In Rory Kinnear’s first answer during our chat about his role in Sky Atlantic drama Guerrilla, he makes a wry joke at his own expense. He’s not a well-known actor, he says, and perhaps not one with “a particularly heroic face!” he laughs when we talk about the moral complexity of his roles. Give him an outright compliment and he deflects the praise elsewhere, onto writers and directors, John Logan for Penny Dreadful, John Ridley for Guerrilla. His role as Bill Tanner in the James Bond franchise is a “very, very small” part of an enormous machine, he stresses.
Kinnear’s answers are self-edited so as never to give the impression of being—to borrow a word used tongue-in-cheek by him below—a braggart.
And yet, Kinnear has more right to brag than most. He won an Olivier award for the role of Iago at The National, where he appears regularly. He’s a playwright and, recently, theatre director. And he’s also an unusually talented actor. Take a part like the role of the prime minister in Black Mirror’s (much-discussed, for reasons far too indelicate to go into here) National Anthem. Kinnear is able to evoke empathy for characters in the most alien situations. He’s funny too. Not that he’d cop to it.
I spoke to Kinnear about 1970s-set race relations drama Guerrilla, in which he plays a Zimbabwean police officer tasked with suppressing the UK black power movement, and the impressive range of his previous roles…
We’re here to talk about Guerrilla, but before we do, looking over your previous work, it’s striking quite how versatile an acting career you’ve built so far. Political drama, studio sitcom, Gothic horror, lots of meaty stage roles, a huge movie franchise like Bond… what would you say is the secret to avoiding being pigeon-holed as an actor?
Gosh, I don’t really know. I’ve always just followed my nose in terms of what I thought would be fun to do or what scripts I thought were decent and would be a good thing to be a part of. I first started out in the theatre doing plays when I was younger and that was what I presumed my life would be, working in the theatre and playing all different kinds of parts. I never set out to be known for doing lots of different things… or not known for doing lots of different things! [laughs] but I guess it’s just been a continuation of how I’ve always seen acting, that you get to inhabit lots of different people so you don’t have to be yourself all the time.
If you were offered a role that could potentially go on for years and years in the same character, is that something you’d be reluctant to take on because of the lack of variety?
I guess it’s always a question of how much freedom it also affords you to do other things. The nice thing with doing Penny Dreadful—that was one of those American series that you sign up for an awfully long time when you first sign up—was that there was always a guarantee that there would be six months off in between, so I always knew there would be an opportunity to do some theatre. If you were to sign up for something that would be the only job that you had and you weren’t able to play other characters then yeah, I’d probably find that limiting. As it is, all the series I’ve been in have been fairly gentle handcuffs.
Even within Penny Dreadful, counting demonic possession you played something like four different roles. You even managed to avoid being pigeon-holed within a single show!
[Laughs] Well that was thanks to [Penny Dreadful creator] John Logan really, I didn’t have much to do with that!
I’ve seen the first episode of Guerrilla.
That’s all I’ve seen as well.
So I’m not sure how your character’s story develops, but he’s introduced as “the hard heart of special branch” then quickly it’s clear that he’s not quite such a straightforward racist villain?
Yes. So, there was a thing called the Black Desk in Special Branch which was set up to police what they would describe as insurrectionary activity amongst minority ethnic communities. It was set up in the 60s largely to deal with what they thought was going to be an oncoming rush of violence or political activity and to suppress it at its source. They brought in, quite often, police officers or former army people from what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe, and from South Africa, who’d obviously grown up under a system of Apartheid to bring in their area of expertise, as it were, which was to keep the races separate and to suppress any sense of the drive for equality amongst black people in the UK. It’s not that well-known or publicised, as you can understand, from the government’s point of view and from the police’s point of view, but it did exist.
My character is himself from Rhodesia as-was but has been living in the UK for about ten or eleven years and heading up this desk. He, obviously, has made a number of contacts in the black community to keep himself informed and to keep ahead of the game and one of those contacts is a sex worker within that community who has a child that may or may not be Pence’s own and whom Pence seems to have a great deal of affection for. He’s also married with his own wife and son and that son also has an incipient and worsening drug addiction.
So yes, he’s set up and introduced originally and initially as the bad guy of the piece but, as with all the characters in it, which was what drew me to it, John [Ridley, Guerrilla writer and director] made sure that there were no straightforward good guys and bad guys, everybody had struggles and problems of their own. It was the system and the climate that they were the victims of rather than necessarily being either good or evil.
