Tag Archives: Anton Lesser Endeavour Interview

THE ENDEAVOUR INTERVIEWS 2020: ANTON LESSER

An exclusive Endeavour interview with Anton Lesser

Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2020

DAMIAN: We’ll discuss Bright and Endeavour shortly, but first I wanted to talk about your return to the theatre last June after a ten-year-absence. Why such a long break?

ANTON: Well, good question. I had two or three years of vocal problems. It was a really bad situation where nobody knew what was wrong with my voice. It was just sort of very unpredictable with muscular spasm. I had cameras down my throat trying to find out if anything terrible was going on and I think it was a combination of psychological things – things going on in my personal life. It was really difficult and I lost a bit of confidence about doing anything that I wasn’t absolutely in control of. So, when things came up for the stage, I just felt that I didn’t want to let people down. Again, I stopped doing audio-books as I felt I was going to let people down. As time went on, fortunately work kept coming in and I was offered other things.

When the play [The Pope] turned up last summer, it was just so good that I thought I really want to do this. And, I showed it to my kids and they said, ‘Dad it’s brilliant, you’ve got to do it’, but it’s a huge role, basically a two-hander – me and Nick Woodeson. I went and met James Dacre [artistic director] who I got on with immediately down at the Royal Derngate & Northampton and the theatre was lovely – a beautiful little Victorian jewel of a theatre – and it wasn’t the West End so I thought I can do this because it was very friendly, about 400 seats so it didn’t feel as though I had to shout!

DAMIAN: The play is a fictionalised encounter of your character, Pope Benedict, meeting with Pope Francis which explores the scandals involving child abuse and the financial running of the Vatican. Did you have any reservations about taking on a play dealing with such controversial issues – perhaps particularly the child abuse?

ANTON: Erm no, over the years I’ve been often parts on tele with characters that I’ve looked at and thought I don’t want my kids to see me doing this and I’ve always had a gut feeling that something doesn’t feel right but no, I had no qualms about doing this because what’s wonderful about the play is it gives Benedict a voice and it gives a perspective on what happened and, we the public, don’t know about it and it has been intriguing why a man in his position would seemingly – and again this is all conjecture – turn a blind eye to such terrible things. It’s a wonderfully non-judgemental and very generous investigation into that and I think that’s why I felt I had to do it.

DAMIAN: An objective point of view so the audience could decide for themselves?

ANTON: Yes. The writer, Anthony McCarten, his films have been huge successes [The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody] and he does have a wonderful eye which is objective and he just touches something that is so full of humanity that it feels accessible and very recognisable when you see it and get a little window into somebody’s heart. He really just has a wonderful way of letting the audience in, especially as something as remote for most of us as life in the Vatican.

You know, on paper, a play or a film about two old men talking about religion you think, ‘Ooh, that’s exciting’, but actually it’s absolutely intriguing. The other lovely thing that happened was a lot of people came to it and said things like ‘I’m a practicing Roman Catholic and I was really concerned about coming to this play’ and thought they were going to be offended or outraged but they said things like it was ‘one of the best things they’d ever seen’ so that was wonderful.

DAMIAN: I was actually going to ask, since it was quite a small and intimate theatre if you noticed any priests or nuns in the audience?

ANTON: Oh, we did have a few yes – you couldn’t see them from the stage or identify them by their dog collars or whatever but we did have people who came to talk to us afterwards and said how absolutely absorbing it was.

DAMIAN: During our last interview we talked about some of the actors you admired and you mentioned Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce which is funny because they both star in the film version of the play, The Two Popes, made for Netflix. Have you seen it?

ANTON: Yes, it’s quite a coincidence and the film is brilliant.

DAMIAN: Back to the play, so you return to the theatre after ten years, it’s opening night and you get the 5-minute call to go on stage – can you describe what were you feeling at that moment?

ANTON: Ooh, ooh, its a mixture of ‘oh my God what have I done?’ [laughs] – nerves or butterflies don’t go away just because you’re old – but also real excitement and often fear and excitement are difficult to distinguish aren’t they? The symptoms are pretty similar! And it’s just a name we put on them that makes them one thing or the other but much more, I don’t know what it is about going out in front of a live audience, but it is at the same time a terrifying and stupid thing to do but in another way its incredibly liberating because unlike the tele, you’re not going to be edited. You’re not going to be watching the tele and think I’m sure I had a nice scene there and now it’s gone – it’s in your own hands for a couple of hours.

And it’s a lovely journey and particularly lovely because you’re working with people that you respect and enjoy their company. That was one of the great things about working with Nick because right from the beginning – two such good parts and the relationship is so fundamental – you really need to be happy about who you’re working with and to work with Nick was an absolute joy because we worked together years and years ago at the National in The Birthday Party so it just made everything easier.

But coming back to that moment just before you go on stage, you’re going on a little journey with a mate and we had a little agreement; I said to him when we started rehearsing, I said Nick, ‘we’re now of an age when one of us – or both of us! – is going to just look at the other and know that the other one hasn’t got a clue what to say!’ [we both laugh] and I said, ‘shall we have a pact that you forgive me in advance if I just don’t know what to say?’ and he said ‘absolutely’ so we had this mutual agreement. We had a great time – lots of laughs.

Anton during rehearsals

DAMIAN: Actors on the set of Endeavour might typically be on set from 7 or 8 in the morning to 6 or 7 at night which must be enormously draining physically but at least you can return home of an evening – how does this compare to the demands of theatre and staying in hotels?

ANTON: It is very different. A different sort of process and you have to manage that process. The thing about tele is somebody might pick you up in the early hours of the morning in the dark and cold in some pretty horrible places that are not very glamorous and then sit in a cold trailer for hours and hours and hours and then you might be called upon to do your little bit which may be quite an intense emotional moment out of chronological order while trying to find some emotional truth.

