Kevin R McNally, character actor, well-known pirate and former television scriptwriter, tells Caroline Bishop about his new found classical career for the Donmar Warehouse.
Kevin R McNally, it transpires, is a self-confessed James Bond geek. Not only can he name all the films in the series (in the correct order) but he has the claim to fame of having appeared, aged 19 and fresh out of drama school, in the very first scene of The Spy Who Loved Me. So when taking on a villainous role on stage, as he is in playing Hamlet’s nemesis Claudius, he naturally looks for inspiration from 007’s notorious archenemy. “I’m even dressed a bit like a Bond villain actually. I’ve sort of gone for the Blofeld look,” he grins, before sitting back in his chair and miming stroking a cat in the oft-parodied manner of the famous baddie. “I find myself sometimes going like that with the cat actually.” He adopts a Blofeld-esque menace: “‘So, Hamlet…’”
McNally laughs and his eyes crinkle into well-worn crow’s feet. He is not an obvious villain; mischievous, certainly, but usually directed towards humorous, rather than murderous, ends. I last saw him making audiences roar with laughter as the endearingly jovial Lebedev in Ivanov at the Wyndham’s theatre. Before that he played the girlfriend-juggling Bernard in French farce Boeing Boeing. He may be best known on screen for playing a pirate, but Joshamee Gibbs – Jack Sparrow’s first mate in the The Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy – was, as a friend of mine put it, the sort of pirate you could take home to meet your mother. It is something of a change, then, for him to take on Hamlet’s nefarious uncle, who rules Denmark with an iron fist. “I did spend the first two weeks missing laughs, because Claudius doesn’t have any, and it’s been a long time since I’ve played something that was so clearly a straight role, but [it’s] good for me, a good muscle to exercise I think,” says McNally when we meet in the patio garden outside the rehearsal room’s café, where he sits smoking a cigarette, shades shielding his eyes from the bright sunshine.
Despite the limited laughs, McNally is enjoying the chance to be part of Shakespeare’s “perennially brilliant” drama and get under the skin of such a well known character who – putting aside all Bond parodies – he does not consider to be entirely irredeemable. “I think that you’ve really got to bat the character’s corner and I don’t really see him as a villain at all although he plainly does some very bad stuff. But it’s been fun to try to find out the reasons why he thinks it’s good to do what he does,” he says. “The play’s a wonderful mixture of the big political and the very small domestic and I think finding the balance between those is quite interesting.”
“If you’re not a leading actor, you’re not a star, all you’ve really got is the way people regard you.”
It is a weighty role for someone who has not tackled Shakespeare since he left drama school over 30 years ago, and his debut comes in a hugely anticipated production. Jude Law plays the title role in a staging that concludes the popular and – for the most part – critically acclaimed Donmar West End season at the Wyndham’s theatre, under Artistic Director Michael Grandage, that began with Chekhov’s Ivanov.
Knowing the director’s approach from his time in Ivanov was one reason why McNally felt comfortable taking on the role. “You know, you either avoid Shakespeare or Shakespeare avoids you, I don’t know what it’s been over the years, but I obviously had a little bit of apprehension about exercising [my] Shakespearean muscles,” he says.
As it happens, Grandage had never directed Hamlet professionally before, and neither Law nor Penelope Wilton, who plays Gertrude, had previously appeared in it “so the benefit was that we were all approaching it fresh together,” says McNally. That would not have been the case had Hamlet-phile Kenneth Branagh, who was due to direct the production initially, not pulled out due to filming commitments. “It was a disappointment that he couldn’t do it but there’s a nice continuity to Michael [Grandage] finishing the season he started in a way,” comments McNally.
He has already experienced something of the excitement surrounding the season with his involvement in Ivanov, which starred Branagh in the title role, and rather than being dismissive of the attention that comes with high profile casting, McNally feels a sprinkling of stardust can only be a good thing for theatre. “I’m hoping that I’m not being naïve to think that theatre is having a bit of a renaissance,” he comments. “So often you do plays and they just drift by and nobody sees them. To be part of something that has had such a profile, is sold out and is really anticipated not only in the theatre press but in the national press as well, I get really excited by that.
