haven’t had many opportunities.’

He must find it difficult persuading women to go to bed with him. ‘I don’t think of myself as good-looking. Not at all. When I was a kid I had these huge glasses. I once went to a fancy dress as a Crest toothpaste tube with these huge glasses stuck on. That is how I see myself most of the time. A Crest toothpaste tube with bad eyesight.’

And on that surreal note, it is time to bid the wet, dark and wild Jake Gyllenhaal goodbye. ‘Be nice to me,’ he says with a grin as he stands up and stretches. ‘Actually, I don’t know why I said that. You can write whatever you like, just spell my name right.’