A worldwide hit film, a hugely popular long-running sitcom and many a sold out stage show make a successful career indeed. But James Fleet hardly credits himself, finds Caroline Bishop.
James Fleet decided to take a risk on his current role and play it as nobody has ever played it before. “I think my fear was that I wouldn’t get any laughs because everybody was going to be expecting what they normally get. But it worked out alright,” he says. Indeed it did; Fleet’s performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was hailed as ‘deliciously comic’ (The Telegraph) and ‘a delight’ (The Times) by the critics at Stratford-Upon Avon, where the Royal Shakespeare Company production was first seen before its London transfer this month.
Yet Fleet doesn’t come across as a confident risk-taker. In fact, when I put down the phone after speaking to the actor prior to the London opening of the show, I am puzzled. It has been an intriguing, enjoyable and witty conversation but the overall impression I get of Fleet is of an insecure and curiously pessimistic person who is more than a little hard on himself.
“Can you try and make me sound more interesting than I am?” he says at one point. Doesn’t he think he is interesting? “No, I’ve got no confidence at all. I think that’s why I am an actor because that’s the only time I get to show off because I haven’t got the confidence to do it in real life. At those after show discussions I’m the one that’s always looking at his shoes.”
The image the 55-year-old portrays of himself mirrors the characters for which he is best known: the nice, shy Tom in hit film Four Weddings And A Funeral and the timid Hugo in Richard Curtis’s long-running BBC comedy series The Vicar Of Dibley. “All my characters are based on me,” he says. “I don’t know how to base it on anybody else.”
“Some time in my 30s, I discovered this rich vein of stupidity and it comes very, very naturally”
Now he is taking on another character normally played as a nervous, gauche sidekick. Yet Fleet’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek does not equate with the usual portrayal of Toby Belch’s friend as thin, balding and shabbily-dressed. None of that is actually in Shakespeare’s words at all, says Fleet. “So I’m playing [him] like a very rich man with a fantastic head of hair, who is very vain about his hair and his appearance, and very aggressive. The first thing you hear about Andrew Aguecheek is when Maria says he’s a great quarreller and if he wasn’t such a coward he would quickly have the gift of the grave. So I try and pick a fight with everybody on every line, which is really easy because all of my lines are to do with beating people up. It’s never played like that, or if it is I’ve never seen anybody play it like that. And that makes more sense when he comes to fight the duel and you realise that although he’s been threatening to have a fight all through the play, he is actually a complete coward. Which comes easily to me, I have to say. I wouldn’t pick a sword fight with a total stranger in real life.” He laughs. Of course he wouldn’t, who would? But somehow Fleet makes it sound like a flaw in his character.
“He’s just very stupid,” he adds of Sir Andrew. “He’s like those awfully good, well meaning kind of men who try and fit in, and they think swearing and swaggering and strutting about the place is what makes you a man, and of course it isn’t.”
Despite his efforts to put a new spin on the character, it seems he can’t get away from typecasting entirely. Stupidity, too, is a characteristic that could be said of Tom and Hugo, and it is one which Fleet says he has got down pat. “Why do I get those parts?” he asks me. “I remember at drama school there was a teacher there. I think I was very show-offy at drama school and very quick. I remember him saying ‘I think you will have trouble playing stupid people because you are always… quick, [with] mercurial facial expressions’ or something. But how wrong he was, because obviously, some time in my 30s, I discovered this rich vein of stupidity and it comes very, very naturally! It’s much easier to act with as well, it’s very low energy acting.”
He says Aguecheek is a complex character and I am beginning to realise that Fleet is too, full of contradictions that make him difficult to fathom. I take this last comment to mean that he enjoys playing stupid characters because they are easier to act, but then I ask him if that is what he means and he says, with a hint of petulance: “No. I’m fed up of playing weak men, I’d like to play somebody who has got will and is able to take his life and control it. I always end up playing people who don’t get the girl in the end. It’s silly to moan about it because you take what you’re given in life don’t you, you play the hand you’re dealt, but I seem to have been dealt this hand I didn’t think I had!”
