Christopher Eccleston: Thor, Star Trek, Let Him Have It, sci-fi

We chat to Christopher Eccleston about sci-fi, Thor, 28 Days Later, Let Him Have It, Star Trek, Blade Runner and more...

“I’m Chris”, says Christopher Eccleston as I walk into the room, standing up to shake my hand. It’s a warm welcome, and the prelude to an interesting chat where we took in his breakthrough role in Let Him Have It, and went through Blade Runner, Thor: The Dark World, Alan Taylor, cut scenes, Anthony Hopkins and what he’s up to next.

Here’s how we got on…

Can we start with Let Him Have It? I was in my later teens when I stumbled into a cinema to see the film, which of course was the story of Derek Bentley, who was hung on what’s since been desribed as ‘highly suspect evidence’ for murder. What struck me about the film was that was quite an un-British film at the time. And it was rare to see a young actor getting something so weighty on the big screen. How did that come to you, because it was an Alex Cox project originally wasn’t it?

Yeah. I auditioned for Alex Cox, and he cast me, and then Alex left the project. And probably to answer your question about it being an un-English film, it was then directed by a Hungarian. Peter Medak [The Krays]. I reauditioned and got the role, and they wanted an unknown. Because they didn’t want an actor on screen playing Derek Bentley who carried any baggage for the audience. They wanted them to believe that this was Derek Bentley. I think too the fact that I’d hardly ever been in front of a camera reinformed the performance. I was as raw as possible, really, I really didn’t know one end of the camera from the other.

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It’s an incredibly powerful film, even now…

Yeah. Because it’s a true story.

How familiar were you with Derek’s story at the point you took it on?

I’d seen one little community theatre piece, who had done a piece about it because it’s a miscarriage of justice. And the Elvis Costello song. That was it. It wasn’t a huge part of my life. But then once you’re cast in that you realise that there’s a huge amount of literature about it.

The film did have an impact, when Michael Howard posthumously part-pardoned Derek.

Part-pardoned, yes. He wasn’t fully pardoned.

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How did you feel about that? Because the film had had an effect there, but perhaps not enough of an effect?

I’ve had the experience twice, with Let Him Have It and with Hillsborough. If you’re going to involve yourself with something like those projects, you’re going to have to be convinced that there was a miscarriage of justice. Otherwise you shouldn’t be involved.

As high-handed as it sounds, I had to convince myself that it was an injustice to be involved in both projects. So it’s very satisfying if it makes a small contribution, and both Hillsborough and Let Him Have It made a tiny contribution. Derek’s pardon was as a result of his sister’s and his sister’s daughter’s efforts.

Coming to Thor: The Dark World, then. You’ve said in the past that you don’t really do heroes, and that a heroic role isn’t necessary one that appeals.

I question the notion the heroes. I like the Dennis Potter phrase that we’re all half ape, half angel. I think that’s great. If you’re playing a hero, look for the ape in him. If you’re playing a villain, look for the angel in him. Then you’re giving the audience some grey area. Because I think we are all like that.

With Malekith in particular, it’s not an easy job here to put so much across under the heavy make-up and hair. But in terms of trying to put across some pathos to him, was the preparation key here?

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Is there pathos in him? I don’t know. Did you feel there was any?

I thought there was an effort made to justify why he did what he did in the film. I thought he was nasty and unpleasant, but he makes the decision for his people at the start, even though it’s a horrific decision.

Yeah. That’s certainly what myself and Alan [Taylor] were after. We worked closely, and we said we didn’t just want a cackling fiend. And it’s really for the audience to decide whether we achieved that. I certainly hope so. It’s important to understand that the script that the audience ends up seeing is not necessarily the script that you shoot. There is more footage, and for whatever reason scenes were lost, and the emphasis was changed.

One of the things of doing a job like this, a huge project like this, is that you will have to understand that there’s a big process after the shooting process. These films are created as much in post-production as they are during the shoot.

I read in particular that you had one scene with Anthony Hopkins that didn’t make it to the final cut?

I did, yeah. It’ll be on the extras. That’s what I hope.

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Was that your meet your hero moment?

Yes. It very much was. I was a 19-year old usher at the National Theatre in 1984, and at that time – pre-Silence Of The Lambs – he was playing a character called Lambert Le Roux. He was based on Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. Giving this incredible stage performance, which had a huge influence on me.

You’ve talked extensively before about your love of theatre. Whenever I’ve talked to someone who’s worked in the midst of a particularly CG-heavy film, theatre seems pivotal to them. You watch a Star Wars prequel, and you don’t get a conviction that people believe they’re in the middle of something. Here, you’re surrounded by all sorts of computer graphics at times here, but there’s still a substantive core. Is that theatre preparation, a theatre ethic?

I think it’s changed at drama schools now, but my training, all those years ago in 1983, we didn’t deal with cameras at all. It was theatre training. And what you learn as an actor, or in those days what you learned, was the first time you think about acting for a camera is when you get a television job. So yeah, at the core of me, I’m trained as a theatre actor, and at the time I was cast in this role, I was playing a lead at the Olivier, which is where I ushered and saw my hero, Anthony Hopkins.

And [director] Alan Taylor referred to it in the meeting. He said I know you’re on stage at the moment, and perhaps they thought we need somebody who can hold a stage.

And these films are theatrical. They’re big scale.

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Particularly the Thor ones. There was a real Shakespearian undercurrent to the first film.

