His character in Six Degrees Of Separation may have shut the door in the face of change but actor Anthony Head is open to all manner of new ideas, finds Caroline Bishop, even those that involve a thong and a feather duster…
For one particular generation, Anthony Head will always be a certain erudite Englishman residing in Sunnydale, California, who watches over his young protégé as she slays vampires. For an older generation, Head is the debonair coffee drinker who smoothly seduces his neighbour through a series of Gold Blend adverts. And for a younger generation who know nothing of Nescafe and Buffy, he is the tyrannical King Uther Pendragon in Merlin, the BBC’s fantasy drama serial.
To the contemporaries of his daughter and fellow actor Emily Head, he remains the former of the unlikely trio: “I’ve got friends that, when they find out who my Dad is, there’s a certain amount of ‘Wait, Giles in Buffy? Oh my God I was the biggest fan of that show, I know every word to that entire series’.”
21-year-old Emily, who is making her own way in the industry as Carli in E4 comedy The Inbetweeners, curls up on the sofa in Head’s dressing room at the Old Vic theatre when I meet her father for a chat during the run of his latest stage outing, Six Degrees Of Separation. He may be Giles to her friends, but to her he is Dad; as they gently squabble over the lack of milk in the fridge and father asks daughter to take a look at his misbehaving laptop, it is clear he is a dad like any other, even if he does get lengthy letters from fans.
Head, 56 next week, hasn’t been on stage in London since Simon Gray’s comedy Otherwise Engaged in 2005, though he did spend the beginning of last year starring in a production of The Tempest in Bermuda. “Oh my God it had magic. We all had to sign official secret act things to say that we would never tell how these tricks were done,” Head tells me as he makes mint tea. The magic “was very cool,” he adds, provoking a laugh of mild derision from his daughter. “I thought it was cool,” he shrugs with a smile.
“I don’t think you can ever sit back and go right, come on then. I think you have to be proactive”
Four days of magic-making in Bermuda is indicative of the nature of Head’s stage CV, which is as varied as his screen credits. Early appearances in the musicals Godspell and Chess are combined with several straight dramatic roles in repertory theatre, at the National Theatre and in the West End, as well as a stint in fishnets as Frank N Furter in cult classic The Rocky Horror Show.
It is a career which has taken him from London to LA to Cardiff to France to New York, with any downtime spent on the farm outside Bath he owns with his long-term partner and mother to Emily and younger sister Daisy, animal trainer Sarah. “You can’t be too luvvie about yourself; you go back and muck out a stable and you’re right back. Very grounding.”
His eclectic life sits in sharp relief to the superficial and inward-looking one of his character in John Guare’s play Six Degrees Of Separation, a money-obsessed New York art dealer who has lost sight of why he entered his profession. When the limited world of Flan and wife Ouisa is punctured by the arrival of a young man who is not all he seems to be, husband and wife start to go down separate paths. While Flan refuses to have his horizons broadened by the fraudulent young interloper, his wife finds her outlook on life has been profoundly changed by him. “I thought that would be an interesting challenge to play the journey that he goes on, which is actually his lack of any journey. He chooses not to go on any journey,” says Head. “It’s actually something that I think possibly a lot of couples go through.”
He equates it to a similar point of significance in his own life when he and his partner reached a fork in the road. “She said look, I seem to be headed on this change, I’m definitely going down a different road from the one that we were; you seem to be standing still. And I said, well, I’m 43, that’s who I am now, I don’t think things are going to change and she said well they kind of have to if we’re going to stay together.”
Head is surprisingly candid about his life. While Emily flicks through the pages of a magazine he proceeds to tell me at length about the path of self-discovery he went on as a result of that conversation, which led to him finding a mentor in the States – a Scientologist, though he denies it was ever mentioned in class – who educated him in the benefits of change. “[His] whole ethos was, not only is change possible but it’s something that you should readily accept and embrace in your life and actually enable and endeavour to change other people.”
“I thought that would be an interesting challenge to play the journey that he goes on, which is actually his lack of any journey”
He talks at some length about what he learnt in LA; the need to go “through the doors of perception” and not fall back on familiar things, or “parachutes,” as his teacher called them. “If you find yourself challenged you tend to default to the stuff that you know, and he encouraged one to go through and see what happens. What have you got to lose?”
