It is a decade since The Office propelled him to fame, and what a decade it’s been. Caroline Bishop talks to Mackenzie Crook as he returns to the West End with Jerusalem.
Mackenzie Crook has his priorities straight. When our 11am phone interview is postponed until later in the day I imagine it’s because he is far too busy with whatever famous actors do: having coffee with a top director, fine-tuning his performance in rehearsals, or signing for his next big film. But no, Crook was down at his son’s school helping the pupils make dreamcatchers for a project on Native Americans. “I didn’t want to just abandon them,” he says simply. Quite right too. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to deny a bunch of primary school children the chance to make dreamcatchers with the pirate Ragetti.
There’s no doubt Crook is a devoted family man. Researching him, it’s rare his kids – Jude, eight and daughter Scout, three – aren’t mentioned in other interviews, whether it be Jude’s trips to the set of The Pirates Of The Caribbean, in which his dad played the aforementioned one-eyed pirate, or in association with the piece of Essex woodland Crook purchased in 2008, “for my kids to enjoy and hopefully inspire in them a love of the natural world,” he tells me now.
It’s no wonder Crook wants to spend as much time with them and wife Lindsay as possible, after being away from his family for much of the year with the Broadway transfer of Jerusalem. “They came out at the beginning and at the end but there was a big chunk in the middle when I was without them.”
“People might have recoiled against it, but they didn’t, they embraced it”
Now he’s back at home in London, as Jerusalem returns to the Apollo theatre for its second West End run. Jez Butterworth’s extraordinary exploration of small-town rural England sold out both its premiere run at the Royal Court and its first West End season, receiving an Olivier Award nomination for Best New Play and universal critical plaudits. But it’s been two and a half years since that first performance. Though Crook’s role as Ginger, a freeloading no-hoper glued to the bandwagon of local wildman Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, is a plum part, isn’t he sick of playing it after so long? “No it’s great. The reason we’re all still doing it and the reason that the majority of the original cast stays is because we love it so much.”
There’s a whiff of unfinished business about the return, too. “We left London last time with a lot of people still wanting to see it. It felt right to come back to home soil.”
So Crook is back in the same dressing room, shared once again with his co-stars: Mark Rylance, who plays Rooster, and a tortoise called Eli. Crook’s family values extend to the production, too. He and Rylance have taken the door off their dressing room to recreate the communal atmosphere they had in New York, when all eight men in the show shared a dressing room. Even the tortoise is part of the family; when not on stage, Eli and his understudies live with Crook, who has been breeding the reptiles since childhood. “I’ve got various ones that I bring in to relieve Eli when he’s had enough,” he says, deadpan.
Funnily enough, it was coincidence that Butterworth wrote a tortoise into the play and cast an actor who just happened to breed them. That’s not the only thing about Jerusalem that seems to suit the actor; Ultz’s impressive set of real trees could be straight out of Crook’s woodland. Was the rural aspect of the play part of the appeal? “I can’t really say that it was,” he tells me, “because when I first got on board it [the play] wasn’t really fully formed. I was attracted by the writing; Jez’s writing just leaps off the page, it’s brilliant. I read the first page and I knew that this was something I wanted to be involved in. Working with [director] Ian Rickson again and working at the Royal Court again, it was those factors that attracted me.”
The production wasn’t without risk. A three-hour, extremely wordy play which involves drug-use, excessive drink, extreme violence and hints of child-abuse, Jerusalem isn’t exactly a traditional comedy, even though Butterworth’s script and the cast’s performances make it highly comic indeed. “People might have recoiled against it, but they didn’t, they embraced it,” says Crook. “We quickly realised, once we went up at the Royal Court, that the audience felt the same way about it that we did.” Somewhat surprisingly given its idiosyncratic English storyline – Morris Men and Little Chef are among the homegrown references – it beguiled American audiences, too. “They laughed just as much as English audiences but at different bits, strangely.” Thankfully then, Jerusalem avoided an Enron-style Broadway blowout.
“I can’t regret not getting in [to art school] because I’m more than happy with what I’m doing at the moment”
So well received was it that Rylance matched his Olivier Award with a Tony, while Crook earned nominations on both sides of the Atlantic, too. Pretty impressive, given it’s only his third play. “I felt a little bit… fake,” he says slowly, when I ask about the nominations. “Surely I have to be doing this another decade at least before I start getting those sorts of things?”
