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Q&A: Richard McCabe

Published 9 December 2013

“I wasn’t expecting to feel so emotional, that’s the odd thing. It’s just a bit shocking really.” As Olivier Award reactions go, Richard McCabe’s endearingly bemused response as we interviewed him moments after picking up his well-earned prize was a rival for our favourite in 2013.

What we didn’t know at the time, as McCabe explains below, was that after a nearly 20 year gap between nominations, the Royal Shakespeare Company regular thought we’d all forgotten about him. After that critically acclaimed turn as Harold Wilson in the Helen Mirren-led The Audience, we think being forgotten about is not something the actor needs let weigh on his mind any longer.

With a starring role this Christmas in Lucy Bailey’s London premiere of the Russian satire Fortune’s Fool – written more than 150 years ago by Ivan Turgenev, you could definitely call it long-awaited – we caught up with the theatre veteran to find out what he’s learnt from 30 years on the stage and discover why a simple kitchen fork is responsible for a life in showbiz.

Describe your character in Fortune’s Fool.
A type of man who sees in other people’s happiness nothing but a reproach of his own rottenness.

What attracted you to the production?
Working on a virtually unknown Russian play by a great writer is unusual and exciting. It also has a wonderful cast and production team. Treading the Old Vic boards is also an honour.

What has been your favourite moment of rehearsals so far?
Getting through my first scene without drying as it’s virtually a monologue taken at speed.

What first sparked your interest in performing?
Appearing in a Cub Scout production at the age of nine or 10. I accidentally hit the end of a fork which sent it flying into the air and got a big laugh.

What is your fondest childhood memory?
Playing in the woods and getting lost.

What is the finest performance you have ever seen?
So many over the years, but Helen Mirren in The Audience was quite special, particularly as I saw it evolve.

Who has been your favourite co-star ever?
An impossible question! As a young actor I worked with Kevin McNally and have always thought him brilliant. I was also in the same term at RADA with Mark Rylance.

Who or what has inspired you?
My English teacher when I was 11-years-old. He introduced me to a world of literature and made learning so interesting. I took my stage name, Richard, from him.

Do you have any regrets?
Not enjoying life more.

What do you consider your big break?
I have been working consistently (and luckily) for 33 years. I don’t think I have had a big break, although joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1986 opened up new horizons.

How did it feel to win an Olivier Award this year?
I was truly surprised by it. I was nominated nearly 20 years before and didn’t win, and have felt forgotten about ever since! So I was unprepared when my name was announced. I hadn’t worked out a speech.

Have you made any sacrifices for the sake of your career?
It is the nature of the business that you work unsociable, unpredictable hours and can get called away at a moment’s notice to somewhere on the other side of the world. This can put a strain on home and personal life. It is what we do however, and anyone embarking on this career should understand this. Fortunately my partner is theatre designer Fotini Dimou, so we both understand the demand of the job.

What advice would you give to an actor just starting out?
It’s not a race. You will be doing this job in 50 years. Strive to be the best actor you can be.

What could you not be without?
Opera.

Do you have a pre-show routine or any rituals?
I always put my left shoe on first.

Where do you head after a performance?
Usually home. I’ve never been a club/party sort of person.

What ambitions would you like to fulfil?
To write a musical.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
A composer. Music has always been profoundly important to me.

How would you like to be remembered?
As someone that was good at what they did.

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