As he appears in Simon Gray’s Butley in London, Paul McGann tells Caroline Bishop that while film is his first love, nothing beats the buzz of acting live on stage.
There are three things everyone knows about Paul McGann. One, that he played the titular I in 1987 film Withnail And I, the cult hit about two unemployed actors; two, that he was the eighth Doctor, embodying the universe’s most famous Time Lord for a one-off feature-length outing; three, he played live-in housekeeper Charlie in one of my personal guilty pleasures of the 1990s, sitcom The Upper Hand…
I know, I know; that last one wasn’t him, it was his brother, Joe McGann. Being part of a family of four actor brothers who share a physical likeness – Stephen and Mark complete the quartet – means mix-ups like these are an occupational hazard for the McGanns. As if to prove there are actually four of them rather than one very busy actor, they appeared together in 1995 Irish drama The Hanging Gale.
However something McGann – Paul, that is – isn’t so known for is stage. “I’m playing catch-up a little bit in the theatre,” he admits when we meet at the Duchess theatre where he is currently appearing in Simon Gray’s Butley. It’s a relatively rare stage outing for the actor, whose theatrical credits – which include Mourning Becomes Electra at the National Theatre in 2004 and a 2009 appearance at Shakespeare’s Globe – are more limited than his copious screen work.
"I never went to the theatre as a kid. It was movies"
However it is immediately evident that McGann is relishing being back in the theatre. He bounds up the circle stairs at the Duchess with the same enthusiasm he gives to our chat. Whether the subject be the play, his co-star Dominic West or the link between acting and politics (including an amusing anecdote about Tony Blair’s self-professed acting abilities), McGann is an animated conversationalist.
“This is my West End debut!” says McGann of the former topic. “I’ve found, if proof were needed, the old cliché is true,” he adds with more than a little wonder in his strikingly bright blue eyes. “Live is best. I still love doing pictures and I don’t mind working on the telly, but when the feedback is instantaneous, the buzz is live, you can’t beat it.”
So why is his stage CV so sporadic? Logistics, mainly. “Because I lived in Bristol for so long. The kids were raised in Bristol. That was a choice. I was doing a lot of TV and films. Things would be offered [in theatre] but I wouldn’t take it. Partly regret some of them now, wish I’d been a bit smarter to take them.”
Still, with his sons now grown up – one of them is “making threatening noises” about joining the family dynasty – McGann has the flexibility to spend three months in London, giving him the chance to make his West End debut in this bitingly funny piece set in the 1970s.
In it, he plays book publisher Reg, the emotional nemesis of the play’s central character Ben Butley, a washed up academic whose life – marriage, love interest, job, publishing ambitions – is going down the tubes. The face-off between the pair in the second half of the play is positively gladiatorial.
“If it has a theme it’s about the loss of love, which is as relevant now as it always was,” says McGann of Gray’s drama. “But really the heart, the spirit of the play and what comedy there is, is about his [Butley’s] response. If he’s gonna go down he goes down rather brilliantly, fighting wittily, with sometimes cruel humour but great civilisation.”
“Perhaps the reason that it’s [the play] rarely done is that it’s difficult to find an actor that can actually play the central role,” he adds. “Dominic is born to play it.” Couldn’t he play it himself? “Not like him. Certainly not.”
"When the feedback is instantaneous, the buzz is live, you can’t beat it"
But then McGann is more suited to being the other guy; the softer, less abrasive of a pair. He’s been there before, after all. In Ben Butley there are, he feels, shades of the character played by Richard E Grant in the movie that started both their film careers. “It reminded me of when we did Withnail And I. We know he’s a loser but we can’t help rooting for him, warming to him, because of his brilliance, because of his wit. You wouldn’t want to spend too long with him personally, but there’s something very brilliant about him.”
You might think that after 24 years McGann would be sick of talking about Withnail And I. But, refreshingly, he isn’t precious. “Why should I [be]? I love that. This is our work. Who doesn’t like a pat on the back? If you love your work then it stands to reason you don’t mind talking about it.”
It was as important a film for him personally as it was for all its fans, because it was the big screen, not stage, that motivated him to be an actor. “I was never that madly ambitious anyway, I’ve found that temperamentally I’m not. But it was an ambition to be in a movie. I never went to the theatre as a kid. It was movies.” He remembers a moment during his time at RADA when he and his contemporaries – those being Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Douglas Hodge, it was obviously a productive year – sat around in the common room chatting about why they wanted to act. “Everyone was agreed, it was always movies. Branagh’s going ‘Jimmy Cagney’ and someone else goes ‘silent movies’. A lot of us were working-class kids. That’s how you came to want to be an actor.”
So to get his first film, five years out of drama school, and it become the cult hit that it did, it’s no wonder that he says it was “about as thrilling as it got. I can still remember that. Nothing has ever beaten it really.”
It’s fair to say that his contribution to that other cult, the long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who, had less of an impact on him. He took on the mantle of the regenerating, Tardis-inhabiting character for a 1996 television movie, replacing Sylvester McCoy. Though he was initially employed with the intention of playing the Doctor for a new series, the show was subsequently axed and it wasn’t until writer Russell T Davies revamped it in 2005 that the Doctor received a new small screen outing. By then McGann had moved on, to be replaced by Christopher Eccleston, making the film McGann’s only appearance in the role. As such, he has escaped – “and I mean escaped” – the almost fanatical adulation that accompanied tenth Doctor David Tennant during his five years with the show. “He’s fantastic of course and he’s obviously got a great sense of humour about everything. Chris, I think, seemingly found it tricky. I think I probably would have been more like Chris. I like my privacy.”
"If you love your work then it stands to reason you don’t mind talking about it"
Even so, he obviously enjoys the sense of connection with fans that his work gives him. He quotes people who still say they liked his early TV show The Monocled Mutineer, and goes misty-eyed about the sense of a shared event that television back then provoked. “Culturally you’re all of a piece, you’re all linked in something. I loved that.” And that’s exactly what he has found in returning to theatre, that sense of shared community. “We’ll walk out of this theatre tonight and there’ll be a few people outside and the response is instant.”
There are other things that his first love – film – can’t give him that theatre can. “As a performer things that you do on the stage can easily stand you in good stead when you return to the film set, but it doesn’t work the other way round. Nothing you do on a film set, however distinguished the place might be, is going to show you how to play the Globe [as he did two years ago]. It’s a physical thing, it’s its own world, its own technique, and I’m really enjoying that. And, more than anything, it’s more sociable, and you get to rehearse!” That sense of wonderment is back as he speaks of it. “That’s joyous, because you don’t do that on film, nobody rehearses on film. You do your thing and go home.”
So it is with joy glittering in those startling eyes that he bounds away again, summoned back to the stage to receive notes prior to the evening’s performance. It doesn’t seem unlikely that theatre may soon become something else McGann is known for.