So you have 5 minutes of work and then back to the trailer in a completely de-energised state again for 3 or 4 hours and you might expect to do a scene – but then it’s changed or cancelled or shifted so its a whole different thing. That’s why I love to come back to theatre because of the rehearsal process which you never get in tele or film nowadays. The rehearsal process is just great – it’s where you stretch your muscles and interact and experiment. Do dangerous things in a safe place so it’s like a completely different job and yet the place where they do coincide as the same job is trying to express – as truthfully and as humanly as you possibly can – so that, if it can come from my heart, if it can come from some truth inside me, then there’s a better chance it will touch that place in the audience.

DAMIAN: Yes, well I’m glad you’ve said that because I’ve got a few questions on that exact theme really, that issue of finding the moment. I’ve visited the sets and location work and they do the technical rehearsals obviously; they get the camera angles, the lighting, they do the sound checks and then they do a few more sound checks but in terms of the Endeavour team, do the principle actors ever actually get to rehearse the acting before a take?

ANTON: Depends on how much time there is. We have a little sort of word run with the director before any of the crew come in. We’ll talk about the way the director wants us to come in from, whether we might sit or stand or if we are going to move during the scene but it is very, very perfunctory. It’s very quick because there isn’t time to explore and you’re expected at this stage to know the character and what they would probably do in that situation and you just need to get on with it. Luckily, because we’ve been doing it for so long together we have a kind of shorthand with each other. We know what’s right for us as actors much more quickly than if it was something new and we were beginning from scratch. Then you’d need a week or two to explore the relationships – well we have those relationships already!

DAMIAN: Last time we discussed your early days as an actor at RADA but I’d like to expand on this slightly further and ask you about the sort of acting techniques or theatre practitioners that you might have been exposed to back then?

ANTON: Well, at RADA, you see I don’t remember particularly reading tomes from Stanislavski and doing all that in those days – probably because I’m so lazy! [laughs] I mean it’s changed now, but it was virtually non-academic; you weren’t expected to read books or write essays and pass exams but I think nowadays they are. A lot of kids that I know, the academic aspect is quite substantial to get their diploma or whatever.

Russian theatre practitioner, Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), was a celebrated director, character actor and author of several influential books including his “ABC” of acting: ‘An Actor Prepares’, ‘Building a Character’ and ‘Creating a Role’. His autobiography, ‘My Life in Art’, is also highly recommended reading.

ANTON: Different directors came in to do different shows with us and they would of course bring with them their particular expertise or their interests. One of them might be more interested in a particular method than another. We were aware of the Method and actors like Brando and how they operated but there wasn’t anything formal like a focus on Stanislavski or anything like that. The exposure that I remember was the acting that I would see in the theatre who were inspirational, you know?

DAMIAN: Like at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool?

ANTON: Yeah, Jonathan Pryce doing Comedians and Bernard Hill, and then of course, people at the RSC, Ian Richardson – wonderful Ian Richardson! All these people, all that was percolated back to conversations we would have at RADA and those would be my influences. Definitely, so yes, to put it in a nutshell, it was less about what we were studying and more about what we were absorbing and what was percolated back through to us.

DAMIAN: You see, back when I was studying drama at college we were introduced to Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski -the usual suspects – and I didn’t really respond much to any of these but what really resonated was the work of Stanislavski so I read a lot of his books but then independently took this much further by exploring Lee Strasberg and the Method style of acting.

Strasberg (1901-1982) built on the work of Stanislavski and helped to develop “The Method”. He was also one of the teachers and artistic director at The Actors Studio where rising stars such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean trained. His later generation of “Method Actors” included Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.
Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando on the set of ‘On the Waterfront’. Their other classic collaboration were ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Viva Zapata!’
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro discuss a scene during the making of ‘Taxi Driver’. The two have worked together many times but for me, at least in terms of a director/actor partnership creating unforgettably intense character studies, ‘Mean Streets’, ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ remain their most significant collaborations.

DAMIAN: So when I think back – you’ve just talked about the actors that inspired you – but when I think back to the kind of films and actors who inspired me as a teenager learning about drama, the Method paved the way for some of the most outstanding collaborations in the search for behavioural or emotional truth in acting and realism – actors and director such as Brando and Kazan and De Niro and Scorsese.

ANTON: De Niro and Scorsese! Oh yeah, yeah, yeah – De Niro and Pacino- you don’t get any better than that. And of course Brando, when he was not messing about, I don’t know whether that’s to do with, obviously it’s influenced by, but I don’t know if its necessarily only  to do with how they studied at the Actor’s Studio but something about them instinctively as human beings. They have this unbelievable mysterious something and you look them and even when they are doing nothing, you just can’t stop looking at them. How much that is to do with how they’ve been influenced by that tradition or how much they’ve just nurtured what they have as human beings I don’t know but they are just unbelievably magnetic to watch. It never fails to amaze. You know I’ve been watching a lot of De Niro and Pacino on youtube recently, clips of old movies and it’s just amazing and you think, what is it, what are they doing?

DAMIAN: I always got a sense – and this was obviously in the early days of their careers – that they didn’t know what it was they were doing either. Rather we were watching them learn as actors on a journey in which they were exploring both their characters and themselves. It was a great experiment and I think it goes all the way back to Montgomery Clift, James Dean and, of course, Marlon Brando. That period of acting was so rich and such a great time for experimentation.

ANTON: Yes, yes – exactly!

DAMIAN: Obviously as an actor himself, what’s Shaun like to work with when he’s directing?

