You’ll know Ian Hart’s face, even if you can’t quite place his name. It’s a great face, his, adaptably young and old, as comfortable atop a tracksuit as it is underneath a period trilby. Since his first real role as Scouse tearaway Rabbit in 1983 drama One Summer (alongside childhood friend and The Driver co-star David Morrissey), Hart has avoided type-casting by leaping from role to role and film to film with convincing ease. He’s played scallies, authors, footballers, drug dealers, psychiatrists, CIA agents, physicists and nineteenth century gangsters. He’s played Beethoven, Nobby Stiles, Hitler, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Voldemort (sort of), and John Lennon (thrice).
Three-part BBC One drama The Driver saw Hart play twins Col and Craig, one an ex-con and walking morality play about the dangers of a life of crime, the other a bit-part everyman. To mark The Driver’s DVD release, we spoke to a refreshingly candid Hart about the difficulty of finding decent scripts, his stint in the Harry Potter franchise, quality US drama, lack of investment in British film, and what he’s able to stomach to earn a living…
Your character, Col, held the key to the whole drama for me. The moral of The Driver seemed to be about showing that the choice between being ordinary and extraordinary – either being piss-poor all your life or making easy, glamorous money – was all a lie.
Yeah. I suppose so. In a way, in a nutshell if you want to distil it even further, Colin and his brother I suppose are the foundations of the idea in terms of you’ve got two people from the same background, from the same parents, who end up taking different directions. But yeah. I think your assessment of the situation is correct.
By the time Col was watching Pointless in his childhood bedroom, battered and bruised, it was clear that criminality wasn’t the glamorous choice…
[laughing] No. That’s the reality though, isn’t it? It’s stating the obvious again, but that is the reality of most low-level criminals. Their share of the pot – it’s no different from any other larger economic organisation, there’s only one person ever making money, everyone else is getting paid shit.
The Driver was a reunion with David Morrissey for you. Thirty years ago, both of you had early roles in One Summer, and then about fifteen years ago, you were both in Born Romantic, though I don’t think you shared a lot of screen time…
Oh yeah, I remember that one with Dave. I was in a café in Brixton for the whole shoot. You reminded me, I’ve forgotten we’d done that film together before.
When you knew you were going to be back on screen with David Morrissey, did you look back at One Summer at all? Have you watched it recently?
No. I wouldn’t dare.
Do you not re-watch your old work?
I’ve never liked to. I’ve never watched anything, no, no. I’ve watched a few things by mistake, but I don’t make a habit of it.
I wondered how you thought both of your performances had changed over the thirty years between One Summer and The Driver?
Oh, do you know what, probably essentially the same. Thinking back to what we did on One Summer, I had no knowledge or understanding of what it was I was doing. And I think that’s great [laughs]. Oddly enough, that’s what you’re hoping to achieve, that lack of thought, that lack of contrivance, that lack of complexity is what you’re trying to achieve now. Because with every passing year, you’re just adding a layer of thought and complexity and this and that into your life. When you’re seventeen, you haven’t got any of that shit! You’re just ‘is this what you want me to do? Okay, fine’, ‘shall I sit down here? Okay, fine’, there’s no complexity or thought about ‘would my character do this?’ That’s an obstacle in my life.
Intellectualising it all?
I think we do intellectualise. I do it. I intellectualise till the cows come home. But at the end of the day, when you’re trying to do something that moves you, you have to go back to something simple. Not, ‘what’s it all about?’, but ‘just do that mate and don’t worry about it, just do that one thing’, it’s not always easy.
You must have watched David Morrissey’s performances over the years though?
You haven’t seen him in The Walking Dead, then?
No, because he’s my mate, he falls under the same policy. I won’t be watching him either. It’s just me, I just can’t make that… Everyone else sitting down to watch TV just see a fella called Vince, or some other character with one eye who chops zombies up, but I’m just seeing ‘There’s Dave with a mask on!’ [laughing] ‘It’s Dave with funny hair!’ It’s just impossible for me to watch him.
Is it the quality of the scripts then, more than co-stars or whatever, that you look for in deciding on a part?
Every time. Sometimes poverty gets in the way but when you remove that from the equation, it’s mainly the script, otherwise you don’t want to go and see the director. The director can persuade you that weaknesses or faults that you find within the script can be overcome, and sometimes you will do that, even if you don’t think the script’s tremendous, because you believe in the director, but it all starts with the script. There’s no point in anyone leaving the house unless you’ve got a good script.
You’ve said before that it affects you really badly, physically even, on the few occasions you’ve done films or shows that you didn’t think were good.
Yeah, deeply upset. Deeply upset. Horribly so.
These days then, you make your decisions based on what you’re going to be proud of once it comes out?
Either that or what can I stomach to earn a living. Sometimes, that’s the other choice. For a long time, because I didn’t want to do anything that I didn’t want to do, I spent a long time just being unemployed, and then my debts got bigger, and then eventually I had to become employed again, just to survive like everybody else.
Because your character didn’t survive the first Harry Potter film, I suppose you didn’t get what some actors who were in all eight films have come to call the Harry Potter Pension Scheme…
Sounds great. I wish I’d joined.
Warner Bros – I’m not going to slag them off – it was a long time ago now, but what Zoe Wanamaker said about the pay, knowing that they were going to make a fortune, they were still paying you as if you were just a trivial English actor, and for brokering that notion on television and in the press, I don’t think she was invited back for the other films. What I’m trying to say is, that everyone was cosy and loads of people made a ton of money, but I didn’t. Even in the first film, I had no leverage, because I wasn’t in the next fourteen films, so I had no leverage. I knew I was dead. They paid me and let me go. That was fine, I enjoyed it. I had a good time and I enjoyed it, so I have no complaints.
