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The Big Interview: Richard Coyle

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 22 April 2008

Very few actors have an unblemished West End CV. Most have at least one cringe-inducing, groan-evoking production that gets swept under the carpet like particularly disturbing dust. Richard Coyle, though, does not. The York Realist, Proof and After Miss Julie have all been met with nothing but applause and acclaim. Coyle now returns to the West End in the title role of Don Carlos, which opens tonight at the Gielgud theatre. Matthew Amer caught up with him to discover his secret…

“When I had done The York Realist and Proof, I’d been blown away by both plays and both parts, and I said to myself at that point, ‘This is the benchmark; that it blows me away.’ After Miss Julie did, and when I read this, it did.” Such is Coyle’s explanation of the lack of theatrical turkeys lurking amid his West End portfolio.

Coyle has just finished one of the final rehearsals for Don Carlos at the Gielgud, and as actors file up towards their dressing rooms, the 16th century pantaloons and sword ensembles that they so elegantly wear clash somewhat with the 21st century music emanating from shops to the rear of Shaftesbury Avenue. With Coyle back in 2005’s finest clobber, a speedy lunch at a private London club is the order of the day.

"He was this fascinating pig-boy."

Don Carlos’s cast – joining Coyle are, among others, Sir Derek Jacobi, Claire Price, Una Stubbs and Elliot Cowan – have just returned from a two and a half month break since finishing their run at the Sheffield Crucible. While a few of them may have spent the Christmas period working, Coyle had other, less taxing, priorities for his festive break. “I was so exhausted by the run in Sheffield – it’s quite a battering part I have to play – that I chilled out, relaxed, got fitter, got my strength back and my stamina levels up ready for this [London run].”

The part to which Coyle is referring is the eponymous Don Carlos, whose life is less than simple. Deeply in love with French princess Elizabeth, who he was once set to marry, Carlos’s none-too-nice father, King Philip takes her as his bride instead. As one might expect, Carlos reacts badly to the news, his hatred boiling his very blood. Carlos’s closest friend, the Marquis of Posa is employed to act as go-between for the two young lovers, but exploits this opportunity to incubate a rebellion. “[Carlos] goes from deep despair to incredible elation and then back to despair. Up and down constantly, from one extreme to another. Making it work is a challenge.” The challenge of the role is something Coyle thrives on. “It was the challenge of doing it and wondering if I could pull it off, wondering if I had it in me to play the part. You have to be challenged, otherwise there’s not really much point doing it.”

Coyle is a great believer in thoroughly researching his roles – “Any excuse to get into a new subject” – a commitment to the job that left him suffering from nightmares while working on supernatural series, Strange. His research for Don Carlos was less affecting, but certainly threw up a few surprises. “He was this fascinating pig-boy, who was deformed. He had a lisp and he used to torture little animals and things. I loved it. I thought ‘This is great; I’m going to be this evil, twisted character.’” Artistic licence being what it is, Schiller’s Don Carlos is more romantic lead than a cross between Richard III and Quasimodo, a fact that still slightly upsets Coyle. “My time will come. I’m determined that at some point in the future, for some part in the future, you’ll see the twisted pig-boy… I was good as well! You should have seen me, hahaha!”

Don Carlos is not the first project in which Coyle has been directed by the Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director Michael Grandage, having starred opposite Kelly Reilly in Grandage’s production of After Miss Julie. Coyle is a big fan of Sam Mendes’ successor. “He has an amazing insight; he can read you, and he’s very good at recognising very quickly your strengths and weaknesses. He’s got a tender touch; I think all great directors have it. It’s a quality that I respond to.”

"He’s got a tender touch; I think all great directors have it."

What Coyle didn’t realise was that in his pre-directorial days Grandage had played the Spanish prince himself in a production with Ian McDiarmid in Manchester. Coyle only found out once he had agreed to transfer to London: Grandage sent him a postcard with the note “I’m glad you’re coming to the West End. I think you’ll be better than the guy on the enclosed.” The ‘guy’ was, of course, Grandage.

During Don Carlos’s Sheffield run, the production pleased both public and critics alike; a result harder to achieve than it may first seem. A passionately political piece written by Schiller in the 19th century, Mike Poulton’s new translation has the characters speaking 21st century English – “it’s much more accessible already; the words are the words we speak” – and though it tackles complicated issues, the play is also “a cracking thriller. It’s a kind of tragic love story. All the things that people like. And it’s quick; it does last three hours, but it’s very pacey.”