ANTON: Oh, he’s great. Yes, he absolutely knows his stuff and benefits, of course, from having a crew that were pretty much continuously there from when we all began. So, he’s got a lot of very skillful practitioners around him who know what can and can’t be achieved. And they know how to achieve it very quickly and they can say to him, ‘Yeah, I know what you want but it might be better if we do that shot from blah blah blah and he’ll say, ‘absolutely brilliant.’ So there’s a real efficiency about the people around him to make his vision happen and he’s great. I think he wants to do more and think he may end up being more of a director than an actor.

DAMIAN: Really?

ANTON: Yes, but it’s great working together because he knows both sides of the job. It’s like he can interface between his technical requirements and the acting.

DAMIAN: What do you think you would be like at directing?

ANTON: Rubbish! Absolute rubbish because I’m not built for that. I like to be told where to stand, told what to say and told when I can have my lunch and if I’ve got the afternoon off and can go home! [laughs] You know, a director has to be there all the time and that’s not what I want to do with all the days in my life. I enjoy other things and fortunately I’ve been employed almost continuously, but if I was ever in a position where I just had to take everything and do everything 24 hrs a day, I don’t think I’d be very happy.

Also, the thing about directing is directors have a facility – the good ones – have a great skill to point you in the direction of what they want without showing you how to do it. I know from experience when I’ve done little things with students that my instinct is to get up to display and almost say do it like this and that is an anathema to an actor because it closes the door on your creativity and all your effort is to try to emulate it or reproduce something – and you think well he’s done it much better than I could so what’s left for me to do?

I remember I had a personal experience of that with Jonathan Miller years and years and years ago. Bless the man, he’s such a wonderful actor himself – and comedian – but he couldn’t resist getting up and saying ‘No, this is what I mean!’ and then you think OK, but there’s nothing left for me to do but try and match how they’ve done it. It’s awful and you feel sort of emasculated as an actor so I would be no good.

DAMIAN: Each Endeavour film has a different director which helps to keep the show visually fresh and unique, but what are the advantages and disadvantages of this – for example, presumably they can’t possibly know the characters as well as the actors who’ve been on the show since the beginning?

ANTON: Well, as you say, the advantages are that you get a fresh eye and the whole thing doesn’t become thematically repetitive and safe. A fresh eye will hopefully take a few risks and bring a kind of out of the box sort of view on it. The downside is that some directors won’t have that shorthand with the DOP or the sound guys who’ve been there all the way through – most of them have been there for the whole time and they’re familiar faces. They know their job and they know what can and can’t be done and one or two directors might have a sort of, not a clash, but they might be looking to do something that the cameramen or the sound man will just know is not the greatest solution and there might be little moments of friction or disagreement.

But that never usually happens. It’s a happy, happy crew and I think it’s so rare but we do get inevitably and understandably a new director coming in who will want to put their mark on it and will want to have a very distinctive contribution and why not? They’re doing their thing. So it’s a balance and most of the time it works beautifully when people find that balance but occasionally it can be a bit divisive.

DAMIAN: You mentioned this earlier and it goes back to the actors having a short hand between themselves as well as the crew. Is there ever a sense that the principal cast still have things to learn from each other as actors as you explore these characters – have you ever been caught off guard and thought that was interesting what such and such an actor was going for in such and such a scene?

ANTON: Yeah, yeah. I mean I think that happens all the time but perhaps in quite subtle ways and I think what we’d like to do more of is have a little more time to explore moments like this that come up and actually give them space to see how well it could work and find something to look at in a totally different way.

The constraints of time mean, actually, that is interesting but we just have to get on with it so  we might take a sort of comprise through the interaction and you’re just left thinking we could have explored that and gone down that road but there isn’t time for that. Yeah, that happens quite a lot. But because we all respect each other’s skills – you know, working with Roger and Shaun in particular – but also all the guest actors who come in and bring something unique and we kind of want what you get in the rehearsal room of a play; wanting that in the context of a film – which, of course, you can’t have.

DAMIAN: I’ve been doing my interviews again with Russ and I recently reminded him of what he told me regarding your character that Bright was ‘a man even more out of his time than most in the 1960s’. So, I was wondering how on earth Bright is going to survive the 1970s?

ANTON: Ooh!, (mischievous laughter again] yes, yes, yes! Well, I can’t give too much away obviously…

DAMIAN: No, of course not. I meant more culturally in terms of the style and fashion of the era.

ANTON: You will see that the tensions that were arising at the end of the last series which exposed those cultural sort of challenges for him, they sort of take off in a big way and you see the man – which is what I’ve wanted for years actually, you see much more of the man behind the uniform. Out of uniform and into situations where he is potentially out of his depth, which of course, are the places where we all learn things quickest.

So it’s been much more fulfilling these last couple of series because we see him really up against it and in situations – that a man like that – you would expect to unravel. You don’t know whether he does or doesn’t – you’ll just have to wait and see! It is much more of what you were hinting at this time.

DAMIAN: Fans have wondered about Mrs. Bright for years now so wasn’t it a little cruel of Russ to finally meet her when she’s dying?

ANTON: Yes, it is cruel. You know, for years I didn’t even know whether she existed! The references to her could have almost been like wishful thinking. All the actors used to joke that she didn’t exist and he went home to a lonely house and sort of fantasied that he had a wife. But no, suddenly here she is and we had the wonderfully brilliant Carol Royle play her. It was great for me to open up the whole backstory about the daughter dying in India and it’s great for me to be able to begin that journey out of uniform and to see him at home in a different environment. And suddenly, an environment that challenges him really, really deeply and emotionally. So I’m very happy about that but not happy that it could be so brief and seems to be coming to an end. We’ll see…

DAMIAN: The scene with Bright where he confides to Max at the club and asks for his help was one of my favourites from the last or any series. Absolutely beautifully written and performed.

