It has been more than three decades since Tim Pigott-Smith entered the American consciousness as the obsessive police captain Ronald Merrick during the final days of British rule in India, in The Jewel In The Crown. Sixteen years since he played the dubious misanthrope Larry Slade opposite Kevin Spacey’s Hickey in a revival of The Iceman Cometh. The classically trained actor, who Slade-like insisted that he was uninterested in a Hollywood career, has mostly stuck with the classics; there’s barely a Shakespeare play he hasn’t done on a prominent stage.
And yet it’s the new work, he says, that fires him up. He was a star of Enron, a major hit on the West End that flopped on Broadway (he wasn’t in the US production). Now he’s back in the title role of King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s Olivier Award winning play set in the not-too-distant future, when Mother has passed and the Prince finally gets the crown.
There’s nothing starlike about his accommodations at the Music Box Theatre, where the play opens on Sunday. The afternoon we met, the dressing room was bare and he was fighting a cold after previews had just begun. Bartlett and the director, Rupert Goold, were making script changes in response audience reaction (or the lack thereof) to the Britishisms.
DEADLINE: After Jewel In The Crown you diverted an opportunity to put your talents more on screen and have a Hollywood career, as many of your colleagues did.
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: The truth is, I never liked the way I looked and I didn’t think I was going to have a good screen career. But what I discovered was that in the screen work that I was doing, I got no reward from that. I didn’t get any stimulus from it. Driving on Sunset Boulevard you see a big poster with your name on it. It’s sort of heady stuff, but when it comes down to it, you look at the script you’re offered and think I’ve got to sign up for the potential of doing this for five years. I couldn’t do it. I would simply go round the bend. I don’t know how Patrick Stewart managed it. You have to have a long plan and an inordinate level of ambition that you’re prepared to suffer for five, seven years, whatever it is in order to have the power then to do what you want. I would go mad within a year.
DEADLINE: So even with the success of Jewel In The Crown, you chose to emphasize stage work?
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: In the wake of Jewel In The Crown, what I did do and what I didn’t do began to define what it was that I really wanted from acting. It was simply to be involved in worthwhile work.
DEADLINE: Which over a couple of decades brought you to Enron and now to this, a new play that nevertheless is written blank verse, the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare. Can you give me an example of two sentences from the play exemplifying that?
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: In the middle of my very first soliloquy I say, “My life has been a lingering for the throne.” You wouldn’t say it that way; it’s a slightly poeticized way of saying it, but it’s a brilliant phrase for Charles. You know, people forget the Queen has just passed the date at which she became the longest serving monarch of all time. This means necessarily that Charles is the longest serving heir apparent of all time, so: My life has been a lingering for the throne. It’s a perfect iambic pentameter, but it’s also colloquial. Later on in the play, when he’s seen a ghost for the second time, he says, “Perhaps there’s wisdom in insomnia and sleep does lead me where awake I fear.”
DEADLINE: What other changes did you make In anticipation of the move here?
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: Well, within the speech that I was talking about, the soliloquy, I say, like SatNav on a car. Well, you don’t have SatNav, so I say GPS, little things like that. Harry used to say “We went to Saintsbury’s. Well, you don’t have Saintsbury’s, so I think he says Burger King. He’s talking to the press secretary who’s very sort of upper class and snooty. On Saturday night, I said “The truth is that my greatest enemies lie not within the crowd outside, but there in Whitehall. Well in England, Whitehall just means Parliament, but here it means nothing, so I say Parliament instead.
DEADLINE: How do you roll with that? Is that something you’re used to?
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: What normally happens is that you get the change right and then make a mess of the next bit because your mind is so busy.
DEADLINE: Help me understand what it is with the royals?
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: You mean why the Americans are so crazy about them?
DEADLINE: Not just the Americans! I’m thinking, We just had The Audience here, Peter Morgan’s meditation on what might have gone on between Helen Mirren’s Queen and her Prime Ministers. Everybody is glued to these idiosyncratic figures who wear crowns.
