Christopher Eccleston has recently been described as a ‘northern powerhouse’. Not in the political sense you understand, rather in the pure strength and range of his acting ability.
Some actors would flounder on stage without a script, being scrutinised by an academic on all aspects of their considerable body of work. For Eccleston it was no problem as he led the audience at Manchester’s HOME through his 30-year career – peppered with anecdotes. He’s a great storyteller, a raconteur, the kind of person you’d like to sit next to on a long train journey if you happened to be without a book.
The evening kicked off with Lancashire-born Eccleston’s early TV work and the film Let Him Have It, which told the story of miscarriage of justice victim Derek Bentley who was hanged. Eccleston describes Bentley as “innocent, callow and green” and likens himself as a young actor to these traits. Up until that point, he says, he was the most unsuccessful actor from his drama school year and, after three years, was considering giving it all up.
But before that, he recalls getting his first colour TV set and the programmes he watched with his parents. Not the soaps which didn’t reflect working class families, he says, but Play for Today and Play of The Month. They also liked Rising Damp, Till Death Us Do Part and documentaries.
At the beginning of his acting career, Eccleston didn’t want to do rubbish roles as he would be “regarded as rubbish”. He says: “At home my Dad was like, ‘You’ve done what? You can’t turn work down.’” He talks of the middle class bias in acting and, although he’s supportive of gender-blind casting, it means “there will be even fewer working class actors”.
Eccleston has worked with writer Jimmy McGovern many times. He describes the power of Hillsborough where he played Trevor Hicks and says: “You make the things you love. You’d make them for two conkers and a marble.” Eccleston was Hicks’ best man at his second wedding, he adds.
For Shallow Grave, he was paid the Equity minimum. The film was made on a shoestring, filmed in Glasgow in winter and cost £1 million. It elevated director Danny Boyle to success but unusually, according to Eccleston, the focus was not on the three actors. He describes the actors as being “backgrounded” because of the way Boyle, writer John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald positioned themselves, although he says he’s not bitter.
Every time he’s worked in Hollywood, he feels he has “gone against my instincts and failed miserably,” adding: “I’d like the DVDs not to exist.”
With Gone in 60 Seconds, he describes the actor Nicholas Cage as an “absolute gentleman”. One day, Cage rode into work on a motorbike he’d bought on the way in. “He’d got the driver to stop on the way at a showroom,” he says. He also gave Eccleston “the best bottle of malt whisky I’ve ever had”.
Clearly Dr Who is a thorny issue, as previous comments by Eccleston have made clear. When considering playing the Time Lord he says: “He is lonely, and I can do lonely.” Dr Who, he adds, is aimed at children. The audience mutter, but he responds: “It is. Look at the time it’s on.”
Filming the drama Leftovers for HBO was “one of the happiest TV experiences I’ve ever had, and, in many senses, it was a shift in focus”. The show’s ratings bombed but it didn’t matter as the network had made Game of Thrones and could keep running with it.
But back to his current production as the lead in Macbeth for the RSC, to which Eccleston draws comparisons with Manchester United.
“I always wanted to play for United,” he says. “I still do. I see sport as a creative and physical expression of yourself, unless you’re Eric Cantona.” He offers good wishes to Sir Alex Ferguson, who has been in intensive care after a brain haemorrhage, and is applauded. His feelings for Sir Alex are “so tied up with my Dad” who had Alzheimer’s.
On Macbeth, he describes the struggle to make the Shakespearian language sound “naturalistic”.
“I did two shows yesterday and a show the day before and we’ve just had two weeks off. It’s a year of my life and I’m very fortunate to have a go at it.”
He recalls bumping into Paul Scholes in a coffee shop in St Ann’s Square, Manchester. They had a brief conversation, then Scholes’ wife said: “Ey you! You took my mate out on a date and when she turned up you were reading a book.”
Asked if it’s harder to remember your lines as you get older, he replies: “I am a replica of my father personality-wise. I think about dementia, but I do a job and I still try to keep my mind like a gym.”
As a young man, he describes the “almost physical fear of doing a nine-to-five job which my Mum and Dad had done with a great sense of self”.
He adds: “I had an absolute terror of doing the same thing, every day in the same place.”
And to the final question about Macbeth, which made me snort with laughter: “How did you do that twice on Saturday?”
“That’s what my ex-wife used to say,” he quips. “It’s a great job. I love it. I always had too much energy and it burns it off. I am lucky.”
To read Northern Soul’s interview with the team behind Pilot Light Festival, click here.