What three words best describe you?
Patient, obsessive and silly.
And ‘tall’! Were you surprised to be cast as Thorin, a dwarf, in The Hobbit, given you’re 6ft 2in?
Yes! I’m actually 6ft 3in — I think I have grown through doing Pilates. I was really baffled when my agent said that they wanted to audition me for a short dwarf. I laughed but I went along. I was working on Spooks at the time and had really hurt my back so was in agony for that rehearsal. I’m not saying that it made me smaller but it certainly made me channel some of Thorin’s anxiety. I was basically sitting there with my fists clenched and gritting my teeth because I was in so much pain.
Would you rather be a dwarf, an elf or a hobbit?
I’m a bit more like a hobbit. I like a bit of comfort and cosiness, and I don’t like confrontation at all. I’m not ethereal or up my own bottom enough to be an elf. I remember when they were trying to cast elves, they said. ‘Basically, we just need supermodels to play them.’ That made me happy to be a smelly dwarf.
Your new movie is actually a play. It’s a filmed version of the classic Chekhov play Uncle Vanya, which got rave reviews early last year…
We were just getting into our stride when lockdown happened. Then I went back to New York, which is where I live, and my agent said we could shoot this back in the UK but I’d have to do two weeks’ quarantine. So I had to rehearse over Zoom, which was really weird.
You’re a method actor so did you stay in Chekhovian character all through lockdown?
I don’t know what the definition of a method actor is. I’m always thinking about what that character might do, how they respond to the world, but this was quite difficult because I’m playing Astrov, a doctor in a period play written over 120 years ago. For Uncle Vanya I wanted them not to wash my costumes. I don’t like them smelling of modern washing powder. But, of course, they had to. So I found a scent for Astrov, which was a little bit earthy and spicy. In the play, when Sonya picks Astrov’s socks off the floor in act two, I used to spray the socks with this so it smelt like him.
It must get disturbing when you play someone like Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer, in Hannibal…
Yeah, you have to protect yourself a bit. You go in deep but you always make sure you can get out. I did have some troubling dreams during Hannibal, particularly when it came to the scene where the character climbed over the desk and bit the face off the doctor. I had some nightmares. When I finish a project I like to get my hair cut or do something completely different so you can leave the character behind.
Your acting CV is the biggest we’ve ever seen. Star Wars, Marvel, Middle-earth, Ocean’s 8 — you’ve appeared in almost every major movie universe.
And, weirdly, it still feels like it is not enough! If I haven’t done a hard day’s work, I just feel like I haven’t really been present. That’s one of the ethics Chekhov had to apply to himself — that the future and hope lives within work.
Your first credited role is ‘man in pub’ in TV’s Boon. Do you remember that?
Of course! It was for Central Television in Nottingham. I was an extra so I got my daily rate and I had to sit in the back of shot, drinking a pint of beer. I remember creating this whole storyline for my character and what I was going to say — and then, of course, all you have to do is whisper and be wallpaper. Every time when I am on a set now where there are background artists around me, I understand exactly what they are all going through and how frustrating it is because you are completely ignored. So I try to say hi to all of them, without distracting myself, because I have been there.
What’s your usual tipple?
I stopped drinking during lockdown but if and when I do go back for a tipple, it would probably be a vodka. That craving really intensified after Uncle Vanya because Chekhov refers to vodka so much. The last day before we broke up for Christmas, we all drank vodka as Chekhov would — chilled shots in chilled glasses, the proper way. That was a good rehearsal!
My mum loves your audiobooks.
Thank you! I enjoy doing them, though it has been a bit lonely in lockdown being stuck in a wardrobe doing them on my own. One of my favourite audiobooks is something I have ended up optioning — The Taking Of Annie Thorne by CJ Tudor. I love her writing. It’s so accessible. I’m going to try to turn it into a TV series.
■ Uncle Vanya is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital