As he returns to the London stage in Moonlight, David Bradley talks to Caroline Bishop about a career of playing outsiders in Pinter, Shakespeare, Mike Leigh and Harry Potter.
“It’s quite a luxury really,” says Bradley when I meet him during rehearsals. “I did Beckett’s Endgame at the Gate in Dublin last year; I was running about like a blue-arsed fly in that. The other characters were in dustbins or a wheelchair and I was the only one that was moving, dashing about with a severe limp. So I think oh well, it’s my turn to lie down for a bit!”
The life of an actor is an odd one indeed. Bradley has left the slavish exertions of Beckett’s creation Clov for Pinter’s Andy, a man on his deathbed whose estranged sons refuse to make peace with him. His wife Bel at his side, Andy lies haunted by the daughter whose death he won’t acknowledge, preoccupied by his own imminent mortality and suffering the pain of alienation from his family. As Bradley puts it, “If you imagine a play about that, my God, I’d rather go and see Legally Blonde!”
Indeed, on paper Pinter’s 1993 play is not the cheeriest of evening’s entertainment. “What saves it from you wanting to slit your wrists,” adds Bradley, “is the really mordant dark humour that runs all the way through it.
“The first thing I look for in a Pinter play – because I know it’s there – is that humour, the funny bone of the play, the way the characters just wind each other up. Andy’s so funny.”
He should know. The actor has become something of a Pinter aficionado in recent years, his 1997 appearance in The Homecoming at the National Theatre being followed by roles in The Caretaker and, most recently, No Man’s Land in the West End. “The feedback you get from doing it, they [the audience] say ‘I found myself laughing and horrified by the fact that I found that funny’.”
“He had such vigour even when he was ill. Such a lively mind, he never lost that”
As well as this black humour, Bradley finds much else to relish in Pinter’s work, including the “poetic rhythm” of his writing and, in Moonlight specifically, the return to a familiar Pinter subject matter, that of the family as a battle ground. “As with a lot of Pinter plays, the first thing you think is, I don’t know why I love this, I don’t know why I want to act in this but I do. Sometimes it’s a bit like detective work; what’s going on here? The more you look into it the more you realise the difference between what people are saying and what they’re meaning.”
Though the 68-year-old came late to performing in Pinter’s plays, his admiration for the playwright’s work stretches back to his pre-RADA days in his hometown of York when the producer of the amateur dramatics group to which he belonged would encourage his actors to read plays. “I used to devour these plays and Pinter’s, for me, were the most interesting and the ones that fascinated me most because you were looking at something domestic and familiar yet through a bleak lens of his own mind. And again I found them funny.”
Later, whilst in London to audition for drama school, he bought a ticket to the original 1965 production of The Homecoming, starring Ian Holm. At the time, he never imagined that three decades on he would be sitting in a rehearsal room at the National Theatre for a read-through of the same play with Pinter at his side. “It was quite intimidating,” says Bradley, “but it turned out unnecessarily so. He was so great with the actors because he knew how to talk to them, because he was an actor, and the notes he gave and the suggestions he gave were all from an acting perspective which was a relief to me because I don’t look at them [the plays] through an intellectual angle, I have more of an instinctive response.”
It wasn’t, adds Bradley, the start of a close friendship, but he says he feels “privileged” to have got to know him over the course of the next decade as Pinter kept an eye on those revivals of The Caretaker and No Man’s Land. “That’s what’s odd about this, where’s Harold? He should be sitting here.”
Indeed, the subject matter of Moonlight is given an added poignancy given it is the first major London-originated revival of a Pinter play since the playwright died, on Christmas Eve in 2008. Bradley was performing in No Man’s Land at the time, and though his death wasn’t unexpected – Pinter had been ill for some time – such was the playwright’s verve that it was still a shock, says Bradley. He had “seemed frail” two years earlier during Bradley’s run in The Caretaker, “but then we’d have a meal and a few glasses of red wine afterwards – actually white wine was his tipple – and he would just suddenly get energised. He had such vigour even when he was ill. Such a lively mind, he never lost that.”
