Stephen Campbell Moore is back on the London stage for the first time since The History Boys. Caroline Bishop grabs a chat with the actor as he prepares for the play that lured him back, All My Sons.
I am surprised to learn that Stephen Campbell Moore is only 32. Perhaps it is his frequent presence on our screens or the debonair confidence that his face projects, but I imagined him to be much older.
It turns out I am not the only one. “It’s very odd, I’ve always had people saying that to me. I think maybe I just look older. Often people ask ‘what have you done?’ and I think well I don’t know, I haven’t done that much!”
Perhaps it is because he often plays authority figures, like King Edward VIII in Wallis And Edward, or Alex’s father in the first series of BBC drama Ashes To Ashes, or teacher Irwin in Alan Bennett’s hit play and film The History Boys.
“Oh, that’s right,” he laughs, as though it has only just occurred to him. In fact, when he did The History Boys, Campbell Moore was a similar age to many of the actors playing his pupils, including Dominic Cooper, James Corden and Russell Tovey. “I can’t remember whatever age I was at the time but they’d say ‘you’re not 29, you’re much older than that.’ But yeah it frustrates me; Dom is perpetually young and I just get older and older!”
He says this with a smile in his voice as he chats to me on the phone during rehearsals for his latest play. He hasn’t been on stage since the Broadway run of The History Boys in 2006, and it has taken something special for him to return. “I was always wanting to do a play but every time I read a play it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it or think it was worth doing, but I didn’t love it enough. But I read this and I literally put it down and I was crying, and I thought this is something else and it would be a big mistake just to let it slip by.”
“It was one of those strange sort of pivotal moments for everybody”
The play in question is Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, in which Campbell Moore plays Chris, the son of manufacturing boss Joe Keller (David Suchet) and his wife Kate (Zoe Wanamaker). Set in 1948, it tells of torn loyalties, buried secrets and family tragedy in the wake of the Second World War.
“I loved the play and I thought the character was fascinating and very complex,” says Campbell Moore, “and I thought it would be a big challenge as well, which it is proving to be. But at the same time I think that’s probably why it’s worth doing.”
His is a complex character indeed; having returned from the war “with a sense of moral purpose”, Chris has to deal with his mother’s stubborn refusal to believe that her other son, Larry, died in action, her disapproval of Chris’s romantic intentions towards Ann, the former sweetheart of his missing brother, and the gradual realisation that his father, whom he idolises, is not as moral a person as he thought. “He searches for truth all the time but somehow manages to deceive himself completely about his own father, and in the end is left devastated by his father’s actions.”
It wasn’t, says Campbell Moore, a character he immediately saw himself playing, though director Howard Davies obviously did, having offered him the role straight after their first meeting. The actor puts his doubts down to the fact that Chris’s situation is far removed from his own, something which, having spent the last few years doing screen work where “you are often cast in things which are closer to you”, he is not used to. With All My Sons, “in terms of the circumstances, the period, the fact they are American, all those kinds of things, it just felt quite far away. As someone reading the play I was very connected to it, but then imagining myself actually playing it was a harder leap.”
Making that leap has been made easier by the support he has received from his fellow cast members, an “unexpected joy” he also relished when working on a touring production of Miller’s Death Of A Salesman back in 2001. “Miller is always about the family unit and invariably I think when you are in a Miller play you end up forming a surrogate family in rehearsals,” he laughs. “You end up having a lovely time with the actors and there’s an underlying warmth and love to everything even though it ends in tragedy.”
“Often when you do a play you do worry that you’re going to be involved with a group of people who are totally self-absorbed”
He shares a previous acting credit with his All My Sons co-star Suchet, though in the film in question, 2008’s The Bank Job, the pair never actually had a scene together. But a bout of food poisoning gave Campbell Moore an inkling then that Suchet would make a considerate co-star. Turning up on set the morning after a dubious meal in a Dalston restaurant – which he wisely won’t name – Campbell Moore was so ill that he “literally fell down in the car park and couldn’t move,” he recalls. “I think David had been given a room to himself which he had a bed in and he came running out, and the Assistant Director was just sort of looking at me on the floor not knowing what to do and he [David] was like, ‘come on come on, give him my bed!’ He was like this guardian angel,” he laughs. He doesn’t know if Suchet remembers the incident. “I actually haven’t told him about that. I don’t want his head to get too big.”
The warm atmosphere among the cast has allayed the initial fears Campbell Moore says he sometimes has about working with more experienced actors; imagining him to be older than he is, I did not have him down as a candidate for such worries. “I think often when you do a play you do worry that you’re going to be involved with a group of people who are maybe totally self-absorbed… and it’s [the All My Sons cast] not like that in any way, shape or form, and in a way you sort of feel that they give you license to be relaxed and to be able to try things and don’t maybe apply an unspoken hierarchy that could exist. But because they are great actors they just think it’s much better to work in an egalitarian way and just allow everybody to do their thing.”
Has he ever experienced a more hierarchical atmosphere? “I have, yeah. When I first started, when you’re spear carrier number three at the back, you do have a lot more time to observe how a particular director works with the star actor or whatever and it is corrupted to a certain extent by… the actor who I guess sells the tickets.”
After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1999, Campbell Moore kick-started his professional stage career by appearing in Jonathan Kent’s transatlantic double-bill of Richard II and Coriolanus, with Ralph Fiennes in the title roles. A production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the West End and stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company followed, as did his first screen role, in Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things in 2003. But it was getting the role of Irwin in The History Boys that brought Campbell Moore and his pupils to the wider attention of the industry.
It was a lack of hierarchy – fostered by Alan Bennett and director Nick Hytner – that Campbell Moore thinks contributed to the success of that production. “You had [lead actors] Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour and Clive Merrison who are all really lovely and not pushy in any way shape or form, but Nick and Alan established an environment where the boys had as much a say, a capacity, to speak their minds and admit that they didn’t know anything about the history or the subject. I think if you go into a rehearsal room with fear, as a younger actor, because you don’t want to do the wrong thing or move in the wrong place or upstage the main actor by accident, then it sets it all off kilter from the beginning, and I think good directors like Howard and Nick and plenty of others actually, just establish an environment where everybody is relaxed.”
“I thought this is something else and it would be a big mistake just to let it slip by”
Having originated the role for the play’s premiere at the National Theatre, Campbell Moore returned to the production for its Broadway run and the 2006 film adaptation featuring the original cast. Since its Tony Award-winning stay on Broadway the young cast members have forged increasingly successful careers, with the film Mamma Mia! (Cooper), sitcom Gavin And Stacey (Corden) and drama Being Human (Tovey) among their high profile credits. “It was one of those strange sort of pivotal moments for everybody,” Campbell Moore says of The History Boys. “It gave them confidence and made them go off and do other things. Everybody should take Alan out for a drink I think,” he laughs.
His own career highlights since that pivotal moment have included appearances in award-winning one-off drama A Short Stay In Switzerland and the hit series Ashes To Ashes. Unfortunately, before we can talk any more about these jobs, our conversation is truncated as Campbell Moore is called back to rehearsals. But before he goes he does offer up one comment about the BBC’s 1980s-set police drama. “I was reading in the paper the other day that that’s [Ashes To Ashes] one of David Cameron’s favourite TV programmes,” he says. “I don’t believe it, I was like, why? Maybe he has an 80s fetish.” And with that he is off, leaving me with an image I could have done without.