ANTON: Yes, people have remarked about that scene and said lovely things about it. That sort of encounter for me is what I’ve been wanting all the way through the series and every time Russ would write lots of those lovely scenes but they’d all be cut because of time. Such a shame but, yeah, I’m glad you liked that one.

DAMIAN: However, wasn’t it a curious choice for the audience to learn about Mrs. Bright’s cancer in a scene with Bright talking to Max rather than his wife? Because that would be the more obvious emotional choice wouldn’t it?

ANTON: I guess it would. Yes, and as I recall, they were having dinner and she’d come back from London and had a nice day and he’d made her dinner and then she suddenly starts to cry and he says. ‘what’s the matter?’ and then we cut dramatically. I think it was clever because you think, ooh, something big is going on but were not allowed to see that and then it comes with Max. I can see that dramatically it’s a device that keeps the audience wanting to know more and keeps that tension longer and if they had continued that scene together it would have been all exposed and wouldn’t have carried that curiosity.

DAMIAN: That’s very true. In the episode Mrs. Bright says ‘I don’t think I’ve been a very good wife.’ and he replies, ‘No man ever had a better.’ In the script he has an extra line, ‘Is there… something you want to tell me?’ so it did hint at that but you’re probably right in terms of keeping the tension going because the audience are left guessing and it could have been that she was having an affair?

ANTON: Yes, yes, which of course she did because there was another beautiful scene that got cut the year before where she says ‘they never meant anything’ so ask Russ about that.

[I later checked with Russ and he confirmed the following: ‘she said at some point “none of them meant anything. I just missed her so much.” Or words to that effect. The notion being that her infidelity was born of grief for Dulcie.]

DAMIAN: I think we can infer from some of the dialogue in the Club scene, along with the one earlier in the last series (PYLON) where Endeavour is talking to Max in his garden, that Max doesn’t meet any of his colleagues out of work. Although Endeavour and Thursday once often drank together at pubs during lunch or after work, isn’t it a pity that such seemingly lonely characters – lonely in their different ways such as Bright coping with his wife’s illness and Thursday’s marriage breakdown for example – they don’t spend more time together and do you think this isolation makes them more endearing to the audience?

ANTON: I think it’s something that certainly the audience will recognise because there is such a culture of – and certainly in those days – of not sharing feelings. Especially with men and I think people of a certain age will recognise that and connect to that and feel more familiarity with that isolation. We all know what that feels like and how difficult it is to break that habit – especially people of that generation.

DAMIAN: I mentioned Brando earlier, and we now know from various books and documentaries that he never prepared prior to filming during his later career – didn’t even bother to learn his lines – and yet, when he paused, took a moment or gave a certain look as he did in The Godfather or Apocalypse Now – it’s pure magic and electrifying to watch. Despite your protests to the contrary, I told you last time that you have that same sort of gravitas…

ANTON: NO, NO, RUBBISH – THAT’S NONSENSE!

DAMIAN: Well, I’m sorry but what I wanted to say was that you have that same sort of gravitas to command a scene. That’s my point and my question is to what extent can you as an actor with your vast experience rely of your little bag of tricks and does it become easier with age?

ANTON: Not at all. I don’t recognise what you’re saying about me. And, therefore I can’t rely on anything – I don’t rely on anything because I don’t believe it’s true.

DAMIAN: Come on now, in that club scene with Max there’s a moment where you take off your glasses and clean them and put them back on and I don’t think there’s any dialogue for a moment but it is electrifying…

ANTON: Well, that’s amazing and it’s lovely of you to say so but it’s not anything that I know how to do. It probably comes out of a moment of quite the opposite; of not knowing what to do and honouring that, do you know what I mean? A lot of the time, apparently, this is so fascinating – in life, in daily life – we have become socialised and habituated to moving around the world in a way that gives the impression that we know what were doing. The truth, if we’re honest about ourselves in our most quiet moments, is nobody knows the f*ck what’s going on! [Anton laughs wildly while I try to compose myself after hearing Anton use the F word]

You never know what you’re doing because you present – because of habit – you’ve created a persona and people ask who are you and you say. ‘Well I was born in such and such and I went to Drama school and that’s who you are. It’s a fabrication sustained through memory, habit, projections, and you walk around with this thing called a person that doesn’t actually exist, and actually, what really is there is that you’re just a body with thoughts flowing through and memories and some skills that you’ve learnt and… oh, I could go on about this for hours.

But to answer your question, what you see when you see something and think, wow – that was really amazing is me not covering up the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing at that moment.

DAMIAN: You’re too modest by far.

ANTON: Absolutely Damian, that is the truth! I mean I can accept – and this may be the answer to my own question about what it is that De Niro and Pacino have. What they do maybe is something to do with the fact that they’re brave enough not to use a trick or a mannerism or a way of speaking that they’ve learnt so what you get is pure vulnerability. It’s not acting – it’s revealing.

DAMIAN: That’s a very interesting way of looking at it.

ANTON: I don’t know if that’s true but it’s getting near to it because it’s just being willing to be there, to be naked in a moment and therefore reveal something that an audience will recognise in themselves. Sort of coping with life by presenting something. A person and actually when you stop, and usually it happens to us because of suffering or because life kicks us in the teeth or somebody dies or somebody you love leaves you, there are moments of absolute vulnerability and you get in touch with something real about what you are and maybe the actors that we like and we’ve been talking about have these mysterious qualities when they’re doing that to some degree. Consciously or unconsciously.

DAMIAN: I agree with all that and you’ve raised some really interesting points but I think I’ve researched and written enough about television to know good acting and what isn’t good acting when I see it. Now, there was a shot of you standing in your tiny little office smoking a cigarette and you look out of the window to Box who’s looking straight back at you so we get this marvelous shot of the two of you where you are both reflected in each other’s gaze…

ANTON: Yes, yes, yes – I do remember that.

