As Iain Glen returns to the London stage in Henrik Ibsens’s Ghosts, he talks to Matthew Amer about taking the leap into directing and the effect of children on his choices.
Iain Glen, like a hungry man at an all-you-can-eat restaurant, has a lot on his plate. The multi-award-winning stage and screen star is back in the West End, appearing in a new production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, which he also happens to be directing. When we chat during the show’s rehearsal schedule he is also in a bit of a pickle with his childcare arrangements. “It keeps me on my toes,” he very humbly puts it.
It is a touch unfortunate for Glen that his partner, the actress Charlotte Emmerson, is also currently working on the London stage, starring in Serenading Louie at the Donmar Warehouse. Both their first days of rehearsals and their first previews coincided, making life just a little more awkward, which is not what you need when you are making your directorial debut in the world’s most popular theatre district.
“I’m stronger than I ever thought I was, which is quite nice to know,” says Glen as we chat about the many pulls on his attention at the moment. “I’ve always had a slight frustration as an actor of not being able to say ‘Look, listen, just try this’, because as actors it’s not clever to try and direct each other. Chaos reigns very quickly and egos get hurt. You always need a directorial outside view. Finally I’ve been released to say what I think all the time, which I’m finding liberating.”
The beginnings of his liberation came three years ago, when Glen was last in the West End collecting glowing review after glowing review – and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination – as John Proctor in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. That run saw Glen build a strong relationship with Thelma Holt, the producer who transferred the production from Stratford to London, and when she wanted to workshop Frank McGuinness’s new version of Ibsen’s classic, Glen took the role of Pastor Manders. When he offered his ideas about the play, Holt suggested he direct it. “It just seemed churlish not to give it a go.”
For a man who had never directed professionally before, taking that leap in front of the West End press could be a fearful task, like a newly qualified dentist performing his first root canal surgery on the Queen. One slip and his career prospects in that area could be greatly diminished. Yet as he talks about the proposition, I don’t sense too many nerves. He has, after all, been through the rehearsal process many times before, it is just that this time he is making the final decisions.
“Finally I’ve been released to say what I think all the time”
“What makes a good director,” he tells me, “is fairly elusive. It’s really down to insightful taste as to what’s going on within a play and how to realise that.” He talks with three decades’ experience working with some of the finest stage directors in the business; Trevor Nunn, Dominic Cooke, Richard Eyre, Sam Mendes, Declan Donnellan, Michael Boyd, Matthew Warchus, Michael Blakemore, Max Stafford-Clark, Nicholas Hytner. They all have different styles and techniques, he says, but what they share is “a guiding hand that’s placed at the right time”.
“I think one wise move,” he continues, “was to surround oneself with the best possible people in their various departments. You surround yourself with really good people and hope that they can cover for your blind spots which are always going to be there because a lot of situations one’s meeting for the first time.”
Among those all-important surrounding supports is leading lady Lesley Sharp, who made the improbable leap from playing the selfish, drunken mother of The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice to the distraught mother with a horrendous choice to make in Ghosts in just 12 days. Playwright McGuinness, who has been friends with the actress for more than 20 years, said of Sharp, “I’ve always wanted her to play the role; she’s finally admitted that she’s old enough to do it.” Glen also has nothing but praise for her: “She’s been so responsive and supportive and has really helped the unusual dynamic of having a director/actor in there.”
The dual role of director and performer, he explains, is not easy. Balancing the all-encompassing commitment of an actor with the dislocation of a director is testing “because as an actor part of your ability is to inhabit it, to really try and remove that third eye so you can really listen and be present and see where the lines take you”. It is fortunate that his character, Manders, does not inhabit “the dark heart of the piece,” as he puts it, which revolves around the relationship between Sharp’s Mrs Alving and her son, played by rising star Harry Treadaway, who returns home in the grip of syphilis.
When the play was first published, the candid tackling of an STI caused outrage. Its performance was banned. This reaction, the confusion and confounding of Ibsen’s regular readers, Glen thinks, caused Ibsen to shy away from ever being quite as provocative again in the future. “I don’t think, in all honesty, it is as shocking now,” he admits, considering its appeal to a 21st century audience. “I don’t think it’s as shocking, but I still think it surprises.”
While making his debut as a director is a big step for the 48-year-old native of Edinburgh, it is a step taken safe in the knowledge that if his directorial dreams come crashing down around him he can always simply return to acting. A brief glimpse at his hefty CV – it would take weeks to take more than a brief glimpse – marks him out as one of Britain’s most popular performers across all mediums, equally at home on stage, in high budget Hollywood blockbusters such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, niche independent films like Small Engine Repair or in television series including The Diary Of Anne Frank and City Of Vice.
“Things that seemed incredibly important seem very very unimportant and vice versa”
While he admits to working “fairly hard”, the CV, he says, can be deceptive simply because he will happily work across all mediums. “I love the opportunity that Britain particularly offers actors; being able to be in a radio studio one day and being able to be in a very good quality TV drama, and of course our wonderful history of writing in the theatres. I’ve always wanted to keep that mix as much as possible and as a result I think it probably means that I do work more.”
Already he has jobs lined up for when Ghosts closes on 15 May. A pilot he shot for American television company HBO, of fantasy drama Game Of Thrones, has recently been commissioned. He also has an exciting project with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the pipeline, which is yet to be confirmed.
He has no shyness or embarrassment about his roles in the high-octane films that have been received rather less well than much of his artistic work, the Tomb Raiders and Resident Evils of his career. As he puts it, “The ones that agents get more excited about and you think ‘alright, okay, fine.’”
“Of course it’s partly to pay the bills, as is every job that you do, but that’s honestly not the primary motivation. I’m always quite surprised that people want me to do them. It’s a different part of the business and some people live in that part for their careers. They’re superstars. I step in and out of it. The beast of a big action picture is actually quite fun; the pressure’s off really because there’s so much going on around you. You turn up and people make you look fantastic by using interesting camera angles and having explosions going off around you.”
There speaks a man entirely comfortable with his choices as a performer. He enjoys work and the variety it offers him, but it is no longer the be all and end all in his life, not since having children. He has a teenage son, Finlay, from his previous marriage to Susannah Harker, and a two-year-old daughter, Mary, from his current relationship with Emmerson. “Every parent would admit, whether you’re an actor or not, that it really transforms your outlook. Things that seemed incredibly important seem very very unimportant and vice versa. It comes along and nothing feels nearly as important as trying to bring up a child well and properly and give them a good life. That family dynamic complicates in a way that’s just delightful.”
So, following a weekend in which he has not given Ghosts a single thought, he finishes his interview and turns his attention back to his daughter. He does not have to be at the theatre today as the technical gear is being installed. His day is simple, he can spend it with her. Tomorrow, however, it will all get very hectic again.