RD Laing was a maverick psychiatrist whose clients included a young Sean Connery. Tell us more…
Laing was fascinating and extraordinary and charismatic and awful and empathetic and a bully. He was a patchwork of contradictions and, from a selfish, acting point of view, that’s delicious to play. I was intrigued by the notion of him.
He had a certain guru quality to him, right?
Without a doubt. He was a counterculture icon. He would address huge audiences and people hung on his every word. I think he did become something of a guru and he clearly loved that. There was a peacock about him, there was an ego there. This is a man who wore crushed velvet and paisley pattern shirts! He was no shrinking violet — he enjoyed the spotlight, there’s no question. And that seemed to be a contradiction, too: a man who could be so selfless but was also clearly an egoist on some level as well. And all that adds to my fascination with him.
How did you set about researching him?
Well, he was on the radio and TV a lot. But an extraordinary thing happened… my wife’s grandfather was Harold F Searles, a renowned psychiatrist. So she was interested just because it was in the family business, as it were. Then the head of psychiatry at New York University sent us this extraordinary piece of footage where Harold — my grandfather-in-law! — was interviewing the same patient as Ronnie Laing. They did it as a test case. You saw Harold interview her, then you saw Ronnie interview her… a compare-and-contrast.
You’ve also just been in season 3 of Broadchurch and you’re on stage in Patrick Marber’s Don Juan In Soho…
For me, that’s one of the great perks of this job — that there’s such variety and in such different media as well. They’re all slightly different jobs; film and stage have different rhythms to them and different technical aspects. I love the fact that I get to move between them. I hope that will always be the case.
What was the appeal of the Patrick Marber play?
The writing — it’s always really the writing. He’s created this awful character, this Don Juan, based on the Molière play, but set in present-day London, a grimy, fantastical, Soho. He’s louche and he’s awful, and yet he’s compelling and quick-witted and he’s the cleverest person in the room. There’s something fatally attractive about him. Not unlike RD Laing!
Are you making a habit of playing these types of people?
These are compelling people. To get to speak the words of people who have wonderful words in their head, that’s something it’s hard not to crave.
You’re coming up in the movie Bad Samaritan. What can you say about it?
I’m starring with Robert Sheehan, who is fantastic. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned thriller, a really exciting film, I hope — I get to terrorise Robert and his mates, as I am a bit of a psychotic. He tries to burgle my house and then lives to regret it! It was shot in Portland, Oregon.
Is it nice to dip into Hollywood?
Well, I don’t know how much Portland, Oregon, feels like Hollywood. Probably as much as Yorkshire does! But it’s a wonderful city. I loved it. And such lovely people — it’s got a lovely liberal, hippy vibe going on, so I was very happy to be there for a while.
Where do you feel most at home?
Probably at home. I find myself increasingly unwilling to go out these days. I never used to get people who said that but now there is nowhere I’d rather be.
What would you say if your kids wanted to go into acting?
Well, it would be pretty mean of me to stop them. Obviously, it can be a horrible profession, full of rejection and uncertainty, but it’s given me a very happy life so who am I to discourage anyone from giving it a go? I mean, I’d rather they were all prime ministers and astrophysicists because acting is a precarious existence — but if you can make it work it’s a great job.
Mad To Be Normal is on release nationwide in cinemas from today