Yeah. And that’s why I admire so much what Chris [Hemsworth] has to do. He gives us this fantastic physical presence. And then he gives us this humour. He undercuts himself.

You realise when you make a film like this that sometimes people will come to you for just a visual detail. They’re not all coming at you to talk dialogue. It’s a visual, theatrical big thing. And that’s a challenge. The challenge is to also be truthful, and to be believable.

So is it a particularly fun thing to do? To make a film like this?

It’s fun when you get on the set and work with a director like Alan, and actors like Chris. It’s a relief to get out of the make-up chair. It’s a long time in the chair, but once you get on the set and you’re doing the scenes… for instance, when I was in my sleeping pod, the whole awakening of Malekith. Alan would play atmospheric music. That was great fun, it was like being a kid again. I’ve always said that I like green screen, because it’s what I did as a child in the back garden at home. I created all kinds of things around me as a child, with my imagination. So I enjoy that. I enjoy the ludicrousness of that. But then, it’s no more ludicrous than sitting there, and pretending you’re talking to somebody.

In your spare time, are you a blockbuster movie fan? Is that how you switch off? Because you’ve got such a serious body of work. So when it’s announced that you’re cast in Thor, notwithstanding the Hollywood films that you’ve done before, that’s a surprise. What led you to that, what led them to that?

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Well, I became a villain in Hollywood terms because of the film Elizabeth. They kind of make that decision. I would say that my own taste tends to be human interest stories, but when genre works on me, it really, really works on me. I’ll never, ever forget the first time I saw Blade Runner. And for all the beauty of the skyscapes and the creation, it was the central message, as I understood it, of a robot longing to be human. How wonderful it is to be a human being.

There are all sorts of interpretations of Blade Runner, too. What I love about science fiction in particular is that you can address some very human questions. Last summer’s Elysium‘s was the extension of where class division is going: the rich people have one world, the poor just get to look at it from afar.

Science fiction at its very best – and you see it in some of the best Doctor Who episodes – is when it’s putting a prism in front of an issue in the world and taking it to logical place. That’s where I think genre cinema particularly excels.

Yeah. I think there is a whole area of genre cinema where they think doing the genre is enough. But yes, when it takes a human situation, looks at it, and magnifies it through the prism of sci-fi… I loved Star Trek, I loved the original Star Trek as a child. And that is all about character. The triangular relationship between Spock, Bones and Kirk.

Appreciating that I’m not trying to be a celebrity magazine here – and I’m really not – has fatherhood changed any of the acting jobs that you’ve taken on?

Not yet. But I think it will. I think inevitably you start to consider things slightly differently, when you’re around young children. That’s as much as I would say. But it’s new to me, and I think it’s going to have a huge impact.

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We did a big piece on our website about 28 Days Later, about what the real horror of that film is [the article is here]. And we centred in on your character. For everything else that film does and that film says, Major West epitomises so much horror and unpleasantness, under a weird guise of reason. He’s certainly one of the most terrifying characters of recent times.

But where did that role come from for you? How did he develop, and how aware were you on the impact of Major West when you took the job on?

Not really. I’d worked with Danny Boyle a couple of times before, and again I went into that very much trying to suggest some humanity within his inhumanity. There was a pragmatism he felt in offering those women up for rape, which is one of the central things. His pragmatic, military mind was saying if I do this, I will keep control of these men and we can ultimately vanquish the zombies. But he forgets that if he gives up one iota of your humanity, you’re lost. Thematically, that is why he is then taken by the zombies.

A fascinating film.

Yeah, yeah.

Are you at a point where you’re looking to develop material yourself?

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No. I’d love to sit here and say that is the case. But it isn’t. I seem to continue being what is described as a jobbing, a working actor. Evermore enthusiastic to try different things. Thor was a huge challenge for me. The other big American films I’ve done have not been so special effects laden, so I’ve not had as much to contend with and compete with. And I think if this happened to me again I’d be a lot wiser, and a lot more clued in.

The guys who had done Thor, and gone through the first film, knew what they were handling. I was a little bit fresh, I really was green to it. A huge learning curve.

That’s the advantage though, isn’t it? That it’s a pre-established world, and you walk in as the character who’s almost a wrecking ball?

Yeah. It would be nice to do one more film like this on this scale, with that knowledge. Which is I’m sure what Chris and Tom and Natalie would say to you. They probably came into this second one saying ‘now I get it’.

So have you avoided being signed up to a gazillion more Marvel films?

Who knows, who knows!

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But doing something like this again does hold some appeal, just with eyes a bit more open to the process?

Yeah. It would be nice to have a go at something like this again.

So what do you have lined up next?

I’m doing the National Theatre’s 50th birthday celebrations, and then next year I’m in a series for HBO and Warner Bros called Leftovers. Which is written by Damon Lindelof.

It’s interesting: HBO has been credited with the spark for the television boom, but a lot of the qualities that HBO has tapped into were in Cracker.

A lot of it was yeah, that’s absolutely right. That’s why I think we should talk about British television. We should keep our own identity. We’re very good at what we do, we shouldn’t ape the Americans. For instance, anti-heroes like Walter White and Tony Soprano have always been a staple of European literature and television. America’s come slightly later to it. Although in the 70s, they had a lot of that. 70s American film, the anti-hero was an obsession, then it got lost, and then it came back.

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And with that, our time is up. Christopher Eccleston, thank you very much.

Thor: The Dark World arrives in UK cinemas on October 30th.

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