DAMIAN: Neither actor is saying anything but you just look at Box and it’s a beautiful moment; very tense and yet very subtle as well. A lot of actors couldn’t do that as well because they’d overplay it.

ANTON: Well, I’m just delighted that that’s the effect and when I hear you say that it makes me feel it validates my trust in those moments when I don’t really know what to do and I can use that space and I can just be as honest as I can in that moment.

DAMIAN: As we’ve discussed, sometimes you’ll simply get what you referred to last time as a “very good, carry on”kind of scene but now you’ve got all this character development stuff. Is your approach or preparation to either of these any different – I suppose I’m trying to ask how you prepare for some of the more emotional scenes from this or the last series such as the tower collapse or Mrs. Bright’s illness?

ANTON: I know and I’m going to disappoint you I think Damian. I actually remember a scene that you will see this year which demands something on an emotional level that’s not like anything that’s happened before and just like the moment when I see the tower collapse or when I hear about the diagnosis, happily in my personal experience I don’t have a direct experience that I can draw on to replicate in any way. I remember saying to the director, ‘I haven’t got a clue about how to do this’ and she said ‘You absolutely know how to do it.’ And that did what this conversation is doing for me now, which is it just legitimizes the fact that even though I’m not the sort of actor who can go away and emotionally prepare in a Stanislavski way, something that happens which I am learning to trust more and more and more, actually in the moment – when they say action – that if I can be brave enough to let myself open up?

A bit like the difference between a hand being closed and a hand relaxing and opening. It’s like something inside and if I can allow it to just not grab hold of something to present to make me feel safe, you know like being emotional, or if I can say no and dare to just be open and vulnerable then again a space will be available for the audience to put their own version there. I can’t really give you any more than that. It’s a mysterious thing that I’m trying learn to trust more and love more because I think it’s a very precious thing to have you know?

DAMIAN: Well, it is and you should because when you say a line like ‘a moment’s courage or a lifetime of regret’, there’s this hypnotic power that we talked about earlier…

ANTON: As you’re saying that, I’m just thinking about that great scene in Taxi Driver – great moment of acting. Do you know that scene quite early on in the film where he’s trying to express something to the boss of the taxi company he works for?

DAMIAN: Yes, I know the film very well.

ANTON: They go out the back and there’s this kind of older man and it’s the most heartbreaking scene I’ve ever seen because you feel this kid is going to explode and this older man doesn’t know what to do.

DAMIAN: I think it might be the ‘I got some bad ideas in my head’ scene with Peter Boyle.

ANTON: Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s one of my favourite moments in cinema.

DAMIAN: Absolutely stunning film. Now, albeit only temporarily, do you think the moral downfall of Thursday last series suggests that all bets are off now as we edge closer to the end of the show and anything is possible in the future for the characters?

ANTON: Yes I do. I think that’s what’s so exciting because there’s so many sides to these characters that you couldn’t call it and you couldn’t say where they’re going to end up.

DAMIAN: At the end of the last series, my face – as I’m sure was the case with many fans – was absolutely beaming when Bright told Endeavour, Thursday and Strange that he’d be assuming command at Castle Gate. People really do care about these characters don’t they?

ANTON: Yes – it’s great. I know, people come up to me sometimes in the supermarket or at the train station and say ‘we watch it on television and we absolutely love it.’ And I just think that’s such a privilege to be involved in something that’s had that effect.

DAMIAN: Anton, thank you very much indeed.

ANTON: It’s a pleasure to speak to you Damian.

Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2020

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THE ENDEAVOUR INTERVIEWS 2019: Anton Lesser

All things Bright…

Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2019

DAMIAN: Dickens (aka Uncovering the Real Dickens) was a wonderful three-part 2002 BBC docudrama written and presented by the great Peter Ackroyd. Now, the reason I mention this, aside from the fact that I love to rewatch it almost every Christmas, is the fact that this series introduced me to your work. It’s the most superior portrait and I found your interpretation of Dickens to be authentically tortured, gritty and even somewhat cruel at times. I’m wondering to what extent you discussed, either with directors Mary Downes and Chris Granlund or Ackroyd himself, how far you went as an actor in exploring such a dark side to one of our greatest and most celebrated writers?

ANTON: Hmm, we’re going back a bit now aren’t we? Yes, my goodness, well, from the research that I remember doing he was quite a difficult man. He was such a mixture, a really complex character and I think that’s what I always look for in whatever I’m playing; not necessarily a grittiness, but a complexity. So when you come across stories about the difficulties, how difficult he was to live with and all those stories about his wife and the affair and building a wall in the middle of their bedroom, it really inspires you not to go for the easy option, but really mine it for layers. I hope that it had those layers and wasn’t just sort of one aspect of a very complex character.

DAMIAN: And there’s an accompanying programme where Dickens is at home performing A Christmas Carol for friends and family who are gathered around him beside a glowing fireplace. Again, it’s an extraordinary and almost hypnotic experience to watch such a tour de force performance as you play Dickens acting out all the various characters with such energy and vigour; ranting, seething and barking – it was simply remarkable to see such danger and unpredictability. I wonder, do you ever get lost in the moment during such performances?

ANTON: Oh, erm… [laughs] what I remember most about that was that because I wear specs and couldn’t wear them [as Dickens] for reading, and I wasn’t familiar with contact lenses at that time, I had to learn the whole thing –  the whole book!

DAMIAN: Good heavens! I assumed you had an autocue because they were extremely long takes…

ANTON: [laughs] It would have been great to be able to read it but I couldn’t see it! I had to learn it and pretend to be reading so the energy in that was to do with trying to remember.

DAMIAN: Well as I say,  such energy and your arms were flailing about so much I was sure that you’d knock the glass of sherry over on the table next to you but you never did. Just a marvellous performance.

