Andrew Lincoln tells Caroline Bishop about his passion for new writing and his love of the stage – even if it has been a while since we last saw him on one.
“There are four very, very funny jokes that made me stop and snort and lose some of my tea when I was reading it,” says Andrew Lincoln. He goes on to assure me that there are in fact more than four jokes in Jez Butterworth’s new play Parlour Song, but it was that quartet of tea-snorters in particular that made Lincoln think this was a play he wanted to be a part of.
This is an actor who knows a good script when he reads one. The 35-year-old made his name in two hugely popular British television series, cult 90s drama This Life and the BAFTA-nominated Teachers, and has pursued a career on screen – including the films Love Actually, Enduring Love and Human Traffic – while interspersing carefully chosen appearances on the London stage in new writing by Joe Penhall, Sam Shepard, Simon Bent and Jonathan Harvey.
Speaking to me on the phone during rehearsals for Parlour Song, Lincoln says he has been a fan of Butterworth’s writing since seeing his breakthrough piece, the Laurence Olivier Award-winning Mojo, at the Royal Court in 1995. The chance to be involved in the UK premiere of his latest play, and work with director Ian Rickson, along with his instincts about the script – “I read quite a lot of scripts in my life and it was one of the best ones of last year” – were all reasons why Lincoln has ended up sitting in a café close to the Almeida theatre one lunch break opposite co-star Toby Jones, of whom he says, his tongue firmly in his cheek: “It’s a good opportunity to work with this extraordinary, gifted and versatile young man!” A mischievous laugh accompanies these words down the phone.
The pair are working with stage stalwart Amanda Drew in Parlour Song, a three-hander set in contemporary suburbia in which Jones plays Ned, a demolition expert in mid-life crisis, and Drew his contemptuous wife Joy. Their marriage is already in freefall when Joy decides to play erotic Scrabble with their friend and neighbour Dale, played by Lincoln. “It’s more about isolation and the modern world really, but there are deeper themes in there that are quite dark and brooding, but it’s a comedy,” says Lincoln. When we speak the cast has not yet faced the press – the production has since received mostly enthusiastic notices, with The Times declaring it “the sharpest, funniest piece” since Mojo – but Lincoln enjoys the thrill of the unexpected that comes with working on a new play. “You don’t really know what you have until an audience sits in front of you. And that’s kind of petrifying but also exhilarating.”
"I don’t like leaving it longer than two years because then you do get lots of people noticing the fact you haven’t been on stage for a while"
His penchant for new work means he has felt that exhilaration before; the last time was also at the Almeida theatre, where he appeared in Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss in 2006, directed by Almeida Artistic Director Michael Attenborough. “It’s like one happy family; the Almeida theatre is like the Waltons,” chuckles Lincoln, which he means in the nicest of ways. His easy banter during our conversation certainly seems to indicate that he feels at home on this latest project.
But he hasn’t been on stage since then, a good two years ago, in which time Drew and Jones have both packed in numerous stage appearances. He tells me that doing theatre was the reason he wanted to be an actor, so why the gap? He laughs; it is obviously a question he has had thrown at him more than once recently. “Other things get in the way, having to pay a mortgage and things like that, because you know it’s not the greatest wage, doing theatre, so you do have to balance it with other things,” he offers by way of explanation. “I tend to try and mix it up with film, telly, radio and I don’t like leaving it longer than two years because then you do get lots of people noticing the fact you haven’t been on stage for a while.”
The young Andrew Clutterbuck – his agent reportedly laughed and told him to change his name before he would take him on – first got a taste for acting whilst at school in Bath, where he grew up, but it was a stint at the National Youth Theatre in London one summer that really enthused him about the profession. “I didn’t realise that you could actually do it for a living, you can get paid for this. And that was a big revelation for me, and I just thought this is fantastic, it just caught fire then.”
A degree at RADA followed, where roles included Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale – “I exited stage left followed by bear, that was me” – but for someone with this classical training he has favoured new writing over Shakespeare and Chekhov in his career to date, though he says he would like to tackle the classics. But there is no game plan with Lincoln, no wish-list. “I tend to see what’s floating around and then I’ll go ‘ooh, that’s an interesting part in that’,” he says, before adding cheekily: “I’m not the sort of Toby Jones stature where you can pick and choose and sort of say I’d love to play…” His words are broken off by a loud “Shut up” from his lunch companion.
The relaxed camaraderie with his co-stars is just one aspect of a career he seems to thoroughly enjoy, unlike dissatisfied lawyer Egg, the character Lincoln played in popular 20-something drama This Life. Lincoln was barely out of RADA when he was cast in the ensemble series alongside Jack Davenport, Amita Dhiri and Daniela Nardini, and it was an experience he credits with giving him a solid grounding in the profession. “It opened up all of our faces to new casting directors and introduced us to the business I suppose, in one sense, because we were all fresh out of whatever, we were unknowns. I was fortunate to bag it in my first year, which was amazingly lucky, and it also gave us a heck of a lot of experience, just to know what a film set is and know how it works.”
"It’s like one happy family; the Almeida theatre is like the Waltons"
He recently watched the series again, for the first time since being in it. “I was really surprised at how… time really didn’t buffet it that much and it really held its own. I kind of understood why it caught light because the scripts were terrific, the style of it was very impressive and I thought the other guys’ performances were brilliant.”
This Life also introduced him to a level of fame that he consolidated with hit C4 series Teachers, in which he played layabout English teacher Simon. His profile surged further with his role in Richard Curtis comedy Love Actually, which proved a hit both sides of the Atlantic in 2003. But fame isn’t something he courts. He is private about his family – he has a one-year-old daughter with wife Gael – and mention of that side of the business is the only thing during our chat that brings a coolness to his otherwise charming, light-hearted manner. “I’ve tended to keep as private as I can be about my life,” he says, and I imagine his brow furrowing as he speaks. “I don’t want to get on my rant about fame because it kind of annoys me to a degree, I think it’s been used and people use it as a tool for other things and that’s never… when I first set out to be an actor it wasn’t to be famous, it was to be an actor and I always maintain that, it’s never been the case.”
Whatever demons he harbours about the nature of fame, his profile has brought – and hopefully will continue to bring – the actor new opportunities to rival his past successes, and mention of these lifts the dark clouds immediately. He recently filmed a pilot for a new television series based in New York, while in the UK his face will reappear on our screens this year with ITV’s latest adaptation of Wuthering Heights, in which he plays Edgar Linton, and Moon Shot, a drama commissioned to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the moon landings.
And those who would rather see the actor in the flesh on a London stage may not have to wait another two years. He tells me he has been talking to Parlour Song director Rickson about doing more theatre this year and maybe even turning his talents to a classical role. Though he feels he has had “a lot of highs” in his career already, he would rather look forward than back. “The lovely thing about acting is you keep learning. It’s constantly evolving, as you are. As you get older you kind of become, hopefully….” He interrupts himself with a laugh and I wonder what facial expressions Toby Jones is sporting during Lincoln’s moment of reflection. “Everything deepens I suppose, your view on life modifies and hopefully your acting would run in tandem with that.” And then the mood is broken, as Lincoln and Jones are whisked back to the Almeida to perfect those tea-snorters.