“Theatre, before the rise of television, was a place of stars. You went to see your favourite stars in the theatre and I see no reason why that shouldn’t continue,” he says, adding that when he was growing up he loved to see actors he knew from their film work venture into theatre. Not that Law hasn’t been there before; his movie star status came after stage outings at the Royal Court and the Young Vic had already pegged him “as very much the up and coming stage star” recognises McNally.
“I feel I’ve been given, at the age of 53, this classical career that I’d avoided for 34 years”
His co-star’s celebrity – accompanied by affordable ticket prices – also has the advantage of drawing a wider audience to theatre. “I don’t think we want a situation where we have an aging and slowly dying audience, we have to look to the future and create an excitement in younger people that theatre will be part of their lives and I think this goes a great deal towards helping that.”
McNally’s own involvement in the play may also be a draw for younger audiences who saw him as Gibbs in The Pirates Of The Caribbean films. Shooting the trilogy in the Caribbean and Los Angeles alongside co-stars including Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley gave McNally first hand experience of the response to such stardust. He relates a time he and his colleagues Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg stepped off set to sign autographs after filming in Long Beach, California. “We went out in this crowd and for a middle-aged character actor like myself it was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen because for a moment I felt near a sliver of what it must have been like to have been a Beatle,” he smiles. “They went insane, and I have to say it was a very nice experience but it was not one that I would like to have constantly in my life.”
Luckily for McNally, all he had to do to avoid being recognised was shave off the impressive sideburns he grew for the role. “I had to decide whether I wanted to be fiddled about with every morning or whether I wanted to look like an idiot all day, so I went for looking like an idiot all day,” he says of his decision to turn down the option of stick-ons.
He talks happily and freely about shooting the trilogy, which he says was an “incredible” experience and one he clearly feels proud to have been a part of. The only drawback was, as a homebody, he missed his wife, the actress Phyllis Logan, and their 13-year-old son, back in Chiswick. “I sometimes wish I’d been slightly younger… Although perhaps if I had been a young man gallivanting around the Caribbean and Los Angeles I might have done myself some serious mischief,” he chuckles.
As it is, in the “early to mid-autumn of my life”, as he puts it, the unusual combo of Pirates and Grandage has given McNally’s career an unexpected second wind. The trilogy boosted his profile in the States, where he has since returned to shoot a TV pilot and several films, while this side of the pond, thanks to Grandage, McNally is enjoying his reinvention as a classical actor. “Because of Ivanov and this I’m getting a great deal of interest to do more theatre in London and it’s something that I’m quite keen to give myself over to really,” he says. “I feel I’ve been given, at the age of 53, this classical career that I’d avoided for 34 years. It’s a box that hadn’t been ticked.”
“I’m hoping that I’m not being naïve to think that theatre is having a bit of a renaissance”
Unintentionally avoided, perhaps. Inspired to be an actor by seeing Derek Jacobi perform at Birmingham Repertory Theatre when he was at school in the midlands, it wasn’t that McNally shirked a classical career, more that the parts he was offered came predominantly in new writing. After years as a jobbing actor, in the late 80s he took up scripting television series to support himself in order that he could be more selective about the acting work he did. “I just wanted to make sure every credit I did was classy,” he explains. “Because if you’re not a leading actor, you’re not a star, all you’ve really got is the way people regard you. And I think I managed to get out of that a sense that people would [think] if I was in something it was probably quite a good project, it wouldn’t be sh*t. I’ve made a few mistakes but on the whole I’ve managed to keep that together really.”
Starring in the Donmar Warehouse’s Hamlet in the West End is confirmation that McNally has achieved that aim. Having also now fulfilled his boyhood dream of working on the backlots of Hollywood, he still has a few more items to tick off his career wish-list. “I’ve never been on Broadway, and it would seem to me that persisting on doing very good theatre in London is certainly a way to do that.” Perhaps Hamlet is his chance, I suggest. “You never know. We could be headed to the Great White Way, I’d like that. I can imagine myself having a nice little apartment on the Upper West Side, walking down to Broadway every night and giving of my best. I could cope with that!”
In the meantime, should Barbara Broccoli be casting for the next Bond film, she might want to pop along to the Wyndham’s theatre. “Well I’m hoping,” McNally grins, “that some of them come along and see my Claudius and perhaps think that I might, in fact, be a Blofeld in the future.”