“It doesn’t matter for ordinary actors like me, we can be in complete flops and make complete idiots of ourselves and nobody cares. It’s a wonderful freedom”
“I’d love to play a baddie in something,” he continues, “I’d love to be in Spooks or something like that. I never get asked. They always think ‘oh you do light entertainment’. Casting directors love to pigeonhole you. They hate versatility, it confuses people. That’s what I’m sort of doing in the theatre now, I thought I’ll go back to the theatre and I’ll reinvent myself as a classical actor,” he laughs. He is serious in what he says yet he speaks with a dry amusement at his situation.
He did get to play something of a baddie in The Observer at the National Theatre earlier this year, “a sort of dodgy diplomat spy” hoping to influence the election outcome in a West African country. “I was hoping a lot of casting directors would come to that and say ‘oh he’d be perfect for the new James Bond film’ but that hasn’t happened yet anyway.”
Fleet is not moaning, however, even though he may have to remind himself not to sometimes. Despite saying, with typical dry humour, that The Vicar Of Dibley delivered “the death blow” to his chances of escaping typecasting, he admits working on the popular sitcom from 1994 to 2007 was “a scream, we used to laugh and laugh. I’ve been very, very lucky haven’t I? I’m not complaining at all.”
Later he adds, “I still can’t believe that I was in it actually, I see it on TV and I think ‘oh that’s a BBC programme’. It must have been me that was in it but it just seems like too big a thing for me to have been in.”
Once again he seems to be putting himself down; why shouldn’t he have been in a popular BBC sitcom; could it only have been luck, rather than talent, that got him there? This air of negativity is accompanied by a curious lack of self-motivation that pervades his conversation. He must have found it rewarding playing a recurring character, I say, for him to have remained in Dibley for so long. “It is, because you don’t have to do very much thinking,” he says immediately. And when I ask him what he is doing in the days off before the start of the London run of Twelfth Night he replies: “I don’t know about you but I just never seem to get the energy to do anything.”
Perhaps this languor implies laziness, and yet he contradicts this conclusion by going on to say he enjoys doing plays by Richard Bean – whose In The Club he appeared in last year – because they are challenging, and he likes change because “It keeps your brain alive doesn’t it, to do new things.”
“I think that’s why I am an actor because that’s the only time I get to show off because I haven’t got the confidence to do it in real life.”
Yet even this enthusiasm for new challenges is tempered with a certain negativity, albeit expressed with a paradoxical cheerfulness. “If it’s doing something that’s out of your comfort zone, I’d go for that straight away, even if it’s a disaster,” he says of his career choices. “I don’t care about failure now. I’m not young and pretty and trying to get noticed and make it in the big city, I don’t actually care if I’m in a disaster, I’m not famous enough for it to be important. If I was in something and it was terrible, who cares because everybody will forget. If you’re a big film star, if you’re like Hugh Grant or Richard Curtis, your last thing that you did is judged, you are what you did last. It doesn’t matter for ordinary actors like me, we can be in complete flops and make complete idiots of ourselves and nobody cares. It’s a wonderful freedom!”
That may be so, but it can’t be a pleasant experience to be in something that is a disaster, I say. No, says Fleet, but then he can’t think of a play he has been in London that has been a disaster. “The things that I’ve been in, touch wood, have always been sold out,” he says and I can’t help but laugh. Despite the air of happy pessimism that Fleet projects during our chat, the fact is, he has a very successful career on his hands. He may not have played a James Bond villain just yet, but he has maintained a career across stage, television and film that has been a success, even if that surprises him somewhat. He must have made the right choices then, I suggest. “Yeah,” he agrees and I imagine the shrug that accompanies his words as he adds “I’m just very lucky that’s all.”