Some of your recent work, like that of a lot of our best British actors, has been on the new quality US dramas, Boardwalk Empire, Bates Motel… How has it felt as an actor to watch the reputation of US drama almost eclipse what we make in this country – with The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, that sort of thing.
I think HBO’s to blame. HBO’s to blame. Without HBO we wouldn’t have any of that. You wouldn’t have an AMC making Breaking Bad had HBO not existed. Until somebody turned network television in America, which was basically by and large shit – they’d been turning out the same shite for year upon year – had HBO not come along… that liberated them. They could make whatever they wanted.
In terms of what it was they made, The Sopranos and things of that ilk, oddly enough, they win awards but the viewer numbers are tiny. We get a distorted perception of it. Every year they go and win a handful of awards – HBO must win more than most – but if you look at the viewing figures, NCIS is still the most popular show in the world, a step-by-step how to guide for an idiot on how to solve a crime is still the most watched television show. Just because things are good, doesn’t mean that people watch them! A small section of the population might write about them in newspapers but it doesn’t mean that anyone watched it. No-one watched Mad Men, no-one watched The Wire the first two seasons. Breaking Bad was slated as being completely implausible nonsense, now everyone’s on with the idea that it’s a work of genius.
It never got a proper broadcast over here, did it?
No. So, while in many terms US drama might be growing and eclipsing television elsewhere, it’s preaching to the choir. I think we dig it more than they do.
You’ve also worked with the UK and Ireland’s best dramatists, Ken Loach, Jimmy McGovern, Neil Jordan, Stephen Frears… You’re still seeking out UK talent and writers to work with?
Yes. I’ve just done a film with Michael Caton-Jones [Urban Hymn] which I enjoyed thoroughly. And I’m trying to, but they’re so thin on the ground. For me, anyway, at my age as well, most parts are for twenty and twenty-five year olds. There’s not that much out there for me, so I’m trying my best to be as fussy as humanly possible and try and get back to those people.
Michael Winterbottom and people like that are still great in this country. But in terms of money, who’s going to give them… no-one wants to give them any money. We probably spent more money on an episode of Boardwalk Empire or even Luck – I did a TV show called Luck that Michael Mann directed – they probably spent more money per episode than we spend in the British film industry, definitely, one season of Luck would have cost more than the entire output of British cinema.
It’s those mid-budget films that aren’t being funded anymore, isn’t it? You get blockbusters and you get…
They don’t make two and three million pound films, or four or five million, or even twenty million pound films. We either make a film for nothing, or a hundred million.
Do you think there are directors of the calibre of someone like Ken Loach working at the moment in the UK?
Not that I found, but that’s more my fault than a lack of their existence. I haven’t found anyone with that voice that Ken has, or even Mike Leigh, who’s got a unique voice and a unique way of telling things. Similarly with Ken, I’m not seeing that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there, it’s just that I’m not aware of it.
Talking of America, can we expect to see you again in Agents Of SHIELD? Your character is technically still alive…
He is, yeah. They’re a bunch of lying gets! The lying gets told me [in a West-coast American drawl] ‘Oh, we’d love you to do it, it’s going to be the greatest thing ever. What’s going to happen is, he’s going to disappear, then reappear, and it’s going to be fucking great. You’re going to be this and this. And then that was it! They went ‘yeah, we’re going to go a different way. We have a different idea for the character right now, and for different villains in the Marvel universe, right now we’re not going for that character’, so I went ‘Alright mate, see you later!’.
So that’s it for Agents Of SHIELD then?
I think so. I mean, as you say, he is alive. He could come back? But it hasn’t happened so far!
I don’t know if you’ve seen a short online video that Mark Kermode made about you?
It’s called I heart Ian Hart
And it’s five minutes explaining what he finds so arresting about your performances. He said your talent is in uniting disparate, warring elements in a character yet making them completely believable. That really says it for me, too. Do you see that in your work, bringing together conflicting strands?
I think part of my role is to expose that. Everyone puts a front on. They’re trying to be this brand new person, but whatever bullshit the carapace that’s surrounding them, you know that somewhere hidden there, there’s someone else. Otherwise it’s an automaton, not a real human being. Real human beings are multi-dimensional and there’s a constant masking process of trying to cloak their feelings and emotions, so I’m just aware of that. That’s what I do. I’m always aware of the fact that, where’s this? Where’s that element in this character? How can we express all of this character, or as much [laughs] as the writing will allow. Sometimes, you’ve got nothing to work with, and no matter who you are or how hard you work, it’s still going to be nothing.
As you say, it all comes back to the writing.
The writing, that’s it.
You’ve reminded me of something you once said you took from David Mamet’s writing, the idea that every human interaction is a con-trick.
Yeah. It’s all a con-trick. The whole of human interaction is a con-trick. It’s an exchange of what I want versus what you want. Even a conversation, it’s a con-trick. It’s basically that we as the populace are willing to be conned. We want the thing, we want whatever the guy’s offering us for free. The number of times people get conned, over and over and over again… You’re walking around the streets and you know, full well, at some point in that interaction, you are being conned, and yet still people lap it up, willingly.
And conning people is your job as an actor?
Selling an illusion, yeah. And you develop techniques, you develop an understanding, but essentially that’s what you’re doing. Once you have someone believing that a reality is a reality, you can take that reality pretty much where you want. Because the notion that – Ken Loach told me this – the notion that people say ‘oh, that’s out of character’, it’s not out of character, it’s still him. It’s a nonsense to say someone’s behaving out of character, he just didn’t do it yet! He just hadn’t done that thing, that doesn’t mean it’s out of character. The notion of character is a nonsense. You do things, that’s all it is. Everything else is bullshit.
Ian Hart, thank you very much!
The Driver was released on DVD on Monday the 13th of October.
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