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: Well, I quite like the monarchy because I think it’s a very large part of what our country is. And of course because the Queen has been queen for so long, it is inevitable that in the next — I mean, her mother left at what, 103? — the Queen could be queen for another 15 years! But it does also mean that in the foreseeable future there is going to be a new monarch on the throne, and what will that do to the country? Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the Labor Party, is violently opposed to the monarchy. I think that’ll do him a disservice with the voters, most of whom I think like the monarchy. At its very lowest level it’s wonderful stage management. I mean, if you’re in London and you see the horse guards going down going down The Mall, it’s quite something. The current Queen absolutely believes a hundred percent that she is God’s anointed on earth. I’m not quite sure where Charles stands on that. I’m pretty sure that William and Kate won’t feel that, so there’s going to be a change. Are we going to move to a sort of Scandinavian type of democracy?
DEADLINE: Stepping back a bit: So the script comes to you. You’ve lived through the time of Charles and Diana and these tumultuous changes; what’s the impact on you?
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: I was thinking, What’s the play going to be about? Is it just going to be a sort of sendoff of the royal family? Then you get to a scene about 10 minutes in, and something happens which is very surprising and very plausible. That’s when you just go, Well, it doesn’t matter that this play is about the royals, it’s just a play in its own right. What’s so clever about it is that Charles decides to defend the freedom of the press against a bill that’s being brought in because of all the phone hacking scandal. So it’s plausible there would be a bill to control the press, which we’re still trying to do. We know that Charles wants to be involved in things as King. He lobbies for things. But there’s a lot of sort of class resentment about this unelected man sticking his finger in the pie, you know, it’s rubbish. You don’t have to do what he says, just listen to him, that’s all. He just wants to be part of the argument.
So the play works on a very plausible level, and what happens to that bill is the story of the play, and the way the dominoes fall as a result of Charles’ attitude to what people ask him to do. He refuses to sign the bill, and all bills have to have royal assent. Usually they take them to the queen and she just signs them, you know? But Charles says, “I can’t, I can’t sign this, this is a dangerous bill.” And it’s very clever that this man who has been a victim of press attention should defend the press. So, you’ve really got a juicy premise for a play. It’s brilliant.
DEADLINE: Of course, it isn’t Shakespeare.
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: I don’t know about other people, but I would say most actors live for a good new play. I love doing Shakespeare and all that. I’ve done really great plays of our classic tradition, they’re wonderful. But what gets you really excited is a good new play, so here it is.
The other thing is, you get to my stage of life and over the last few years I played King Lear and Prospero and you think, Well, what on earth am I going to do next? Is there anything I’m going to want to do? Then along comes this play, and the beauty of it is that you have no idea when you’re reading it or working on it that it’s going to be successful.
DEADLINE: You just know it works for you, or that it speaks to you.
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: Exactly, yeah. But you still don’t know until you get it in front of an audience, and it just blew us away, the first preview, I mean, the response was mind-blowing.
DEADLINE: How long are you comfortable staying in a run?
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: Well, we’re here for 16 weeks, which roughly speaking is 100 performances. The longest I’ve ever done was 220 consecutive performances of a play, a six month run in the West End, Benefactors by Michael Frayn. It’s a wonderful play but there are points in any long run when you go a bit barmy. My first experience of a really long run, was playing Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes here on Broadway. You’d say, like, elementary and your brain would say, “I think you said mental airy tonight.” As long as you’re on reflex you’ll be okay. The moment you think you’ll make a mistake, something will go wrong.
DEADLINE: You’re lost?
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: You’re absolutely lost. I think the art of acting to an extent is the act of repetition, but that’s not an activity that the human brain relishes over much, repetitive strain disorder of the brain. It’s hard.
DEADLINE: What’s your life like when you’re not on stage? I know you’ve been recovering from a bad accident and were laid up for a time.
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: I discovered to my great astonishment how much I enjoyed not working, something I thought I’d never say. What I do with my life at home is quite simple. I read quite a lot. I listen to quite a lot of music. I watch quite a lot of drama on television.
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: Like catching up with the end of Mad Men or watching some of The West Wing again, Breaking Bad. And I’ve been watching Spacey, of course, in House Of Cards. I like to keep abreast of what’s going on. My wife and I go to the theater a great deal, two or three times a week, which isn’t great for the finances. You know how expensive it is.