ANTON: Thank you.

DAMIAN: Let’s go back to the beginning of it all. I believe that you originally considered a career as an architect so at what point did you decide to pursue acting instead?

ANTON: That’s right. I did a degree at Liverpool University in architecture and then the usual course was you did a year out in practice and you came back and did a Masters and another year out. A bit like medicine you know, seven years! So I did my year out in Africa, in Nigeria, doing voluntary service overseas and while I was there I saw a British Council Film about the Royal Shakespeare Company and I had a kind of moment of recognition that that’s what I should do and I came back, went to RADA and my first job was with the RSC! So it was a very powerful experience of certainty about what I should be doing and that’s how it happened.

DAMIAN: Were you a nervous student or did you feel instantly at home at RADA?

ANTON: I loved it actually. I remember the first day feeling very daunted when they took us round the theatre and I thought oh my God, how the hell are you supposed to make yourself heard in a big place like this. So I was quite nervous in that respect but I loved being there because I’d done my student days already at University, I was there to get what I could get not to be a sort of student do you know what I mean? So I really made the most of it, yeah, I think I had a wonderful time there.

DAMIAN: You’ve mentioned fearing the audience wouldn’t hear you in such a huge theatre but was it during this period that you developed that wonderful aristocratic voice of yours?

ANTON: [Huge explosion of hearty laughter] Erm, I don’t know, I mean I’m a Brummie! So I don’t know about that, hmmm, I dunno. I think vocally, I’ve always been very unsure of myself…

DAMIAN: Really?

ANTON: I’ve always wanted to have a relaxed and really easeful voice but I’ve had a lot of vocal problems, particularly the last few years, so it’s an area I’ve never felt that I can really express what I want to express. It has always been a sort of compromise. I hear stuff coming out of my mouth and I find it very disappointing; the gap between being able to speak and the actual delivery is very often deeply unsatisfying and tense. I have this subjective judgement, we all do I suppose, but other people say nice things about it and offer me work.

DAMIAN: I find that absolutely astonishing to hear. As a regular listener to Radio 4, I often hear you in the plays or reading poetry and your voice is instantly recognisable – it’s a fantastic voice.

ANTON: [Slightly bashful] Thank you.

DAMIAN: You’re probably hardly ever the tallest actor on set, and yet, our eyes cannot help but gravitate towards you and you effortlessly command every scene you’re in. Tell me, where does this power and energy come from?

ANTON: Well first of all, I’m very flattered but I don’t recognise that as true because, you know, I am tiny and I think of myself as lightweight. I’ve been watching this series on television on Sky about great actors and great directors and the ones that I admire have a sort of effortless authority. I was watching one about Peter Finch last night and Anthony Hopkins, you know people like that, so I don’t feel as though I do have that quality that you describe but it’s lovely to hear.

DAMIAN: Well I think there will be many who would argue otherwise but we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. Anyway, I was actually going to ask you about this, in retrospect, were there certain actors in theatre or on film and television when you were growing up in Birmingham that you particularly admired and may have inspired or influenced your decision to become an actor later on?

ANTON: Yes, I mean long before I ever thought of being an actor, I do remember seeing John Wood in a play in Birmingham when I was at school and it was called The Sorrows of Frederick, about Frederick the Great, and it was this absolutely amazing performance and that obviously had a huge impact, and much later of course, I had the privilege of working with him and was able to tell him how he inspired me. Another actor I saw as a student at Liverpool was Jonathan Pryce who was at the Everyman Theatre. He had a powerful impact on me. I saw him do a lot in Liverpool and then when I was at RADA, he’d done Comedians, the Trevor Griffiths play in Nottingham and then the West End, and when we got to finals and I had to choose a part for the showcase performance, I said to the principal I’d like to do the Jonathan Pryce part in Comedians and he said alright, if you can cast it from your year we’ll do it and we did and it was that which was seen by Joyce Nettles who was the casting director at Stratford at that time and that’s how I got my first job.

DAMIAN: And, of course, since then you’ve many credits across theatre, film, television and radio, but at what point in your career did you start to become associated with roles in which you are often cast as rather regal characters and those in positions of authority?

ANTON: Yeah, I don’t know how that happened really. I mean I’m trying to think of the first one. I suppose because my first job was Richard of Gloucester in the Henry sixes, I started very early being associated with the classics and Shakespeare which was a huge surprise to me because I thought I was just going to end up holding a spear but then I went on to do, I suppose, classic costume drama on television like Anna of the Five Towns. So yeah, I suppose I started to get a connection with classic literature rather than modern stuff. Maybe that was it but the regal thing? – I don’t know! [laughs]

DAMIAN: Well, I’ve some examples for you: the Archbishop of Canterbury in The Palace, the Duke of Exeter in The Hollow Crown, Prime Minister Attlee in A United Kingdom and Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall (2015) which is a production I believe you are particularly proud of?

ANTON: Oh, I think it’s one of the best jobs that I’ve ever done because of the wonderful director, Peter Kosminsky who was fantastic, the adaptation and of course, Hilary Mantel’s amazing material. And then you had this sort of gallery of wonderful practitioners and actors and I was just so privileged to be in that. I was thinking the other day that I’m very lazy as a person, and, as an actor – I’ll get away with whatever I can get away with [laughs] but I remember thinking with that job, I don’t want a day off – I want to be here everyday and to be playing every part because I think it’s so brilliant! So yes, I certainly have an attraction for classic literature and great writing. Yeah I’ve been very fortunate.

Thomas More in Wolf Hall

DAMIAN: And in addition to Attlee of course, I must mention another Prime Minister, this time Harold Macmillan in The Crown (2017) and you also play Qyburn in Game of Thrones which are two of the biggest shows on the planet at the moment! Is it fair to say that you are more popular now than you’ve ever been?