Returning to his work after Pinter’s death, Bradley says “you just feel you want to do right. Even though he’s not around you want to do a production that Harold would say ‘yes that’ll do, that’s how I imagined the play’.”
“It would be nice to have a part where you come through the French windows and say ‘a gin and tonic my lord’”
That is quite some burden, but if anyone is up to the job, Bradley is. A former member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company at the Old Vic, an Olivier Award-winner – for his Fool in King Lear at the National in 1990 – and a long-time performer with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Bradley has a wealth of experience. “It was such a good time and such a good company to be involved in,” he says of his time at the RSC in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where he still lives with his teacher wife. Bradley’s contribution was not a flashy one; after joining the company in the late 1970s he earned his stripes in minor roles for years before graduating to prominent supporting parts – Shallow in Henry IV in 1991, Polonius to Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1992, Gloucester in King Lear in 1994 – until, finally, his first lead in 2003’s Titus Andronicus. He says he felt no frustration that the bigger parts took a while to come, citing the example of actors including Diana Rigg and Ian Holm, who also spent years at the RSC doing “walk-ons and understudies”. “A lot of those actors who went on to play leading roles later on and in films, they all just started off doing that, working their way through and waiting until they hopefully get a chance. And that’s what I wanted to do.”
Consequently, his reputation within the British theatrical community is superlative. If he has not, however, achieved the national treasure status accorded to some of his RSC and NT contemporaries such as Ian McKellen or Michael Gambon – with whom he appeared in No Man’s Land – it is because his television and film roles have also predominantly been supporting, character parts rather than profile-raising leading roles. No Maigret or Gandalf for him; Eddie Wells in Our Friends In The North, Mr Broune in The Way We Live Now and comic curmudgeons in dark sitcom Wild West and Simon Pegg’s Hot Fuzz have left Bradley with the sort of public profile that, he says, prompts the question “are you that bloke off the telly?” or, more oddly, “I know your face, did you work at the Co-op in Leicester?”
Harry Potter went some way to changing that. These days the average man in the street still doesn’t know his name, but he is given a moniker: that of Argus Filch, the Hogwarts caretaker who spends his time skulking round corridors with his cat. His kids got him into that, pressuring him to audition for the film franchise. “I said ‘what part do you think I should be going up for?’ Hoping they’d say something like Snape, somebody who was a suave, debonair character, but they said ‘no, you’re a Filch, Dad’. I thought well, they’ve got my number!”
“What saves it from you wanting to slit your wrists is the really mordant dark humour that runs all the way through it”
It is true that Bradley’s age-weathered face, thin stature and greying hair often see him cast in dour, unglamorous or grittily realistic roles. “It would be nice to have a part where you come through the French windows and say ‘a gin and tonic my lord’ or something!” he grins. But he doesn’t mind really. “A lot of them are, I suppose, people on the edge or outsiders. That for me is very interesting territory.”
He played another such character, doleful widower Ronnie, in last year’s Oscar-nominated film Another Year, the latest from the king of gritty realism, Mike Leigh. “It was a new experience for me,” he says of Leigh’s famous improvisational creative process. “I didn’t quite know what to expect because he doesn’t say much about the process and you don’t say much about the process while you’re doing it to anybody else. It’s yours and you respect that. But I just enjoyed the process of discovering a character through improv.
“What a treat to be doing Mike Leigh and then the next year be doing a major Pinter at the Donmar,” he adds. “That’s as good as it gets for an actor.”
In all, Bradley is reaping the rewards of a long, hard-working career. He may play outsiders and he may not have the public profile enjoyed by some of his contemporaries, but Bradley is a talent to be treasured by the nation none the less. Right now, that talent will be expressed from the comfort of his bed, which, for all its physical indulgence, does present one small concern: “I hope I don’t nod off under the lights!”