Is Pence based on a real-life police officer?
No, it’s sort of a composite. The piece is very historically researched and accurate in lots of ways but it is a work of fiction in terms of a what if… It’s a sort of ‘what if the Black Power movement in London at that time actually chose to use more violent means than they did?’ By and large, it chose to resist peacefully throughout that time.
Speaking of violence, there’s a scene in episode one where police brutality plays a part, which is, as you’d expect, very distressing to watch. And there Pence is, orchestrating it all. How do you want the audience to feel about your character at a point like that?
I’m always quite careful not to want an audience to feel anything really, to just play it scene by scene as the writer has written it.
When I first read it, I think he sort of embodies that sense of institutionalised ignorance. He’s also an outsider himself and he struggles to be accepted by, I guess, the establishment within the police force because he’s from another country. In some ways that gives him a kind of link with those minority ethnic communities who themselves were struggling themselves with acceptance, but obviously, he’s on the other side of it and he’s their suppressor. I think there’s enough in him and enough torment in the guy that inevitably you wouldn’t just write him off necessarily as the archetypal bad guy of the piece.
What kind of access did you have to John Ridley during filming? What sort of conversations did you have?
He directed the first two episodes and the last one so he was around all the time. He was there throughout rehearsals and throughout the making of it. It was great to be able to be guided through the whole piece according to how he had seen it originally.
When I got involved, I was in rehearsals for a play at The National, we were doing The Threepenny Opera at the time and I was just about to start at the same time doing the new series of Count Arthur Strong, and this script came through and I realised that to do it, it was going to be a lot of juggling and quite energy-sapping what with doing the show in the evenings as well, so I was really quite keen not to like it. When I read it, I got more and more annoyed as I continued to read it that there was no way I could possibly say no to it because it was so good. I first met John just after having read it and said ‘if it’s possible to make this work schedule-wise then I’m on board’.
You mention it covers an aspect of British history that’s not especially well-known. Was it something you were familiar with before joining the cast or was this a sort of education for you? 1971 was obviously before you were born…
Yeah, certainly the Black Desk. I knew about some of the later riots and obviously, about some of the aspects of policing of minority communities at the time. I didn’t know about the Black Desk and I didn’t know about the Mangrove restaurant. I knew about Darcus Howe and various other figures that are still kept in the public consciousness but nearly all of it was new to me.
It feels quite rare to have an overt political drama on TV in the UK at the moment. There are a lot of shows around using allegory to talk about race relations or immigration – zombies and superheroes and so on – but this is traditional, straight-up political drama.
The thing I liked was not only the depth of character [Ridley] was looking for in the complicated way of telling this story, but also, it’s just really distinctive. There have been over the last few years—not necessarily British-made, I’m thinking of Deutschland 83—TV shows set in the past that maybe allows us to reflect on our present as well. Certainly in terms of the political environment that it depicts.
Initially, John was looking at 1970s America to tell the story and came across this aspect of British racial tension during the 70s and thought actually, that’s the story he wanted to tell. The way he enveloped himself in that world and researched it… you often find this, it was the same with [Channel 4 drama based on a rural shooting spree] Southcliffe, which was directed by a Canadian, Sean Durkin, sometimes when a filmmaker is making a piece about another country, there’s an impartiality to the storytelling and the narrative which I find really welcome.
And as you say, it’s also a prism for looking at current political race-relations in America and here.
That’s right. It’s very much a sealed look at early 1970s London but I think most people that watch it would think about how far have we come and the piece resonates in terms of contemporary politics as well.
You mention Southcliffe. Between that and this and Five Days, not to oversimplify, but the characters you play are often very flawed. You don’t play straightforward good guys very often, correct me if I’m wrong!
No. I can’t think of any out-and-out good guys.
I suppose you won your Olivier for playing Iago [in a National Theatre production of Othello featuring Adrian Lester in the lead role], perhaps there’s just something about playing a… bastard?
Yes. I don’t know. I don’t think any actor thinks about playing characters as good or bad, like all of us, they’re a product of their experience, it’s just working out what their experiences were that arrived them at the character the writer has written. I don’t know. Maybe I just haven’t got a particularly heroic face!
I suppose what I’m trying to say, in a ham-fisted way, is that you’re able to create empathy for characters I wouldn’t necessarily feel I could empathise with.