ANTON: [laughs] Erm, I think you’d have to ask my agent [more laughter] because you don’t really know what you’re availability is being checked for.

DAMIAN: But you must recognise the enormous impact that these two shows have had?

ANTON: Absolutely. Yes huge, absolutely huge, and I feel very, very honoured to have been involved in them at all. I mean what is sad as an actor is when you see something like The Crown and you notice how many scenes you’ve shot that are no longer in it. That’s really difficult.

Harold Macmillan in The Crown
Qyburn in Game of Thrones

DAMIAN: Well, it’s interesting that you say that at this point because I obviously want to discuss Endeavour, and I’ve done a series of interviews with Russ Lewis [writer and deviser of the show] since 2013 where we discuss each and every episode in some detail and it’s quite surprising, upsetting even, that so many scenes are cut.

ANTON: I know, I mean I watched the first one last week of this new series and I was sitting there thinking, oh, for God’ sake, here we go again, that’s another scene [cut] and the reason that they always give, I mean I don’t know what Russ has said to you, is because of the format, the guests each week are the people that drive the plot so inevitably you can’t save time by cutting any of their stuff. So what has to go is the lovely backstory and detail that is so rich and unusual and interesting but, you know, is actually dispensable. So invariably, if there’s a nice scene with me and Roger where we’re talking about family, life and the past – a lovely little look into an another area of their life,  that’s the first thing to go. Every year it happens and every year I complain…

DAMIAN: But I think Russ probably feels the pain most. Now, because I’ve interviewed so many of the cast over the last few years, it wouldn’t quite be the done thing to have a favourite character. Therefore, let me say instead that Reginald Bright is a character with which I have a particular interest and fascination. In my interviews with Russ, he told me that some of the initial inspiration for Bright came from Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. To what extent was this useful in helping to find your character as you prepared to play Bright for the first time?

ANTON: Well I mean I didn’t know much about him, that particular man, but I knew enough anecdotally – bits of footage that we’ve all seen over the years about the war. I got a sense of that type of man but I think what helped me most was the letter that Russ wrote to me when he was describing the character and he was describing what he felt about him and I sort of intuitively got a sense of what he was after so it’s in no way, my portrayal, is in no way a response to in depth research about Montgomery.

DAMIAN: I also asked Russ about Bright’s backstory and he had the following to say: ‘Bright has come – as I think is alluded to in some of his dialogue – from the Colonial Police, and has spent most of his career ‘overseas’. I think that dictates in some part his attitude to the men. He is still applying the lessons learnt in the tropics – a certain ‘Empire’ way of dealing with ‘local officers’ and indigenous peoples – to the good folk of Oxford. His is a world – his younger days at least – straight out of John Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song. ‘Six o’clock news… lime juice and gin.’ The second son. Packed off to ‘foreign climes’ to make his way in the world, and do his bit for King and Country. He is a man even more out of time than most in the 1960s. But, he is a very decent man, if a little dazzled by those he perceives as his social betters. When the chips are down, his loyalty to his troops – for all his bark and bite – is total.’ What’s your response to these influences?

ANTON: Sounds like the man I’m playing doesn’t it?

DAMIAN: Absolutely.

ANTON: Yes, I’m very glad to hear that because it means that I’m sort of pretty well there. I love him and I feel especially sad that we don’t see more of what’s going on underneath. We do in the last two episodes as you’ll see but, erm, I just think the viewer is always more interested in the peoples’ backstory than in the plot because I think that’s the continuous nature of the piece. They get a different story every week but they’re hung on this continuous thread that we’ve known and loved all these years. That’s what nourishes the whole thing.

DAMIAN: To what extent did you discuss the future of Bright and where he was heading as a character with Russ?

ANTON: Not at all. No, I mean I don’t know how much of an arc he had in his head right in the beginning and don’t know whether he knew then about what’s happening now [with Bright and his wife].

DAMIAN: Well, it’s interesting because I’ve recently done an interview with Damien Timmer [executive producer and managing director of Mammoth Screen] and he feels quite certain that, if you take someone like Joan Thursday for example, Russ has actually got many of the character arcs all mapped out. Indeed, I asked Russ in one of our interviews when he knew Endeavour and Joan would fall for each other and he said the moment I had her open the door for him that first time.

ANTON: But do you think right at that beginning he had the end in view – the whole thing in view?

DAMIAN: Well, yes…

ANTON: Oh!

DAMIAN: Obviously I don’t know the details but that was another question I asked and Russ told me he knows exactly how Endeavour will end and that was back in 2013!

ANTON: Gosh!

DAMIAN: Yeah. Anyway, in addition to the aforementioned A Subaltern’s Love Song, which has always struck Russ as a sort of Between Wars idyll, he cites Indoor Games Near Newbury, also by Betjeman, and Love For Lydia by HE Bates, as continued inspirations for Bright. Looking at texts such as these, some of which might simply be seen as a gentle satire on the middle classes, also evoke a certain rites of passage and courtship rituals; the sitting in the car outside the dance for example, which combine to suggest a very loving man with a deeply sensitive side to him which perhaps only his wife would be privy to. Was exploring Bright’s home life something that you’ve pushed for? I mean, I’ve personally pestered Russ for years about why we can’t meet Mrs. Bright…

ANTON: [Laughs] Well only that, as I’ve said, I’ve always wanted more of what’s going on behind. We had one little story about his time in India didn’t we with the tiger? I just think that those things are so precious and so I have wanted more.

