There are moments in an actor’s career that can change everything. The winning of a prestigious award. The playing of a high-profile role. Almost always those life-changing moments are played out in the public eye. Occasionally, though, they are much more private affairs, finds Matthew Amer.
One such moment saw Rory Kinnear called into National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner’s office while he was appearing in The Man Of Mode at the South Bank venue back in 2007. “I thought I was going to get sacked going in there,” he laughs, when we talk three years after that meeting. “I didn’t know what I was in there for at all.”
He was in the office of one of the most influential men in British theatre to be asked to extend his relationship with the National, first by appearing in The Revenger’s Tragedy and then, at a later date, to take on the actors’ Holy Grail that is Hamlet. “I did realise leaving that office that one’s career was in a different place than when one had entered the office,” he calmly states. I should think so. He had just been offered the chance to play the archetypal career-defining role at one of the country’s most respected theatres.
Neither Kinnear nor Hytner were expecting both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Donmar Warehouse to announce their own productions of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Jude Law, but when they did, Kinnear’s stab at the Danish prince was postponed, and will now be staged later this year.
Before that, the 31-year-old actor has an opportune chance to reacquaint himself with the Bard’s work, playing Angelo in Michael Attenborough’s current production of Measure For Measure at the Almeida theatre. It is a role, he suggests, that is handily easing him back into Shakespearean performance as, though integral to the plot, he spends much of the play off stage. The cheeky suggestion that he might be using the production as a warm up is brushed aside with a grin and good humour as he takes a large bite of his lunchtime bagel. “Even if I hadn’t [been doing Hamlet], I’d have wanted to do this,” he says, without totally dismissing the notion that the timing is on the convenient side.
“It’s a fascinating character to try and flesh out”
Measure For Measure is, he explains, “one of my top three Shakespeares. It’s one that I think is very difficult to do satisfactorily and I wanted to know why.”
As we discuss the play, his past studying English at Oxford University becomes apparent. He has a scholarly knowledge of the text and how the play works and delves deeply into the motivation of Angelo, a character who finds himself ruling a morally corrupt Vienna in the Duke’s absence, tries to instil his strict moral code on those around him, but is undone by a plot that leaves him questioning everything he believes.
“It’s a fascinating character to try and flesh out,” Kinnear explains between bites. “To try and find the humanity in Angelo and to work out what drives him, that level of severity, what his upbringing was that has led him to pursue this path. All those things that Shakespeare lays open to you so that you can make certain choices yourself.”
On paper, Angelo appears an unforgiving role. “How do you try and maintain a life of purity and honesty in a state that seems to have given itself over to licentiousness?” Kinnear asks. The answer, in Angelo’s case, is a zero-tolerance policy that sees Claudio sentenced to death for making his fiancée pregnant. It is an extreme decision for an extreme situation. When Angelo falls for Claudio’s sister Isabella, the one person who seems to hold more puritanical views than him, the suggestion that if she slept with him he would pardon her brother does not make him any more likeable.
Kinnear, sounding a touch like a politician backed into a corner, argues that there is more to Angelo than the monster he seems: “Is there a sense of guilt afterwards? Is there a sense of shame beforehand? I think there is.”
“I long ago forgot to worry too much about how things are received”
As we sit in a meeting room at the Almeida’s rehearsal studios, Kinnear taking a bite of the lunch he is trying to eat while answering my questions, I notice award certificates on the wall behind him, peaking expectantly over his shoulder. While they represent the history of the Almeida, they also reflect the likely future for the actor who is quietly becoming one of the most dependable stage performers of his generation. He already has one Laurence Olivier Award to his name, having collected the Best Performance in a Supporting Role accolade for The Man Of Mode in 2008, and has been nominated in the same category this year for his performance in Burnt By The Sun.
Few people would be too surprised if he appeared in the 2011 Best Actor category for his upcoming performance in Hamlet. Yet with much of the industry eager to see how her fares as the Danish prince, Kinnear seems incredibly relaxed.
“It will be like every other job in the sense of the job I will have to do in terms of creating a character and working with other actors and telling a story. I’m not unaware of the cachet that it holds, but it’s just absolutely never crossed my mind to be daunted by it, largely because it will be done again and it has been done before. I guess if one was handed an incredible piece of writing that was being done for the first time, I think that’s pressure that you serve that text. If you got handed a great new script and you thought this could be sunk by its first production, then I’d feel a great deal of pressure on that. But to do something that is basically a privilege to get to do, to share that language with people, with some for the 50th time and some for the first, I find that just a privilege and exciting and am looking forward to it.”
Comparisons with previous Hamlets seem not to worry him either, even with Tennant and Law creating much hype around the role in recent years and John Simm set to take on the princely part in Sheffield in September.
“Almost 100% of the entire world doesn’t give a f**k what you do with Hamlet”
“I long ago forgot to worry too much about how things are received,” he explains, “just as long as you’re happy with it or there is something in it that you’re trying to do, that you might not achieve but you give it a go. I know that’s not necessarily a recipe for success.
“Also,” he continues, wryly, “almost 100% of the entire world doesn’t give a f**k what you do with Hamlet, so that’s quite liberating as well.”
He genuinely does not seem ruffled about pressure, comparison or reviews. It is not that such concerns are in any way below him, they are simply not of any interest. Maybe life has altered his priorities – Kinnear’s father, actor Roy, died when Rory was only 11 and his sister, Karina, has cerebral palsy – or maybe it really is all about immersing himself in a role regardless of what anyone thinks. Either way he assures me he doesn’t suffer from nerves, instead seeing them as somewhat of an indulgence.
Nor is he particularly bothered about aging. The start of the 30s, for some, mark a point in life where targets must have been hit and aims achieved. Not so Kinnear: “I’ve always felt quite old. From about the age of 12 I’ve sort of felt a bit like I was a 40-year-old man. I basically thought I’d never do anything until I was 40 or so, and then life might start, so the last couple of years have been an added bonus to what I presumed was going to be a muddied and defunct couple of decades.”
Quite some bonus: awards, acclaim, leading roles and even a Bond appearance. Those defunct decades are proving to be a watershed in his career. Yet with the acting landscape opening up before him, there is not the merest whiff of an ego or a wish to grow into a megastar. “Playing good parts on stage; I’d quite happily keep doing that. I guess that doesn’t sound overarchingly ambitious, but I guess that’s the way I like it. You just have to keep yourself open to what comes your way.” Like it or not, the opportunities coming his way over the next couple of years are only going to get bigger and bigger.