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The Big Interview: Ben Chaplin

Published 17 April 2008

He is normally an Englishman in New York, but Ben Chaplin is more than happy to be back in the UK on stage at the National Theatre. While rehearsing for his role in the new Nicholas Wright play The Reporter, Chaplin chatted to Caroline Bishop about coping with the hard-hitting subject matter, dealing with early theatrical success and why his Atlantic-hopping career is something of a happy accident…

Ben Chaplin“It’s good to lose, makes you appreciate it when you win.” Ben Chaplin isn’t talking about the current awards season, or philosophising about missed opportunities in life; he is in fact referring to the pub quiz he played last night in his local watering hole in Islington, in which his team came a disappointing fourth. “I’d had a good run lately. It was hard last night,” he says in all seriousness.

Ensconced in rehearsals for Nicholas Wright’s new play The Reporter at the National, the pub quiz has become the one night a week that Chaplin allows himself to go out. It is a welcome and much-needed break from a play whose subject matter – suicide – at times leaves the actor feeling “a bit like you’ve been punched in the stomach”.

Chaplin plays James Mossman, a real-life BBC reporter who, despite a successful career, killed himself in 1971 for reasons unknown, even to him. Wright’s play sees Mossman investigating his life posthumously and trying to find out why he killed himself; he applies his brilliance as a reporter to investigate his own impending death.

“What’s really clever about the play is that [Wright] has taken this actual tragedy and made it into a bigger question about human existence, you know the struggle, the meaning,” says Chaplin, leaning forward on the swivel chair he is perched on in the National’s tiny press ‘snug’. “The play is one unanswered question in a way. Nobody can tell us what place they’re in when they kill themselves because they are dead. So the core of the play is examining that, what leads to that. So in a way it’s bigger than just James Mossman.”

Although Chaplin seems perfectly cheery this morning (despite that pub quiz loss), the subject of the play has inevitably got the potential to weigh heavily on his mind, particularly given the extent he throws himself into a role. “I was worried about that, definitely, not ‘cause I’m a method actor in that blanket, meaningless term, but you become quite obsessed about a play when you’re doing it, you have to, and it’s always in the back of your mind, even if it’s not at the front. So when you’re doing it for a sustained period of months it inevitably gets to you. I personally enjoy that, I wouldn’t do it otherwise, but it does affect you in ways that you don’t realise at the time.”

His research for the role involved talking to depressed and suicidal people, though thankfully it remains difficult for Chaplin to entirely understand this inexplicable act. “Suicide is one of the hardest things to empathise with as a human being, isn’t it? It’s what we all to some degree ward off every single day. Not that we’re all suicidal, but we’re not going to go there, we won’t allow ourselves to go there, because it’s not going to ensure the propagation of our species. It’s really sort of anti-nature. I think you’ve got to be unbalanced. I hope that’s not a horribly cruel judgemental thing to say, I just think that you’ve got to be in a state of mind that most of us don’t know.”

"Nobody can tell us what place they’re in when they kill themselves because they are dead"

As an actor, playing a man in a mental state that is so difficult to comprehend is a hard job, says Chaplin. His approach is to “personalise it, make it about something else, about other times when you’ve been unreasonable or irrational. When you thought perfectly well that you were rational, but you haven’t been. You have to find somewhere in your life that’s that and apply it to something much bigger.”

Part of the reason the actor has so far coped with the depressing nature of the play is down to director Richard Eyre, who, though strict about the actor turning up to rehearsals on time – Chaplin gets an inquiring phone call when our interview makes him a couple of minutes late to the start of the day’s rehearsals – creates a “calm, fun almost, rehearsal room”. Chaplin continues: “The fun is definitely tempered by the material, but it’s such a calm room that you don’t, a lot of the time, feel you are rehearsing, you feel like you’re safely experimenting. Almost as if you’re not going to have to do it. I mean that in the best possible way, you never feel the pressure of the fact that it’s for public performance, it’s much more about investigating a text. It’s the first time I’ve worked with Richard on stage and he’s such a master.”

In fact, Eyre is the reason Chaplin is back on stage in London at all. At first hesitant about the “frightening subject matter”, as soon as the director called him, Chaplin accepted. “If he offers you a job you’ve got to do it really!

Though he professes the opposite, Chaplin’s theatre credits are sporadic. But he certainly knows how to pick a good one when he does do a play. He was last on stage in London in 2005 in Neil LaBute’s This Is How It Goes at the Donmar; before that he did a six-month run in The Retreat From Moscow on Broadway in 2003, for which he was Tony-nominated; but prior to Broadway he hadn’t done a stage play for seven years – The Glass Menagerie, again at the Donmar, which earned him a Laurence Olivier Award nomination in 1996.

