Jumping through hoops and slugging it out with James Gandolfini: Peter Capaldi interview
‘You cannot fuck me. You cannot fuck me. I am unfuckable. I have never been fucked.’ The penultimate episode of The Thick of It, series three, ends with this classic rant from Malcom Tucker, played with psychotic intensity by Peter Capaldi. Tucker has just been sacked from his Alastair Campbell-esque role as the government’s ‘senior press guy’ (read: ‘prince of evil’), and the tirade of four-letter abuse that follows is shocking, even by the character’s exceptionally high standards of splenetic rage.
Glasgow-born Capaldi’s character in The Thick of It, reprised in this year’s spin-off movie In The Loop, is the main reason why he is our number one Scot of 2009. The role has revitalised his career, bringing the film world back to his door and earning him both a Spirit of Scotland award and a Scottish BAFTA for In The Loop. Capaldi has had other parts this year – gripping turns as a driven civil servant in Torchwood and as Charles I in Channel 4 drama The Devil’s Whore – but Malcolm Tucker is his masterstroke – the brilliant outcome of his fierce acting passion turned into pure, terrifying evil.
Tucker is soulless, brutal and offensive – nothing like Peter Capaldi, who is extremely nice. They do share the same face, however, and this is enough to unnerve me as we make our introductions at a members’ club in Soho, London. He quickly fixes me with his trademark, knifepoint stare and open-mouthed grin, calmly absorbing my effusive praise. ‘It’s very pleasant,’ he says modestly of his man-of-the-moment status. ‘I haven’t found anything to complain about. But being Scottish, it won’t be long.’
This humility sets the tone for the interview. Capaldi is witty, articulate and very thankful for his newfound fame. ‘I don’t have any expectations of anything,’ he says, believably. At 51 he knows ‘the game’ by now. ‘I just enjoy the experience of the current success, because I know that it’s fragile, and really it’s beyond my control. I could never plan to have a career that went this well … you know, there were times when it didn’t. When it went into the toilet, or ducked or was difficult to get moving.’
Capaldi experienced a flurry of early success in the 80s around his film roles in Local Hero and Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liasons. Hollywood had come calling, but ‘the game’ didn’t play to his advantage and it was several years of TV roles later before he met fellow Scottish-Italian Armando Ianucci to audition for The Thick of It.
‘I’d had another audition at 11 o’clock,’ he recalls of the morning before he met Ianucci. This earlier audition went badly. ‘I went in to read the part, which was about two scenes, which I could have done on my head, and I looked up as I was reading [to see] I’d worked with every single person in the room – the director, the writer, everyone. And I thought, “Why are they making me jump through hoops for this part?”
‘So by the time I got to Armando, I was fed up with the whole thing
… I really didn’t care very much – my attitude was like, “Come on then, let’s see some of the comedy genius at work, Armando! Let’s see this, ‘cos I’ve been around the block and I can’t be fuckin’ arsed.” And of course that was the perfect attitude to have.’
Capaldi proceeded to improvise the ferocious sacking of a hapless minister. ‘I can remember, I could feel it. I could feel him starting to appear. I could feel the sense of power that Malcolm’s got, which is that he doesn’t give a shit what anybody says.’
For three seasons of The Thick of It Capaldi’s spin-doctor has lorded over British politics. However, this year In The Loop finally presented Malcolm Tucker with a worthy slanging partner in the formidable form of James Gandolfini. The Sopranos actor plays an American general looking to foil Tucker’s drive to war in the Middle East. Capaldi admits that rehearsals were intense.
‘There was a moment where he actually pulled his fist up to punch me – I stopped then. Malcolm might have decided to carry on then, but Peter decided not to … I just had to get over being a fan, being that close to him, the eyes that I’d looked into for the last six years in The Sopranos. He was just such a brilliant actor, I had to play it entirely in character – I couldn’t be Peter with him, I had to let Malcolm take over.
‘I wouldn’t have thought five years ago that I would be in New York, slugging it out with James Gandolfini!’ he adds, with some relish.
Capaldi has now lived in London for over half his life, but he spent his formative years in Scotland, growing up in a Glasgow tenement and attending Glasgow School of Art. He describes his time at the GSA as, ‘Fantastic … one of the most formative experiences of my life … It’s a whole melting pot there. It’s not university; it’s not drama school. We thought drama students were people who had to be very blessed, or who expressed themselves in a wonderful way, whereas the whole ethos of the GSA was that you could be Andy Warhol, or Peter O’Toole or James Dean, and you could be highly creative, and you could just indulge yourself in that.’
A move to London followed shortly after, but it was the Glasgow music hall tradition, not the bright lights of the city stages, that Capaldi claims provided his real inspiration for acting. ‘Michael Boyd, who used to run the Tron, he had this theory that Scottish audiences were attuned to this background in music hall and vaudeville; that’s what we’d been exposed to, as opposed to Chekhov or Shakespeare. I think that’s true, and I think a lot of Scottish actors will have that spirit about them. It comes to us quite easily, but it’s difficult for other people – you don’t realise how easy it comes to you until you see other people finding it difficult.’
The idea of Scottishness, both as help and hinderance, continues to haunt Capaldi. He keeps links with Scotland, and remains a patron of the Aberlour Child Care Trust, but he’s now a Londoner with a Scottish accent not a Glaswegian down south. It’s an idea that’s he been trying to reconcile for many years through a stalled film project.
‘I’m not annoyed,’ he says, when I bring up his on-off feature film project The Great Pretender. ‘It’s twitching again. It refuses to die!’ he laughs. ‘The funny thing is that, when I wrote it, the reason that I wrote it is that I wanted to write a folly. And obviously I succeeded, because no one wants to make it.
‘It’s both about the perception of Scotland, and about a group of Scottish people who get involved in making a film about Scotland in the 1930s. So they find themselves having to play all these roles – these very Scottish roles – and that’s been decided for them already what being Scottish is … and Bonnie Prince Billy … you can see why people find it so difficult!’
With Scotland still on his mind, does he ever think about going back? ‘Of course I’ve had my moments of wanting to go back to Scotland, and I almost did a couple of times, but other things just came up. Life unfolds and my girl goes to school here and I couldn’t just uproot from all that. And also, the Glasgow in my head is the Glasgow from 25 years ago – I think I can walk about Sauchiehall Street and bump into guys called Kenny.’ However, much of that Weegie spirit remains within him, and Capaldi has never seemed more Scottish than in showing the toffs of British government the meaning of the word intimidation. Dinnae mess.