Have a go Havers
As busy now as ever, Nigel Havers has survived depression, bereavement and a life on stage. The key, he says, is always to keep looking forward. He spoke to Julia Molony
Immaculately turned out in his smart suit, Nigel Havers is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on the first week of rehearsals for the play Art, script tucked neatly under his arm.
He has been acting since his schooldays - almost half a century now - and is, you might say, an old hand by now. Yet he appears not the least bit jaded.
At 66, he is long and lean, and moves with the springy gait of a much younger man. His thick hair is salt and pepper grey and he runs his hands through it, Hugh Grant-style, regularly as he talks.
Havers has always taken a pragmatic approach to his career - switching seamlessly from Shakespeare to Coronation Street, independent film to panto. This new production of Art will tour the UK and Ireland, but he is undaunted by the idea of 16 weeks on the road. "I have a routine," he says simply. In the past, his wife Georgiana Bronfman, the third Mrs Havers, would always come with him for the entire tour, but this year there is an obstacle - their new dog. "I'm amazed how many people in this country are not dog-friendly," he says. "Very few places, and very few hotels. And if you do find a hotel that is dog-friendly, it's only one room in the whole hotel."
The dog joined his household last year, after some contention between himself and Georgiana. She'd been campaigning to have a pet for some time, and finally bought one as revenge when Nigel decided to go on the confessional interview show Piers Morgan's Life Stories without telling her. It is interesting to note that her strategy for dealing with her wilful husband is not to get angry, but to get even.
For Nigel's part, he has no regrets. He famously walked out of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here in 2010 in a huff, complaining of mistreatment. But the idea of submitting to interrogation by Piers Morgan didn't faze him.
"They pay very well," he says bluntly. "And I was sort of fascinated to know whether I could get through it unscathed." In fact, he found he quite enjoyed it. "The thing is to be totally honest. It's quite disarming to him [Morgan] if you're honest. It's like if you cut someone up in the traffic, and they start to go, 'F*** you', and you go, 'I'm really sorry'. It ends the argument. Most people go, 'f***you too!' But I never do - even if it's not my fault, I apologise, because it's just much quicker." So he applied the same expedient approach to Morgan as a road rage driver - smoothing the way with buckets of charm and direct engagement.
"I'm very comfortable telling the truth. It's so much easier," he says. "I don't know why politicians don't do it. My Dad was a politician, but in a time when it was a more honourable thing to to do. You did a job in the day, and you did politics at night. And you weren't really paid. There were no expenses. You did it because that's what you really thought you should do. And I asked him one day, 'Why do politicians lie to us?' And he said, 'If we told the truth, they'd never vote for us.' But they do lie, all the time."
Nigel was born in 1951, the only theatrical one in a family of lawyers. His father, Lord Havers, was an eminent barrister as well as Conservative politician, whose biggest claim to fame, arguably, was that he successfully defended the Rolling Stones after they were busted during a drugs sting in 1967.
The young Nigel attended boarding school from the age of six. "It was quite young to go but in those days that was what happened," he says. "As a six-year-old kid, it was 'off you go', and you didn't see your parents for a whole term. So it was quite a strict upbringing. I didn't know any different. I didn't think, 'why me?' That's the way it was." Luckily, his was an "extraordinary prep school" which placed a big emphasis on performing arts. "They were very theatrical and theatre-orientated," he says. "And at the end of every summer there would be a Shakespeare play. I got into doing the play very young - they needed a page boy for The Winter's Tale. I did it every year, and ended up playing big parts. And the headmaster told my parents, 'He should really be an actor because he really only thinks on the moment. And you need that.' So I knew what I wanted to do."
He's never doubted his choice since. His parents, he says, "were fine about it. My Dad was in the Navy in the war with an actor called Kenneth More, so he had some knowledge of the trade. It was fine to be an actor."
He struggled for a while - it took a while for his career to take off in any meaningful way and he was 30 when he got his big break, winning a leading role in the Oscar-winning David Puttnam-produced film Chariots of Fire.
Havers's personal life has been every bit as colourful as his career. He was only 22 when he married Carolyn Cox. The pair have a daughter together, Kate, but split after 15 years, though they remain on good terms. He'd been serially unfaithful throughout. "He is good fun to be around but less fun to be married to," Cox said in 2011. The end, when it came, was long, drawn out and painful, with Havers eventually deciding to leave, having fallen for model and actress Polly Williams.
It was a period of turmoil that tipped him into a severe depression and he ended up being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. "It's odd isn't it - you can get yourself into such a corner. But you know, I only had myself to blame really," he said, speaking to Piers Morgan about it last year. "I couldn't speak any more, I found difficulty speaking to anybody. Not chatting, just speaking about anything."
Eventually, he recovered from this depression and was happily married to Polly Williams for many years but their partnership ended tragically when she died from ovarian cancer in 2004 at the age of 54. Havers put his career on ice for three years to be with her as she battled the illness.
Georgiana Bronfman was a mutual friend, who comforted him after the loss of Williams and the pair were married three years later. He credits her with saving him in his grief, and these days is an avowed monogamist. Marriage, he agrees, is a condition that suits him very well.