Chaplin, who doesn’t seem pretentious in the least, is anxious not to come across like that as he tries to explain exactly why he shied away from the stage after Menagerie: “I was very young and I found that quite challenging afterwards. It went to the West End and I didn’t go to the West End with it. I didn’t know my own process then. That sounds pretentious to use words like ‘process’, I hate using words like it but I can’t think of other ones. I didn’t know how to protect myself from what I was doing,” he pauses, self-conscious. “That sounds like I’m bigging myself up as well but… you know, it’s an emotional job, it really is, if you’re committed. Then, I didn’t know how to protect myself, or make the emotional side of it a positive thing, which you can – it’s like free therapy, therapy and you get actually paid, a little bit. So when I finished that I’d really had enough.”

In the intervening years he did a lot of screen work in the US (he has lived there for 11 years), including Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Birthday Girl opposite Nicole Kidman and Murder By Numbers with Sandra Bullock. But since getting back on stage he now he prefers theatre to film. “I find it more rewarding as an actor. In pure acting terms, you are able to prepare more. At the moment the roles are more interesting, for me. You are given more leeway casting-wise in theatre. You are able to stretch more and attempt roles that you might not be trusted with in the massive budget of a film. It’s more of an experimental medium for us.”

"It’s like free therapy, therapy and you get actually paid, a little bit"

Getting older has helped him deal with theatre, he says. Though at 36 he is hardly the old man he makes himself out to be when he says: “You know, as you get older your attention span becomes smaller. It’s why people take up golf and gardening and crosswords and that. Less interests you more. I don’t know if it’s because your brain has shrunk. I don’t know if it’s that you think more deeply about it or actually that you have less brain, or your brain isn’t as hungry for new information, so you’re quite happy to stick with what you know.” Consequently he used to find long runs on stage boring, but in his ‘old age’ he doesn’t, because “you can go deeper and get better. You’re never done, it’s never good enough, and it shouldn’t be.”

Though Chaplin is self-deprecating about it, what he says implies he has simply grown up and honed his craft, rather than any worrying brain-shrinkage. If that were so, and less interested him more, then film would be satisfying him. As it is, “Filming can become impossibly boring,” he says, contradicting his earlier analysis of himself. “You spend a long time a long way from home doing very little. Especially if it’s a big budget film. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its own attraction, ‘cause you go to interesting places and you’re treated very well. In terms of your actual job, it’s minimal. Unless you’re working back to back, which is dehumanising anyway. What can you draw from it if you’re dehumanised?”

His point, extracted from his circular musings, is that film doesn’t stretch him in the way that theatre does. “It’s not about money. It’s about wanting to be challenged, wanting to challenge yourself, and because you love it. It’s easy to forget that you love it.”

Particularly easy when you are a young actor living in Los Angeles with Hollywood on your doorstep. “There is a problem with doing films and making a good living which is that you have to sustain that,” says Chaplin. “And before you know where you are you’re in a bit of a trap. You have to extricate yourself and make some sacrifices and things. Boo hoo hoo, but you do,” he says, mocking himself. “Some of them are chosen and some of them are forced upon you.”

However, Chaplin has done well to extricate himself from various traps that can befall an English actor in Hollywood. When romantic comedy The Truth About Cats And Dogs – the screen role he is still most recognised for – was a hit in 1996, many similar offers landed in his lap and, with his good looks, it would have been easy to go down a certain route. But Chaplin was “very resistant of being the new romantic lead boy. I just thought if I’d just done one of them and it had been a hit, I’d have been quite wealthy, but I would have had a hole to dig myself out of.” Being the next Hugh Grant was never an aim anyway. He had only ended up in LA because he fell in love with a girl who lived there and “before I knew where I was I lived there and had a career there” – an accidental success that some actors would kill for.

"As you get older your attention span becomes smaller. It’s why people take up golf and gardening and crosswords and that"

Instead, after Cats And Dogs he ignored pleas to capitalise on his Hollywood success and came back to London to do The Glass Menagerie. As Chaplin figured, “you can’t turn down those opportunities either.”

Looking back, he is pretty happy he “accidentally took the route that I have”, though perhaps in reality it owes less to accident and more to the fact that Chaplin – not one to big himself up – made some shrewd decisions along the way. Unsurprisingly, he says he doesn’t have a plan for the future. But judging from the last piece of Chaplin wisdom offered up, it seems the actor is quietly but firmly making those ‘accidents’ happen as he goes along. “If you’ve got a plan as an actor you end up being in trouble, a bit like having a plan as a taxi driver. I think they are a good analogy for being an actor, taxi drivers. It’s up to you what you make of your day and your routes.”

CB

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