The former sitcom star talks to Matthew Amer about new show Amongst Friends and trying to change audiences’ perceptions of him.
The power of television on perception really can’t be overestimated. What we see on that not-so-small box in the corner of the room sticks somewhere deep within us and hangs on like a limpit. It is part of the reason why some actors struggle so hard with type-casting.
Think of Philip Glenister and you immediately imagine no frills cop Gene Hunt of Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes. It is hard to think of Rowan Atkinson without the dry sarcasm of Edmund Blackadder or the repulsive physicality of Mr Bean. With James Dreyfus, over the top campness seems ingrained from his performances in The Thin Blue Line and Gimme Gimme Gimme, yet these ceased filming in 1996 and 2001. By that point, though, the reputation and the image had stuck.
“It’s quite hard,” Dreyfus – who is not prancing around, screaming or giggling – admits. “People tend to think of you one way, which is why I’m trying to do different parts in the theatre. Occasionally I’ve had the chance to do it on television, but not that often… not as often as I’d like.”
In person, Dreyfus is calm, quiet, restrained, shy even. When we meet in the foyer of the Hampstead theatre, the imposing riveted steel exterior of the auditorium looming over his shoulder, he takes a little coaxing to swing into full conversation and relax into the interview.
In reality, he says, he is more like his character in the new April De Angelis comedy Amongst Friends. “[He is] very cynical, very dark, very troubled. I’m not as sarcastic as he is, but it’s certainly more like myself than some of the other characters that I’ve played. I tend to be much stiller as a person; not running around and camping it up.”
Amongst Friends, which premieres as part of Hampstead theatre’s 50th anniversary season, finds him in the role of a drugs counsellor invited to a dinner party with former neighbours who have moved to a fashionable ‘gated community’. When the security system fails and the food is delivered by a stranger, the party takes an unexpected turn.
“Some people loved it and some people hated it. I think that’s a good reaction”
Being a new play, the piece has been altered and manipulated, restructured and tweaked during the rehearsal period, playwright De Angelis spending the first few weeks of rehearsals working closely with the company – which also includes Helen Baxendale, Emma Cunniffe, Aden Gillett and Vicki Pepperdine – before leaving them under the guiding hand of director Anthony Clark.
“It was in quite good nick when she brought it to us,” Dreyfus smiles, referring to the script. While one might imagine the constant altering of lines and structure during rehearsals could make an actor’s life more difficult, it wasn’t an issue for Dreyfus who “can never learn my lines before we start rehearsals; it’s always learnt in the rehearsal room, always learnt on its feet”.
He has worked with the director, Clark, on four previous occasions, though this is his first full production at the Hampstead theatre. He says the sense of fun he has working with Clark is what keeps him coming back for more. “He’s very tolerant of giggling fits and misbehaviour.”
The Dreyfus I meet does not seem the naturally disruptive type; I can’t imagine him being forced to sit at the front of the classroom so as not to disrupt the rest of the class. I am well aware that interviews only bring out certain aspects of the interviewee – and how much can you learn in 30 minutes anyway – but there is a seriousness about Dreyfus to suggest that when it comes down to it, the work is always most important. But then, he is also very careful with his answers, not wishing to give too much of himself away.
He doesn’t say a lot when we talk about The Producers, the Broadway transfer in which he created the role of Carmen Ghia for London. He admits that the departure of Hollywood leading man Richard Dreyfuss on the eve of the first preview – his body, apparently, was not up to the rigours of musical theatre – was distinctly unhelpful and that the production was quite restrictive on how much he could explore his character – “you had to do your role in the package” – but tempers this by saying: “I thought the show was terrific, the show was absolutely brilliant”.
It sounds like praise, but the pause before his response, the heartbeat’s hesitation, hints at unspoken issues that he would rather leave that way. His recollections of other shows – Cabaret, for example, in which, under the guidance of director Rufus Norris, who reinvented the musical when he staged it in 2006, he played Emcee – are much bolder and brighter. That production, however, received a decidedly mixed reception: “Some people loved it and some people hated it, but I don’t think there were many people that were in between. I think that’s a good reaction. There’s nothing more boring than having someone come up and go ‘eh, it was alright.’
“I’ve never had the guts to do it properly, but I will soon”
“We wanted to take the Emcee in a very different direction,” he continues, “make him much, much darker. We ended up making him as much a part of the problem as part of the solution.”
His Cabaret gig came swiftly on the heels of another project, the Michael Frayn farce Donkeys’ Years, the thought of which immediately brings a smile to his face; it saw him reunited with his Thin Blue Line colleagues David Haig and Mark Addy. “We had an absolute ball doing that show,” he beams. “It contained a lead performance from David Haig that was just sublime.”
Again, in Donkeys’ Years, the spectre of The Thin Blue Line and Gimme Gimme Gimme raised its exaggeratedly camp head, as the role he was initially offered did nothing to dispel the common perception of his boundaries. “When I read it,” he explains, “I thought ‘I don’t want to play the camp vicar.’” Director Jeremy Sams was mindful of Dreyfus’s concerns and instead offered him the role of Alan Quine, who was “very austere and quiet and cynical and basically rude to people”. It was another step away from his sitcom persona.
Age might help. Having turned 40 last year, the thin, slightly gawky Dreyfus of his sitcom past has filled out a touch, his jaw line covered in a mottled beard and his hair sprinkled with the merest hint of grey. On this balcony, when he holds his head in a certain fashion and the light catches it just right, there is the hint of a younger Alan Rickman about him.
He has, he says, embraced the landmark birthday with ease, revelling in the new range of opportunities it has brought to him, “all much stiller, much heavier roles”.
“I found my 35th much more worrying,” he says, “I don’t know why. I think it was just the end of my early 30s, the end of that and then careering towards 40 which I thought would be terrible.”
So, not hyperactive, not outrageously camp and, in fact, remarkably controlled in the face of milestones that send others spiralling towards desperation. He also has a secret passion that is suitably low key: “I do love writing,” he confides. “I’ve never had the guts to do it properly, but I will soon… I’ve been saying that for the last ten years.”
“It is possibly the most exposing thing you can do, which is why it’s slightly terrifying to show people”
This love for writing, like his passion for theatre, stems from childhood. He can’t say why or where they came from, just that they have always been part of him. His youth, spent with his mother living in France, America and the UK, widened his horizons and opened his eyes to a variety of experiences. Maybe they led his imagination on a trip of inventiveness he has never wanted to leave behind, or maybe, as he matter-of-factly puts it, “I just wasn’t interested in much else.”
Tight-lipped and protective, he won’t say too much about his current writing project, merely mentioning that the only medium for which it is definitely not destined is theatre. “It’s very exposing,” he says, explaining his reluctance to discuss it. “As an actor you’re playing another part, you’re somebody else, but writing you’re giving a lot of yourself in there. It is possibly the most exposing thing you can do, which is why it’s slightly terrifying to show people.
“That’s what acting is all about,” he continues, “It’s not supposed to be you. I grew up thinking that. I always liked, loved, Laurence Olivier doing The Boys From Brazil and The Marathon Man, because he was playing two totally different types of people, totally unrecognisable in each. To me, that’s what acting is, it’s becoming something else that’s not you. I think it would be boring if I had to play myself, really dull.”
For him, maybe it would, but it would probably also put to bed all the thoughts of the high camp, flouncing, bouncy boy of the sitcoms.
“That,” he states “is not me”.