"I'm of an age now that I'm very settled, nothing's going to change now," he says confidently. "I'm a very lucky man." Stability at home has become precious to him. "If you have that," he says "you can go off and do anything. I can only really work properly that way.
"Some people can be very chaotic and still manage to get it all together. I think it's quite unnerving if the background isn't settled. It's enough panic doing a play. It's like going to the gallows - it's D-day happening in two and a half weeks' time. Acting is living on the edge of a precipice."
He learned resilience, both emotional and professional, when he was very small, he says. "I was brought up that way. My father instilled in my brother and I a very good work ethic. You don't give up, you just keep going. He worked very, very hard. My brother works very, very hard - he's a barrister, He's very successful. I go and see him in his chambers and you can't see him for all the piles of briefs and papers. I don't know how he does it really, but then, he doesn't know how I do it."
He's not given to rumination, or too much dwelling on the past. "Only go forwards, never backwards," he says briskly. "It's very much an actor's way, isn't it? Only think on the moment, don't think about the past really. People ask me stuff, and I say 'God, I don't remember that'. Or they ask what's your favourite film? 'The next one!'"
For now, then, he's immersed in getting ready for the opening of Art. Luckily, as well as being a good solid job - something that he's always on the hunt for - it's also a passion project. He genuinely loves the play, and has played the same character, Serge, before, though not for almost two decades. So though he knows the material quite well, he's enjoying coming back to it after a break.
"I've done it about 700 times," he quips, before adding, "it's the only play I've ever done that I never, ever got bored of."
The play's action centres on a debate over the value of contemporary art, after his character, Serge, buys a painting - a canvas painted white, at eyewatering expense, which his best friend promptly declares a piece of s**t. It's an endlessly fascinating subject to Havers, who is himself "fascinated by contemporary art and the argument that surrounds it. Is this a piece of s**t, or not?" He takes a strong position on that question. "I'm devoted to the painting. It's beautiful," he says of the painting in the play. And as for contemporary art in general - "I'm quite open to it. If I took you to a gallery and I said to you 'Do you like that painting?' It's a big commitment to say 'I think it's great.' You're opening yourself up, aren't you, when you say you like something? It's much easier to say, I don't really know, I haven't made up my mind." He admires Serge because, "he's been brave enough to move on, to embrace something new."
He becomes so immersed in his position that it sometimes takes him by surprise when he hears the audience laughing.
"I do suddenly think, 'God, they think that's funny?' And I'm dying here. I'm dying inside... it's tragic really about these three great, great friends, and you watch them breaking apart." The play's enduring appeal, he says, stems from the fact that "it has a sort of electricity about it which is very attractive. The whole thing crackles. And it's also quite sort of violent. So it's got all those things. And it's quick. It's really condensed. There's not a wasted second in it. Normally I want to cut plays in half. I think, 'come on, we can do this quicker'. But you can't cut anything in this, it's to the bone."
Only a few years off his 70th birthday, Havers is as busy as ever. Possibly thanks, in part, to his total lack of vanity about his work. "I'm a letterbox actor; I sit at home waiting for a script to thump on to the mat," he told The Daily Telegraph several years ago. "I can tell by weighing it in my hand how many weeks' work it will be, and I usually say yes."
But he has a new project in the works that might well be one of his most exciting to date - despite the fact that there may not even be a proper role for him in it. For decades, he has been trying to get the story of his father's dramatic defence of the Rolling Stones made into a script. Some time ago, the idea was picked up by producer Michael Kuhn, who stewarded Four Weddings and a Funeral and Florence Foster Jenkins to fruition.
"That is really happening," he says, looking thrilled about it. "We have the most wonderful script. I went to Paris recently to spend the day with Marianne Faithfull, because she's sort of very much in the film. We made a few things up, as you do - it's based on a true story, but I needed her permission to exaggerate and she said absolutely. And she's come on board as a sort of co-producer, as an advisor, which is great. We've had seven scripts written, all thrown out, and this one we've really - it's it."
His dream had been to play the role of his father, but he's doubtful whether that will happen. "I am too old to be honest. Does it matter? It depends on the finance, too. They might want Hugh Grant or Colin Firth. I'm dying to play my Dad, obviously, but we'll have to see."
It will be, he says, an indie film like Florence Foster Jenkins. "Though that film was backed by Harvey Weinstein," he notes. "We won't be having that." He pauses for a moment, mulling over the Weinstein debacle.
"He should bloody well front up, shouldn't he? Say, 'OK, I've done this, it's appalling. what do I do now?' And then we all go, 'Well OK. That's a start, isn't it. You've said something approximately human.'
"Michael Kuhn told me that they were filming Florence and he would send... well, he has various lackeys he would send to sit on the set and be really rude - and they behaved just as badly as he did.
"For years he got away with it, and if you get away with it, you think, 'Oh, I can get away with that - being really nasty to people'." Nasty it seems, is anathema to the Havers way.
And with that, he's off. A busy weekend ahead of him - celebrating his mother's 90th birthday in the country with all the family and then flying back to the city to take part in a Sunday talk show - eyes fixed always forward.
Nigel Havers stars in 'Art' at the Gaiety in Dublin, March 19-24. www.gaietytheatre.ie
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