That was the nice thing about The Creature in Penny Dreadful. He’s set up, obviously as the scary baddy and over the course of three series, you realise he’s the most wounded and fractured and broken of all the characters. That’s quite often, not to be too sympathetic about it, the way when people do bad things.
Were you surprised when John Logan decided to bring Penny Dreadful to an end after series three? A lot of fans were and thought it could have continued.
John’s always said that he imagined it as three series and I have to say, when I read the first few episodes I sort of felt that these characters could go on a trajectory of three series and that proved to be.
It’s the first time John has written long-format TV and he wrote all but three of the episodes I think, that’s an almighty workload for someone who also, during the evening, will write a Bond film or during the half-hour lunchbreak will be writing his next Broadway show! His output and his work ethic is extraordinary and I think probably, like myself, I feel like he thought ‘I’ve done what I wanted to do with these characters. I’ve told the story I wanted to tell.’ And to tell it as delicately and intricately and intelligently as he did, why not go out when the going’s good rather than stretch it thin.
Talking about John’s writing, you had some terrific speeches as Caliban and John Clare. Are there any that stick with you and you look fondly back on? I know you studied English at university, when you generally can’t move for Wordsworth…
[Laughs] I did enjoy reciting some of the poetry and actually coming across John Clare, who I didn’t really know that well, and reading more of his stuff. That was my own joy, burrowing into him a bit more. I think one of the speeches at the end of the first series when he talks about the monster not being in his face but in his soul. I also really loved the final scenes of that episode with me and Eva as well.
A Blade Of Grass? The padded room episode?
That’s right yeah.
That was an extraordinary hour of work. They should have thrown awards at you both for that. What are your memories of making it?
Usually, I would have to get up at three thirty in the morning and go through the make-up process, putting on contact lenses and so on. Quite a lot of it was quite isolated, not only with the make-up, but my character himself was quite often in the shadows. I was sort of away from everybody else because I was constantly having to get my make-up done and have my contacts taken out and the wig, there was quite a lot of faff. It was so nice that I’d trot up to work at seven thirty and we’d work eight ‘til six. It was the most imprisoned episode in some ways, but it was entirely liberating for me! We were in that padded cell for three weeks and occasionally you did find yourself rocking back and forth but it was just so lovely to turn up and basically have ten minutes to get ready.
With that experience of making a US TV series, and your theatre experience and working on a studio sitcom like Count Arthur Strong, how does all that compare from your perspective to being inside a huge move machine like the Bond films?
Bond requires from me certain… skills. And quite often, on those big films it’s keeping your nerve, because if you have to reset at the end of one of those big, long takes, it takes a much longer time than it would do on TV and there’s an awful lot of people around. Just trying to block all of that out and keep focused on the usual, which is your character and who you’re talking to, is the thing. Obviously, quite often it’s just remembering jargon!
The most fun thing about it is seeing the sheer scale of operations. I remember in the first one when we went to Panama thinking how big it all is… just the administration. On Spectre, some script changes came through quite late and I remember we did a week of night shoots on Westminster Bridge and Trafalgar Square and I was filming until five thirty in the morning and then rehearsals for The Trial would start at ten o clock in the morning and finish up at six and then I’d go straight to the night shoot. I remember just halfway through that week thinking ‘I’m sure we only got these scenes about six weeks ago’ and yet they’ve cut off the whole of Trafalgar Square, there are drone cameras coming up… the clout that they have and the skill with which all that admin is executed is just bewildering really. You do realise you’re a very, very small little cherry on the top. Equally, you have to keep your nerve and treat it as crucially as any other part.
Appreciating that you can’t give us any specifics about it, is Eon at the point where they’ve told you when they expect to shoot Bond 25?
No, they haven’t. No.
From one big entertainment machine to another. I once spoke to David Morrissey, who, like you, had been linked in the press with rumours about being the next Doctor in Doctor Who.
Morrissey said that the showrunner at the time had asked him to collude in a bit of subterfuge to throw the press off the scent of the real actor cast in the role. I gather there wasn’t any such subterfuge when you were the hot favourite?
No, and it’s someone else’s turn to have to deal with that this time!
No, there was never any contact of any sort or any sense of subterfuge or any sense of me being asked to play along. It just seemed to take off from somewhere. Who knows how these things happen?
Do you have any idea where that rumour started?
