Half a century after his movie debut, Tom Courtenay has two films coming out. And he is still nervous before each performance
Tom Courtenay is having a bit of a moment. Granted, the veteran of stage and screen, celebrated actor and Knight of the Realm whose credits include Little Dorritt and Dr Zhivago, is hardly new to the scene. In fact, it's 50 years since he made his cinema debut, in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. But this winter, he's got two big new films out. In one of them, Quartet, expertly directed by Dustin Hoffman, he plays the romantic lead. Not bad for a fella of 75.
A hip replacement a few years ago gave his working life a new boost: "My wife said get it done," he says. Before that he could hardly walk, which made treading the boards a bit of challenge, not to mention, he explains, the travails of a round of golf.
Today, he's at the press launch for Gambit, a high jinks art-forgery crime caper based on a Coen Brothers script. In it, he plays the forger, part of a stellar cast that includes Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz and Alan Rickman. He's installed in the Savoy, waiting for his wife to arrive to accompany him to the premiere.
All things considered, he's enjoying himself, he says, bar a few minor physical complaints. A recent flu jab has him under the weather and he's got conjunctivitis. "Health-wise, it depends on that, how long you keep going, you know, brain goes. I can remember the lines, so far."
A few years ago he had prostate cancer, which has been successfully treated. "The prostate is more dangerous, [than the hip] but so far it's behaving itself. They check every three months."
He doesn't know exactly how to account for this late burst of creativity. Indeed, looking back over the years, he seems more inclined to contemplate the opportunities missed.
"It's not as successful as it might have been," he says of his working life. "I've been a bit good at turning things down ... " There's a pause while he considers this. "So I'm not going to do that ever again – except I just turned something down, so that's not true. I look back and I think, I should have done that."
But he's philosophical about it, accepting regret as part of the human experience. "You can't not regret." The same, he believes, is true of suffering. In Quartet, his character, Reggie is defined by a rather touching, and often painful romantic devotion. And while he's not exactly the same himself, he does draw on something truthful.
"I'm 75, you can't go through all that time without a bit of heartbreak, can you?"
He has been married to his second wife Isabel Crossley, a stage manger whom he met on a job, since 1988. He was already in his 40s by the time they married; she's 16 years younger than him. He does seem, in his gentle way, to be a bit of a heart stealer, even now. Cameron Diaz recently confessed to falling a little bit in love with him during filming Gambit, saying: "I need a little big of hocus-pocus magic voodoo to try to get him to be, like, 40 years younger. He's so charming, so much fun; he's got such a great spirit."
He demurs modestly when I mention it. "She's quite an ordinary girl really, that's how she started. Not difficult at all, very friendly, very affectionate. It was a very nice job."
At any rate, if he's an unlikely heartthrob, Quartet will do no harm to that reputation. The film is an adaptation of the play by Ronald Harwood, a sparklingly comic love story set in a home for retired opera singers. His rending of the sweet, inspiring Reggie is incredibly winsome. Dustin Hoffman kept telling him, "when this movie comes out you're going to have all the 70-year-old women that you want," he recounts with a laugh. "Because of him I had more make-up on than Julie Christie did on Dr Zhivago."
Despite the domestic stability in his own life, however, he thinks heartbreak is an important experience: "I've just finished Proust, he swears by it as part of the creative process. But he did it all the time – he didn't have a day off."
Certainly, his experience and his character are vital tools for his craft. In Gambit, he plays an art forger, and when I suggest that there's a degree to which acting is like forgery – recreating an experience with such perfect verisimilitude that the difference is undetectable – he adamantly disagrees.
"I would say that when you do it well, from right inside you, it's not forgery. People say, 'Oh you're an actor, you should be able to hide your feelings', but the opposite is true.
"My face crumples if I'm upset. And what you have to do in your imagination is get yourself into the state, but it's at this stage, you offer yourself or your life. It's your voice, your physique.
"I'm not the same in both the parts," he says of Gambit and Quartet, "but I didn't try to be different ... One's with a moustache and hat. They're different because the script is different, the director is different your colleagues are different, but basically it should come from you."
He's a long way from his beginnings, here in the Savoy. Courtenay was born in working-class Hull and his father was a boat painter. But his parents were ambitious for him, and steered him towards higher aspirations. He won a place at the grammar school in the next town. He worked hard and got a scholarship to UCL, but failed his degree because he spent so much time acting. It didn't matter, anyhow, because he'd got what he wanted in the meantime – a scholarship at Rada.
He was launched swiftly into prominence, but it was his turn in Dr Zhivago alongside Julie Christie that secured his place in cinema history.
Despite all of that experience, he still gets apprehensive and finds it stressful. Particularly when it's live. "I still get pretty stressed. I had to give a speech to all these doctors – it was a way of thanking the surgeon who did my hip. I found that stressful. An after-dinner speech is awful because you're not hungry, you can't have a drink. That's stressful.
"But I did it because I thought I ought. They laughed at my jokes, so that was ok. But never again. After-dinner speaking is awful. Before every performance you get nervous." Even, he says performing in the play The Dresser, which he "must have done over 500 times ... just last week in New York I thought why the hell am I nervous, again!? And you just are. Dame Edith Evans said nerves are the respect we pay our audience. You don't know you are going to remember it, you can't be sure".
But the nerves won't stop his steady march, however. "I'd like to do a bit more filming, but it's got to appeal to you and come out of you. I've done quite a range ... Mr Dorritt (he played William Dorritt in the recent BBC adaptation), I had some terrific stuff in that, wonderful.
"But they're all different. It's got to come out of you. Otherwise, why bother, they can get somebody else."
Gambit is released on Nov 23. Quartet is out Jan 1