It may sound a distinctly un-British type of LA self-improvement, but it has obviously been of great importance to Head. However, the facts seem to suggest that, in his career at least, Head has always been willing to go through new doors. It was a similar line of advice, albeit for a different purpose, that his first agent gave to the LAMDA graduate following his first big break in Godspell in 1976. “[He] said ‘right we must get you something… that will definitely mean that you’re not just musicals’. So I went off to Ludlow to do Henry V. And then I got a gig at Cheltenham Rep where I did Joseph [And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat]. It was a huge success, they asked me back and he again said ‘yes, as long as you can fit him into the rep’. And I got to do TS Eliot’s Confidential Clark, I got to do a Michael Frayn play, and people started to hire me not just for musicals.”
His willingness to embrace change was also apparent in his decision to move to LA after finding limited post-Nescafe opportunities in the UK. He eventually landed the role of Giles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, starring as a regular character for five series of the hugely popular drama. “It was one of those things, you know, we made it work,” he says of leaving his two daughters and partner in England. “Every time I had six days clear I’d get on a plane and get back. I spent most of the money that I earned.”
Eventually he came back for good, only making guest appearances in later series of Buffy. Since then his varied output has included Gray’s middle class comedy Otherwise Engaged in the West End, guest spots in British TV dramas including Spooks, New Tricks and Sensitive Skin and the release of an album, Music For Elevators, with a collaborator he met on Buffy. Not to mention his regular role as the Prime Minister to David Walliams’s besotted assistant Sebastian in sketch show Little Britain.
Just when I am thinking that – given the kudos of Buffy – Head may actually be a father who does not embarrass his daughter, mention of Little Britain causes this conviction to waver.
“There are moments,” says Emily with a smile.
“My appearance in a thong and a feather duster was…” Head laughs, unable to find a word to aptly describe the image he created in that particular episode. “Although it has to be said that [role] had its element of cool as well.”
“Oh absolutely,” agrees Emily, adding with a smile: “It’s just something that I don’t need to see.”
They both laugh. Emily may one day get her own back. Both Head’s daughters have followed him into acting, and Emily played his on-screen daughter in short-lived serial The Invisibles. “For me it was really a no-brainer when they called up and said ‘oh by the way they want Emily to play your daughter, is that alright?’ I went ‘yeah!’ And it was fabulous. As an actor you look for those things, those moments when you don’t have to act, it’s natural. And it was completely natural. All the bonds that you normally have to work to find between you and another actor were all there.”
“If you find yourself challenged you tend to default to the stuff that you know, and he encouraged one to go through and see what happens”
Though Emily says his character in The Invisibles was “more angry” than her real-life father, he was not as angry as Head’s latest incarnation as a somewhat different father, the dictatorial King Uther in the BBC’s Arthurian drama series Merlin, someone who has what Head calls an “old school” approach to parenting the future King Arthur. “For an actor it was great… because the producers have got great ears, they listen to what we all say. And I did suggest that there might be a moment between father and son, that moment when the son is suddenly physically more powerful than the father, which is an awful moment, when the father can no longer actually be the man. And the way they played it was beyond my wildest dreams, the fact that he actually wanted to kill his father was really interesting.”
He will be going back to film the third series of Merlin – two thirds in a warehouse in Cardiff, one third in a more glamorous chateau in Northern France – in the spring, but, unsurprisingly for this advocate of change, Head already has plans for the next new thing. “I’ve got ideas of what I want to do next winter, but I’ve got to make it happen,” he says. “I’m still plugging away writing and doing all the stuff that one does. I don’t think you can ever sit back and go right, come on then. I think you have to be proactive, even if the things that you’re working on don’t happen, you are still positive, you are still connected, you are still creating energy. It sounds a bit hippy but it’s true.”
He may be a bit hippy – perhaps that explains the gold earring in one ear – but you can’t argue with his ethos. Whether he pursues more television, stage, music or a new avenue entirely, Head will continue to embrace everything his life can offer. “That’s the best thing about this gig, this job that I have, which is that people say ‘which do you like best’ and it’s like, well what other job do you have so many different ways of expressing yourself? I think most people would like to express themselves and this is extraordinary.”