No. I mean, somebody suggests somebody and then, because there is nothing else to go on—it’s the same with the James Bond rumours—people say a name and then other people jump on that name.
And Ladbrokes rake in the cash, I suppose. Moving on, we’ve just had a press release in saying that you’re one of the guest stars in series four of Inside No. 9, another one of our favourite shows.
Yes, that was great. We filmed that a couple of weeks ago.
What can you tell us about that? Not much, I presume.
Presume not much! I never know what I’m allowed to say or that but it was a larger cast than I think they’d had before and I will say some of my skills that I learnt on Penny Dreadful were called upon. That’s as much as I’ll give you.
How did you come to be involved in that? I know a lot of actors pursue parts in it rather than being approached. Which way around was it for you?
How to say this without sounding like a braggart…
Braggart is a word you just don’t hear enough these days.
[Laughs] They asked me to do it. I think they had asked earlier for another one but I hadn’t been available. I was delighted. We’d just finished this opera that I’d directed, The Winter’s Tale and it just came through and was perfect timing. I loved League Of Gentlemen as a younger man, so it was nice, having worked with Mark [Gatiss, on The First Men In The Moon], to tick off another two.
You’re a real comedy fan, aren’t you? When asked which TV box set you’d take to a desert island once, you picked Vic and Bob’s Shooting Stars?
I love it and sort of love everything that Vic and Bob have done. They were the people that as a thirteen, fourteen year-old, even a bit earlier than that, you’d turn on the TV with Big Night Out and think, oh, some people do as silly things as I do. They were my heroes. They sort of continue to be so really.
Onto Count Arthur Strong then! I’m a big fan of the TV show and the radio series and really think the introduction of your character, Michael, elevated it from what was already a very funny radio show to something that could obviously be very silly but also have a surprising amount of pathos. Was the part specifically written for you?
No. There was a pilot episode flying around I think. Graham [Linehan] and Steve [Delaney] had tried to do a gameshow with Count Arthur earlier and I think they’d made a pilot of that but it hadn’t worked and Graham wasn’t going to let it go so he thought let’s reconfigure it as a sitcom and we’ll probably need someone Arthur can bounce off, a straight man in some way. So there was a pilot which I met them for to do a reading in front of bigwigs etc., then it got greenlit and Graham and Steve came to me and said where can we go with this to take it further?
I can’t remember how it was set out in terms of what was in place and what came out in that development process as the series progressed, but it was trying to make sure that there was a heart to it and that there was a root to it because obviously Arthur can go off in all of his wonderful, delightful ways, but Michael roots him. And in many ways Arthur keeps Michael there as well, he’s someone who’s eschewed all personal contact really and finds personal contact difficult, and he finally seems to find someone, albeit someone with whom he’s continually infuriated and exasperated by, but he finally finds someone that he feels he belongs with.
It’s that Cheers-like sense of family the TV show has as opposed to the radio show, with Michael in the sort of Frasier Crane role, isn’t it?
Yes, the big reference going forward was Cheers.
I met Steve Delaney and Dave Plimmer after one of their live shows recently and they said they were hoping for series three to come out in June.
We’ve made it, so it’s over to them. I’m not sure what’s going on with it.
And hopefully it’ll be in a primetime slot this time because series two went out so late.
I think that’s what they do the first time around, in terms of new comedy in BBC One. They put it later to see how it lands I guess. But I hope this one is earlier because it is very much a family show. The really lovely thing about it is that 1) it’s the only thing I’ve done that my son can watch, and 2) people who love it, there’s no kind of… some things you do you think, ‘oh, this hits this demographic’ but there doesn’t seem to be a demographic for Count Arthur, it’s incredibly varied all the people who respond to it.
To finish then, I have a really stupid question if you’ll indulge me.
Excellent. Looking forward to it.
Get ready. On the set of Bond, there’s whatever the collective noun is for a group of Hamlets: you, Ralph Fiennes, Andrew Scott…
Andrew’s only just played it. And there’s Ben Whishaw too.
Of course, I forgot a Hamlet.
And Albert Finney, he also played it at The National and was in Skyfall.
So – while waiting around on set, could you imagine having a Hamlet-off, like a rap battle with soliloquies?
We could do a version where the five of us took an act each? That would be much easier actually, far less tiring!
Rory Kinnear, thank you very much!
All episodes of Guerrilla are available from 13 April exclusively on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.