PREY

But the interesting thing about his wife is that there was a scene very early on and there was a picture of his wife on his desk and we were discussing with Thursday some infidelity that was part of a case that they were looking at. And, when the director was shooting it, he was shooting it across the desk towards me and I said, you know -this is me sort of being desperate to get one of those threads into the scene- and I said if you shot it from the other side, you can get me shooting a glance at that photograph. Obviously we don’t have it in the dialogue for anything to be inferred but it’s just another little thing that somebody might pick up when they’re talking, just get a little note of something that says I wonder if something’s gone on in his own life back in India. Yeah, that was just me trying to get another little note and colour in there.

GIRL

DAMIAN: When we first met Bright in GIRL (S1:E1) he was a stickler for the rules and could only see things in black and white. However, NEVERLAND (S2:E4) saw the beginning of a gradual softening in Bright’s character, do you agree that this was a turning point for him and how deeply do you think he was affected by the events at Blenheim Vale?

ANTON: Oh yes, with the child abuse and all that. Yeah, I think that was huge for him because we started to see his own history about his own child. We started to get intimations that something might have happened in his history and he has a deep wound. Yes definitely, that was when I started to feel I wanted to see more of what was going on.

NEVERLAND

DAMIAN: And I think there was another turning point for Bright when he gives Thursday his revolver back in CODA (S3:E4) even though Division made it quite clear that he was to remain suspended from duty. Was this Bright’s way of making his peace with Thursday following the shooting?

ANTON: Yes, I think there was a couple of moments like that when Thursday got himself into a scrape, didn’t he beat a witness up? There was a lovely scene where Bright actually goes against all his principles, about going according to the book. Moments like that were huge for him because he’s always done everything by the book, but of course has learned as we all do, that life doesn’t operate by the book and it doesn’t actually always serve your best intentions and there are moments when you have to abandon the book. I think those little moments for his character were brilliant because they allowed me to show a man who’s worldview has actually started to be dismantled. That’s what I always find interesting, that’s where I think we can see through the cracks into something more human and that’s what we recognise. I think television can become really, really powerful when we recognise our own humanity.

CODA

DAMIAN: One of the lovely surprises regarding Bright was seeing how he welcomed and warmed to WPC Shirley Trewlove when she was first introduced in ARCADIA (S3:E2), ‘My door is always… well, if not actually open then not infrequently ajar’.

ANTON: And again, that’s that whole child thing isn’t it? At first you sort of sense that there was this rather, you know, a man far too old having sort of feelings for this attractive young woman and then we realise no, it’s a father-daughter thing. And then we understand that later when he talks about his daughter dying in India.

ARCADIA
ICARUS

DAMIAN: Were you particularly pleased to read the script for PREY and discover that Bright took centre stage in the climatic action set-piece for once?

ANTON: [mischievous laughter] That’s been my favourite scene in the whole series!

PREY

DAMIAN: Has it really?

ANTON: Yep, just to have that moment where we stop having to relentlessly be, you know, motivated by the plot and we can actually zoom in on the human beings who have this history and reasons for why they are behaving in the way they do. I loved it! I really loved that episode. Yeah, that’s really been a highlight and it was directed by Lawrence Gough who has become a really good friend. I’ve just done a film with him called Gatecrash.

DAMIAN: When will that be released?

ANTON: Well, I’m hoping soon but I think it’s got to do the rounds at the festivals before it gets any real exposure – look out for it!

DAMIAN: I certainly will. Now, we were talking about Trewlove before and when I interviewed Dakota Blue Richards last year I asked her what it was like working with an actor of such gravitas as Anton Lesser and she replied, ‘Anton is one of the world’s better people. The ideal combination of talent, humour, professionalism and gentility. He never fails to delight me and is always the best part of my day. Working with him has truly been a joy and an honour’. That’s quite an endorsement isn’t it?

ANTON: Aw, blimey, that’s amazing – she’s such a liar!!! [laughs]

DAMIAN: Were you sad to see her go?

ANTON: Yeah, I really was. I could understand it though, I mean she is a fantastic actor and it wasn’t really fulfilling enough for her – it wasn’t going anywhere. Obviously they wanted her to stay and they did everything they could, but no, it wasn’t enough. You need to keep refueling as an actor.

ICARUS

DAMIAN: I thought it was a pity because in the last series they really built up her character quite significantly.

ANTON: Yeah I know it was a really sad. I felt for her because I’ve had similar feelings all the way through. I thought to myself if this character doesn’t start opening up somehow, if we don’t see something going on I can’t see myself continuing, but each year they’ve asked me back and they’ve said it’s going to be great and we’ll try and get that theme back that we couldn’t get [before] and put it back in. To an extent that’s happened [now] but I mean it’s still frustrating because the amount of screen time that you get as one of these characters can be minimal then and that’s OK if, when you are on screen, it’s a scene that is more than just sort of ‘very well, carry on’ sort of acting.

DAMIAN: I understand but I’d never forgive you if you did leave… [Anton laughs] Given what you’ve just said then, how did you feel about the changes to Bright with the closure of Cowley and the character developments relating to his demotion?

ANTON: Well again, the man starts to become much more vulnerable and that is much more interesting to explore than somebody who is always on top of everything and by the book – it gets to become a bit predictable and not very interesting to play. So now when things fall apart, it becomes more tender, softer, vulnerable and complicated. So I’m enjoying this last phase of the story much more.

DAMIAN: In addition to Russ’ amazing scripts, I think the magic of Endeavour is that it’s got this wonderful ensemble cast that work so well together and share this magical chemistry.

ANTON: Yeah, we’ve also had a whole mix of directors of course. But yes, that consistency, having that one eye over everything – it’s wonderful from our point of view because you know it’s one voice. One storyteller.

DAMIAN: Anton, it’s been an absolute honour and a privilege to do this interview so thank you very much indeed.

ANTON: It was nice to talk to you, cheers Damian.

 
A Subaltern’s Love Song

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.

By roads “not adopted”, by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.