Part of his success must be down to director Rickson, with whom he first worked on The Seagull at the Royal Court in 2007, which also transferred to Broadway and also earned Crook a Tony nomination. A big fan of The Office, the cringe-inducing TV comedy in which Crook got his break, Rickson somehow saw in Crook’s performance as officious, petty salesman Gareth something which made him perfect for the role of suicidal writer Konstantin in Chekhov’s tragic-comedy. “I wasn’t convinced of it myself,” says Crook, “and he persuaded me and I’ll always be grateful to him for that, because it was incredible.”
Prior to that, he’d been one of several stand-up comedians cast as psychiatric patients in a 2004 West End production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, opposite Christian Slater, but it wasn’t until The Seagull that the “proper theatre work” began. “That was when I realised the theatre work ethic and how immersed you have to become in the world.”
It has been 10 years since The Office propelled him into the public consciousness, and all this – the West End roles, the New York transfers, the big budget film trilogy – has happened since then. But it took a decade of dogged determination before he made it.
Growing up in a small town near Dartford, Kent, he’d initially wanted to be an artist, but his plans were quashed when his application to art school was turned down, a “massive disappointment” for someone with no other career plan in mind. At the time, that included acting. Though he’d loved performing in a youth theatre group, he had never considered doing it professionally. “I don’t think anybody even suggested it to me; if they had I might have come to that decision a bit earlier.”
When he finally did make the decision, aged 20, he had no desire to go to drama school and study for years; he wanted to get out there and start performing. Now, he says that urge to break away from his hometown and get started helped him identify with the frustrations of the characters in Jerusalem, who have little possibility on the horizon. “At the time it was frustrating, being in that small town and looking forward to getting out, but now I realise that that’s probably what inspired me, and had I been brought up in the city maybe I wouldn’t have felt so driven to do something in my life.”
He created his own character sketch show and took it on the road, with the aim of getting his Equity card that way. “It took a lot longer than I thought it would. I thought I might be doing that for a couple of years and it turned out to be more like eight or 10 years.” And it wasn’t easy. “My act is very prop heavy and I’d be carrying these props and these costumes all around the country on public transport, and it was exhausting. Playing sometimes awful audiences: stag parties, drunken rugby clubs or whatever. So it was a bit gutting, but I made slow and steady steps up the ladder I suppose. I could always see that I was advancing, albeit slowly.”
He got some attention at the Edinburgh Fringe and was asked back. From that, small TV parts came his way, including a stint presenting comedy programme The 11 O Clock Show, before The Office came along “and all the doors opened”.
“…had I been brought up in the city maybe I wouldn’t have felt so driven to do something in my life”
So popular was the Ricky Gervais-Stephen Merchant ‘mockumentary’ that walking down the street with Christian Slater during Cuckoo’s Nest, Crook was more recognised than the Hollywood star. These days, of course, Crook is more Hollywood than Slater, having appeared in the blockbuster Pirates trilogy and, more recently, Spielberg’s The Adventures Of Tintin, released this month. It’s been something of a revelation for the boy from Dartford. “The first Pirates, I came straight from The Office, which is done on such a cheap budget, I mean no dressing rooms, we made our own way in on public transport. To go from that to this huge vast production with millions of dollars and galleons at sea and filming on desert islands, that was quite an eye-opener. It’s still magical, I still have to pinch myself. I hope I never become blasé about stuff like that because it is exciting.”
He’s got his kids to keep his feet on the ground. Is son Jude inspired by his dad’s films? “No films that I’m in are in his top ten!” he laughs.
Maybe he’ll prefer his books. In addition to starring in the biggest hit play of the last few years, and playing cartoon characters with Spielberg, Crook has just released his first children’s book, The Windvale Sprites, which he has both written and illustrated, finally finding a professional outlet for his artistic skills. A whimsical tale about a sprite found in a pond after a storm, it had been gestating in Crook’s head since the great storm of 1987, but he’d never got round to sending it to publishers. Now, as he freely admits, his acting profile has allowed him to bypass the “normal route” and get a deal with Faber & Faber. More books should be expected: “I have been collecting ideas for years.”
So after being rejected from art school and struggling for ten years to make it as an actor, now Crook has ended up doing both. “I can’t regret not getting in [to art school] because I’m more than happy with what I’m doing at the moment.”
“It fits in really nicely with the theatre,” he adds, “because I’ve got the days free to write… or make dreamcatchers.” Movie star, stage actor, author, artist, family man: the boy from Dartford done good.