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.’