Theatrical knight of the realm, Derek Jacobi, plays Coyle’s onstage father, the evil King Philip. Coyle talks of working alongside the stage legend with child-like awe. “I’m a young actor and for me to be working with somebody like that is a great privilege. You can learn so much from watching him; he owns everything he says, effortlessly, like he’s creating the word each time afresh. That’s a great skill; being able to make each sentence sound like you’re saying it for the first time on stage. He makes it effortless.”

Outside the world of theatre, Coyle is best known for playing Jeff, the ‘slightly-odd one’ from the BBC’s sitcom Coupling. For three series he played the least worldly-wise of six friends, who had his own, very different, ideas about love and life. “I just played the fool. I loved it. Every week we’d rehearse all week and it would just get goofier and goofier. It’s very liberating to act the fool in front of an audience.” After three series, Coyle decided to leave Jeff behind, much to the sadness of Coupling’s many fans. “It was a very difficult decision; incredibly difficult because there was something nice about the fact that I knew, for three years, once a year we all came together for three months and had an almighty laugh.”

"[Jacobi] owns everything he says, effortlessly, like he’s creating the word each time afresh."

Coyle’s decision to leave the popular series was motivated by his future career. His fear, as with many fellow actors, was that of being typecast: “I was very keen that that character didn’t stick with me. It’s the kind of character that does. I’m an actor and I want to be an actor when I’m 60. It’s a lifelong process, why cut it off by boxing yourself into a little pigeon hole early on?”

When Coyle says he still wants to be acting at 60, there is no questioning him. Both the sincerity in his voice and his history in the profession speak volumes. Since starting out fairly late, compared to many, at university, Coyle has never wanted to do anything else… which proved a problem when he was accepted to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, but did not have enough money to pay the fees. With an outstanding grant from his Politics degree at York, the acting dream seemed to be slipping away. Cue a year out to earn some money and the writing of many – “I wrote thousands” – letters asking for assistance, some of which fared better than others. “I actually wrote to Paul McCartney, and I got a letter back from the Paul McCartney Fan Club saying ‘Hey, thanks for the letter. Here’s a badge.’ Hahaha… Richard E Grant wrote me a beautiful letter saying ‘I really can’t help you, but here’s some advice.’ He gave me some lovely advice.”

Coyle’s year out also saw him earning some money and gaining thespian experience as an extra on Franco Zefferelli’s production of Jane Eyre. “I’ve got about eight different parts: I’m a footman, I’m hailing a coach at the end, I’m a shepherd, I’m grooming a horse at one point. I keep having a different wig and glasses.” On set, Coyle made such a nuisance of himself, asking questions about acting to help him at drama school, that the legendary Zefferelli even gave him a line. “He said ‘As William Hurt comes past, you’ve got to shout ‘Mr Rochester, you’re house is on fire!” That was my line. It made the final cut as well, so I was very pleased.”

When Don Carlos finishes its London run, Coyle’s mind will switch again to the big screen. The Libertine, in which he stars opposite Johnny Depp, John Malkovich and Rosamund Pike, is due for release later in the year, and a trip to LA to see his American agent is also in the offing. Although film holds a multitude of rewards for Coyle, there is something special about theatre: “There’s nothing like the satisfaction of theatre. One of the most satisfying things in theatre is that it’s your own performance; an editor can’t take it away.”

"There’s nothing like the satisfaction of theatre."

One of Coyle’s other passions in life, other than local football team Sheffield Wednesday, is his rather impressive collection of vinyl. Although a connoisseur of funk – “I always tend to come back to funk” – he has very ambiguous guidelines about the music he chooses to indulge his eardrums with. “I don’t like soft music much. It’s a very fine line between something I would consider cool and something I would consider soft. I can’t really describe it.” As some readers may well be puzzling the requirements of cool/soft music, a little clarification may be in order. “Crosby, Stills and Nash, 1979, the album. The Stephen Stills songs and the David Crosby songs are cool. But the Graham Nash songs are soft. What’s that all about?!”

On the subject of what is cool and what is not, one cool characteristic that cannot be questioned is Coyle’s impressive head of hair. Constantly confused with a perm – “It’s not!” – Coyle revels in what is quickly becoming a trademark quality; a trim with a lawnmower is certainly not an option. “It’s a bog brush, like a little demi-wave. It’s just thick hair – I love it. Even if it’s short, it looks huge. People say ‘nice ‘fro’, and I’m like ‘hang on a minute, it’s only half an inch long!” Like a high-profile spokesperson for the bifro-ed masses of Britain, Coyle’s glorification of large, out-of-control barnets is an inspiration to us all. “It’s a great thing; there’s nothing wrong with it. Be proud.”


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