Screen star Steven Mackintosh tells Matthew Amer how fate has led him to break his eight year theatrical exile and return to the stage in In A Dark Dark House.
It is funny who you bump into in the street, isn’t it? One minute you are at home watching American playwright Neil LaBute promoting his West End production of Fat Pig on television, the next you are wandering around central London when the same American scribe spots you through the crowd and offers you a role in the European premiere of his new play In A Dark Dark House.
Granted, this has never happened to me – my lack of acting ability may have something to do with that – but it is exactly what happened to Steven Mackintosh, a performer better known for his screen appearances including Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Our Mutual Friend, who hadn’t taken to the stage since appearing in David Hare’s My Zinc Bed eight years ago.
“Hey, it was fate,” Mackintosh says with just a hint of a parody, as he chats to me on the phone during a break from rehearsals. He had, in fact, been considering a return to the stage, particularly in a piece of new American drama. In a way that only fate can be credited with, everything just seemed to fall into place.
In A Dark Dark House, which is staged at the Almeida theatre, finds Mackintosh playing Drew, a lawyer in his late 30s, who has lived a fast and loose existence before finding himself in rehab. A forced reunion with his brother Terry, who lives a very different life, sees long-hidden memories of childhood rise to the surface.
Mackintosh uses words like sharp, cunning, witty and astute to describe his character who, though clearly being very savvy, is still clinging to a youth that should have been left behind. He has ‘issues’.
“I have to be hungry to do theatre”
Mackintosh is an actor who is nothing if not well versed in portraying characters with difficult lives. His performance in Care, in which he played a man who had suffered hideous abuse while growing up in a care home, saw him receive a BAFTA nomination and win numerous other awards, including the Royal Television Society award for Best Actor. “I think if that film had taken weeks and weeks and weeks to film, I probably would have been on my knees by the end of it,” he says. Luckily most of the difficult scenes were shot back to back in a fast-paced two-week schedule which was like a “whirlwind of emotion”.
It is these roles, though, that define Mackintosh’s acting career. It is a cliché to describe actors as searching for challenges and pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone – almost every performer I have ever interviewed has expressed this desire – but Mackintosh’s back catalogue really does have a huge variety of roles and issues that reflects his range and ability to tackle gruelling subjects. “You don’t walk into it lightly,” he says of Care, “thinking ‘that’s going to be great, a piece about child abuse.’ I read it and took it very, very seriously and thought ‘okay, why do I want to do this?’”
Different For Girls, the film in which he played transsexual Kim Foyle, is another example of Mackintosh taking an uncomfortable choice. “I read it and I auditioned for it and I thought ‘Oh no, please don’t offer me this, don’t offer me this.’ Then, of course, they did.” In a show of support, all of his friends and family urged him to take the role, while he was secretly hoping against hope that someone would suggest it was a step too far. Yet again, the challenge proved a positive experience: “I did come out at the end of it thinking ‘You know what, if I can do that, who knows what’s possible?’”
A glimpse through Mackintosh’s CV shows that while Hollywood is well aware of his talent, it is in lower budget independent films that he has made his mark. Theatre is a decidedly rare medium for Mackintosh to choose, which is odd considering this was where fate decreed his career should start.
As a 16-year-old who had just sat his O-levels, Mackintosh was ready to head to sixth form college in his native Cambridge when he was offered the role of Dandy Dan in the West End production of Bugsy Malone. He had previously appeared at the Bush theatre and in The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, but it was in the youthful musical hit that Peter Hall saw Mackintosh and took him to the National Theatre. While his time on the South Bank was the ideal learning environment for an actor finding his feet, it was followed by some unfortunate choices that scarred Mackintosh, making him cautious of theatre. “I had some rocky experiences that weren’t so great, and I got burnt a little by it,” he explains. “That’s why I ended up leaving it for quite a long time before returning to do My Zinc Bed.” It is also why he left an eight year gap between that production and In A Dark Dark House.
“Kermit Dickens-style; it doesn’t get any better really”
“I feel like I have to be hungry to do [theatre]. It’s one of those things. It’s a very different commitment, for me personally. It feels a very, very big deal when I agree to come into the theatre, so I want to feel hungry to do it. I would hate to have to go into a theatre production feeling ‘I’m not sure about this’. But I’m determined to recapture that fantastic, exhilarating feeling I experienced way back when. That’s what drew me back to this.”
While many of his peers set their hearts on an acting career when they were but children, Mackintosh simply found that a hobby had snowballed: “I suddenly woke up in my 20s and realised ‘I see, this is my life.’” One job led to another and, though previously he would take almost anything that was put in front of him, including ultimately unrewarding stage work, now he has strong opinions about what he should or shouldn’t commit to.
A decision that he is pleased to have made, and which brings about possibly the most enthusiastic response of the entire interview, was taking the part of Scrooge’s nephew Fred in seasonal favourite The Muppet’s Christmas Carol. “To be asked to share a set with Kermit,” he starts to say, before getting lost for words. “Kermit Dickens-style; it doesn’t get any better really! What’s really funny is between takes Kermit’s mouth becomes incredibly foul as well; even more blissful!” Because of his choice of roles, it is also one of the only films Mackintosh has made that his youngest daughter is allowed to see, though she keeps asking, every time a new movie is released.
She certainly has not seen Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels yet. The hit cockney gangster flick in which Mackintosh plays drug manufacturing posh boy Winston, was pretty much the same as most low budget films he had made when he was on set; filmed swiftly with not enough hours in the day, the set full of energy and a sense of fun. It was only on seeing a preview screening that he realised quite what an impact it could make: “I remember watching the first scene where they’re running away with the gear that they’ve got in their case, Nick Moran and Jason Statham. I think they’re just about to run down a set of steps and the case goes flying and there’s a freeze frame and a music cue kicks in. Just on that moment when the music started I got a massive tingle up my spine which, I have to say, has never happened on anything else I’ve ever been involved in, and I realised ‘Oh my God, this is going to be massive.’ It just had that unbelievable excitement about it. There are good films and there are worthy films, but then there are films that just have a real buzz about them.”
Mackintosh is lucky enough to know what it feels like to make all three of those types of film, but for the moment his talent is staying well and truly on the Almeida stage. It is likely to be his only live work for a while, as he has to build up the hunger again, and next year he has at least one project to be getting on with. “There’s something floating out there which could be really interesting if it happens,” he teases, but won’t say any more for fear of tempting fate. “I want to be there on the set, in front of the lens, and then I can say what it is.” I wouldn’t worry if I was him, fate seems to have been a friend so far, and besides, you never know who he might bump into in the meantime.